Here are five things about Christmas you may not know.
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.
Marcia Chatelain suggests how here.
Before I moved to Halifax, I had the great pleasure to get away from packing boxes and sit down with Kevin Makins for a couple hours. We gabbed about faith and formation and young people. You can listen to our conversation on his podcast series, “Good God.” The retro Mario Bros-style theme song is a giveaway–Kevin and I go on a theological adventure together!
The Gospel text for today (Matthew 25:14-30) is one I’m sure we’ve all heard several times. Throughout my life, I’ve always heard and read into the story the same interpretation–we need to be like the “good and faithful servants” who invest the talents given to them and earn more for God.
But lately I’ve come to read this parable in different ways. For one thing, what if the rich man who doles out talents to his servants isn’t a metaphor for God (which is pretty much every interpretation of this parable I’ve ever heard)? What if Jesus uses this parable as a way of opening our eyes to the unjust systems in our world that allow people to amass huge amounts of wealth on the backs of the poor and vulnerable? Why would this one man have so much money in the first place?
As Ivy Beckwith and I wrote Children’s Ministry in the Way of Jesus, she introduced me to an alternative interpretation that the children in her church shared with her. Here’s an excerpt from our book:
Earlier in this school year Ivy was sharing the parable of the talents with children in her church. Most times that we’ve seen a curriculum or Bible study explicate this parable, the implications have always been about not wasting the gifts and talents that a person has been given. In the story the investors are seen as industrious, and the servant who protected the gift is seen as cowardly and foolish. But Ivy decided to simply tell the parable to her group of grade school children and see where things went. She was astonished to see that every child in the group questioned the motives of the servants and sided with the one who buried the treasure. According to them, this servant made the prudent and responsible choice while the others engaged in risky behavior with the master’s money. They felt that the master was wrong to berate the one who protected his money.
Ivy was astounded and confused by the children’s interpretation and the questions they brought to the story. But after taking a minute to think about the cultural context in which these kids are living, things started to make more sense. These children attend a well-established, affluent church in Manhattan, and they’re growing up in the aftermath of the global financial meltdown that resulted from a lot of risky behavior with other people’s money. They’ve probably seen firsthand the protests involved in the Occupy Wall Street movement and heard protestors berate financial institutions for playing God with other people’s money. With this in mind, no wonder they saw the more prudent servant as the one with the right idea.
Several months ago I kept running across a blog post entitled “8 Reasons Most Churches Never Break the 200 Attendance Mark.” Every time I went on Facebook it seemed like there were a dozen new friends who were posting it to their walls. For the week or so that it was going viral, it seemed to be the post that united the Christian world—Pentecostals and Presbyterians, Catholic priests and Baptist ministers alike were singing its praises. And in the year since it was released into the blogosphere, this post has been shared over 27,000 times.
In this post, Carey Nieuwhof offers advice to pastors and congregational leaders who are hoping to increase attendance at their churches’ services and activities. While he says that “there’s nothing wrong with being a small church,” he goes on to write that “I just know that almost every small church leader I speak to wants his or her church to grow.” This latter quote betrays the idea that there’s nothing wrong with being a small church. After all, if there’s nothing wrong with it, then why do so many leaders seem dissatisfied with leading smaller congregations.
As he lays out his ideas surrounding why local churches tend to remain small despite a desire to grow, Nieuwhof operates from the assumption that numerical growth = congregational health. Therefore, churches that remain small must be suffering from some sort of ecclesiological illness.
I flat out disagree with this view. But I am inclined to agree that many ministers and leaders of small churches want their congregations to become larger. In fact, as I write, speak, and consult about faith formation and ministry with children and youth, I meet all sorts of clergy and leaders who are frustrated with the fact that their churches continue to remain fairly small. One of the most common concerns I hear from folks involved in ministry with young people is that it’s a constant battle to get children and youth to come to church, especially as extracurricular activities like hockey, soccer, gymnastics, and dance encroach on the temporal turf of congregations.
Now, in some cases, the reality of declining participation poses a real threat to the life of congregations that may have been bursting at the seams only a generation or two ago. But despite this need to increase the roster in order to keep the congregation alive, I’m continuously struck by the disparaging comments that congregational leaders make and discouraging tones in their voices. Some churches seem to have so wholehearted bought into the assumption that numerical growth = health that they struggle to see the inherent merits that come with leading and being part of a small congregation, particularly in terms of spiritual formation with children and youth.
But my congregational experiences contradict this assumption. I have been involved in a number of churches of varying sizes. And the churches that have left the most profound theological and spiritual footprints in my life have been fairly small.
In fact, the faith community that has most contributed to my spiritual formation and vitality in recent years averaged only about a dozen congregants on a given Sunday morning. The competition isn’t even close! It is the kind of church that “saves” folks from their struggles with institutional Christianity and, if/when life changes require them to move away from the community, makes them spend the rest of their lives looking for a church like that one—even though something deep within their gut tells them that their search is in vain.
With many positive and life-giving experiences in smaller churches lodged deep within the storehouse of my memories, I am inclined to disagree with the assumptions that bigger is better and that numerical growth is a sign of healthy congregations. In fact, when it comes to forming people in faith in ways that help them better follow in the way of Jesus, I suspect that smaller churches may have the advantage. Over the next few posts, I’d like to reflect on how smaller churches may be inherently better equipped to deepen, widen, and enhance the faith of their members in order to be the hope-filled body of Christ in our world today. I doing so, my hope is that people involved in smaller congregations—whether they are clergy or laypersons—will recognize the potential power they hold for spiritual formation not despite their church’s size, but because of their church’s size.
Faith Forward 2015 is sure to be an inspiring, stimulating, and thoughtful gathering for progressive children’s and youth ministry leaders. We just announced our first lineup of speakers, which includes some favourites from past Faith Forward gatherings as well as some new friends. Together, we’ll explore our theme, “Re-Imagining Children’s and Youth Ministry through Theology, Relationship, and Practice.”
- Almeda Wright
- Mark and Lisa Scandrette
- Daniel White Hodge
- Brian McLaren
- Romal Tune
- Ivy Beckwith
- Amy Williams
- Aaron Niequist
- an many others!
Join us in Chicago, April 20-23, 2015. Registration is only $199 until the end of November!