Worship is the most important and most consistent element of congregational life. It is the practice of worship that defines a church as a church and not a social club or service organization. The size of a church has a direct impact on worship. While some believe that small congregations cannot meet the needs of current and future generations with sufficient “programming options,” we contend that programs are secondary to faithful, effective congregational ministry. Although small faith communities cannot pack the church building 24/7 with small groups, classes, music rehearsals, and the like, they can provide vibrant worship that honors God and reminds worshipers of their identity and calling in Jesus Christ. God is present with and empowers the faithful in worship, as the scriptures testify: “But You are holy, O You who dwell in the praises of Israel” (Ps. 22:3 AMP).
Vibrant worship undergirds church life beyond weekly gatherings, providing a strong sense of community and deeply personal pastoral care. It is our belief that small congregations can remind the wider church that the very purpose of any church, regardless of size, is to be a people who worship God.
Small congregations take on many forms. They may be single-point, solo-pastor ministries; yoked congregations served by the same minister; or congregations “clustered” with a ministry team. Congregations may receive full or partial denominational financial assistance, and congregations in any of these configurations may be led entirely by laypeople or clergy, either full- or part-time. The form of organization is often defined by economics rather than by mission or ministry needs and can itself influence how the congregation functions. Judicatory bodies also play a role in these settings. Such factors affect congregational self-esteem, leadership style, and autonomy.
Most clergy in small churches come from urban or suburban backgrounds and are recent seminary graduates, steeped in city and university life. Small congregations—particularly those in rural or remote communities, with their strong traditions, unwritten codes of conduct, and weariness at “breaking in” another pastor—can leave clergy in a state of culture shock, learning to speak a new language and to navigate a new life. Clergy may find themselves echoing the psalmist’s lament: “How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?” (Ps. 137:4 NIV). In preparing for worship, clergy probably face an indigenous liturgy that may bear little or no resemblance to the careful teachings of seminary professors, while members assume that the way they worship is the pattern used by all congregations.
Worshipers may be familiar with a small, select repertoire of music. The hymnals in use may be from another time or tradition. Prayer books and other worship guides may not be the most recent editions promoted by the denomination. Practices around communion, baptism, prayer, and seasonal celebrations are steeped in the traditions of that particular congregation. Weddings and funerals bring another set of expectations. Clergy must learn the ways of worship in this congregation, and honor those practices as they seek to renew worship.
At the same time clergy are learning the customs of the small church, they must discover their place as worship planners and leaders. With a small number of people to work with, clergy are often tempted to take on too many responsibilities and roles in worship. They plan and lead every aspect of the service alone, from reading Scripture to selecting hymns. Some musically gifted clergy may even accompany the singing to the exclusion of other instrumentalists. Production of the weekly order of service and announcements may be theirs, too—accompanied by complaints that they receive little or no help from the congregation.
Preparation for ministry and personal gratification may contribute to this pattern. As students, clergy are often taught in, and thus emulate, a “lone ranger” style, as opposed to a more collegial approach to ministry. Clergy and church members alike may accept the tradition that “the minister” is “the expert” in worship and the professional at the task of worship leadership. Members who have endured yet another period without a pastor gladly breathe a sigh of relief, grateful that someone else can now assume the tasks they have borne for so long. However, the wisest course for the long-term health of both minister and church is to work as a team, partners in worship preparation and leadership. Scripture teaches that all of God’s people have gifts to be used in the work of the ministry (see Eph. 4:11-13). Clergy self-care demands that the tasks of ministry be shared. A servant-leader model of ministry avoids the potential of a “worship expert” being elevated above the worshipers.
Small congregations, like all churches, look for excellence in worship leaders. In the search for a new minister, they long for a skilled leader who will value the understanding and traditions of their faith community. Laity may feel fatigued after a time without a called minister, either having assumed many responsibilities themselves, or having endured a new worship leader each week. When a new minister arrives, a mixture of curiosity and cautious optimism abounds. People hope the relationship with this pastor will be a good and long one; yet they wonder if this minister will stay long enough to be trusted. If the relationship between the congregation and the minister proves to be difficult, the question becomes, “How much longer will he be here?” If the relationship with the minister becomes one of respect, trust, and deep affection, and if the minister is perceived as skilled and gifted, the question takes on another nuance: “How much longer will she be here? She is too good to stay in a small church like ours for very long.” Questions about “how long the minister will stay” form an undercurrent in the congregation, even as members brace themselves for the usual round of changes and new ideas that doubtless will surface.
Clergy serving small churches would be wise to keep in mind that those who are part of a small church have a deep commitment to their congregation and to its worship life. While these faith communities may appear resistant to change, they are in fact very much aware of the benefits and pitfalls of change. The need for change is recognized; how and why change happens are critical factors both clergy and laity must consider as they seek worship renewal. Articulated or not, a theology of worship resides deep in the ethos of the congregation. People have their own beliefs and understanding of worship and how worship “ought to be.” Discovering and developing a working theology of worship in a faith community is a task for both pastor and people. From this foundation, solid worship renewal is possible and even desired by those in the pulpit and the pew.
Excerpted from Where 20 or 30 Are Gathered: Leading Worship in the Small Church copyright © 2006 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved. For permission to reproduce, go toour permissions form.
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Tony Pappas shows how to enter into the world of the small church in this new edition of an old favorite that broadens and deepens his classic instruction on understanding small church tribes on their own terms. Grounded in proven principles, rich with anecdotes from real-life situations, and brimming with practical strategies, this is a fresh “must-read” for every small church pastor.