All congregations experience ebbs and flows in those actively attending and participating in church programming and worship. No church enters into a community as a large church, nor do they complete their ministry as such. This shifts in size will be accompanied with anxiety and leadership stress. As well, negative perceptions of the congregation’s abilities to turn things around will increase when these shifts are not openly recognized by seeking adaptations: to the church structure, of the foci of the lay leadership, within the staffing structure and the tasks they hold, and to the expectations held around contributions to making church happen. In 2007, Paul Nixon wrote that churches must make a series of choices in order to embrace life. These choices revolve around fun over drudgery; being bold and trying out new things over adhering to what has been; exploring the frontiers of ministry and mission over securing “the fortress.” Nixon also wrote that churches need to choose to act now, if they are really going to choose life. Acting later requires a far more significant effort to return a congregation to a place of thriving. Thriving is not the number of members in a congregation. Thriving is not the number of people attracted to 10am worship. Thriving IS lives touched and changed through the missional outreach of a church. Thriving IS the stated experience of those who partner with you in ministry. Thriving IS the collective depth of experience of those who participate in church programming. Churches can thrive no matter their size.
The majority of congregations in the US qualify as small churches, congregations of fewer than 100 active participants. The percentage of small churches is dramatically increasing in our now pandemic ally aware society, but even back in 1982, Schaller asserted that the small church was the “normative institutional expression of the worship congregation among the Protestant denominations on the North American continent.
The nature, structure, and energy of small churches are often very different from other size churches. They don’t have much in common with megachurches or even mid-size churches with multiple paid pastors and program areas. They may consist of only a few core families. Which means, they can struggle with financial and facility sustainability.
Small churches also have gifts and advantages which are often missed by the churches themselves as they consistently remember the glory days when the church was bigger (which is true of all churches), rather than focusing on making ministry and mission possible no matter the realties faced by the congregation. When we get outside of the shame and comparison traps which see small churches as “less than,” We can open our eyes to their gifts.
Rev. Dr. Anna Hall wrote in an article “Help! our Church is Too Small,” just last month, that “unfortunately, too many small churches miss out on the advantages” of being a small church “because they are trying too hard to live as if they were larger. Small churches:
* May be stuck remembering past eras with more congregants, or simply buying into the cultural idea that bigger is better.
* Can worry so much about not attracting lots of new people that they neglect knowing and loving each other well. Sometimes, that worry leads to unhealthy behaviors driven by anxiety or conflict, which also weakens relationships.
* Can have bylaws and ways of working that are not suited to a small congregation, using up their energy on meetings and failing to be responsive to the spirit moving in new ways.
* Can be so attached to a building that drains their energy and finances that they fail to listen to the Spirit calling them toward another way of being church together.
* Might try to be all things to all people rather than choose a singular focus, at least for a season, because they are scared that one unhappy person leaving will make them even smaller.
* Can turn inward out of shame about being small and thus fail to know and love those who live in the area around their congregation.
Although these challenges can keep many small churches stuck in place, the thriving small church will find ways to move past them.
Small churches can be…
Rev. Dr. Anna Hall identities four strengths of small, locally focused churches. She writes:
1. Places to know and be known – If you are a part of a small church, everyone will know your name. When open to it, relationships in a small church can be deep and permeate all areas of members’ lives. Members can be there for each other at the hospital, at funerals, and at the birthday party. A true sense of community can grow and thrive.
2. Focused – Since a small church can only do one or two things at a time, they can focus all their energy and best thinking on doing those one or two things as well as possible. They can increase impact by not spreading energy thinly across numerous programs and activities. Small churches can be clear with others on that focus and invite them to help fulfill it.
3. Responsive – Small churches can, when working well, respond quickly to community needs or changes. Without multiple layers of bureaucracy, a single council can decide within hours how the church will help those who have experienced displacement, disaster, or other emergencies. Small also means the ability to quickly respond to a new movement of the spirit in the congregation. Supporting a new direction is easier when there are only a few dozen people to gather, unify, and work together for good.
4. Locally Rooted – Small churches can know their community well, whether it is a neighborhood, town, or rural area. Members usually know others who live in their community, sometimes knowing almost everyone! This makes it easier to understand community needs, generate partnerships, and truly love the church’s neighbors.
This work is challenging, but if a small church actively seeks to maintain strong relationships among active participants, expends significant energy in developing relationships with secular partners in reaching the wider community, and is unafraid to adapt in all aspects of its being, the cohesion articulated above can help them face the challenges and live into their future. The results can be transformational within the faith community and within the towns around.