“I have to admit I’ve been putting this off,” one pastor says. “Being labelled a ‘small’ church carries with it so many connotations – you must be doing something wrong or you’d be so much bigger. There’s also anxiety about what that means for the future.”
“It’s not hard to see that what were small numbers before COVID have become smaller now,” another pastor says. “It’s easy to see the number of people who aren’t with us in-person, and hard to see the number who are engaging privately, maybe online.”
The assumption that bigger is better is baked into Western culture, including church culture. Too often we measure success by it, oblivious to where the Spirit’s fruit doesn’t fit our metrics. How can we determine if a church is flourishing, if not by size? To add to Ross Lockhart’s recent article, I asked three pastors of small congregations to define the nature of thriving in their context.
One concrete benefit of his small church setting is that “worship doesn’t always have to be the same,” says Pastor Peter DeVries of Mountain Springs Community Church in Salt Lake City, Utah. “People are willing to explore new possibilities. Some work out, some don’t.”
Pastor Marg Rekman of Bethlehem Christian Reformed Church in Thunder Bay, Ontario, sees something similar in her church. “The simplicity of a small gathering,” she says, “brings a comfort that says, ‘yes, I can do that.’ No one feels like they have to be a pro or perfect.”
“Our ministry is focused outward,” DeVries adds. “From helping to rebuild homes destroyed by fire in California to building bunk beds for a local ministry that helps women and children leaving polygamy. In some ways, being Christ’s hands and feet in the world is our identity. It’s not how big we are, but to whom we are ministering that identifies our flourishing.”
“I pastor two small congregations in south-western Ontario,” Presbyterian minister Rev. Ian Marnoch says. “One rural and one village. [Here] I have found a deep sense of commitment to Christ’s church. COVID has shown me that we have made community and family our gods. When forced into isolation, we cry out: ‘How can we survive alone?!’ But by God’s grace which we receive by faith, we are not nor have ever been alone.”
Great and small
A church congregation of fewer than 100 people also comes with unique opportunities. Like the “freedom for creativity,” as DeVries mentions. “Flexibility and adaptability. The resilience of our congregation. When hard things happen, we are open and honest about them. But our identity and community is strong enough to keep us going. There is a real sense that God has a purpose for us.”
“We are a prayerful community,” Rekman says. And “we don’t have room to be critical of each other. I sense an unspoken rule that we will be positive, encourage and build each other up because we just can’t afford to be negative.”
“We can say with a smile,” Marnoch adds, “despite pandemic, illness, declining membership, closing churches and irrelevance in the eyes of the wide public [that] we belong, body and soul, in life and in death, to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ.”
“Most churches are seeing that counting on ‘children’ to carry on the church isn’t a reality anymore,” Rekman concludes. But now “the onus is to do what the church has always been called to do – pray and go out to the harvest, invite others in – with the motivation of spreading the gospel, not ‘saving’ this church.”
By the numbers
Large: 301 – 2,000
Medium: 51 – 300
Small: 50 or fewer
Microchurch: 5 – 30
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