“We’re not big but we’re small!”
So goes the slogan for the fictional used record store in Stuart MacLean’s radio program The Vinyl Café.
And I love it.
You see, seldom in our church culture is small a point of pride. Instead, we worry and fret when numbers are down. We hope and pray for more people to come, to participate, to get involved. I recall in my earlier years as a pastor, other pastors and people from other churches would ask me if and how much my church had grown during my ministry. Denominations tabulate baptism numbers. Ministry effectiveness gets reduced to mathematics.
Don’t misunderstand me. I am aware that numerical growth, while not necessarily important in itself, can be indicative of spiritual health, of the vitality of a congregation and the impact this vitality can have on the surrounding community. I also know that we want more people rather than fewer people coming to Christ. I simply want to suggest that vitality and numbers is a more complex equation than some think.
There are things that are true of smaller churches that can never be true of a larger church, good things, things to be grateful for. Yes, there are disadvantages. But for now I want to focus on what makes being a small congregation a positive experience.
First of all, there’s a real sense of family. Everyone knows everyone. Heck, everyone knows where everyone sits. Whatever the downside of this might be, it also means that we know when someone is sick, when they’ve been away, when their participation has begun to ebb. Since I have friends who’ve been to large churches where weeks can go by before someone knows your name, there’s something wonderful about being that much more acquainted and connected with the other folks sitting around you. You can’t drop out without being noticed.
Not only this, but in a smaller church things tend to be less formal. Our Sunday morning worship service isn’t as professional or polished as that of some large churches. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that we have this folksy “aw shucks!” attitude about how well things are done, and take a certain weird pride in making mistakes. But neither do we get all bent out of shape when things don’t run like a well-oiled machine. Put another way, ours is not a congregation filled with perfectionists.
New people can also make connections easier. Someone new can more quickly become a part of the congregation. They don’t get lost in the crowd. They can participate almost immediately in the life of the church. Most regulars make a real point of welcoming someone new because having someone new is such a rare but wonderful gift.
If you are a part of a smaller church, maybe you can think of other strengths they offer.
Oh, I know. Every upside has a downside. There are cons as well as pros. I could very easily describe the shadow side of all these good points. However, I think most of us know already the negatives of small churches. But since a lot of churches—particularly rural congregations—may always be smaller, it’s important to consider what is specifically valuable about being a smaller church. This is significant because without reflecting on these good things, we might always end up with this inferiority complex, this feeling that we haven’t quite made it, that we weren’t quite up for the job. Since being in a small church can actually be a wonderful and rich experience, I’d rather that we be able to say, with all the joy and gratitude we can muster, “We’re not big but we’re small!”