On March 19, I gathered with 21 wonderful people from seven small congregations with part time ministers at Bridgeport United in Kitchener. We spent a couple of hours sharing experiences and encouragement.
We started off with each person answering this question: "What's the best thing about belonging to a small church?"
I thought there might be some Umming and Ah-ing -- some awkward silences as people pondered "Gee, what is good about my little church?" I guess I'm just so used to folks from small churches feeling badly about who they are, their lack of resources, their problems challenges, I expected them to struggle with the question.
Boy, was I wrong. The responses came pouring out --
“Humour,” “family,” “acceptance,” “friendship,” “Everyone is needed,” “love,” "fellowship,” “Knowing people’s stories,” “intimacy,“ "community,” “history,” “familiarity,” “Everyone can fit into Bruce's rec room when the heat isn’t working at the church,” “uniqueness,” “close knit,” “You know everybody,” “You can gain confidence in a small group,” “heritage."
If we just give people the opportunity to say what makes them feel good about being part of a small church, they are all over it. People love their small churches.
I then asked folks to "Talk about a time when your church was at its very best." They shared experiences of everyone working together to achieve a common purpose, when they rallied together to help someone in need, when they responded to a crisis.
Frequently, sharing food was at the centre.
They're well aware of their challenges -- shaky finances, too few people doing too much work, trouble holding onto young people, creaky old buildings -- but that's only to say that there's no such thing as a church that doesn't have to face issues and problems.
We also talked about assets. It's so easy to focus on deficits -- what's missing, what's lacking, what's in short supply, what we used to have that we no longer have -- that we fail to see the significant assets that even the smallest church possesses --
"God, faith, caring, determination, music, expectancy, our building, organ, labyrinth, people, our baconburger stove, knowledge, wisdom, humour, resourcefulness, heritage, the Bible, space, leaders, location, seasons"
I really don't think that our problem is that we have so many small churches. All churches in the New Testament were what we would call "small." All New Testament churches were house churches, so they could only be as big as could fit into the house of the most well-to-do member -- in other words, around 40-50.
Most churches in the world are small churches, and the world-wide growth of Christianity is being driven by small, often home-based churches.
We are struggling with the fact that many small churches used to be much larger. They have declined. And, we're dealing with the expectation that a healthy church has to be a certain size, with a certain kind of building, full-time minister(s) and a busy round of programs for all ages. Our small churches are working against their own memories of what the church once was, and it's what is preventing them from re-imagining themselves and moving forward.
I know which choice I'm in favour of.