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.