“I just wish we would grow.”
“We don’t have enough young people.”
“There’s not enough money.”
“We are too small … too old.”
Why do we so often focus on our deficits instead of our strengths? Perhaps it’s human nature or a result of our fears and insecurities. My church is a small church, averaging 80 in worship. The majority of the membership is people over the age of 60. Like so many small churches, some thought that if they hired a younger pastor, then new people would flood in, that finally young adults would start attending. I’ve been in this congregation nearly five years and that still hasn’t happened. And so I hear frustration and fear of the future from the long-term faithful members. “Why won’t our children or our grandchildren come to worship? Will we survive?”
There are days that I too get caught up in what we lack. I dream of what we could do with more money. I wonder how we would be different if we had more people. I’d like to not always be the youngest in the room.
We so often focus on our deficits. We too easily get stuck in what we don’t have. Here are the gifts that my small church offers: I see a church full of people who deeply love each other and seek ways to show that love. I see church dinners overflowing with homemade casseroles. The act of cooking for another and sharing meals together is one of the more intimate ways we express hospitality and Christian fellowship. I see a church that during the passing of the peace truly makes sure they greet as many people as possible, especially the person they don’t know. I see a mission committee that wants to serve the children in our community through outreach events, even if they don’t come back for worship. I see faithful people with questions and fears and doubts, who gather each week for Bible study because they want to learn together and deepen their relationships with each other and God. I see a church that more than anything wants to love and be loved in return.
My 4-year-old nephew sometimes comes to worship with me. On those mornings, since I am leading worship, he is either in the pews with my mom or watched by my church members. Sometimes he is the only child in church; sometimes there are one or two other children. I know many parents who are looking for a church want to be in a place where there are tons of children and a variety of programming for all ages. I understand this and at one time would have agreed. But then I look at my nephew. He doesn’t even seem to notice that there aren’t other children. When he enters the church on Sunday mornings, he’s greeted by name. Some get on the floor, at his level, to play with him. Some have brought him candy or a small present. In worship, he makes noise, but that’s okay. He sometimes gasps at my sermon, proof he is listening despite the evidence to the contrary. He wants to hold the hymnal, too, and try to sing along. He colors at different points or plays with cars underneath the pew. Nobody seems to mind. A small church knows how important it is to have children in worship.
I know that not all children can sit through worship, but too often we sell our kids short. My 4-year-old nephew asks to come with me to church, a place where he is known and loved, even if he only comes a few times a year. He is learning the rhythms and rituals of worship. He is learning what it means to be a part of a community.
I think my small church is a gift. They know that each person there is vital to our continuing ministry and to the kingdom of God. They value the children in their midst. In our sanctuary we know each other’s names and stories. We look around and notice if someone is missing and make a point to call or send her a card. Of course I wish we had more children and young adults, but not just to increase our numbers. I want more children to experience the gifts my church has given my nephew. I want youth and young adults who are struggling with identity to have a safe place to question and doubt.
I think we need to value our small churches. After all, the church began as small house communities – intimate groups who shared meals, resources and lives together. In a culture that is crying out for connection and community, small churches are a gift that is greatly needed. The church is one of the few places left where intergenerational communities gather together.
One of my members has four young adult children and two young grandchildren. She says that she stays at our church because here everyone knows her children’s names and stories. They’ve watched them grow up. They’ve been present through the difficulties her family has experienced and the joys. It is precisely because we are a small church that she stays.
Let’s give thanks for our small churches and the momentous ways they take five loaves and two fish and multiply them everyday. We worship a God who praises the small gifts of a widow’s mite and who promises us that the faith of a mustard seed can move mountains. Small churches are a gift. They have and continue to change lives and the world through the simple gift of love.
KRISTIN STROBLE serves as the pastor of Heritage Presbyterian Church in Youngstown, Ohio. She enjoys coffee, books, running and spending time outdoors.