Big and Little Much the Same
by Rob Weingartner
Last week, I had the opportunity to gather at beautiful Montreat with a wonderful group of folks who have been engaged for years in ministry with smaller membership congregations. “Smaller” now describes the majority of congregations in the United States, most of which continue to lose members. In the PC(USA) the median size congregation has 84 members; that is, half of the churches in the denomination have 84 members or fewer. At the meeting, I was given some time to share my reflections about small congregations with the group, and this is the substance of what I shared.
Most of the congregations that God is using today to turn the world upside-down, particularly in the majority world where the church is growing the fastest, are small churches. In fact, many of them do not have a pastor. But they know that they are called to share the Good News in word and deed. They know, regardless of their size, that congregations are called into being in order to be agents of God’s mission in the world. Mission is not simply a program of the church; it is the purpose of the church. It is not the church’s mission; it is God’s mission into which we all are invited.
The critical question for a congregation, therefore, is not how big it is. Too many of the criteria that we use to judge the value and the success of a church are driven by our consumer culture and not derived from the Scriptures. The critical question is whether or not a congregation believes that it primarily exists for the sake of others, to be an agent of God’s mission. There are too many congregations of all sizes who behave as though they exist primarily for the sake of themselves.
Today, the church in every place is on the mission field, in every city and town and down every rural route. Given the weight of institutional inertia that comes with large congregations, smaller churches may even have an advantage in being able to look around them to see how God is at work and invite their members to participate in what he is doing. I’ve seen it happen! It can happen when a small congregations stops defining itself in terms of its deficits, lets go of the past, and begins to answer the question that God posed to Moses, “What is in your hands?”
What is in our hands? What do we have to use and to share? How can we serve others in ways that flesh out God’s love? What is God up to in our neighborhood? What breaks the heart of God out in the world? How can we uniquely respond.
Those kinds of questions can open us up to God’s Spirit in new ways. They can refresh, refocus and reform a congregation, no matter how big or small.