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The online journal of Luke Dockery

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Preparing for Ministry in Small Churches

Several days ago, I had the opportunity to speak to a class of ministry students at Harding University who are near the completion of their degrees. While my primary task was to speak to them about youth ministry, I was also supposed to give them some practical tips for doing ministry in a congregational setting.

I offered several tips, some of which were likely more helpful than others, but some of my advice was focused on the reality that Churches of Christ represent a fellowship of small churches.

Consider some of the following information from the 2015 edition of Churches of Christ in the United States, compiled by Carl H. Royster. Of 12,303 congregations of Churches of Christ in the United States:

  • 1,932, or 15.7%, are congregations of 0-24 people
  • 3,351, or 27.2%, are congregations of 25-49 people
  • 3,556, or 28.9%, are congregations of 50-99 people
  • 2,159, or 17.5%, are congregations of 100-199 people
  • Combined, this means that roughly 89% of congregations are less than 200 people in size

The congregation where I currently serve doesn’t seem overly large to me, but at 230, it is in the top ten percent of congregations in our fellowship by size.

Again, Churches of Christ represent a fellowship of small churches. With this reality in mind, I offered a couple of suggestions to the Harding students I talked to who were about to graduate and head into ministry roles in Churches of Christ.

First, it is important to develop a diversified skill set. If you want to work in a church of Christ, and what you really, really want to do is be an adult education minister and do only that, there just aren’t that many jobs like that out there. The reality is that in smaller churches (i.e., the vast majority of churches of Christ), you have to wear a lot of hats, and you need to have a diversified skill set to be able to do that.

In my current position (and remember, we are over 200 in size, so we are larger than 9/10 churches in our fellowship), in a given week I might find myself planning a youth retreat, writing adult Bible class lessons, designing our church website, preaching, and negotiating a new contract with our copier company—and that’s not an unusual week!

Out of necessity, you have to wear a lot of different hats. You might have a specialized skill or skills that you are really good at, and that’s great, but you need to develop general skills as well.

Second, it is important to develop humility about your role. I was speaking that day to Christian college-trained ministry students, which means that in many ways, they are the upper echelon, the elite. They have spent lots of money and countless hours receiving training in biblical languages, intensive Bible study, ministerial skills, etc. Simply put, there are things that they have been trained to do that a lot of people in the congregations where they serve won’t be able to do, and it’s important that they prioritize and do those things.

But at the same time, that doesn’t mean they are too good to do less glamorous, more menial things. I cannot begin to count the number of hours I have spent straightening up chairs, taking out the trash, or putting things away in storage closets while at work. I didn’t need an M.Div to do that work, but it was still a vital part of my job. A couple of years ago, we had a major problem with the sewage line at our church building. Toilets backed up, and foul water flooded the hallway. And our preaching minister got out the mop and went to work. Ultimately, ministers are servants, and they step up to serve where it is needed; they are not too good to do the “small” things.

I am sure there are many more ideas that could be added, and again, this is coming from a guy who isn’t really at a small church. But if these lessons are true for me, how much more they must apply to even smaller congregational contexts. There are some real blessings that come with working with small churches, but it requires a certain type of minister as well.

Judging by demographic realities, many of the ministry students I spoke to will find themselves (at least at some point) working in smaller congregations. I hope what I shared with them will prove to be helpful.

Harding University Lectureship Recap


This week I had the opportunity to take part in Harding University’s 95th annual Bible Lectureship, and had a great time. I got to spend time with family and close friends, renew friendships and acquaintances of people I haven’t seen for a while, and I was honored to present two sessions on Youth In Family Ministry on Wednesday, and had good attendance in both sessions and got to field a lot of excellent questions after each session.

Also, though, I was privileged to get to hear several excellent sessions. Really, everything I went to was quite good, but below, I’ll just share brief recaps of the sessions for which I took notes:

  • Honoring Our Parents, Claiming the Promise, Andrew Phillips: this was a morning keynote session, and I thought Andrew did very well. He emphasized that honor is a heavy matter, but that not every heavy, weighty aspect of life is a burden. The weight of honoring one’s parents provides a serious responsibility in life, but it also provides a solid foundation for life.
  • The Good, the Bad, and the Gestalt: Thoughts About a High View of Scripture, Richard Oster: Dr. Oster was one of my favorite HST professors, and always does a great job. He said some fairly predictable, but laudable and appropriate things about the nature of Scripture, including this gem: “Scripture is the litmus test against which we are to measure all spiritual experiences.” He also discussed two problem areas related to Scripture that sometimes plague believers: (1) Failing to discern that Scripture is the “map” that points us to Jesus. As important as the Bible is, we are more interested in the “territory” to which it points than we are in the map itself. (2) The tendency of some to want to distance themselves from the Old Testament or shelve it altogether. This is untenable: the OT was the Bible of the early church, and the very identity of Jesus cannot be explained without it.
  • The Work of the Holy Spirit, Part 2, Monte Cox:  Dr. Cox was one of my favorite undergrad teachers at Harding, and is always a treat to listen to. He had three sessions on the Holy Spirit, but there were so many good options on Monday that I could only get in to listen to this one. It was outstanding. This was a very practical class, which sought to answer the question, “How can we cooperate with the Spirit?” in terms of defeating the influence of sin in our lives and being transformed into the image of Christ.
  • Right Click: Parenting Your Teenager in a Digital Media World, T.J. Davidson: T.J. is a friend and a really good youth minister, and he did a great job here, discussing how digital media is changing us, and some of the things we can do about it. I wish T.J. could have had more time, because I felt like there was more that he could have shared with us.
  • Serving With Honor Without Losing Your Mind, Jim Martin: Dr. Martin spoke at the Celebration of Ministry Dinner. He is Vice President at HST, and is also one of the best Twitter follows out there (@JimMartin). This dinner is always fun and basically serves as a pep talk for those in ministry. Dr. Martin laid out four ideas to address the topic at hand: (1) Believe that God is larger than my problems; (2) Beware of anxious, negative people who speak with great certainty; (3) Learn to function as a less-anxious person; (4) Remember that our God rules.
  • From Mozambique to Millennials, Part 2, Logan Thompson: Logan is a youth minister in Beebe, Arkansas, and delivered what I thought was an absolutely brilliant lecture (I was bummed that I missed Part 1). Logan discussed the three basic types of cultures (Guilt-Innocence, Shame-Honor, Fear-Power) and then discussed atonement theories that naturally fit with these different cultures. From there, he argued that pervasive social media use is basically prompting youth culture to transition from a Guilt-Innocence to Shame-Honor paradigm (I hadn’t made this connection before, but I totally agree), and suggested theosis as an atonement model that is helpful for approaching young people in this context. If this sounds completely nerdy to you, that’s fine; if you are interested in learning more, you can check out an article that Logan co-wrote with Alan Howell here.
  • The Christian’s Essential Reading List, Bob Turner: Bob is the head librarian at HST in Memphis, and was completely in his element here. In a two-part session, Bob suggested six pairs of books (in each pair, one was the type of book that you would find on the NYT bestseller list, and the other was a similar book that you would find in a theological library). In addition to being a lot of fun, these sessions gave me a bunch of books that I want to read (which, actually, is the last thing I need!).
  • Scrapper’s Delight: Ancient Trash and the World of the New Testament, Kevin Burr: This was a bonus, as it was not actually part of the Lectureship proper, but was rather a presentation of the HU Archaeology club by one of my best friends. Kevin talked about ancient trash: scraps of papyrus that have been discovered in various places of Egypt, the stories they tell, and the information they give us about the world of the New Testament. The major takeaway: “The better we know the world around the Bible, the better we can understand the Bible.”

As you can probably tell, I greatly enjoyed my time at Lectureship this year, heard a lot of good content, and left spiritually refreshed (if physically exhausted). I would highly recommend taking part in this next year if you are able!

A packed room for my youth ministry sessions: I think the sensationalist title is what brought them in. 🙂

Harding Lectures Audio Files

Last month, I had the honor of taking part in the Harding Lectureship. Several people who were unable to attend the Lectureship have asked me if there is a way to hear my presentations, and there is! You can click on the links below to listen to the lectures:

You can listen to a variety of other presentations from this year’s lectureship by going here.

Harding University Bible Lectureship

This Sunday begins the Harding University Bible Lectureship, and I am honored to have the opportunity to take part.

On Monday, I will be presenting three lectures on youth ministry at 9AM, 10AM, and 3PM:

  • Youth In Family Ministry, Part 1: The Current Crisis in Youth Ministry
  • Youth In Family Ministry, Part 2: The Physical Family, the Faith Family, and the Spiritual Formation of Young People
  • Youth In Family Ministry, Part 3: Crafting a Family-Based Youth Ministry in the Congregation

On Tuesday, I will have the opportunity to speak in both student chapels.

If you’re at the lectureship, I would love to catch up or to see you in class!

2013 Summer Trip Recap

Every year, one of the high points for our youth group is a summer trip. Generally, we combine some type of service project with some fun activities. This year, we went to Morrilton, Arkansas, and Memphis, Tennessee.

Old Gym from the 1920s

In Morrilton, we stayed at Southern Christian Home, where we helped to move a ton of furniture, get things organized for a huge yard sale they were having, and also did some painting. It was good to meet the people there and see the campus and the work they were doing, and to help out a little.

For me, one of the highlights of that part of the trip was getting to work in the main building on the campus, which back in the 1920s served as the campus of my alma mater, Harding University. Specifically, I was working down in the basement, which had originally been a basketball gymnasium. Though in need of a lot of work, it is an incredible building, and still has the original hardwood flooring from 1919!

View from the assassin’s window today (top) and in 1968

After a couple of nights in Morrilton, we headed to Memphis. While there, we visited the National Civil Rights Museum. I wasn’t sure how this part of the trip would go over, because teens don’t always appreciate educational experiences during their summer vacations, but several of them mentioned how cool it was and how much they enjoyed it. The museum itself is across the street from the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King Jr. was shot, and everything has been carefully preserved. The museum itself is actually the converted boarding house from which the shot was fired.

I like museums, and enjoyed it a lot (even though some of the exhibits were closed because of construction). I learned a lot of details about the assassination which I didn’t know before, and it was pretty neat to watch my teens grasp the significance (or at least some part of it) of what they were experiencing.

Part of our group at Sky Zone Memphis

From there, we spent some time at a mall and then went back to our hotel to swim and hang out. The next morning, we went to Sky Zone Indoor Trampoline Park in Memphis. There we spent a couple of hours jumping, flipping, and playing dodgeball. It was a lot of fun, though exhausting as well (I am still sore a couple days later).

After that, we loaded up and began the process of heading home. All in all, we had a great trip: we were able to accomplish some work at the Children’s Home, the teens had a great time and were well-behaved, and I had some really good chaperones who helped a ton. I think it was the most stress-free trip I’ve ever had, which was awesome.
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