When a Small Church Is Large

No doubt about it, I have a heart for small churches. And that means, most churches.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m thankful for churches of all sizes who preach the good news about Christ. And all churches, whatever their size, have their share of challenges.

According to Aaron Earl’s article in Lifeway Research, based on a 2020 “Faith Communities Today” (FACT) study surveying 15,000 “faith communities,” seventy percent of the churches surveyed had less than 100 members and averaged 65 in weekly attendance.

That’s not too surprising. And “weakly” attendance isn’t surprising, either. Well, you know what I mean.

Since I came on board, many things in our society that I grew to think of as precious have been on the decline. I don’t take it personally.

A time-tested “logical fallacy” that has been in play since Eden is a particular favorite of ours in this Golden Age of Stupidity (that’s Lance Morrow’s apt term). It’s the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy. That’s Latin for “after this, therefore because of this.” Think of the neurotic rooster who became terrified that he might oversleep, forget to crow, and therefore cause the sun not to come up, at great inconvenience to us all and resultant global calamity. We must love that fallacy because we “use” it all of the time. It’s the main framework for some of our most popular Internet conspiracy theories and a favorite in the toolbox of the populist politicians we love to let pull our strings.

All to say, I’m not neurotic enough to think that my ministerial “career” coinciding with a serious period of church decline is anything more than, yes, coincidental. But the fact remains that I’ve rarely ever known a time when most of the churches I’ve known best were truly growing. (Shifting members around to make large churches larger and small churches smaller is not real growth.)

If you’re a member of a relatively small church, you’re in good company. Yes, the largest number of churches in our land are small.

The good news about the bad news is that, if you believe that relationship matters, well, in a small church, “where everybody knows your name,” it really does. If you’re not there, somebody notices. If you’re not doing your part, a part doesn’t get done. And it’s good news (mentioned in the survey cited above) that the members of small churches are generally more active in attendance, giving, and other involvement. No surprise. This issues in the right kind of accountability and fertilizes the ground for the genuine sharing of life—joys, sorrows, and all.

Of course, the small church will have far fewer programs for you. You might not find a light-show-choreographed Sunday School class featuring a coffee bar and focused exclusively on left-handed dental hygienists with birthdays in months ending in R. But I’ll betcha the small church will do you a much finer funeral with more genuine tears. (Think about it.)

So, I don’t worry much about large churches. Not about their numbers, at least. But anything I can do to help a small one (small for good reasons and not small because of enmity and divisiveness), I will do. It’s fun to sing for a banquet for five hundred, but singing for twenty folks in a small church sanctuary brings its own joy. I like encouraging little churches and telling them the truth that their faith and commitment are not unseen and ignored by everyone. They are deeply appreciated and of incalculable value in God’s kingdom.

I thought of some of this as our church’s steeple tried to dance off the roof recently. Old structural support. Very high wind. How to fix it was a bit of a conundrum. It’s the focal point of our little building’s architecture, and it makes a beautiful faith statement, especially at night, shining above that end of town.

I can now report that we got it fixed. I had nightmares about a huge financial hit, but we came out very reasonably. I’m thankful. But though we were fine writing the check, a friend who understands and loves small churches sent $100 just to say, “We appreciate and love that little church. Those decades of faithfulness matter.” Such encouragement is worth more than gold.

So, when my wife and I heard that a little Methodist church that we know in a little town that we know had had its metal roof blown off by the same windstorm that we thought would topple our steeple, we sent a little check to add to what others who care for them are contributing to their roof fund. That church is small. The bill for the new roof is large. 

Small churches can use help and encouragement. They are of immense value.

You’re invited to visit my website, and I hope you’ll take a look there at my new “Focus on Faith” Podcast. At the website, just click on “Podcast.” Blessings!

Copyright 2023 by Curtis K. Shelburne. Permission to copy without altering text or for monetary gain is hereby granted subject to inclusion of this copyright notice.

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