Recently while attending the Lewis Fellows Reunion at Wesley Seminary in Washington, DC, I heard much conversation about the growth of ‘small churches’ (those categorized as under 150 active members/ attendees) in the mainline tradition. (Shocking, I know!) The theory being that as our society continues to grows to be more and more impersonal and social networked focused, there will be more and more people seeking to attend a congregation where they can be known and loved, rather than a number in a multi-service mega church setting. “ The ‘small church’ that intentionally practices community, is serious in theological reflection with scripture and regularly participates in and encourages missions and justice work is meeting great needs,” says those marking trends.
I never really attended a small church before I became a pastor. The church where I spent most of my childhood had an average attendance of over 200. In college I attended a larger congregation that worshipped around 400 in two services and I previously served a congregation as an associate pastor that had three full-time pastoral staff persons and over 300 in worship regularly.
And, then I came to Washington Plaza– what many would call a small congregation, and it has been an adjustment. My first shock upon arriving here was something as simple as finding no stamp machine to put my letters in that I wanted to mail. Small thing of course, I don’t mind getting my own stamps, but a reminder that pastors in small churches have an endless job description that pastors in multi-staff settings would never experience. The small church: it’s a generalist’s dream.
There are days that I miss the opportunities for greater reach of services in the community that came in the form of budget line items, I miss the interaction with a larger staff– being alone in the office is not always that fun, and most of all I miss having colleagues to depend on to share the load of ministry with so that you never quite feel alone.
But, the longer I am in a “small church” the more I see its great gifts. You can certainly “do” church with a lot less hype and money than you think you can.
Small churches may not have a specialized program or class to meet every need of the congregation, but they do have access to people through real conversations who can often point you to resources that can be helpful.
Small churches may not have the ability to support all of the good works in the community that they feel called to encourage, but they do have the life-changing encounters to partner through friendship with other organizations and churches to do some extraordinary things that big churches can’t handle.
Small churches may not have a program budget in the millions, but they are places where you know your giving (however great or small of an amount) matters a great deal to everything the church seeks to do. Stewardship is something everyone must learn.
Small churches may not have the financial resources to hire the number of staff they would like to strive for excellence in discipleship, but they do have the chance to encourage young leaders or those who feel passionate about vocational endeavors in other settings.
Washington Plaza, and other churches of a similar size, are dangerous get involved in if you aren’t ready. If you join one, you must be ready to have folks know your name, ready to have a mirror reflected back at your face and loved all the same, and ready to truly understand your brothers and sisters in Christ as real members of your family; for this is what the congregation becomes for you. For some this may sound too much like their own family or like an impossible dream of utopia, but truly such is the gift of a small church. You engage who you worship alongside, you have a relationship your pastor, and you get to openly share your ideas and energy in the church’s becoming. It can’t move without everyone doing their part.
So, just because a church is “small” don’t assume it is dying. It’s a form of specialized ministry that is the wave of the future!
I’m excited that those who study patterns of church growth are growing to be more excited about the possibilities for the mainline small church. I know we are up to something good here and I’m eager to see who finds their way to join us in our continued growing-up, small church style.