I grew up in small churches. I’m happy in small churches. I am at home in a small church. But I guess I ought to define what I mean by “small” first. Most congregations I have ministered with or attended at any point in my life were populated with around 100 people (give or take). I have visited some “large” congregations, even some “mega” congregations. In those places, I often feel as though I’m just another forgettable face in the crowd, who could sneak in and out without anyone noticing my presence or absence. That is not the case in a small congregation. There is no room for anonymity. These are the places where I literally know everyone’s name, where I literally shake every person’s hand before they exit the building to get to the local mom-and-pop restaurant for their Sunday lunch. I am perfectly satisfied without fancy components of worship like a praise team or an impressive multimedia presentation. Completely low-tech can also be completely beautiful. I know, I know, this practically sounds like Mayberry, U.S.A. to some people based upon their view of a “successful” church. But please don’t dismiss the small church.
Not only do I know everyone here; I am invested in each of their lives. I know the names of those who are in the hospital this week. I know the teens because I’m watching them all on a Friday night playing football, marching in the band, or cheering on our team. I’m cheering alongside them. I know the older men who solve all the problems in this world because I see them all at the Dairy Queen at 6:30 a.m. any given day. Yes, I know in that in larger congregations people still have close connections with others, but for them there are also many faces each week whom they do not recognize (and not just because they are visitors on that day).
My small congregation hits every demographic that exists in my town. We are the church for the old and the church for the young. We are the church for the rich and the church for the poor. We are the church for those who like the old songs and we are the church for those who like the new songs. We are the church for those who look like me and we are the church for those who do not look like me. Yes, I guess most of us do think in similar ways when it comes to society and politics, but there are members here who vote differently than I do. And we get along. And we worship the Lord together.
I’m sure that some who come here might be disappointed because we do not do things that might be done in places with unlimited budgets and unlimited talents, but I am still enriched from a worship assembly when the songs are led by someone who doesn’t have a Master of Fine Arts degree or their latest song available on iTunes. I like it when the ones offering prayers are also the ones I bump into several times during the week around town. Their prayers may not be oratory masterpieces, but then again, my sermons aren’t either. And we are all fine with that. Simple? Yes. But this simplicity can be something we view as a strength, not a weakness. Apologies are never necessary. The success of a worship service has more to do with the people worshiping, not with the person leading, whether the song leader is a volunteer who sings in their spare time or a paid ministry professional.
Maybe being filled with the Holy Spirit in the way that Peter and the other disciples were on the Day of Pentecost makes the worship service better. We don’t have those original apostolic gifts in a small church, but neither do leaders in a large church. Minus these first-century gifts, when it is all boiled down, when you compare our small church to any larger church, we are preaching the same Jesus, worshiping the same God, serving alongside the same brothers and sisters, and possessing the same ability to be inspired by a worship experience. Heb 13:8 tells us that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” This same Jesus Christ is who we preach, regardless of the congregational size.
Some potential churchgoers may be turned aside by a lack of fancy banners with inspirational sayings and high definition photography, dynamic and interactive web sites, special pagers for parents of children in the nursery, or a coed softball team. And I hope that the people who require those things to worship the Lord find those things. At heart, all of the things truly necessary to a church can be found regardless of the number of people gathering. Beyond that, in a small church each person can recognize precisely how vital they are to that body. Paul’s words from 1 Cor 12:12-31 emphasize that each one of us is a part of the body of Christ. In verses 24-25 he says, “God has combined the members of the body … so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other.” When there are fewer of us, it is easier to see that what you and I do truly is important. We depend upon each other and when someone is gone, even for one Sunday, it is noticed and felt throughout the church.
There is beauty in the simplicity of a small church. This beauty is not manifested in the actions of worship inasmuch as it is created in the body of Christ coming together and worshiping as one united, small (or large) body. Like the VBS teachers always reminded us, the church is not the building, the elaborate PowerPoint presentations, or the cafe in the atrium. The church is the people. And I personally know and deeply love all of the people in my church, from the smallest newborn to our members who now live in the nursing home.
I’m here to congratulate those who work with small churches and encourage those who attend small churches. Additionally, I’m here to remind larger congregations that small churches aren’t “worse” churches, less spiritually mature, or to be looked down upon. Never feel as though you are missing out on something. Never feel as though “church the way it is done at the big, popular place” is superior to what you participate with each Sunday. If God has led you to minister to or worship with these souls, consider yourself blessed.
Editor’s Note: Shawn Johnson will be leading the Ministering in the Small Church track at ACU Summit, Sept. 17-20, 2017.
Dr. Shawn D. Johnson is the preacher at the Cisco Church of Christ, the director of Lake Cisco Christian Camp, and the radio play-by-play announcer for Cisco Loboes football games. He is the facilitator for the Small Church Pathway for ACU Summit 2018. He and his wife Robyn have three children: Alyssa, Zack (recently married to Kali), and Heather.