Small is beautiful

"Church vitality is more about spirit than size, and small churches across the country often serve as hubs of connection for small towns and rural areas." — Teri McDowell Ott

My kids, now 14 and 16, grew up at a small church in Illinois where my husband served as a part-time pastor. “Small” meant 15 or 20 in worship, sometimes less. A couple of the women started a multi-age Sunday school class after we arrived — a class of three, for our two kids and one other. This church delighted in giving the kids jobs, feeding them at potlucks, entertaining them with bonfires, weenie roasts and bingo.

One of my favorite memories from our time with this small church was the Sunday morning our daughter, Ella, was recruited to help collect the offering. Our church didn’t have the standard brass offering plates. Ushers would stretch a green velvet basket attached to a wooden pole down each pew to collect the money. When the pole was placed in my four-year-old daughter’s hands, her face turned sober and serious with the importance of her new job. Pew by pew, she stretched her velvet basket out to each worshiper, and if they didn’t give, or didn’t give enough, she stayed put, waiting with her serious face until they ponied up — sometimes even giving them a little extra poke with the basket at the end of her pole.

We celebrated a record collection that day.

Now we live in Virginia, hundreds of miles away from that rural Illinois church. We’ve claimed a larger church here as our home, where my husband and I enjoy the chance to sit and be guided in worship by other capable leaders. Our now-teenagers grumble a lot about church and our family’s commitment to being a part of a worshiping community. But, from time to time, whether in casual conversation around the dinner table or in an essay about family that they are required to write for school, memories of our small church surface. Ella recalls how the congregation “felt like family.” Isaac remembers a “tight-knit” community, where everyone knew each other.  It was “nice,” my son reports. Which – in case you don’t speak teenage boy – is a rave review.

Denominational statistics reveal that most Presbyterians attend larger churches, but a majority of our churches have 100 members or less. These small churches and their ministries are worth our attention, even though they are often overlooked. Small churches often struggle with insecurity, comparing themselves to the membership rolls and program offerings of larger churches. But church vitality is more about spirit than size, and small churches across the country often serve as hubs of connection for small towns and rural areas.

Since there’s no hiding in the small church, accountability is real. You are known and missed when you are not in attendance. Small churches also often feel like family because every program is intergenerational. There are not enough people to split up the adults, youth, and children — everyone needs to line up for the water balloon toss or the egg-and-spoon relay, or else we can’t play!

But we shouldn’t wax overly romantic about the small church. The challenges these small communities face are abundant. Conflict can burn through small churches like all-consuming wildfires; leadership requires everyone’s hard work. If you want a music program, you’d better be ready to sing — whether you can carry a tune or not.

Small churches need servant leaders, with buy-in from worshipers willing to put as much work and care into their church as their own home. And resources are often lacking; Ella’s collection basket can’t pay for a leaking roof no matter how cute she looks or how hard she pokes.

Throughout my 25 years of ministry, I’m grateful for experiences in large, medium and small congregations. Each church context has taught me lessons of leadership, appreciation for hard-working volunteers, and gratitude for the precious gift of being connected to a Christian community — no matter the size. Bigger may be better in some circumstances, but Jesus had 13 people, counting himself. And, apparently, that was enough.