Small church

Don’t be Embarrassed to be Part of a Small Church

Sara Anderson on July 5, 2018

With today’s publicity surrounding megachurches, small churches seem to get lost or are treated with disrespect. Small-membership congregations often have inferiority complexes, since they don’t have the finances or volunteers to launch a big youth program or otherwise demonstrate prominence in their cities or small towns. Other churches, once dominant in their communities, because of aging and demographics find their membership diminishing and wish for the 1950’s and 60’s to return.

I understand the angst of such congregations. I have been part of them for most of my life. I was born into a Methodist church in a rural farming community populated by children and grandchildren of immigrants. Religiously speaking, our community was about 50 percent Lutheran, 45 percent Roman Catholic and the rest Methodist.

Every fall the Catholics held a spaghetti supper fundraiser. The Lutherans hosted a lutefisk and meatball supper. (Lutefisk is a Norwegian treat: cod cured with lye, boiled and served with gallons of melted butter.) We Methodists offered homemade link sausage and pancakes. My father was the chief pancake-flipper. Everyone in town made the rounds to another congregation’s dinner. We were very ecumenical with food, but not combined worship services.

In my church, young couples were in short supply. So I began teaching Vacation Bible School (VBS) when I finished eighth grade.  We couldn’t match the Lutherans in number of children or entertainment, but we sang, taught our kids the Bible, made crafts and played kickball at recess.

My congregation, with another church in our three-point charge, had a youth group comprised of about a dozen teens total. Our pastor taught Confirmation classes, but by the time I was 16, other teens had graduated or had dropped out of church. So, I taught four- and five-year-olds (we had a few) until I left for college.

Because I had no group with which to connect, I participated with the adults. I sang in the choir, helped in the kitchen during frequent potlucks and eavesdropped on my parents’ discussions on church business. I felt like I was part of the broader church and an integral part of the church.  My mother, reared a Mennonite, was skeptical (rightly so) of official UM Sunday school material. So, I learned to pay a little more attention to theology. My parents discussed the conflicts that erupted at meetings, and I learned that no church is perfect and without conflict. Many of my friends who came to Christ in college without much serious church experience became disillusioned with congregational disagreements.

It is important for youth to have Christian friends with whom to associate. However, youth also need to feel a part of the local church or they don’t build a life-long connection to the broader church

I have always been a bit uncomfortable in congregations larger than 200 or so. I want to be where everybody knows my name, and they’re always glad I came. Recently a friend hadn’t noticed my presence in Sunday school (I slipped in late) and was concerned. She texted me, asking if everything was all right. I have been single all my life, and I am glad people in church look out for me and miss me when I am not there.

My current congregation is struggling with declining membership and changing demographics in our community. Some folks focused on how we could draw more people and what we should change about our worship service. We even began a second service, which lasted for about two years. Lately, a pastor was appointed who fosters a vision of how to reach out to people in our broader community.

Many residents in our county live below the poverty level. We recently adopted the elementary school and gave a luncheon and school supplies to 80 teachers, administrators, and staff. We asked about other things we could do to help. We’ve sponsored fall festivals for years, but last year we and First Baptist joined forces. The event was bigger than ever. Members of the police and fire department came to help in the multi-racial event. Last fall we began an outreach, preparing bags of weekend food for fifth graders. Other ideas and plans are brewing, and we are encouraged.

I read of a church in Atlanta in a transitional neighborhood who found themselves with a little more than 100 members. They began a food pantry with volunteers aged 50 to 90 and have distributed thousands of pounds of food. A county-seat church in the Midwest sponsors an Easter Sunday dinner for the community.

Another benefit of being a smaller congregation is that we can move quickly of a need arises (the school luncheon came together in a week). Permission to act does not always have to be a lengthy process.

I firmly believe that the Lord has a purpose for every congregation, not matter the size of membership. Effectiveness depends on asking God how we should serve our communities and mobilize volunteers of all ages.

Sara Anderson is an IRD board member and United Methodist living in Fort Valley, Georgia. She has served as Chief Operating Officer of Bristol House Publishing and on the board of the National Association of Evangelicals.

  1. Comment by Jarod Pearson on July 5, 2018 at 8:46 pm

    I attend an Episcopal congregation with 37 members. We are located in a small, rural mountain town with an aging population and a high percentage living below the poverty level. The little church is vibrant, worship filled, and gospel-oriented. We are a church where “everybody is on the committee”, as we love to say!

  2. Comment by James Hamilton on July 6, 2018 at 1:33 pm

    I pastor a small congregation in a large community. Presbytery located the church in a semi-industrial area and have struggled over the years. I fear the church may close which is a shame since so many depend on our food pantry. I don’t want to focus on numbers, I am more concerned with the spiritual well being and scriptural application.

  3. Comment by Sue Neff on July 8, 2018 at 7:29 pm

    I love small churches! Grew up in Milner, (summer) Ga Methodist and Deerfield, Fl Baptist (rest of the year). When I married a bit larger Baptist and then Methodist and love the “ know almost everyone feel”!

  4. Comment by Ralph Weitz on November 12, 2018 at 6:45 am

    I became a Christian in a small church and have attended small, medium and large churches. I think any size church can be nimble to meet community and membership needs when members are empowered to do ministry.
    My concern has always been how are we being the church, meeting spiritual as well as physical needs, as we do our outreaches. Are we leading Bible studies and outreaches in our schools (yes, that is legal), praying with those who receive assistance like utilities paid, meals and clothes, and sharing the gospel in activities where the community is invited.
    As the building committee chairman, I shared with the committee, “We will be the church as we build the church.” At Christmas we obtained the names of the 87 construction workers to give them gift bags which included store gift cards, Christmas CDs, a spiritual book and more.
    Regardless of the size, we need to be a vibrant representation of Christ that draws people to grow spiritually. As we are spiritually faithful, God grows the church to the size that continues to meet needs of our members and the community.

  5. Comment by Pete L Godbey on October 6, 2019 at 9:23 pm

    Today I resigned as elder in two congregations of three members who serve hundreds monthly veterans and indigent community members through visitation and emergency clothing and food pantry. Frankly after over 25 years I am worn out not so much by the work, our vocation, but the overbearing all consuming social action liberal emphasis of paid clergy.

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