Finding Beauty in the Small Church

If there was something great about small churches, wouldn’t there be more people in them???

Well, not necessarily. Sometimes the greatness is disguised in a cloak of quirkiness and out-of-date Sunday school rooms, and people don’t recognize the beauty inside.

It’s not hard to list off the potential down sides of small churches.

Fewer programs, smaller budgets. You get asked to do things – like helping in the nursery or being in the Easter skit or even weeding the front lawn. It’s hard to hide from people you don’t like. The piano could be a little out of tune. Permanently. The bathrooms stalls might still be pink. There could be people who are very different from you, and you might have to talk to them. Every week. The basement might smell moldy. People might ask you where you were if you miss a week of church. The audio/visual could be rocky or downright absent at times. The AC could stop working halfway through the service. The toys in the nursery may be legitimately vintage. You may have to put powdered creamer in your coffee… if there is any coffee. And there might even be some petty disagreements about things that need to be worked out still.

But let me let you in on some secrets. After 27 years in six different “small” churches (under 100 average attendance), I can tell you a few of the great things I have discovered about small churches. Those things that fly under the radar of smelly basements and slow PowerPoints… the things you may not notice right away, but that could make all the difference.

By way of disclaimer… I am NOT implying that these things are not ever true of larger churches or that there is anything wrong with attending a larger church! I am also not saying that all small churches are awesome. Some churches are small because they are not all that great. I am just attempting to compile some of the gems I have discovered in an often-overlooked and passed-over demographic of churches… those small churches where Jesus is clearly at work, but the pews/chairs are still sparsely occupied.

1)  You are part of a family.

There is nothing quite like feeling you are at a family reunion every Sunday morning! Getting wisdom passed down from the elder members, being loved on for who you are and not what you/your hair/your kids look like/are doing, and really authentic and sometimes hard conversations are some of the most valuable things that extended family – and a small church – can offer.

What a small church might lack in programming is more than made up for in friendships. My kids play hard at church, and they also get hugged and nurtured and taught by people who know their faults and failures but love them despite those things. When your shy one doesn’t want to sing in the Christmas pageant, but the church admin notices even before you do and bribes her (successfully) with her favorite candy bar… you know you’ve found a good church! I have discovered that I can always supplement my small-church experience with great VBS, Wednesday night, and Mommy Bible study programs hosted by bigger churches – but I can’t as easily shop around for the deep, selfless, and opposite-of-superficial relationships that I have often found in small churches.

Now let’s be honest – you may sometimes run into conflict in a small church. But let’s be extra honest – there is conflict in every deep relationship. It’s the surface relationships that never go deep enough to touch your heart – those are the ones that stay conflict-free. If you are desperate to avoid all conflict, a small church is not for you. But you will be missing out on some of the deepest and most life-giving relationships you will every find if you hide from any church and/or person who you disagree with. (For some amazing material on working through conflict in healthy ways that maintain and even build relationships, check out Peacemaker Ministries).

2) You are part of the Body.

The bigger a church is, the more ministry is delegated to the professionals – which often means that things are really well run. We all like well-run programs! In a smaller church, things might not run quite as smoothly – but every person gets invited into the active life of the church.

My pastor often asks us, “What has God caught you looking at?” He is asking us what things we care about, what things we have noticed, and what areas God has gifted us in – and he is asking us to take action in those areas. In a small church, no member goes unneeded… no gift goes unnoticed… no offering goes wasted. I love how The Message puts this in 1 Corinthians 12:14-24:

I want you to think about how all this makes you more significant, not less. A body isn’t just a single part blown up into something huge. It’s all the different-but-similar parts arranged and functioning together. If Foot said, “I’m not elegant like Hand, embellished with rings; I guess I don’t belong to this body,” would that make it so? If Ear said, “I’m not beautiful like Eye, limpid and expressive; I don’t deserve a place on the head,” would you want to remove it from the body? If the body was all eye, how could it hear? If all ear, how could it smell? As it is, we see that God has carefully placed each part of the body right where he wanted it.

But I also want you to think about how this keeps your significance from getting blown up into self-importance. For no matter how significant you are, it is only because of what you are a part of. An enormous eye or a gigantic hand wouldn’t be a body, but a monster. What we have is one body with many parts, each its proper size and in its proper place. No part is important on its own.

Every gift is essential for the healthy functioning of a small church. At our church, the lawn-mowing is done on a riding mower by one of our precious single women who has trouble walking. My youth-pastor-husband mans the nursery (no pun intended). My daughter helps get the coffee ready while I’m practicing for worship. Every part of the body – from the toes to the eyelashes – is valued and given a part to play! Small church is not an event to attend or a sermon to listen to – it is a fully participatory experience.

One of the coolest things about bodies is how they grow. From infants to toddlers to kids to teenagers to adults, we all love seeing how something so small blossoms into something self-sustaining and individually gifted. As the parts of the church Body each learn to play their role, growth happens both in individual lives and in our corporate life… and vice versa, growth only happens as each person plays their role.

Small church is not a job for superman and/or the paid clergy. It is about each member actively living out their gifts for the glorification of Christ and the edification of His Body.

 3) You are part of something… small.

Sometimes I have felt like I was missing out on some other great church that everyone else has discovered. Like I was sitting at the uncool table in the cafeteria. Or like I was in an amateur act, just waiting to be discovered by people for how awesome we really were. Over time, however, I have discovered the secret awesomeness of “small.” It is this: small = intimate.

As an elementary age kid, we attended a church where my brother and I were the only kids – and there was no Sunday school for children. I remember my brother and I sitting in the church kitchen, chewing on ice cubes and counting the beans in the glass jars on the counter during the adult Sunday school hour.

When that church shut down, we started attending a church with ladies who danced with flags and a youth group run by my friend’s older sister – but that church slowly dwindled, and eventually we merged with another tiny church across town. My family stayed on in that church through my high school and college years… through the ebb and flow of visitors coming and regulars leaving.

You might wonder how my faith stayed alive and growing in the midst of churches that had little to “offer” me and that never turned into the well-attended, popular church. But I think it was precisely because they were so small. My parents and my pastors more than made up for any lack in children’s education by the time they spent teaching us and praying with us on their own time. I have vivid memories of my pastor teaching me to drive, my parents singing hymns with us in our living room, and many, many adults in those churches who cared about us, mentored us, took us out for birthdays, and generally made us feel valuable and accepted. In the smallness of those churches, we were not just numbers. We were seen and loved individually. And my parents took their job as spiritual leaders seriously – they couldn’t (and didn’t) just delegate it out to the awesome children’s ministry pastor and her amazing curriculum.

I don’t know how else to explain this phenomenon besides 1 Corinthians 1:27-29:

But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things – and the things that are not – to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him.

Are small churches weak? You could say that.

Lowly? Comparatively, yes.

But just as in all of the rest of our upside-down Gospel and upside-down kingdom, God often does things a little – or a lot – differently than we might expect.

Ironically, you may not always need a bigger church with “better” children’s programs, a “better” worship team, and a “better” preacher in order to grow in your faith.

You may actually find yourself more known, more loved, and more personally accountable for living out your faith in a small Body – one that feels like a family – one where you can plug in and be used and rub off on people and they can rub off on you and you can be challenged and not always comfortable. You may find yourself growing in ways you never expected – even without a famous preacher or world-class worship.

And the Easter skit, pink bathrooms, and off-key piano? Well, they just might not end up bothering you quite as much as you originally thought they would! But if they do? Then maybe that’s the place where God is going to use your skills and gifts, to strengthen you, and to use you to make a difference in His Body.

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