Churches in small towns

January 10th, 2018

The singer at Saxis

Saxis United Methodist Church is a small, unassuming church at the end of a long, lonely road. Before it arrives at the church, the road crosses through coastal pine forests and marshes and finally cuts across a causeway connecting Saxis Island to the rest of Virginia’s Eastern Shore. Like many old communities along the Chesapeake Bay, Saxis has declined alongside the traditional fishing industry. Presently, the town is home to just over 200 souls.

I recently visited the church on a Sunday morning. The order of worship told me that it was time for the anthem, but there was no choir to be found and no accompaniment aside from an electronic hymnal. When the anthem slot arrived, William Jefferson, the church’s bivocational pastor, handed off the microphone to a nervous young woman. Was she anxious about singing in front of this small gathering of 20 people? Would the lack of musical backing get the better of her?

After a brief pause, she said, “This is a song by JJ Heller,” and began to sing — in perfect pitch and with great power. Her song told those in attendance about longing for love and God’s gracious gift of love that was available to us. I could feel the congregation silently helping her along. All told, it was a beautiful moment.

As she sang, she stood in front of a display that the congregation had set up weeks before. Covering the table were colorful children’s handbells, a guitar, some drums and more instruments. The table served as a reminder of the congregation’s commitment to pray for their music program and their hope that God would help it grow. And now, in an apparent answer to their prayers, this teenage singer had started attending and just happened to mention to Pastor William that she’d like to sing a solo.

These are the moments that remind me of the promise and potential of small-town churches. Most of these churches will never grow much larger than they are, and their members often feel insufficient when confronted by our culture’s emphasis on size and scale. Yet, in a time when many rural communities are struggling, churches like these can offer deep connection and new hope.

Small church, small town

Two-thirds of congregations in the United States average fewer than 100 attendees, according to a 2012 National Congregations Study (NCS). In small towns, these churches form the fabric of the community, offering places of connection and hope in environments that are stressed by economic decline and narratives of despair.

That’s the story for much of rural America today. Rural areas are cumulatively losing an average of 33,000 people a year, according to statistics cited in a recent Atlantic article. “Rural America has become older, whiter, and less populated” due to demographic and economic changes, The Atlantic reported. “Today, just 19 percent of Americans live in areas the Census department classifies as rural, down from 44 percent in 1930.”

Churches have suffered from this decline as well. The NCS showed the number of churches reporting 50 or fewer in attendance has increased by five percent since 1998. These churches now make up almost half of all congregations.

Despite their size, these churches continue to serve a vital role. When a gunman attacked a small rural congregation in Sutherland Springs, Texas, in November 2017, Stephen A. Curry, pastor of La Vernia United Methodist Church in the same county, noted in a New York Times editorial, “A church in Wilson County is a community center where good people strive to do good for fellow human beings. A church in Wilson County is a home for extended family to share their lives. A church in Wilson County is a place where we come to mourn losses, grieve the death of a friend or relative, celebrate the joys of life and love. A church in Wilson County is a place where we connect with the God who loves us, watches over us, and, in the end, welcomes us home.”

Blessed inefficiency

Winn Collier, pastor of All Souls Church in Charlottesville, Virginia, believes small churches have some advantages over large churches. In large churches, he says, “it’s just very difficult to keep the human at the center. If the Incarnation tells us anything it’s that this joining of humanity with God is at the very heart of what God is doing in the world. . . . To be large and efficient, you have to reduce the inefficiency that comes from human relationships. In the smaller churches, that’s not even a question. Everything is inefficient.”

Collier longs for this kind of blessed inefficiency in his larger church. He points out that the growing focus on small-group ministry is, in part, a way to compensate for the losses that come from growing larger. “We’re coming up with ways to get people in proximity and that’s always going to feel orchestrated because it is. In small churches all they have is each other and the storyline they’re being told is that that’s a problem and I think it’s a gift.”

In his new book Love Big, Be Well: Letters to a Small-town Church, Collier imagines a pastor writing to a small-town church he’s coming to serve. “Too much pastoral leadership literature recirculates anxious efforts to make the church significant or influential or up-to-date, as if they need to harangue the church into becoming something,” the fictional pastor writes. “I think my job is to remind the church that she already is something. Can we settle down and be who we are, where we are?”

Won’t you be my neighbor?

One of the regularly cited virtues of a small church is that everyone knows one another. It’s the kind of thing Collier says larger churches are seeking to imitate.

At LifeBridge Christian Church in Longmont, Colorado, the pastoral staff decided they would go one step further and challenge their congregants to really get to know their neighbors. In their 2016 book The Neighboring Church: Getting Better at What Jesus Said Matters Most, pastors Rick Rusaw and Brian Mavis describe how LifeBridge tried to simplify their church’s mission by emphasizing Christ’s call to love our neighbors. “We as staff asked one another about the eight neighbors living around us:

  • How many names do you know? 
  • Do you know something about each of them? 
  • Can you tell some hurt or hope or dream they have?” 

A 2003 study found that small churches had unique potential to connect people to a strong community. Researcher George Barna noted, “If church leaders can maintain a focus on transformation rather than numbers, then we could enter an era of healthy churches at all sizes and shapes and shed the unhealthy spirit of numerical competition that currently distracts many churches.”

Trusting that God will provide

There are hard challenges facing small churches. Deferring maintenance to church buildings sometimes brings congregations to a crisis point when a furnace stops working or a roof starts leaking. Retaining a full-time salaried pastor has also become increasingly difficult for many churches, and the role of bivocational pastors is growing. Finally, there’s the danger of nostalgia, the temptation to hold on to the past because of its comforts and a resistance to innovations that could lead to a new future.

In the end, vibrant ministry in small towns comes down to trusting that God will provide and living out of that trust. Back at Saxis, when the solo was over and the singer with the beautiful voice returned to her seat, Pastor William went to the table of instruments over which the congregation had prayed for a new music ministry. He picked up a small blue bell and rang it. He took a rackety clacker and twirled it noisily. “We’ve been praying for a music program,” he told the congregation, “and God has answered.”

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