The Small Church Advantage (And a Couple Challenges)

Feb 21, 2023

By Bishop Michael Rinehart

About one third of the people in the US attend a worship service once or twice a month. We always hear about the very large mega churches in the media, but median worship attendance in US churches is about 65 people. If you have 75 people in worship, you are above average in church size. If you have 200 people in worship, you are in the 90th percentile.

There is a lot of conversation out there about the advantages of big churches. Undoubtably, big churches can afford staffing for youth and children’s ministries and provide all kinds of programming for singles, divorcees, and small groups. The music program in large churches is often quite good.

It is less common to hear about the advantages of small congregations. There are many. For starters, one can get lost in a large congregation, if there are not constantly forming small groups. A small congregation is likely to recognize a visitor right away. A small congregation can feel like a family. In a small congregation, you can get to know just about everybody.

I recently spoke with a synod authorized minister who serves two very small congregations in a neighboring synod. She was telling me that she wrote handwritten notes to every family in both congregations to gracefully check in with them. This would obviously be impractical in a congregation with a thousand members.

There are other advantages as well. When a large congregation makes a big change it’s a lot of work. A small congregation can pivot quickly. A simple calling tree can get the word out in an afternoon. Communication is a lot easier. Small congregations are nimble. They can turn on a dime. That came in handy during the pandemic.

Sam Walton talked one time about thriving small businesses in the shadow of Walmart. He described the difference between buying paint at a local Sherwin-Williams and buying paint at the Walmart paint department. The tactical advantage of a small business is that you can remember the name of your clients and can even track the color codes of the paint they use in each of their rooms. At Walmart, it’s sometimes even hard to find someone to help you. A small business can provide customer service in a close and personal way. I found myself wondering if it isn’t the same in small congregations.

People in small churches are more likely to be in each other’s homes. Large churches can do this, but they must work hard at building small groups and connecting people. Small congregations must work at it as well, but it’s less complicated.

Large congregations often have big program youth ministries. Small congregations feel like they are missing out sometimes. Because there is no big program youth ministry, kids end up singing in the choir, ushering, and being welcomed into the adult life of the congregation. It turns out that small congregations end up teaching young people how to be part of the congregation as adults. Youth ministers often discuss the challenges of involving young people in large congregations after they graduate. They are so used to being part of a highly programmed youth ministry tailor-made for their developmental stage, they struggle to figure out how to engage the congregation as adults.

Both small congregations and large congregations can grow baptized and grow disciples. One is not better than the other. They both have strength and challenges.

One challenge for small congregations I’ve discovered is a bit of an inferiority complex. When I asked them what they love about their church, they say, “We are small, like a family.” Then when I ask them what their hopes and dreams are, they say, “We want to grow.” The challenge is that the two can be mutually exclusive. When a congregation starts to grow, and some people can’t know everybody, they feel that they’ve lost some of that family groove. Most congregations shrink back to a small size to regain that feel. Some congregations recognize they are entering a new style of ministry and change with the growth.

Another challenge is reaching young adults and singles. If you’re looking to meet people of faith to make friends, and maybe even date, the large congregation provides a larger population base. Sometimes singles feel a little out of place in a family-based congregation. This can be overcome by making a special effort to welcome singles and be careful about the way we talk about family and the way we reprogram events.

Another challenge of small congregations is the same challenge faced by small businesses: the costs are higher. If you are paying a musician, let’s say a pianist or an organist, and there are 50 people in worship. The cost per person is higher than if you have 200 people in worship. The same goes for the pastor and the rest of the staff. In this post-pandemic world of supply-chain economics and global inflation, this has posed a challenge to small congregations. Healthcare costs have skyrocketed along with utilities and supplies.

In our office, we spend a lot of time working with congregations in this situation. Sometimes it means finding a part-time pastor who has another job on the side. Other times it’s a retired pastor who wants to work part-time. Retired pastors bring a lot of experience and maturity to the table. Sometimes it is getting two congregations to share a pastor, making it more economical, though perhaps a little bit complicated.

The challenges for small congregations are not unlike the challenges faced by rural and small-town hospitals, gas stations, post offices, and grocery stores. Some of these challenges can be overcome when small congregations partner with larger congregations. In some parts of the world, a larger congregation will have several satellites. Many of the overhead costs are shared with the satellites in the mother church. This has worked well in developing countries.

Those partnerships can take on many different forms. For example, a large congregation and a small congregation can work together on confirmation. A small congregation can use bulletin formats and other resources from a larger congregation, which may have a full-time paid musician. In some cases, a larger congregation might even print the bulletin for a smaller congregation. In other cases, more permanent relationships emerge, like a more formal partnership between the two congregations. In this case, an associate pastor of a large congregation may also lead worship at the smaller congregation.

We are feeling the divide between urban and rural in this country in many ways. The reality is we need each other. People in urban areas need food provided by the rural areas, and the spiritual connection to the land. People in rural areas need the medical centers, businesses, and universities often found in the population centers. The crisis of rural hospitals is not going to be solved without help from urban medical centers. It may be that some of the struggles of rural congregations will not be solved without support from urban congregations.

Let’s hold this conversation in our conferences. Let’s imagine partnerships and try some experiments. We have nothing to lose. Let’s generate some sufficiently excellent mistakes along the way. Through such endeavors, we may learn a few things, and along the way, maybe even heal some of the division so rampant in the world.