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Small but steady witness: Big lessons from little churches

Katy Shevel reflects on the lessons she learned in pastoring a small church and the value of these congregations.

It was a summer Sunday morning in 2020 and the very last time I would preside over the Lord’s Table in my small congregation. No one besides me had entered our sanctuary for months, and it showed. I unlocked the wooden double doors bearing my handwritten sign that read: “Sanctuary Closed Due to Pandemic. Worship With Us Online.” Hot, stagnant air draped over me once I stepped inside the modest, single-room country church. As I walked up the center aisle, the wooden floors creaked in surprise at my unexpected feet. Pale morning sunlight illumined the chalky dust coating each unoccupied pew.

Hidden in the canopy of hardwood forest in northwestern New Jersey, this rural congregation was originally founded in a log cabin in 1727. Nascent rumblings of the first Great Awakening were beginning to spread across the English and middle colonies. The promise of revival settled like a thick, dewy mist over nearby hills and valleys. Little congregations proliferated in remote communities. Itinerant preachers rode the circuit on horseback, sharing pulpits like this one. Ultimately, larger structures were erected to replace house churches, physically establishing each small church in its local community.

That 2020 morning, all alone inside the four walls of my little country church, I prepared the communion table and set up my laptop for the Zoom call. I thought to myself, How strange this is! The forebears of my congregation could never have foretold that virtual Sunday worship during a global pandemic would one day be grafted into its already extensive history. Yet the ancestors of this church keep ceaseless watch over the grounds by day and by night, from their faded and cracked headstones dotting the church lawn. What had these sleeping saints witnessed through the ages? If these ancient ones could speak, what tales might they tell about the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic? What advice could the church invisible impart to help guide the visible church through COVID-19?

I remember the juxtaposition of past and present striking me so vividly that morning. I stood in that vacant worship space, waiting for a couple dozen faces to appear on my screen. I recalled that the saints buried right outside the sanctuary’s stained-glass windows had living family members joining me for this very Zoom worship service. Small, rural congregations like this one have weathered so many epochs of change and trauma. They have lost so much — and survived so much more.

I had served for five years as that little church’s pastor. It was one of the most infuriating, challenging yet rewarding seasons of my life. I gained so much from walking alongside that beloved and broken community of faith. That country church took a chance on a fledgling seminary graduate and gifted me the best hands-on training for ministry I could ever have received.

Looking back, I think often about the lessons that church taught me. It saddens me that so often the wisdom of small churches is dismissed. (After all, they’re small. Right? When churches are doing something right, we expect them to grow!) It’s true that the pandemic has exposed glaring weaknesses in small church structures and has sadly ushered along the demise of many local congregations that were already in a long pattern of decline. Yet it’s equally true that some remnant of these local congregations will disperse and find new homes in other small churches, ones that will continue to gather long after the pandemic is over.

In his 2010 book The Gifts of the Small Church – a book that helped me navigate my years in small church ministry – Jason Byassee suggests that the local church is not a problem to be solved, but instead is a “part of God’s solution.” Byassee writes, “Megachurches and suburban churches are well suited to an age that likes things fast and professional and suburban. But most of us through most of time have met Jesus in small churches.” In the book’s afterword, Will Willimon admits, after occasionally rebutting Byassee’s optimistic outlook on the gifts of small churches, that “the good country folk … will continue to be the face of most of mainline Christianity.”

Members of small churches are imaginative, scrappy survivors. Anyone who spends significant time in a little church knows those blessed folks are a force. Little worshiping communities have been the primary means for the body of Christ to gather and worship throughout history. Now more than ever, as the post-pandemic outlook for congregations of all sizes is uncertain, I firmly believe we have much to learn from the long-suffering witness of local congregations.

What then are some big things that little churches do well?

Small churches are resourceful and creative problem solvers

At the onset of the pandemic shutdown, my small church colleagues and I had to transition to all-virtual worship with only a few days’ notice. The majority of small local churches in our area had no previous plans or procedures in place for online worship, not to mention any resources allocated to such an endeavor. But we made it happen.

Our parishioners gathered around their screens at home in their pajamas, and our leaders brought Sunday worship to them. We recorded the worship services on our phones. We appeared live on Zoom. Church musicians banged out clunky renditions of “How Great Thou Art” from out-of-tune pianos in their living rooms. Participants forgot to mute themselves. Pets and young children made impromptu guest appearances.

Most of those early pandemic worship services didn’t look pretty or at all polished. But in small churches, that’s okay. Little congregations are experts at finding creative solutions to unexpected problems. We know how to pivot and cobble together a quick fix at the last minute. We have learned how to survive on less by having small staffs, few institutional structures, decades of dwindling membership and diminishing financial resources. As a result, small congregations know how to adjust and think quickly on our feet to prioritize the needs of the community.

Sarah Colwill, a former solo pastor herself, is currently the program director of the Presbytery of Philadelphia. She works with a variety of small churches in many contexts, both inside and outside the Philadelphia area. During the pandemic, she notes, the small-church skill of problem solving allowed many little congregations to keep worshiping together without ever missing a Sunday. “Small churches don’t freak out if the sound guy doesn’t show up,” says Colwill. “Small churches are flexible, creative, and know how to adapt at the last minute.”

Small churches empower strong lay leaders

In the early Christian church, worshiping communities leaned heavily on the leadership of key individuals. They did so because these worshiping communities were new, had little institutional support or oversight and were small. In The Gifts of the Small Church, Byassee writes, “Break open your New Testament to the letters of Paul and others and you will find letters written to small churches.” These letters go so far as to lift up individual members by name. The final greetings in Paul’s letters highlight chief figures crucial to the leadership in these individual Christian communities. As early Christians predominantly met in households, notably, the leadership of women in local communities was indispensable to the early church.

Small congregations today continue to thrive when they equip strong lay leadership. In churches with few members, essentially everyone has an opportunity to assume a leading role in the daily operations of congregational life. As a result, small congregations tend to be more democratic. In an article for MinistryMatters, ordained Methodist minister and author Allen T. Stanton writes, “In a church of fifty or sixty people, volunteers fill key positions out of necessity.” New faces aren’t overlooked for leadership roles either. In a church of so few, any visitors and new members are often invited almost immediately to share their gifts and talents with the broader church.

Small churches prioritize relationships

A small congregation is like an “extended family,” says pastor Ben Gosden in a January 2015 MinistryMatters post. That church directory? It’s a short read (if the church even has one). Everybody knows your name. For better or worse, that likely means everybody also knows a little something about your private business. Small-church saints make it their personal responsibility to celebrate milestones with you, and they show up for you at your darkest moments with a casserole. Prayer requests and community announcements in small churches go on and on …  and on. Folks dutifully pop out of their designated pews on Sunday mornings to share personal joys and concerns as well as to remind people about the pancake breakfast at the local firehouse or to lift up little Suzie’s lacrosse semifinals this Tuesday night. The church family as a whole takes time to listen to what each person is saying, often asking each announcement to be repeated at least once because everyone knows that Gladys sits in the back and can’t hear well.

At their best, small churches are models of Paul’s exhortation to the Ephesians 4:2 to bear “with one another in love.” They don’t have the luxury to delegate duties of hospitality and fellowship under the purview of a committee. Members of small churches have become experts at organizing potlucks, picnics and luncheons in honor of special occasions in the community. Most folks in small churches also aren’t in any hurry to rush home after worship. In my experience, they like to linger, sometimes for hours. It so often amazed me that small church folks go out of their way to sit at a table after church, nursing a plate of homemade cookies and listening to the same cantankerous man tell the same embarrassing stories every week. A beautifully raw vulnerability resides in the heart of small church communities. When worshiping with the same 20 or so people every Sunday, folks learn to abide with one another, flaws and all. In his book, Byassee observes, “This is the great secret of the small, local church. It is God’s greatest cultivator of patience.”

Small churches live into the reality of loss

Loss is central to the local church experience. When a member passes away or moves, the loss is palpably felt. Even one death can shake a small church family to its core. Signature voices in the choir go missing. Strong committees lose leaders and are left unmoored for years. With so few members, sometimes no one is available to step in and fill someone else’s former role in the community. The democratic, relational ethos of the local church means that each person’s absence is noticed. As I served my own years in small church ministry, the empty spaces in our pews multiplied. I could look out on a Sunday morning and envision the faces that once filled them. Of course, loss is a daily reality for everyone. But loss is a particularly prominent feature of the small church.

Standing all alone in that tiny, empty sanctuary that Sunday morning in 2020, I led my small congregation in the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving over Zoom. I clicked “unmute all” on my laptop keyboard. I spoke first: “Therefore we praise you, God, joining our voices with the heavenly choirs, and with all the faithful of every time and place who forever sing to the glory of your name, saying …”

Then the big voices of those little church saints rang out through my MacBook speakers in a staggered but steady response: “Holy, holy, holy Lord! God of power and might!”

The post-pandemic path ahead remains uncertain for all churches, however large or small. Loss has seismically shaken our communities during this incredibly difficult historical moment. But small-church wisdom teaches us to find hope even in our losses, to see that God’s grace prevails in and through all the empty spaces in our pews. After all, each space in every pew reminds us that we are a part of something so much larger than ourselves, that we are all members of the eternal family of God that stretches far beyond the limits of this lifetime.

Small churches know this to be true. It’s why we are so darn stubborn. We have the historical records of God’s prevailing grace inscribed into our souls.

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