New Zealand is a small country with a small population (4.5 million). Perhaps because of this small size, we shouldn’t be surprised that the 25 or so congregations of churches of Christ in New Zealand reflect this by ranging from 5 to around 100 members. These congregations are probably very similar in many ways to the small churches of Christ scattered throughout the towns and cities in the U.S.
Small churches in New Zealand (and the United States) face many challenges. They are concerned about their numbers not getting down below a sustainable level. Churches in New Zealand face the typical challenges of small churches, such as the struggle to find adequate resources to function as a church. In small churches problem-people are so much more visible, which can sometimes make church life more “interesting” or simply painful. Another similarity between the small church in New Zealand and the United States are the demographics. Small churches often have an imbalance between the grey-haired and younger people and, therefore, struggle to keep the younger people. With small churches facing challenges with resources, people, and demographics, what value is there in the small church? “Much, in many ways” (to use an edited Pauline phrase from Rom 3).
First, let me introduce you to one of these resource-people-demographic-challenged small churches in New Zealand: the Otumoetai  Church of Christ. Having around 90 members with an attendance that varies generally between 70 and 90, Otumoetai would be one of the larger churches of Christ in New Zealand. Throughout its 40-year history, the church has changed heaps (kiwi lingo for “a lot”), enduring the ups and downs of church life. People have come and gone. In addition, the church has had elders, then no elders, then more elders, and now no elders. What can we learn about small church life from this typical and possibly not-so-typical small Otumoetai church?
At Otumoetai we are learning that in the church it is “we” instead of “me.” And Otumoetai is a place where “everyone knows your name.” You will also probably experience at Otumoetai gestures of love, encouragement, prayer, service, a smile, and a welcome. At Otumoetai there is quite a bit of this kind of interaction between the older and younger members. While the small church faces many challenges, there are some things that the small church can model to their larger sister churches in these areas.
The dynamics of small churches like Otumoetai are better suited to being “we” instead of being “me.” We are “members of one another,” Paul writes in Rom 12:5. The church isn’t a collection of individuals, but the collective body of Christ, the body that God inhabits through the Spirit and will redeem at the end of the age. Being part of the church gives us the Christ-identity necessary to engage the world and to witness to the world who he is, what he is up to, and what he is eternally achieving.
This “we” instead of “me” counter-cultural reality of the church was manifested powerfully when my family and I moved here over 20 years ago. The first Sunday we were here, the Craig family invited us and the church to their house that evening for a “BBQ” (kiwi lingo for grilling on the grill). Practically the whole church showed up. Not only was this a powerful gesture of welcome and love, but it was also a visible expression of oneness in Christ and that we are all “in this together.” That was a powerfully shaping moment in my life and a visible affirmation of the reality of the “we” aspect of the church.
Another value of the small church is that it is poised to practice pastoral care in more tangible and authentic ways. Small churches are places where everyone knows your name and (usually) the things that are going on in your life. Of course authentic pastoral care can and does take place in the large church but the small church offers a more “natural” setting for it to happen spontaneously and regularly by the church.
Pauline was a long-time member of Otumoetai. She was as regular as clockwork in her attendance both Sundays and midweek. Someone would bring her to most of the assemblies. Pauline was a high-functioning schizophrenic who needed a lot of attention on Sundays and Wednesdays. When you would walk into the church building she would greet you in a loud voice, “Nice to see you.” As worship began, she would loudly call out instructions to the song leader, “Three songs and a prayer!” from her special chair at the back of the auditorium. She was always requesting men, both older and younger, to pray with her. She would even come down the aisle to the front of the auditorium at the conclusion of the sermon to ask the preacher to pray for her.
Pauline could be stubborn. She would often interrupt. Most of the time she wasn’t in her right mind, but the church loved her. She was part of us. The church was patient with Pauline, prayed with her always, and loved her with unconditional love. In fact, when the church auditorium was renovated a number of years ago, special arrangements were made to re-create Pauline’s special seating area. When Pauline passed away two years ago, the church gathered to sing “three songs and a prayer” and cried together as we thought about God greeting her with a loud, “Nice to see you.” And the church still misses her heaps!
Sure, larger churches have a lot of things going for them, but the small church has the edge on some fundamental aspects of “practicing the faith.” The small church can remind us that it is “we” and not just “me” in the journey of faith. The small church can provide pastoral care in natural and authentic ways. The Otumoetai congregation is a small church, like the majority of churches in the U.S. who struggle with many aspects of being and practicing church, but a congregation doesn’t have to be big to have a big heart. The congregation may be small in numbers but it can be big in heart. Isn’t that what Jesus wants?