Small Is the New Big

A Guide for Reflection & Conversation

The articles in this month’s Bearings magazine, “Small Is the New Big,” illuminate questions raised by the realities of small church ministry. In them we read eyewitness accounts of the spiritual energy in churches described as “small”—small that is, when the metric applied is a numerical count of members or weekly worship attendance. The articles invite us to imagine different models of being “church,” and simultaneously challenge us to reflect on how we speak of community’s spiritual depth and vitality. And then there are the questions demanding that we critically reflect on our understanding of what it means to be church, or to be a church—especially as we think about the language of the measures and metrics we seem to value most.

Jodi Houge observes that “the way we do church leaves people as the consumers, who can only evaluate their experience as though it were a product or service they might review on Yelp” (think about how often people speak about church-hopping and church-shopping). Jordan Shaw suggests a hint of this in a reflection on his own theological training, believing he was taught to think about his ministry as having a career arc – from seminary to a large congregation to the step up into the ranks of denominational leadership. Shaw says he was taught to think there was something wrong with small churches that could not afford a full-time pastor, taught to think of church growth in strictly numerical terms, that bigger was, by definition, better. Even the language of “campaigns” to grow congregations and the idea of “mergers” carry connotations from a consumer-oriented culture.

• Where else do you see/hear evidence of consumer language governing conversations about the Church, programs in your denomination, in your own congregations?
• What are the positive contributions to a community when numerical metrics are used to measure growth? What do they fail to capture?
• Reflect honestly on the conclusions you draw about the character of ministry in small churches and/or churches with part-time pastors.
• What in any of these three articles shifts your perspective on thinking about church vitality? Where are you specifically challenged?

Small churches seem a little more like the desert mothers and fathers, or maybe the ancient Israelites roaming in the wilderness—where a fierce environment pares people to the very bone, pushes them to the very edges of existence, where the threat of extinction draws into perfect clarity exactly what matters.

Shaw picks up on Phyllis Tickle’s idea that this particular period in the church’s long history is its “500-year rummage sale,” a time in which the church is discerning “which elements of its accumulated traditions to keep and which can be lovingly let go.” This is a helpful corrective because it recasts a “crisis” in terms of a living organism’s cycle of life, death, and rebirth – not to worry, it says, we’ve been here before. It also encourages us to be more brave in looking at how some of our practices may have outlived their usefulness, no matter how beautiful, no matter how exquisite the nostalgia. The notion of a rummage sale focuses our attention on the “stuff,” nudging us to consider the degree to which our practices have actually become historical and cultural artifacts of another time, if not antiques.

• What is something about your church practice that has come into being only since the last rummage sale?
• Where can you see evidence of practices and traditions clung to with the energy of sentiment and nostalgia?

But the rummage sale notion also suggests that downsizing is matter of choice—a voluntarily chosen method used to simplify life. For all churches, large or small, this is a good spiritual discipline, to be sure. However, most small churches do not have much choice when circumstances force hard decisions about whether they can go on or if they will close their doors. And in this way, small churches seem a little more like the desert mothers and fathers, or maybe the ancient Israelites roaming in the wilderness—where a fierce environment pares people to the very bone, pushes them to the very edges of existence, where the threat of extinction draws into perfect clarity exactly what matters. For the Israelites, it was each other, daily manna, the ark of the covenant, and the tent of meeting. For Houge, in addition to the community’s four portable plastic totes, people need “a connection, a story, and to know the creator’s name.” From Shaw’s perspective, it is the love in intimate, relational, familial connections—an elder getting her only hug of the week, the affectionate teasing in “you’re so lucky to have us,” the call that comes to the unknown pastor because the death of a local teen connects everyone in the community to each other, in their shared ache for someone to help them know the creator’s name.

• If your church was—or actually is—threatened with extinction, what do you most fear losing?
• What matters most to you to retain, what is essential to your interior life and to your experience of gathering with others in a spiritual community?
• How is the spiritual energy of the small churches described in these articles fueled by threats to their existence? How do you see this defying a narrative of failure and decline?

Diane Bowers counters the apparent necessity of selling off church buildings (in the rummage sale) with a new model of collaboration among congregations, the creation of a parish of several churches. This model illuminates what is essential to several churches in two California cities when they are at risk to close doors: to remain visible and public witnesses to love in the community, and to sustain each other in their particular charisms. It is perhaps worth noting here that the biblical Greek word which is translated “church,” ekklēsia, is defined in these ways: as a gathering of people called out from their homes into public places; an assembly; a gathering; a meeting. It is also the word used for the first “house-churches,” the first gatherings of Christians in the first-century.

• How do you think about the character, form, purposes of “church” today? Is your church an ekklēsia? How so?
• How/where do contemporary ideas of church diverge from the etymological roots of ekklēsia? How can thinking about ekklēsia influence judgments about church size?
• How do each of the small churches in these articles embody ekklēsia?



Cover Image: Ruslan Valeev, “Iceland Church” (Oct. 7, 2017). Via Unsplash. CC2.0 license.

Pamela Shellberg

Dr. Pamela Shellberg is the Scholar-in-Residence at The BTS Center, crafting “Course Corrections,” a program for imaginatively responding to changes in the church and in life based on the biblical template of Paul’s life and writings. During the 2015-16 academic year, Pam was the visiting professor of New Testament studies at Andover Newton Theological School, jointly appointed by ANTS and The BTS Center. She is the author of Cleansed Lepers, Cleansed Hearts: Purity and Healing in Luke-Acts (Fortress Press, 2015). A teacher in schools for lay ministry in the Maine Conference of the UCC and the New England Synod of the ELCA, she thinks and writes about the metaphors in poetry, art, and music as lenses for bible reading and as tools for interpretation. Pam may be reached via e-mail.