Where Two or Three Are Gathered

July 19th, 2013

I’ve been a United Methodist pastor for over 30 years in one of the smallest conferences in the denomination. What we think of as large churches would be considered mid-size by many people in other places. What we think of as small, perhaps some conferences cannot begin to imagine. So I was pleased to hear Bishop Sandra Steiner Ball say, “Take the word ‘Can’t’ out of your vocabulary!” at a district clergy meeting recently.

“Wow,” I thought, “How many times have I said that to myself and to the members of many of the small churches I’ve served as pastor?”

We live in a world that screams, “Bigger is better!” From our homes, to our television screens, our bank accounts, and just about everything else, it seems that size really does matter. But is big necessarily better? I have never been the lead pastor of a church that had more than seventy-five people in worship on Sunday morning. Many of the churches I’ve served have had thirty-five or so. Some of the churches that were part of a circuit each had an attendance of less than twenty, and in some cases, much less. And I like that.

In small churches, I have the opportunity to get to know individuals and families well. With a less frantic schedule than some colleagues in larger churches have, I can spend time supporting and being a part of community events. I usually have had my office in my home, and I like the possibility of caring for my family and household and my churches simultaneously.               

Over the years, I’ve come to realize that, for me, the key to being happy in a small church is to truly believe Jesus’ words, “When two or three are gathered, I am there.” I’ve had to learn that the work involved in preparing for the traditional holy days such as Ash Wednesday is not somehow “wasted” if only ten people show up for the service. The key has been overcoming, in my own mind, the thinking that only big is worthwhile. That has taken prayer and reflection on my part. Remember, the church was started with only a handful of people.

I have come up against “bigger is better” thinking on the part of church members as well. “We aren’t big enough to . . . have Sunday school/begin a youth program/be in mission,” some people say. But most of these churches do! Pastors working with like-minded laypeople who are not upset if there are only a few people involved in the after school program can bring fruit. Lives, whether there are a few or many, can be touched and changed. One of the most effective youth groups I ever worked with had a membership of half a dozen. All of the small churches I’ve served have had a heart for mission. They remain avid contributors to food pantries, group homes, and provide holiday gifts for homeless shelters, and take advantage of other opportunities for social outreach.    

Many small churches are necessarily lay-driven, since they may share their pastor with other churches on a circuit, or in some cases, a secular job. This gives laypersons an opportunity to use their gifts and to follow their calling as Christians. They do not expect the pastor to do everything, nor do they want that.

Sometimes when there are a few small churches in an area and individually they don’t have the resources to provide the activities and programs they would like, there may be opportunities for cooperation between churches, either within the denomination or ecumenically. If there are four small churches with two or three children each within the same area, and they would like to have a Vacation Bible School, but can’t do it separately, they can join forces to provide both students and adult workers. This increases the sense of community that is already there. There are often community worship services, picnics and other fellowship events that deepen the sense of community already present.

Of course, there are drawbacks. Sometimes in small churches, there may be a genuine lack of leadership and no clear goals or ministry plans. The quality of the music may not be the best. The church building may present difficulties because of age and whether or not it’s been well maintained. Lack of money for providing programming is often a reality. But even these challenges present opportunities for partnership and stewardship. There may be some people who are willing to contribute a certain amount for a specific facilities or programming project because they see it as important. Other churches often share their Bible study or VBS materials with churches who lack programming funds.

My longtime friend and colleague Rev. Dr. Randy Flanagan has served six point charges and medium-sized churches, and is now lead Pastor at Christ Church United Methodist in Charleston, one of the largest in our conference. I asked him what some of the dissimilarities and likenesses between these vastly different churches are.

The pastor of a smaller church has to be more of a generalist, Randy told me, but the core of the work in any size church does not change.

”In all of them, people are valued,” he said. “They have the same concerns about illness, addiction, unemployment, and premature death. The work of the pastor is trying to find good news and wanting to make a difference in people’s lives.”

Demographic changes mean changes for the church. Some rural churches have decreased in membership because people have moved to cities for work. Neighborhood changes within many cities have increased the number of small churches. Small churches are a large part of our denomination. I hope there is a place for honest dialogue and willingness to understand, appreciate, and serve them.

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