About a week and a half ago, I had a little tiny funeral in our chapel on a Monday morning. There were just about twenty of us there, and I think that might have included both the organist and the pastor.
Yet, the singing was energetic -- people who knew the songs and believed them.
I found out at the luncheon afterwards that the son of the woman who died belongs to a small church in a small town not far away from here. (He grew up in this church; his mother was still a member here.)
For some reason, I immediately had a lot of respect for him and for his family. I also understood how such a small group of people could make sure a big sound.
In these Wal-mart, Mega-church, Super-size It days, it's not easy to be a small church. Still, I have an affection and an affinity for small churches, particularly those small churches that have always been small. My first churches, in rural South Dakota, were smallish ones (the largest of the three averaged between 60 and 80 at worship). I had a one-day-a-week secretary and a part-time custodian. The three churches shared an organist. I did miss a church choir. There was not a youth director or a children's ministry coordinator. As far as youth events go, we could not raise "Six Flags Over Jesus" with our spectacular youth programs. It was all about relationships.
Yet I suspect (and I hope that people from those congregations will confirm) that the percentage of young people who remain or continue in their faith is larger than at many larger congregations.
Parents look for a larger congregation with a good youth group in order to help their children get through the difficult years of adolesence with some wisdom and guidance, with peers and adults who are willing to stick with them and be role models. I understand this, particularly in the light of drop out rates. But sometimes I'm curious about the really long view; for example, how many people in youth groups right now are going to be active believers when they are -- say -- my age? I don't know the answer; I'm just wondering about it.
Small churches can't put together awe-some youth programs; they don't have those large crowds that are so enviable. They can't offer large numbers of Bible studies and Christian education programs. Their social ministry is probably small, and they probably can't have a big praise band with a lot of instruments. Their Sunday School doesn't have a large team of professionals for every age group. And yet, there is something I love about them (or at least most of them): a humble knowledge of their own finitude (they know they can't do everything); committed lay leadership; an ability to keep the main thing the main thing.
While in seminary, I was invited to attend a small worship service which was held in a space above a restaurant. It was a small Episcopalian church, led by an Native American man who was an adjunct professor at my school. I remember that it was a high church liturgy with lots of incense. There were about 26 people sitting in a circle, singing with gusto. When they said the Nicene Creed together, they called the Holy Spirit "she." And when they prayed the prayers of the people, they all spoke in tongues. Very eclectic.
Now I don't think all churches should be small. There's a place, I think, for all sizes. But I think that nowadays small churches have more and more trouble with low self-esteem. There are financial stresses always. Mega-churches get all of the attention.
My aunt likes to tell me about her education in a one-room school in southwestern Minnesota. She believes that in that small school with all the ages together she got a better education than many students do now.
What do you think? Can small churches still be viable?