Church leadership has long held a bent toward the “bigger is better” mantra of capitalistic America. We franchise new church plants. We structure our institutions to favor the larger churches. The United Methodist Church itself has long been geared toward starting pastors off in smaller churches to get their feet wet in leadership only to move them to bigger (and often higher paying) churches once they prove themselves as capable leaders.
The flip side of the “bigger is always better” way of viewing our churches is the reality that the vast majority of churches in America (and even around the world) are, in fact, small. Historically this has also been the case. Go back and read Paul’s letters to various churches. They weren’t worshiping 1,000+ on Sundays in a concert hall or amphitheater — they small, tightly-knit communities worshiping in homes.
Now I’m not a hater of the larger church — I’ve actually served in two different large, vibrant, downtown churches. I know the strength of larger churches from their ability to support more diverse ministry to the beauty of worshiping with a large, corporate body. But now that I’m serving a smaller church, I want to point out the unique beauty of small churches. Sometimes we need to be reminded that small churches are, in fact, beautiful and they should spend less time dealing with an inferiority complex because they aren’t as large as other churches.
Instead of trying to mimmick what the large churches in your area are doing (only to come up short of their quality because you don’t have the money or resources to duplicate it), here are 5 things I believe small churches can uniquely offer the world right where they are:
- Inter-generational Ministry. There is a difference between inter-generational and multi-generational forms of ministry. Just because you have people of different ages gathered in the same space for worship does NOT make it an inter-generational ministry opportunity. Crossing borders between generations takes real effort. And too often larger churches segregate people based on age and stage of life. The small church, however, can’t do that because it’s too small. So instead of bemoaning the fact that you don’t have a youth ministry with 100+ kids in it, think of ways you can put the 5-10 youth you do have in contact with people from a different generation. Numerous statistical studies actually show that an important factor in youth remaining active in the church is the presence of a deep relationship with someone older than them who is not a member of their immediate family. Segregating children and youth into their own space in the life of the church runs the terrible risk of never allowing them to encounter and forge relationships with a diverse group of people. It also sends the subtle message that they are second-class members of your church when they are not primary in the corporate ministry life of the church. Small churches offer a rich and beautiful opportunity to forge these inter-generational relationships because, well, they have to. There aren’t enough people to segregate everyone into their own corners of the church. And thanks be to God for that!
- Welcome special needs persons and families with special needs children. One of the quiet struggles churches often don’t recognize is how to incorporate persons with special needs into the life of the church. Small churches offer a unique opportunity to meet this need because they are small enough to warmly welcome and offer the individual attention a family who has a special needs child might need. It’s a daunting thing to take a child with special needs to church for fear of them standing out or somehow disturbing the flow of worship. It’s also very lonely for that child to get lost in the mix of a large, overwhelming children’s program. Small churches can offer love, hospitality, and attention to make a family feel welcome. And the truth is, small churches can offer a worship experience that is vibrant but doesn’t necessarily have the overly-produced feel that worship in a larger church might have. This is actually very welcoming to a newcomer who might feel their presence would alter the flow of worship for others. In other words, special needs can be uniquely and lovingly met and welcomed in a small church.
- More people can help lead worship. Since the small church is often less concerned with production led by professional worship leaders, it can incorporate more laity in the leading of worship. Remember: nothing says the pastor is supposed to be the sole worship leader. Liturgy is the work of the people. And faithful worship incorporates the efforts of EVERYONE as together we offer ourselves to God in praise and thanksgiving. So find ways to let people pray, read scripture, serve communion, sing, and maybe even occasionally preach in the small church. One thing we’re doing this coming year in the church I’m serving is we are shifting to laity being the primary servers of communion when we celebrate the sacrament. As pastor I will preside, but we’re asking laity to serve the elements. So we’ve had a sign-up to volunteer for this duty. Again, absolutely nothing says the pastor is supposed to be the primary server of the elements. Give people a chance to lead and serve more, you might be surprised how sharing in the work of worship might begin to transform people.
- More focus on community outreach. While small churches might bemoan the loss of in-house programs as numbers decline, I say it’s a great blessing. Large churches have to expend a great deal of effort managing and sustaining programs that focus inwardly on the life of the membership. Lots of money is spent on resources of Sunday Schools, youth programs, children’s ministry, etc. It’s really a rat race — just ask any pastor or staff person at a larger church in their most honest moments. Small churches just don’t have the resources to keep up in that race. So why try? There’s a great freedom in not worrying with the inwardly focused programs. You can actually look outwardly on your community and focus time and attention there. How can you open your space to community groups? Can you invite support groups to meet in your building (especially if your small church occupies a large building)? Can you find ways to resource your local community? Can you partner with other small churches or local missional efforts? You see, small church ministry is just ripe for people to finally break out from the inward, program-focused mindset of church and direct their attention to where God is at work outside of the walls of the church more fully.
- Offer a family feel to others. Look, families aren’t all warm and fuzzy. They have their dysfunction. And so does a small church because if often operates like a big, extended family. However through all of that dysfunction, one thing is (hopefully) certain: People know they are loved. As our world becomes more global, there is a rise to locally-focused relationships in business, commerce, and relationships. The small church can offer something that might get lost in a large church where people don’t always know one another by name — you can actually be a part of a family. In our worst moments, that family feel leads us to gossip or insulation from others who aren’t a part of our family. In our best moments, it’s an expression of true love extended to anyone searching for a community who will love them enough to never let them go. Family is tough and it’s messy. But it’s also very beautiful. And so is small church ministry.