A number of years ago I found myself sitting in an auditorium, surrounded by colleagues, listening to a speaker talk about church growth. It was not the first time I had found myself in this situation: A speaker from an urban center telling people in a judicatory that is predominantly rural and low-income what they need to do to grow their congregations.
Just over a decade into working for the local church, I can almost recite the recipe from heart: 1) Gather ministry staff in a room to listen to a speaker who wears skinny jeans and has a hipster haircut; 2) Listen to said hipster tell us about their suburban congregation that worships hundreds or thousands; 3) Get fired up and wish we were like them; 4) Vow to do better and implement all these cool ideas the minute we get back to Smallsville.
Then six months goes by before we realize the one critical detail that was omitted from the talk: we are not them and it is unrealistic to think we ever will be just like them.
As I wrote in an earlier Bearings post, the Christian church is being shaped and formed anew. Of this, there is no doubt. While some see this as evidence of the looming death of the mainline church, I tend to think of it more like what Phyllis Tickle described as “the 500-year rummage sale,” in which the Church discerns which elements of its accumulated traditions to keep and which can be lovingly let go.
There is a vast landscape between these narratives of impending denominational collapse and Tickle’s “great emergence”—and this is the territory where most congregations live and move and have their being. In fact, these competing grand narratives have little to do with the daily life of the congregation I serve and the vibrant, quirky, and sometimes audacious faith of the handfuls of people who still gather within the walls of buildings that once held one hundred or more people on a Sunday morning.
Case in point.
I walked into my office promptly at 9:00 a.m. for my first day as the pastor of a small congregation in Vermont, and by 9:05 a.m. I already had one person in my office and another one on the way. The night before, a teenage boy had died suddenly on the way to compete in a national sports event, and I was it, pastorally speaking, for the whole community. Every other church in town was receiving a new pastor and I had been the first to arrive. On the one hand, I drew the short straw—it was up to me to provide space for the community to grieve the loss of one of their own. On the other, I was thrust into a position that it sometimes takes small town, small church pastors years to carve out for themselves—the position of trusted ministry leader. Or at least the position of pastoral leader you kind of have no choice but to trust. It was a start.
When I was going through my theological education, and in my first few years of parish ministry, I thought and was told that I should focus on pastoring larger congregations that could, in the long run, lead to prominent positions within the denomination. After all, I was a first-career pastor, something relatively unheard of in rural New England. After serving a larger New England church and being unceremoniously dismissed by the Senior Pastor for “acting like a small church pastor” among a few other things, I again found myself in the throes of small-time rural congregational life.
Up until this point I thought, and had been taught, that there was something wrong with small congregations that could not afford a full-time pastor, that bigger was better and that all we had to do was fix small congregations to make them grow. It was something that was touted (apparently along with skinny jeans) as the Good News of Protestantism at every congregational development continuing education event I had attended—including a denominational campaign to “grow” congregations.
On my first Sunday, just days after this local tragedy, I was wrangling my robe and cross from among the chaos of boxes when the communion steward, an 80-year-old woman who had called the area home her entire life walked in, wrapped her arms around me and said, “You are so lucky to have us!” Turning bright red and laughing hard, she recognized her Freudian slip. It became a running joke. When something would happen in a meeting that would cause me to get visibly frustrated, someone would pipe up with a large smile on their face and proclaim, “You are so lucky to have us!”
Small, rural, congregations in poor areas often get overlooked. On the outside, paint is often peeling, steeples that once proudly stood over thriving downtowns now teeter atop high roofs that often leak. Inside, paint is chipping and plaster often crumbles and cracks.
If the buildings and property that these tiny groups own was any indication of the faith that dwells within, I would be forced to agree with those around me saying that the church is dying.
However, these small congregations are often thriving in unique ways. They may not be hosting large numbers in worship or revolutionizing the way that ministry is carried out, but they often excel in that age-old tenant of the Christian faith: loving God and neighbor with all they’ve got.
Shortly after arriving at that small, rural congregation, I met a young woman—I’ll call her ‘Maggie’—whose home life was less than stellar. People would tell me things like, “when she was six, she used to walk a couple miles to church, then we started picking her up….” When circumstances led to Maggie’s life falling apart, this small, mighty congregation wrapped itself around her. They found places for her to call home. They showed up for school concerts and filled other gaps in her life.
In a community with hundreds or even thousands of congregants, it is quite possible that Maggie might never have been noticed. Or, she might not have felt safe coming through the door. Small churches can be less intimidating to enter into and they care for one another in ways that may be more difficult in larger congregations. They know each other intimately and as such can be present with and for one another in ways that are unique. Sometimes, maybe too present.
For instance, no few members of my new congregation were concerned that I find a wife. While I protested that I was seeing someone, they were more than a little skeptical.
After moving to Vermont I met the woman I would marry while surfing the internet. While I was living and working in rural Vermont, Lucy was living and teaching in China. When, six months into our unconventional courtship, Lucy finally came to visit, my people were relieved that she was, in fact, a real person and not some fictitious relationship their pastor had cooked up to stop them from pestering him about eligible neighbors, nieces, and cousins.
On the day of her arrival, rumors had already spread through the small town like wildfire. That Sunday, Lucy was in worship and as soon as I had finished the Apostolic Blessing, people surrounded her like the blackflies of spring, introducing themselves as if she was a celebrity and sizing up this mysterious woman who had won their pastor’s heart.
A year later, weeks after a small, private wedding, they celebrated our union with us in a way that only a small, rural church could—a potluck supper that reflected their joy as much as ours.
While the life of a small congregation is magical in many ways, it is fraught with challenges too. While many of my colleagues enjoy the luxury of working one job, as someone called to a small congregation, I balance multiple competing commitments. I have a Sunday morning gig but I am also a student and a freelancer. There can be stretches of weeks that I do not get a day off and have to tell supervisors or church members that I will not be doing some things. It means that when most students are on the verge of losing their minds just before winter break and clergy are on the verge of losing their minds just before celebrating Christmas, I get a double-dose of looming insanity from the pressures of final exams and Christmas preparations.
Perhaps for me, though, the magic far outweighs the challenge. Things like the 90-year-old coming through the requisite greeting line after worship on her way from the sanctuary to the fellowship hall for the third blessed sacrament in the Protestant tradition: coffee fellowship, wrapping her arms around me and saying, “Thank you for the hug…it’s my one hug a week.” These moments and so many others like them make a small congregation vibrant.
While life in a small church is not easy and sometimes we can get bogged down with things like a crumbling facade, those churches I have spent time in are far from dying. If anything they are finding new life as they shift and change for ministry in an era that will find less relevance in the pomp and circumstance that many large churches offer and more meaning in knowing the person that is sitting next to you. Instead of having a world-class organist that can rattle the rafters with Buxtehude or Bach, the people I know find much more meaning in a volunteer banging out 2 notes at a time on an old piano. Why? Because that 80-year-old sitting at the piano, that 70-year-old usher handing out bulletins, are loved more than you could imagine.
And this, if I may, is something those hipsters in skinny jeans could learn from my church and other small, rural congregations like it: that these deep, loving relationships—that charism of the small church—cannot be fully apprehended in numbers. Growth is not simply a numerical exercise. It is about living out with all the faithfulness we can muster Jesus’ greatest commandment to love God and neighbor. For me, that’s the heart of our small church magic.