I’ve written previously in this space about my small role serving locally with The Gideons International. While I have at various times held different offices in the local “camps” of which I have been a part both in West Monroe, Louisiana, and in Oxford, Mississippi, the most visible capacity in which I commonly serve has been as a church speaker. Basically, I periodically receive assignments to speak about the Gideon ministry in various churches in a radius of about 60-90 minutes’ driving distance, and in those churches I will explain the ministry, share testimonies of how God has used the Bibles placed or distributed to change lives, and in most cases collect an offering to continue funding the Bible ministry. 100% of donations collected during these speaking engagements go to purchase, print, and ship Bibles; I buy my own gas, and Gideon members cover all of the association’s overhead costs. It is relatively easy to ask for money knowing that all of the money collected will go directly to buying Bibles.
This past Sunday the Gideons had me speak in a church that has served its community for over 100 years, but has dwindled to fewer than twenty people in average attendance. This was a typical experience; most of the churches to which the Gideons send me are rather small. Despite the substantial publicity generated by megachurches of various denominations, according to The Barna Group 60% of Protestant churches have fewer than 100 people in attendance on a given Sunday. A drive through the countryside in much of America (at least east of the Mississippi river, where the population density is greater) shows a landscape punctuated by small church buildings, some housing small but thriving congregations, others plagued by attrition as older members pass away and their children seek opportunities in larger towns and cities. While some people’s initial reactions to small congregations might be to regard these as failures, my observation has been that many of these smaller churches do a better job of shepherding, teaching, and mutual care than do their larger counterparts. Not only have I seen this in my travels with the Gideons; I have also experienced it as a church member. While my family and I presently attend a church with Sunday morning attendance of 400-500 or more people, we have been part of a church of more like 1000 members and also one where ten people in attendance was a good Sunday, as well as all points in between. Looking back, I think the times in which we were happiest with church life and in which we experienced the most spiritual growth were the times that we were in congregations of well under 100 people. Here are a few reasons why I love and appreciate small churches.
1. In a small church, everyone knows and cares for everyone else.
Most of my speaking engagements take place in the context of a “rally” held in a given county or community, where the Gideons in that area arrange for speakers to visit a number of churches in that area on the same Sunday morning. The day will begin with an early morning breakfast and prayer meeting, after which we will leave to find our assigned churches. Usually this results in my being the first person to arrive at the church, since I always allow extra time in case Google Maps doesn’t actually know how to find the address (not an uncommon occurrence out in the country). This means that I get to observe the congregation as they all trickle in for the Sunday School hour and then as others arrive for worship. This past Sunday I was delighted to see that everyone present, without exception, evidently knew of, cared about, and had prayed for—or actually assisted with—the needs of the others during the week. While in large congregations some folks can inadvertently be made to feel invisible (and sometimes people want to be invisible), I’m always delighted to see how the people in these little congregations so evidently care for one another.
2. In a small church, everyone must be prepared to fulfill just about every responsibility.
When attending small churches I have had opportunities to teach, to lead singing, to play the piano (very rarely…and badly), and even preach a couple of times. I’ve also had opportunities to clean bathrooms, hang signage, purchase needed items, organize tracts, vacuum floors, prepare the elements for communion, maintain websites, mow and trim grass, keep the financial books, and basically every imaginable task involved in making sure worship services and every other ministry take place. This isn’t always efficient, streamlined, or in any way attractive to worldly eyes, but it is one of my favorite things about small churches. Everyone gets their hands dirty!
3. In a small church, services are Word-centered and relatively unadorned.
As our present church has grown there has been a concerted effort to make the worship experience smoother, more efficient, more professional in its execution. This is not necessarily a bad thing; for various reasons the homespun campiness of so many small congregations’ worship would seem rather out of place in a larger church. Nevertheless, lacking the resources and paid staff of their larger counterparts, small churches have little choice but to build simple worship services that are centered upon the preaching of the Word, the administration of the sacraments, and prayer. This is not to say that large churches’ worship is not thus focused, but the absence of these resources necessarily leads to a simpler devotion that I find attractive.
Of course, there are many blessings associated with large churches, as well. These are the churches that do much to fund seminaries, publishing houses, and various parachurch ministries that have been of tremendous benefit to Christ’s church. We are all better off because these congregations exist, and many Christians prefer being a part of a larger church because of the variety of opportunities that these churches offer. Still, I often find myself missing those smaller churches in which my wife and I spent several happy years. We might not have had all the “bells and whistles,” but we had little groups of Christians who loved the Lord and each other, and took God’s Word and worship very seriously. Every time the Gideons send me to a small church I hope and pray that the congregation I visit is and will continue to be just like that.