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.