How Many Crockpots Does It Take to Keep a Small Church Afloat?

Small Is the New Big Issue

We sit quietly in a 125-year-old, former Methodist church sanctuary (now a space used for art events). A cello, violin, and guitar lead us with instrument and voice. We sing one line of one psalm 108 times. We sing the line 108 times because the musician who leads us is also a yogi, and that number is significant in his practice. The sung line circles above us and around us and through us. Singers weave in and out. It’s meditation.

When it was proposed to me, I wondered if it would be boring. If I would feel bored. As a church, we do nearly everything with all ages in the room and I worried about our kids. Would they be bored? But it isn’t and they aren’t. When offered silence and beauty, they lap it up right along with everyone else.

A handful of our youngest contentedly draw in their pew. One rests against his mother’s shoulder—a boy who is dogged by anxiety. Some folks cry. Others rest in the bath of sound. A few take a break from singing and light candles. It takes about thirty minutes to sing a line 108 times. We close with communion and then head downstairs into the old school fellowship hall for cups of tea.

A friend and colleague visiting from out of town attended this meditation with me. Afterwards, she told me she loved how we had taken worship down to its absolute minimum—one line of scripture, wine, and bread. I laughed because it’s one of the gifts we bring to the church world: stripping it down to the bare essentials.

I am a called to a small church that I started a decade ago. Since 2008, we have been gathering for worship and events. We began without a plan, a budget, or a staff. We definitely did not own any physical property much less a building. Everything we have is borrowed, cobbled together, rented, gifted.

We started meeting for worship in a coffee shop, moved to a vacant storefront, squatted in a park, moved to an artist’s workspace, then to a Jewish nursing home. Now, we gather in a former church building turned event space. When you live your church life this way, the obvious option is to go with the essentials—stripped down worship, potluck meals to form community, a once a month public event in a local bar. Everything we own fits into a set of four plastic totes, which we haul in and out of spaces as we set up camp for worship.

Starting from scratch means we have the gift of deciding how and what we are going to be together. I would argue every church has this gift—some just haven’t lived into it yet.

Starting from scratch means we have the gift of deciding how and what we are going to be together. I would argue every church has this gift—some just haven’t lived into it yet. Do we want worship every week? Yes. Do we want to follow the traditional worship pattern in our denomination? Yes. (Sort of…) Do we want programs? No. Do we want committees? No.

It turns out that “Small is the New Big.” Thank God, because we are not big in the traditional sense. We started with a handful of people and have been growing at a slow burn ever since. Growth has been steady—a few people at a time. When people ask (and they always do because we have a hard time measuring “success” otherwise), “How many do you have in worship?” I can confidently reply, “All of them.” In Advent, you can measure our size in crockpots of soup shared after worship. Five years ago, we needed two crockpots. Last year, we needed four. This year, seven crockpots marched into our space and all were satisfied.

Getting to this point, humble though it remains, has required a fairly acute sensitivity to the context we find ourselves in, to the times we find ourselves in. We live in a hyper-aware time where people want to know the name of the chicken who laid their morning egg. My husband owns an artisan bread bakery here in St. Paul, and they know the man who grinds their wheat into flour. Their dairy is local, too. Cows are milked on Monday, and that milk is delivered on Thursday. Do you know that you can buy a hand-forged cast iron frying pan? You can be on a first-name basis with the person who used a piece of scrap iron to make you a legacy frying pan—in a fire powered by wind energy. Yep. Or you can go to your favorite box store and buy one. One is about $200, the other $19.99. Both will fry an egg, but one comes with a connection and a story and the creator’s name. The people who wander into our community come wanting a connection and a story and to know the creator’s name.

So often 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 rather than a practice they helped to create. 

I often tell people that there is no one asleep at Humble Walk. If you are in the gathering, you are engaged. While that is too much for some, the people who do show up come ready with sleeves rolled up. My parishioners want to be known and seen. They have gifts they want to use for the good of the world. If everyone leading at a church is a paid professional, then what role do the gathered get? So often 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 rather than a practice they helped to create.

We do have paid staff-a part time pastor, an admin person, and a worship leader who both work a few hours a week. All three roles together equal one ¾-time position. But because we keep our life as a community stripped to the bare essentials, and because everyone who shows up contributes in some way, it mostly works.

Small church minimalism means you will not be able to go a Mom and Me Yoga class on Tuesday morning, hand bell choir on Wednesday night, and bible study for those experiencing life in their mid-forties on Thursday at noon. We don’t offer a menu of activities or programs. We do run events. But most of these are one-time commitments that anyone is welcome to attend. Why? Because there are no strings attached. Because it’s invitational to someone feeling shy. Because no one has the energy or time to sustain a once-a-week program. Perhaps you would like to show up for the all-ages pop-up choir next month and stand between a fourteen-year-old and a six-year-old? I guarantee you will be taught by them to sing with your heart. It will be both beautiful and transcendent. And then there will be something else to engage you in new ways in our community.

The tricky part of being a glorious small church is of course funding. Generosity is at the heart of our church. Uniquely, we have more regular givers than bodies in worship—some of whom have never physically gathered with us for worship but feel connected through our online life or our events in our local bar. But my people are primarily paycheck to paycheck artists and do-gooder people. And it’s hard to fund a small $200 frying pan church without outside support. In fact, it’s impossible. Which is actually good news in some ways because it reminds us all that we need one another. Every week.

In my city, we have giant ship-sized churches sailing on this water next to us—elegant and seaworthy as ocean liners. And when they encounter a storm, most of the folks on that cruise liner might not even feel the wind. They can go full steam ahead, unbothered.

But my church is a tiny fishing boat. And when a storm comes up, we know our very lives are at stake. We freak out and have to wake Jesus up to help. As individuals and as a church, we know intimately that our lives are out of our control—that this dinghy doesn’t belong to us, that we could swamp at any minute. We live so close to the bone that every week feels like a freaking miracle when the offering money is counted. It’s loaves and fishes, baby. There is rarely extra but there always seems to be enough. That feels big.

Humble Walk

Jodi Houge

Jodi Houge was raised by North Dakota potato growers. Not coincidentally, she likes watching things grow. In 2008, Jodi started Humble Walk Lutheran Church in a coffee shop during her last year of seminary, and has been running to catch up with where this community leads her ever since. Humble Walk is filled with people on the last train out of Christianity who have decided to give it one more go. Being the pastor of this new church plant provides stories of hope every single day. She spends a good deal of time drinking coffee and observing life in the West End of St Paul, MN, where she lives with her husband and 2 offspring. Her friends would describe her as a good eater. She’s @jodihouge on Twitter.

Cover Image: Bill Smith. Souper Bowl (January 29, 2014). Via Flickr. CC2.0 license.

Inside Image 1: Nathan Dumlao, Untitled (November 21, 2017). Via Unsplash. Cropped and recolored. CC2.0 license.

Inside Image 2: Robert Wallace, Big and Small (Aug. 14, 2001). Via Flickr. CC2.0 license.