A big idea for strong, small corps

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by Lt. Colonel Raymond PeacockCommissioner John Larsson, Chief of the Staff, said last year “The beginning of The Salvation Army is the story of a ‘big idea’ that suddenly took hold.” He further said, “Much effort is being put into renewing programs and methodology in order to recapture some of the Army’s original dynamism. But perhaps the root problem lies deeper. Perhaps it won’t be until the ‘big idea’ is renewed and presented in a way that will capture the hearts and minds of this generation that the essential release of energy will occur. It is new thinking rather than new action that will stop the army from running out of steam…without the thinkers, there are no doers…without the conviction there would be no action.”

I’ve been thinking. What is the “big idea” that will release the energy? I think it just might be that small corps practicing holistic ministry can be strong, not weak or dying. If you look closely at the words in bold in the preceding sentence, you will see they address size, ministry, and strength.

As it relates to size, there are no mega corps in the Western Territory. Our congregations are small and medium. We have 298 corps–of these, 134 have 40 or less soldiers on the roll. As for attendance,164 corps have an average of 50 or less attending the Sunday morning worship service.

We must spend thousands of dollars on books and conferences on growing and building mega congregations. There are plenty out there. It’s easy to become mega mesmerized. You can go to Saddleback and become “purpose driven” or to Willow Creek and become a “contagious congregation.” None of this is bad, but it ignores a key strength that is ours. Specifically, the twenty-first century will be the age of consciously small, strong congregations. There will definitely be more small strong congregations than mega churches. So, maybe it’s time we stop thinking mega models and start thinking small, strong is going to be really BIG in the future.

This is not about downsizing. It is about creating small strong corps that will advance God’s mission. It’s about growing from 40 to 60, from 60 to 90, from 100 to 150, and from 150 to 250, not about having 5,000 in the congregation. It’s not so much about attracting a crowd as it is about building a congregation by seeking the lost. It’s about understanding the difference between small strong, small weak or small dying. It’s about developing the strengths, values and specific qualities that will strengthen your corps. It’s about compassion and community.

And, speaking of compassion and community, that is where the holistic ministry begins. A ministry that integrates congregation and community. Each corps congregation, both officers and soldiers, need to find something they become known for. “This is the corps that loves children.” “This is the corps that loves the elderly.” I love the example of the dying congregation of 20 members all over age 60 who went to the local school principal and said, “How can we help?” He responded, “I have been waiting for 10 years for a church to come and ask that question. I have a limited budget and when I put kids on detention, I have no way to supervise them.” The congregation took this on and became known as the congregation who loves kids at risk and their families. In eighteen months, they were averaging 90 in their Sunday meetings. When they extended compassion and reached out to the community, their congregation grew. That’s the really big idea. And, it only takes three to five people to get the big idea ball rolling in a corps.

Very little of this will happen until corps consciously determine they want to create strengths by defining mission and service, building in compassion and shepherding, fostering community and belonging, offering worship and hope, desiring self-reliance and self-sufficiency, creating teams and leaders, analyzing space and facilities, and encouraging giving and generosity.

The journey begins not by attending another conference, not by buying another book on growing a mega congregation, but by doing two things. The first is buy and study the book that affirms a growing trend towards small, strong congregations and offers practical advice for leaders who want to strengthen them. That book is Small, Strong Congregations: Creating Strength and Health for Your Congregation by Kennon L. Callahan. He is a friend of the Army, knows us well, and mentions us in his book. He has done just what Commissioner Larsson suggests: renews and presents the “big idea” in a way that captures the hearts and minds of this generation and releases energy. The second thing you can do is get to know more about your corps evaluation and goal setting process. It is based on corps health and strength principles. Ask your corps officer about this.

Bottom line, “small, strong” is a way of thinking, acting, believing and behaving. People want to be part of mission, not meetings; service, not survival. I’m convinced we have a mustard seed possibility here. If we can apply this big idea in a way that releases energy, our small weak and small dying corps will become, small strong corps. Let’s ditch the “big is better” mindset, but let’s own the idea that small, strong is a really BIG IDEA for our future.

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