Wednesday, January 20, 2010

In Praise of Small Churches

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?


John, an unlikely pastor said...

Like you I have served in small and large churches. Each has a unique place in the body of Christ.
The more I think about it the size of the congregation and all the programs, or lack of programs, doesn't matter.
Small or large--church size doesn't matter--what matters is the Spirit at work gathering the people around the Word and the Sacraments.
Sadly larger churches may actually let people hide from the God intended relationships that make us into stronger people of faith.

Lindy said...

I think small faith communities are the future. Churches? Not sure they're going to make it in their present form.

LoieJ said...

My mom always said the same thing about her one room school education through 8th grade. The students learned from each other and had to help each other. She went on to be valedictorian at the High School she attended by boarding away from home. My cousin attended the same school, then moved to the big city, where he was way ahead of the new class. Of course, a bad small school teachers impacts many grades at once.

I'm not in a really small church, maybe a just right size church, about 75 - 175 per week in the pews, year round. There are almost enough people and staff to do lots of stuff, but small enough to make relationships the driving force in the church. I think people can be pew sitters in any church, but it would be easy to do so in a large church and never really "get it", ie that we are called to do more in Christ's kingdom. I would think that pastoring a large church would be a real challenge, as far as getting to know the people.

8thday said...

I have become quite cynical about what the role of the church is in modern society, comparing them more to a private club. But I think you are onto something here. They should be about relationships. In which case, small churches should probably be the model. Unfortunately I think small churches spend too much of their limited resources trying to look "big" instead of doing what they do best

Diane M. Roth said...

8th day, I think you have a point. I think that many small churches feel like they ought to be a different size, because of the way the culture is around us, and that affects their awareness of the Spirit at work gathering them and the "main thing" of being a faith community.

Lindy, I am "provoked" (in a good way) but what you wrote. I can see what you mean about a lot of churches out there, but what about those "megas"? to me, they don't yet show any sign of slowing down, but maybe I'm not keeping up.

P.S., I think your church does sound like a good size. and I am impressed by your lay leadership.

Terri said...

I have been a member of and or worked as a clergy member of staff in every size church: family, pastoral, program, resource (Ok, not mega, though). Each size has its strengths and challenges. I do find it unfortunate that small churches undervalue their worth, I think past of that undervaluing comes from their inability to support fulltime clergy...volunteer staff is usually possible, but volunteer clergy is rarely possible.

I do think that church will look very different in the future. Will there be more home churches? maybe? will there be more churches in storefronts? maybe...but I think church buildings can still be churches. Looking at this issue I have appreciated the writings of Diana Butler Bass, especially her book, "Christianity for the Rest of Us."

Thanks, Diane, for a thought provoking post.

Diane M. Roth said...

oh, Mompriest, thanks for mentioning Diana Butler Bass! I think she has some great things to say.

Also, the idea of not being able to afford a full-time pastor: yeah. I've been thinking more and more about clergy who are able to do part-time work at a small church, and also support themselves doing other work (writing?).

Di McCullough said...

I'm so glad this has been your experience, Diane. I can certainly see that small churches can be nurturing and familial.

In my experience, larger (not Mega, just larger) churches have sometimes been more welcoming to outsiders. That's been an important thing for me. But, as someone else said, I think it's more about the Spirit than the size.

Diane M. Roth said...

yes, Mrs. M, I have also encountered what you say as well. There are a variety of reasons for that: in my first churches many of the people were related to each other, which made it difficult for others. also, if someone is new to the faith, I think it's daunting to think that you might be required to get really really active right away.

Unknown said...

I am the pastor of the church to which you refer, and I was one of those singing with gusto at the funeral you officiated! The church I serve is a vibrant faith community and while at times it bemoans its size, the congregation is beginning to realize all the things they can do to carry Christ's light in the world. I have two young children, and so often I wish I knew how to market the abundance of love and affirmation they receive from all of our congregants. They are constantly soaking up the grace offered them by so many, and I have served larger churches were children can get lost in the midst of many. I tell folks all the time they cannot be anonymous at our church, and so being a part of a smaller church requires discernment and choice. Sometimes I do wonder about the place for a smaller church in an urban environment, but often I am just amazed at how the Spirit can prompt a few to do so much.

Diane M. Roth said...

pastorbeth -- thanks for stopping by! Whatl you are saying is right on. Discerning the Spirit's presence and guidance is so key. I really was blessed by your presence, and by the faith of this family.

Hot Cup Lutheran said...

having served large, and now serving small (as in SD small like you mention) there are joys, strengths... in a mega-this, super-size-me world, blocking out that cultural message in favor of the where 2 or 3 are gathered in my name message gets increasingly tougher to do...

there's a pioneer spirit... a willingness to be there for future generations, no matter how hard we have to scrape to get there...for instance a 40 household congregation on the open prairie (roughly 60 members) just built and paid cash for a one-hundred-thousand-dollar addition. while managing to still pay the pastor, & keep up mission giving. to me, that is a testament, a willingness to keep the faith.

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Lindy said...

Well, Diane, you are right about the mega-churches. But, is that really what anyone wants? Really? I say, let 'em be, and let 'em keep their money. They're not for me.

I see a couple big problems down the way for traditional Christianity. And by "traditional" I mean pretty much anything that doesn't have a Starbucks in the narthex. One is the cost:benefit of clergy. They cost a lot and yet people are not sure what their benefit is. Lay people's pay and benefits have been cut, we no longer have our pension plans. Yet, the clergy are so valuable that their compensation can't be touched? People are just not seeing it. I don't see it.

I think that the sacraments WILL be removed from the hands of the clergy. I hope so, anyway. Just look at the dust-up over the Dominicans! Who pays any attention to the Dominicans? Until they start talking about lay presidency... I think this issue is just barely under the surface. And when the sacraments are finally safely in the hands of the laity, then clergy will have to reinvent themselves into some function (word chosen deliberately) that is worth the cost. That is going to be a big and probably painful transition but it has to happen. We can no longer afford the current system. It's as simple as that. Just ask anyone in a smaller parish. Why do you think it is that the Romans won't allow married priests? Oh, it's not that old thing about celibacy, though that's a colorful ruse. It's the knowledge that married clergy are too damn expensive. And many of us are long past ready for such change anyway.

And, of course, the other biggie is relevance. I don't think there is any shortage of seekers. Even here in China where such things are not encouraged, you'd be surprised... The thing is, a serious seeker does not get very many answers in church. Every year it's the same old lessons, the same old recycled sermons, same old, same old... And there's no depth to it. So, anyone who is of a mind to actually give over their whole lives to spiritual pursuits quickly finds that this sort of thing is not really encouraged. "Better that you should go to EFM, honey." That sort of thing. So, people are finding their answers in the library, learning how to pray and meditate from Buddhist monks, and seeking God in blades of grass, which is one of the many places God really is. I mean, that's what I did. But, if we could let loose our ideas of church, then someone might actually see God in, oh I don't know, a piece of bread? But, it's got to be real, and it's got to be believable. Because, if you think I'm a cynic, just wait for the generation behind me.

So, I do see real challenges to our current idea of church. Maybe you Lutherans, with your reformation spirit, are better prepared than the rest of us. But, I do think we're going to see massive changes in the coming decades as denominations and congregations face financial facts and real seekers start to form communities themselves.

Obviously, I claim no special knowledge and have few solutions, except to try to love one another and be ready for anything.

Anonymous said...

I like the personal connections and intimacy of a small church. Yet,a s you mentioned, they often struggle financially. It's hard for a growing church to keep that small-church feel, but maybe there's a good middle ground.

LoieJ said...

I've been thinking about the relationship aspect of smaller churches. I think that sense of people knowing those that they worship with is part of the strength of smaller churches in another way.

When something needs to be done or some volunteers are needed in any church, of course there will be announcements, bulletin and newsletter blurbs or articles. But in a church where people know other people, at least know their names, there will be, should be, some personal invitations to specific people made to fill positions and committees. And people who come up with ideas, want to help in any way, want to preach, etc. are known by the pastor and staff, so if they make a suggestion, the staff knows where they are coming from, so to speak.

Of course, this backfires when a person doesn't get a call to help with something because he isn't on the radar screen of a chairman of a committee. Of if a chairman only calls his/her closest friends.

Asking someone directly to do something is empowering and encouraging to that person. The person knows that You Think That They Would Be Good At That.

How do people in a large church get known by the staff and leaders in the church unless the newer people have what it takes to make the first step forward?

I've found that I've done so many things in my church that I've really grown as a person and in the talents that God has given me, some I didn't know I had. I think back on the larger city churches I've attended and think that I would have remained a pew-sitter always, or at least for much longer than I did in the smaller church I've attended these last 30 years.

Barbara B. said...

Great post and comments. Lots to think about. I would agree that churches will probably look very different in the future...