Or “How To Stop Worrying and Love Your Small Church”
by: Rev. Dr. Anna Hall
I recently rediscovered on my bookshelf an old book I inherited from a retiring pastor’s library – Lyle Schaller’s The Small Church is Different!
While the book itself is literally falling apart, and some of the information in this 40 year old text is outdated at this point, the key ideas are sound.
Small Churches are Normal
Small churches, or those with less than 100 congregants, are the majority of congregations in the US. The percentage of small churches is increasing, 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.” This is even more true today, as many churches have seen their participation drop dramatically over the past 5 years.
Small Churches are Different
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. They can struggle with financial and facility sustainability.
Yet small churches also have their own gifts and advantages which are often missed by those who are stuck remembering the glory days when the church was bigger. 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.
Small churches can be:
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.
Unfortunately, too many small churches miss out on these advantages 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. This work is challenging, but if a small church has maintained strong relationships among its members, this cohesion can help them face the challenge and live into their future.
Is your church small? Would you say you are embracing the gifts of being small? Or do you still have some work to do to break out of old patterns that keep you from those gifts?
If you need help thriving as a small church, Convergence can help. We work with small churches every day to find focus, streamline bureaucracy, learn healthy ways to work together, and love their surrounding community.