By the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada
There is more to the thousands of small churches in Canadian neighbourhoods than many people realize. A new study digs into the realities of these churches and examines their needs and strengths from the perspective of their pastors.
Significant Church: Understanding the Value of the Small Evangelical Church in Canada is a collaborative research project undertaken by 13 Canadian Christian organizations and led by the research team of The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (EFC).
The project involved interviews with ministry experts and small church pastors as well as a national survey of pastors. The research team defined a small church as a congregation with an average Sunday attendance of 150 or less. Congregations were considered to be evangelical if they were affiliated with the EFC.
“Small churches have often been viewed – even by their own pastors and congregants – as ‘less than’ larger churches in the same communities,” says Rick Hiemstra, lead researcher for the EFC. That view has been shaped by a longstanding emphasis on numerical growth as a hallmark of church success.
“It’s fascinating and important to hear how pastors and ministry experts articulate how and why success and growth can be understood in non-numerical ways,” says Hiemstra.
Pastors interviewed expressed frustration over how their own denominations measured success by numbers, as opposed to how pastors measured success, which was typically by the spiritual growth of their congregants.
Significant Church: Understanding the Value of the Small Evangelical Church in Canada also reveals that pastors felt their formal theological education did not prepare them adequately for small church pastoral ministry.
“Respondents told us schools did best preparing students for preaching and teaching but did not do a good job preparing students for leading change, doing church administration, leading boards, managing church politics and overseeing building maintenance,” explains Hiemstra.
Those duties are usually handled almost completely by pastors of small churches who must be competent in a wide range of skills. “Most pastors reported minimal to no specific training for small church ministry.”
Female pastors of small churches reported extra challenges unique to their gender such as having limited access to female mentors, not being accepted by their male colleagues and even, in some cases, being talked over by male colleagues as if they were not present.
One of the most positive results of the research was to “see that the very nature of a small church being ‘small’ means they are able to have a necessary and vital ministry to and with their members, marked by a family-like feel and experience and an opportunity for every member of a congregation to belong and participate,” says Hiemstra.
The new research is the latest in a series of projects in which the EFC works with partners to produce research that will help the Canadian Church.
As with many studies, this one also points to the needs in the years ahead. “We are confident Significant Church will spark an important conversation about small churches in Canada and help improve the health of this vital part of the Canadian Church,” says Hiemstra.
For a full list of research partners and to download the report visit TheEFC.ca/SignificantChurch.
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