Good words from John Stonecypher

 I am confident that my great-grandkids, when they play sword-fighting, will make lightsabre “vwing-vwing” noises. But I am less confident that they will know and tell stories about the guy who got eaten by the fish or the guy with the talking donkey. Why? Because my kids know my love for Star Wars is full-throated and uncomplicated, and they share in that love. And because for most of their lives so far, they know my love for the Bible has been, well, complicated. My kids tend to care about the things I love. But the things I’m half-hearted about… those are the things they’ve learned to ignore.

-John Stonecypher

Small but Mighty – Part 3

This post is the third in a series about the formational potential of smaller churches.

Benefit #2: Christian Faith as Creative Faith

As congregations experience numerical growth, organizational structures must be produced, adapted, and implemented in ways that allow for clergy, administrators, and volunteer leaders to efficiently provide goods and services—in the form of sermons, worship music, liturgy, Bible study, and additional activities—to an increasing number of congregants.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with creating programs for congregants. But it becomes problematic when the programs become the reason for the existence of a congregation. When that happens, church can become a marketplace where congregants consume products that meet their needs. And if a particular church doesn’t provide the goods and services that a congregant wants and needs, that person might go shopping for one that does.


It’s old news now that, back in 2007, Willow Creek Community Church courageously released Reveal, a report on a study they conducted in their massive congregation. And while the study revealed (pun intended) many surprising facts, one of the most important was that involvement in programs didn’t lead to growth in faith. For many years, the leaders of Willow Creek operated out of the assumption that the more their members were involved in church activities, the more they’d grow as followers of Jesus. But they actually found that those who were most involved were the most stagnant in their faith journey.

Willow Creek operated out of an assumption of consumptive Christianity—and they’ve discovered this and taken steps to correct it in recent years. But contrast this megachurch with one of countless smaller congregations across North America—and beyond. With so few people in these churches, a much higher percentage of members are likely involved not only in attending activities in the life of the congregation, but in providing leadership and direction of these activities. Smaller churches tend to require the active involvement of a large percentage of their members in order to provide activities, thus moving away from consumption and toward creation. Everyone needs to roll up their sleeves and contribute to the life of the faith community or nothing will get done – there’s no one else to do it!

I’m inclined to believe that having a hand creating such activities—that is, being involved as a leader, a collaborator, and a stakeholder—is more likely to cultivate faith formation. I know first-hand that this is the case, for my childhood and adolescent faith was formed through involvement in creating what it means to be and do church, and not consuming others’ church products. As a child, I regularly helped my parents at activities our church was hosting, such as White Elephant Tables, events for high school students (who seemed so much older and wider than I was at the time), and bazaars. And in my high school years I learned how to play guitar in my church and ended up leading music at the Sunday evening Mass. This happened to be right around 9/11, and I remember making difficult decisions about what it meant to lead the church in singing that Jesus was “Prince of Peace.” I had to do some deep theological reflection with the choir to figure out how to sing about peace and love after this horrific event.

Without these experiences, I wouldn’t have been able to be part of a team that creates what it means to be the church. And I’m not the only one. As I travel across North America teaching and leading workshops and events about ministry with youth and children. I often begin by having each participant identify and share a spiritually formative experience from their younger years. Many people speak of times when they were given the reigns and encouraged to contribute to the life of their congregation—as music leaders, Sunday school teachers, members of a service project committee, or even simply collecting the offering. And when I ask how many people present grew up in a small congregation during these experiences, there aren’t too many hands that aren’t in the air.

All this has to do with enculturation, a vision for faith formation championed most famously by John Westerhoff, with whose words I end this post:

Faith is formed as people of all ages gather together to participate in the life of a community of faith, as they create church together. Through such participation, the ways of life of the community are passed on and recast through engagement in those practices that define the way of life of the community. As congregants gather together for Sunday services, potlucks, service projects, pub nights, and whatever other activities are central to the life of the community of faith, they enculturate one another into members of their faith community who participate together in hearing, responding to, and living out the gospel.

Share the Faith Forward Love and you could win

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Authenticity over Conformity

“Clearly, a goal for spiritual nurture is for children to realize that their particular way of approaching spiritual matters is valid for Christian spirituality too. In other words, being authentic in our relationship with God is a much greater value that being conformist.”

–Rebecca Nye, in Children’s Spirituality: What it is and Why it Matters


Small but Mighty – Part 2

This post is the second in a series about the formational potential of smaller churches. Click here to read the first post in this series.

Benefit #1: No Added Growth Hormones

As congregations grow, there seems to come a point at which they must become quite intentional in their efforts to cultivate community and relationships among their members. Ironically, as there become more people to connect with in a faith community, it becomes more difficult to form close connections. It’s no wonder, then, that at some point many larger congregations tend to add small groups to their list of ministries as a way of helping members build relationships with one another in more intimate communal gatherings. It can be difficult to get to know others at large worship services, and small groups are a common solution to this problem. By breaking down members—by geographic location, age, gender, interest, life stage, etc.—into groups of 10 or 20 people, large faith communities encourage their members to get to know each other in more intimate ways and to foster community in homes rather than in the sanctuary.

But there are at least two problems with this model of ministry.

First, without intentional and ongoing effort to foster community, worship services in larger churches can easily become a Christianized version of performance art. Our community rituals and sacraments can become so professionalized that it seems like we should be selling tickets for them like Broadway plays. While community may be fostered in small groups, the professionalization of worship services leads to passive and individualized worship experiences.

Second, many congregants continue to see their church’s large Sunday services as the most vital congregational activity for practicing and forming faith, and many may not become involved in small groups. A result of this situation, then, can be the cultivation of a faith that focuses on the self as an individual with needs and desires that ought to be met through attendance at Sunday services.

I know of one large church whose pastor regularly reminds congregants of the importance of small groups for formation by saying that if they are too busy to attend both Sunday worship and small group gatherings, then they should make small groups the priority and stop showing up for Sunday morning services. There, after all, is where relationships are cultivated, relationships that foster faith formation through reflection, sharing, and intimacy. But the problem is that, despite this pastor’s best efforts, this message doesn’t seem to be hitting home for a lot of people, because the church’s highly-polished Sunday services tend to draw at least twice as many people as those that attend small groups.

While larger churches must make significant efforts to help congregants build relationships with one another, smaller churches are more likely to be sites where community members naturally connect. Often, they don’t need to be as intentional about getting people to get to know each other because folks already know who one another are. Just try to take in a Sunday service at a congregation of 50 or 60 members—or even 150 or 160 members—without being noticed. And it’s darn near impossible!

And because smaller churches tend to cultivate communities in which members know one another, they can become potent sites for the forming of faith not only as individual followers of Jesus, but as a community of faith. They can become places where faith can be held, professed, and cultivated in a community and as a community.


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