Celebrating Small Churches

Reverend Francis RitchieSpiritual Disciplines2 Comments

I’ve heard from a few ministers who spend time speaking at big events that the two most common questions that church leaders ask each other in greenrooms at such events are ‘how many people does your church have?’ and ‘what’s your budget?’ The implication is that bigger is better and that these are the two main markers for success.

The most positive explanation for these questions would be to say that the number of people attending and the amount of giving that happens are signs of vibrancy, health, vitality, and generosity and that ministers asking each other these questions have such things in mind. It would be easy enough to point to scriptures, particularly in the book of Acts, where big numbers were mentioned as a marker of the impact of what the disciples were doing following the death and resurrection of Christ.

That said, I’ve got a feeling that what’s most likely happening is a more culturally ingrained measurement and sorting of a pecking order based on what our wider culture says success should look like – where small is not a positive thing.

Before I go any further, hear me, I think churches of all sizes are a good thing. I think big churches can offer things that small churches cannot. They can engage in community service projects on a scale that smaller churches cannot. They can provide the sense of being part of something big. They can have significant cultural impact by what they choose to do or choose not to do. They can make waves when they decide to make public statements and get their people weighing in on a cause. They can offer plenty of different ways to be engaged and serve.

I think big churches are great but I want to challenge a cultural indoctrination that sees us celebrating their leaders as rock-stars and that sets up such churches as the go-to voices for what ‘being the church’ well looks like. I also want to challenge the questions about numbers and budgets as our main measures of supposed success. I’m not going to do that by criticising big churches because that’s not my intent, but by singing the praises of what small churches have to offer.

This year I have walked the journey of planting a church – Commoners (a Wesleyan Methodist community) – in Hamilton, New Zealand. In April I started with a plant team of one (me, with the support of my family and the blessing of the Wesleyan Methodist Church of NZ) and a budget that stretched to purchasing candles, the bread and juice for Holy Communion, and that covered petrol to get from Auckland to Hamilton and back. So with a team of one and a budget of less than $100 NZD Commoners was planted. I say that to demonstrate that what I began is the exact opposite of the measure of success that is about numbers and dollars. It’s the sort of church plant that could easily happen anywhere without the need for a whole lot of intensive resources.

If you had asked me a number of years ago what I would do to plant a church (though I would have run from the thought) I would have talked about a decent sized team and a solid budget to begin. Instead the plant involved a whole lot of trust in God, getting over myself, owning who I am, and being faithful to a call.

In less than two weeks we will be moving to Hamilton to finally live, once again, in the city we feel called to. Between that first evening when I drove down to lead a small worship gathering and now, a few more people have got on board with us, but we remain as not even a blip on the radar of large churches.

Early on in the life of Commoners, when talking about it with others, I constantly used the word ‘small.’ It’s a ‘small’ faith community. We have ‘small’ worship gatherings. We’re a ‘small’ group of people. A couple of people told me that I shouldn’t use the word ‘small.’ The obvious reason is that in a culture that sees bigger as better, the word ‘small’ has negative connotations. But I used it deliberately then and I use it deliberately now as a way to challenge that perception.

I know that if I were sitting in a greenroom at a Christian conference and I answered the question about how many people we have and how big our budget is, which I would do gleefully, I would quickly become Frankie No Friends and my introverted self would be left in peace. I would be irrelevant in a pecking order developed around church size and budget. But I feel successful every single week because my measures are different and in many ways, much less tangible.

Would you like to know how irrelevant I would be? Our worship gathering on the Sunday that has just been had 7 people. Imagine the awkward smiles and polite dismissals that would get in a room of big church leaders. It would be awesome! Granted, that’s not usual for us anymore and I would probably need to ask myself some tough questions this far into it if we only had 7 every week, but it was beautiful. We went through the same liturgy we do each week. We took moments to pause in silence, and as we do every week we chatted about the gospel passage that is determined by the Revised Common Lectionary.

It would be easy for my ego to be knocked by having 7 people there. I, like many, would love plenty more but I have developed a discipline to look for other things that I would not see if I was focused on the numbers and the money.

On Sunday here’s what I saw, along with some other good points of small church life:

  1. There were 6 males and 1 female. Most churches have a split that is heavily in favour of women with men not being connected in the same way even though men dominate leadership. It made me think about our overall split and I have to smile and say that for some reason our simple, small service does ok with men and I’m on a mission to make sure our leadership reflects my belief that both men and women should be sharing leadership.
  2. I could hear two of our younger voices participating in the liturgy with enthusiasm. They’re of an age that you would expect to be largely indifferent to liturgy. I also happen to know that because of the repetition, some of our younger ones are already memorising parts of the liturgy and it’s coming out at home. That’s shaping their prayer life.
  3. I noticed one of the guys walk straight into the kitchen after the service to do the dishes while others helped pack away the sound gear, worship stations and chairs. All hands were helping somehow because their help was clearly needed.
  4. In our small setting we are able to chat together about the Bible passage rather than only hearing my reflections. In that way the Spirit’s voice to us as a community gets heard.
  5. The conversations following the service happened as one group. Admittedly a visitor may find this intimidating, but it also means that connections happen easily. Even with our usual numbers, unless someone comes in after the service starts and walks out as soon as it ends, it’s guaranteed that you can connect with someone. It’s impossible to be anonymous. This has been proven with relationships developing and people catching up together without me facilitating it at all.
  6. During our moments of silence, it really was quiet and I could see our people truly taking the time to pause – sitting in silence with their heads bowed and their eyes closed. I could hear deep breaths being taking as people relaxed into it – taking the opportunity to pause.
  7. Being small, during our worship gatherings I can see how everyone is reacting during different parts of the service. I love watching how each part of the service clearly connects in different ways for various people. I can see when bits of our prayer of confession hit the mark. I can see when someone is having a moment during Holy Communion. I can look everyone in the eye as we walk through different parts of the service, and then giving Holy Communion as people come forward allows for a real connection. I take real delight in the enthusiasm our children have for Holy Communion. Their rush to get to me and the smiles as they receive the bread are wonderful. Our children receiving Holy Communion is one of the highlights of my week no matter how I was feeling prior to it.
  8. Because we’re small I know every person by name and when we move I’ll have the capacity to do pastoral visits with everyone.
  9. When we have a BBQ at our place, everyone is invited because we can fit everyone.
  10. If you need a pastoral visit from me for prayer, to chat, or whatever, you’re pretty much guaranteed that I’ll be there.

We’re a small faith community and every Sunday in all the little things I can clearly see the movement of the Spirit. In that sense, what we’ve begun is a wild success. That trust and faith has paid off and continues to do so. I don’t know exactly what the future looks like for our small community, but whatever it is, I look forward to it.

I wouldn’t be relevant in a conference greenroom unless people wanted to talk about the Bible, mission, what the Spirit is doing in our church (imagine the conversations if that was the central question between ministers – ‘what’s the Spirit doing in your church?’), and how our faith fits with the wider culture we’re in, but every person who enters into our worship gathering and our small community in some way is relevant to me and I love seeing the glimpses of what the Spirit is doing in the life of every person, even when they can’t see it themselves. If I was focused on the numbers and the budget, I don’t trust that I (this is about me, not other leaders) would be able to catch those small things in the lives of others. My feeling about how we’re doing would ride up and down with the numbers.

In saying all this, don’t get me wrong, I would love us to grow. I’m keen to see us get to the size where we can lease a small building where we can implement a sacred space with an industrial chapel vibe – take an industrial space and reshape it for worship without losing its rough edges. I want to let some of our creative people loose on such a space. There’s a story of redemption there that appeals to me. I also want to financially be able to dedicate a couple of days each week to the community for church life and pastoral work – that will take a budget that can sustain employment for 2 days each week. But I think if we get to 150 people eventually, we’ll be busting at the seams of remaining connected, intimate, and pastoral. If we ever get to there I’ll be looking at ways to encourage our people to plant. I can envision that, but it’s not my main focus as I don’t want to miss the tiny little nuggets with people and the Spirit as we journey together.

We’re small. Our worship gatherings are simple (though they have much thought behind them). Our life together is common. We’re commoners. And the Spirit is truly alive and well in the midst of us and in the communities where we find ourselves.

If you’re in Hamilton and you feel compelled towards small, unpretentious, simple, prayerful, connected, sacramental and scriptural, feel free to visit us on a Sunday morning. There will be times when you’re comforted, encouraged, challenged, frustrated, bored, excited, and able to take a breath. You’ll get it all over time because that’s how family life works.

If you’re the Pastor of a small church that never gets a look in on the Christian celebrity stage, please know that you’re my heroes and your churches are worth celebrating. Continue to catch the nuggets of what the Spirit is continually doing within us and among our people.

  • Robert Burke

    The Problem with Mega-Church Big Shot Operations… 😉

    Ants at the Picnic
    By Robert Winkler Burke
    Book #6 of In That Day Teachings
    Copyright 12/09/09 http://www.inthatdayteachings.com

    We’re ants at the picnic,
    And you had better care,
    Believe that we exist!
    And you’ll think and beware.

    Last Sunday was a big picnic,
    Of a white-coat, broadcast preacher: big shot!
    He’s a big megillah, he is,
    A thousand people and his family turned out!

    So did we, ants at the picnic,
    Big shot: unafraid,
    Of being a fraud found out,
    Oh, the time we made!

    They gorged on turkey,
    They gorged on ham,
    But for desert: watch out,
    For ants with: I AM!

    They had pies and cakes on a table,
    Circling four candles square at the center,
    In the middle of all: a bowl,
    Of whipped cream, with pewter spoon to render.

    We ants went into action,
    Right there on the spot!
    We moved the pewter handle,
    Above candle hot!

    Big megillah, white-coat preacher,
    Was first in line for pie,
    He lusted after whipped cream,
    And held the handle high.

    Then his face went red and scorned,
    And he threw the ladle away!
    He screamed out, MY HAND is burned!
    My love life is ruined today!

    There was a hush: silence was,
    In the crowd,
    Then Suzie stepped forward,
    To speak loud.

    Though I am but an assistant,
    To our great pastor, a married man,
    By my lips what he said is wrong,
    I have loved him as much as I can!

    So then all eyes turned to Mrs. Pastor,
    A large woman with unkind eyes,
    She said, This picnic is now over!
    A thing ants and man surmised.

    You would have thought it was a race,
    To get out of there,
    The church then fumigated the place,
    But we didn’t care.

    We moved on to the next picnic,
    Always something new,
    To expose what some think their God,
    Never somehow knew.

    We’re ants at the picnic,
    Exposing hubris,
    Pride thinks: there is no God,
    Humility: is!

    • A bunch of comments, all of them with the most tenuous connections to anything I said – that’s some intriguing spamming and self promotion there, Robert 😉