Build on Your Strengths: Worship Advice for Small Churches

May 9th, 2011

It is Sunday morning at Otis United Methodist Church. The usual forty faithful parishioners sit in their familiar places in the pews of this traditional white clapboard church on the prairie.

Billie and Maudine are singing a “special” this morning. This duo, nurtured their entire lives in small churches, possess an innate understanding of what speaks to this congregation. The gospel song from their youth that they sing with deep emotion this morning is no exception. A transcendent moment of faith sharing occurs, heightened by personal connection to these two women that everyone knows. The worship that regularly unfolds in the Otis sanctuary, far from the contemporary church scene, is often spiritually renewing because of moments like these.

This experience from my ministry illustrates that vital, faithful worship in a small church relates to the nature of the small church itself. As a pastor serving a multiple-point charge of several small churches, I quickly learned that small churches have their own distinct personalities and cultures. Found in a wide variety of settings from rural areas to big cities, small churches not only differ individually from each other, but they also differ collectively from large churches. As is frequently pointed out, small churches are not small-scale versions of large churches (which, of course, are not all the same either). They function differently and have their own sets of strengths and weaknesses.

Despite the dangers of generalization, it is rather safe to say that the ethos of small churches, regardless of location, is deeply personal, relational, and heritage-conscious. Multiple generations of a single family may be regularly present in worship. Many of the small church’s parishioners are likely to be related to each other. Particularly if the small church is rural, the membership may not change much over the years, and the rural community may look to the church as an anchor. Given the short pastorates that most small churches endure, many small churches are strongly lay led. A number of small churches find themselves facing the challenge of changing neighborhoods if they are urban, and declining population if they are rural, which brings grief and struggle.

All of these conditions impact worship. Such dynamics are important because worship is typically central for small church congregants in a way that it may or may not be for those attending a larger, more programmatically oriented church. Worship may well be “it,” the one defining activity in a small church. All the more reason, then, for worship to be vital and spiritually renewing, a much-needed wellspring for hope and healing.

These basic observations about small churches suggest that vital small church worship pays attention to the particular lived experience and tradition of those gathered on Sunday morning, nurtures the fellowship of the worshipers, and connects their stories with God’s story of hope and grace in Jesus Christ. While all this may sound rather obvious, it is amazing how easy it is for the pastor eager for change and armed with “the latest” to neglect these central needs! Fortunately, the worshipers in the small church are there to remind him or her.

Of course, small churches do need to introduce changes from time to time into their worship for it to be revitalized. However, change in small church worship is often more fruitful if it flows from the culture of the small church and builds on its strengths. For instance:

  • In a small church you might engage people’s spiritual imagination by introducing thematic liturgy that speaks to daily life experience. Many of my parishioners are farmers. The scriptures offer wonderful agricultural metaphors for our worship.
  • A small church could discover that some contemporary music is easier to sing and to play than the traditional hymns. If new songs are introduced one at a time, taught well, and utilized frequently, they might well become part of that beloved repertoire of “old familiars.”
  • In a small church you may have an intergenerational lay leadership ready to take part in worship, from the elementary student who will play her piano piece for the offertory to the older gentleman willing to read the scriptures. The resulting worship may not always be “polished,” but will quite possibly be richer and more meaningful to the congregation.

This is a part of building on small church culture and strengths.

A further key strength of the small church is, you guessed it, that it is small. In a congregation where everyone typically knows everyone else, sacred connections among persons and between each person and God can happen in unique and powerful ways in worship.

On Sunday at Bison UMC, I quickly glance around the congregation and know who is missing. As part of the prayer time the congregation shares its “joys and concerns” and I learn why folks are missing as we lift up prayers for those who are ill or traveling, and so on. Such sharing in worship was new to this congregation once upon a time, but it fit to formalize the information flow that was already happening in this close-knit congregation into the service. The result is deeper, personal, and participatory prayer time in worship that is strengthening overall.

On some Communion Sundays at McCracken UMC, we are few enough to gather as an entire congregation around the altar table for the sacrament and serve the elements around the circle to each other. “Our Upper Room experience,” as one parishioner puts it. Communion in a small church where the pastor calls each one by name as the elements are received, or baptism where great-grandma walks the baby down the aisle to introduce him to his congregational family, or confirmation when the entire congregation claims the young confirmands as “theirs” can be profound experiences of grace and hope.

If you worship in a small church, you have reason to celebrate—even on those Sundays when the choir is down to two members. You have unique opportunities to draw close to God and the living Christ in your Christian brothers and sisters. Discover your culture and strengths. Build on them for the renewal of worship to glorify God.

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