It looked like water in the communion cup. Before raising this clear liquid to my mouth, I looked around at the others who either had just taken it or were about to partake. We silently wondered what Bible passages we were violating, but also recalled that the person who usually prepared the Lord’s Supper was home sick today. The church refrigerator was out of the usual purple grape juice, and a volunteer had made a mad dash to the store just moments before church services began. They returned with the only grape juice that store had in stock: white grape juice, not the usual purple stuff. I raised the cup to my mouth. If I had done this with my eyes closed I wouldn’t have noticed any difference in taste. This indeed was the fruit of the vine.
One person’s absence that Sunday forced others to perform unfamiliar tasks. Everything eventually worked out fine, but it did underline how much we truly depended on each person for what they brought to this community of believers. It is the same way when the one person who knows how to lead singing is gone. Or the one person who can teach the teen Bible class is gone. In large congregations there may be a dozen people who can skillfully fill those roles, but in a small congregation each member can see that they are valuable because of the unique role they fill, for which others depend on them. In a small congregation, attendance is not just a number to stick up on a register at the front of the auditorium; rather, the church is a family that has learned to depend upon each other.
I recently spent some time with a numerically-small congregation. Though there were only 30 people present, it was fantastically impressive in the percentage of members who attended. In my limited experience, the small congregations I have attended or ministered to usually have an attendance of about 100, but if everyone actually showed up the number would be closer to 150. The math here leads to an unfortunate statistic: about 67%. For a typical Sunday morning, only about 67% of our members show. Yes, sometimes there are a few more (mostly visitors) and sometimes there are a few less (vacation time, bad weather, poor health, nice weekend where the lake beckons, just didn’t feel motivated to get going this Sunday, etc.).
This congregation I visited in northwest Pennsylvania had a very limited number, but all of them (all of them!) showed up to worship together. And I suspect that for similarly-sized congregations this report is not unusual. Again, this church only has about 30 members. On the Sunday I was with them all 30 were present. The Wednesday night I was with them all 30 were present. Even at their Saturday cookout all 30 were present, including two members who were over 90.
These percentages are phenomenal and they probably don’t seem realistic to those in larger congregations. You can’t get 100% of anybody to show up for anything. We completely discount that possibility. We know how it usually goes in our midst: 67% for Sunday morning worship; 50% for Bible classes; 33% for Sunday nights and Wednesday nights. And if we host anything on a day of the week other than Sundays or Wednesdays the numbers shrink to 25% (if that). We might not like these lower percentages, but we have come to accept them.
What is the secret that these church members in a small congregation have that causes them to want to attend 100% of the time? They still experience flu season, vacation times, and snow that makes getting to the church building a difficult challenge. But hitting 100% or just slightly less is the norm rather than the exception.
Perhaps the answer is obvious. In a large congregation–or even in a congregation like the one where I preach which might classify itself as “small” but is closer to a 100-member threshold–if a member is not present they may not be missed. The singing sounds roughly the same, the sermon is just as effective. We might comment about not seeing someone who normally would be there, but the entire worship experience is basically the same whether someone is there or not.
This is absolutely not the case in a very small congregation where each member really does have a place in which they identify. If the one-and-only capable song leader is gone, someone will step up and do the job, but it is not the same. If the person who prepares the Lord’s Supper provisions is missing, then others scramble to find the supplies or else have to make that mad dash to the store. It goes further than just these tangible tasks, too. These members count upon the encouragement they receive from one another.
What these small congregations experience is actually something that should be present in congregations of every size: a realized interdependence upon one another. The church is the body of Christ, with all members occupying a spot of tremendous importance. Cue the sermon from 1 Cor 12:12-31. Like Paul shows how those who are apostles or prophets or teachers or whatever else are all valuable parts of the body of Christ, a member in a small congregation recognizes that each part of the body is vitally essential and irreplaceable. I need you. You need me. We need each other.
Hitting that 100% attendance isn’t the goal; patting ourselves on the back because we hit a certain number isn’t the point. These few members in a place where very few Christians exist have learned that they depend upon each other absolutely. It is more than just coming together for a worship service. It is about the fellowship, socialization, strengthening, and encouragement that these Christians crave.
Editor’s Note: Shawn Johnson will be leading the Ministering in the Small Church track at ACU Summit, Sept. 17-20, 2017.