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.