People don’t realize we’ve been doing ‘small group ministry’ for 150 years!” This comment from the leader of one of the many small congregations across the country got a laugh from the ministerial association of a small southern Indiana town, but any leader of a small congregation would recognize the truth in the comment. Small congregations often feel isolated from the bigger congregations in their communities and denominations, and even looked down upon by a culture that promotes the notion that bigger is better, but many of these congregations are thriving.
Statisticians tell us that while the majority of church members in the U.S. attend a large church, the majority of congregations are small. Many of these congregations provide an anchoring presence in the rural or small town communities they call home, and some offer services and programs to benefit the community at large and not just “their own.” Most small congregations enjoy much higher percentages of their members in worship and ministry than do their larger counterparts, and many make generous contributions to mission in the community and the wider world, especially in proportion to their size.
But these congregations often struggle to find resources appropriate to their setting. Materials seem to be tailored to large congregations with large staffs. At the same ministerial group meeting, another pastor said it seems that every seminar or book begins, “First you convene a meeting of your worship pastor, your outreach pastor, and your discipleship pastor . . .”
The Indianapolis Center for Congregations strives to find resources appropriate for each congregation we serve. Often small congregations can be resources for one another. We also find that when small congregations gain clarity about who they are and what they are uniquely called to be and to do, other challenges begin to resolve. One small, rural congregation in southern Indiana put time and energy into clarifying their mission, landing on three key areas. They determined to do these three things well and to put aside the “something for everyone” approach into which congregations so often fall. Energy for their three-part vision began to grow, and thirty of their fifty members (60 percent) joined one of the three ministry teams.
At the Center, we also find that when congregations build on their strengths and assets, energy and resources for big challenges tend to increase. Several small congregations in southwest Indiana have focused on the unique advantages they have precisely because they are small. They realized that some of their members go out of their way to be part of a small congregation, passing by bigger congregations with more extensive programming precisely because they like the relationships and the family feeling the small congregation affords. They began to appreciate some of the interactive things they could do in worship that just aren’t possible in a large group.
Some congregations have built on these positive attributes by using the tools of appreciative inquiry and asset mapping to identify their strengths and passions. One congregation located near the center of their small town identified their building as one of their best assets and launched a study process to determine better ways to use the building for ministry and to prioritize needed capital improvements. Energy for projects and even for fundraising increased as ministry purposes were clarified and priorities fell into place.
Another congregation noticed that while they didn’t have young families, they did have teenagers. They trained some of their adults in CPR so they could supervise the youth group in providing monthly “date night” child care for the young families in the new subdivision that has grown up nearby.
Another congregation knew that the recession had increased the numbers of hungry people in their rural community, but they didn’t really know who the hungry were or how to find them. They didn’t feel they had much expertise at social services, but they knew their congregation was “pretty good at food.” They began a free “community meal” one night a week, opening their congregation’s table to anyone who wanted to come. Within a few months, they were in the unexpected position of needing more space; each week more and more of their previously unknown hungry neighbors, along with some of their community’s lonely citizens, were joining them to break bread.
These congregations are not without challenges. Some of them have part-time pastors stretched thin as bivocational ministers. Many have budget woes and building maintenance issues. Still, the Center for Congregations finds that small congregations grow in their capacity to face their challenges when they do what these congregations did: identify one or more areas of strength and start small; look more at what they can do than at what they cannot; and resist traditional outside measures of success. They are proving that small is beautiful.
Wendy McCormick is the director of the Indianapolis Center for Congregations’ southwest Indiana office, located in Evansville.