For I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you— that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine. Romans 1:11-12
Our church is small. We have one service every Sunday, and our sanctuary seats 200. We don’t fill all the pews. Our numbers are not particularly declining and not particularly growing; they’ve been about the same for several years. We pay our bills, we support our pastor, and we have very little debt. Sometimes people come around and try to encourage us: “oh, you have a new pastor, now you’ll grow.” It’s easy to fall into the trap of being ashamed of being small. But I just shrug. While I always want everyone to hear my pastor’s wonderful preaching, I’m not sure that what we could have is better than what we do have now. I’ve been in bigger churches, but I’ve never been in one I’ve loved more. This is what I love about being beautifully small:
- I know my pastor, and not just his name. Have you ever wondered how many people who go to Saddleback mega-church really know Rick Warren? I wonder. They see him preach every Sunday, whether in person or on a screen, but he doesn’t know their name. He doesn’t know most of his parishioners’ struggles, and he doesn’t pray for them, except maybe in a collective sense. How could he? How many of Joel Osteen’s parishioners have been over to a BBQ at his mansion? I would bet not many. If you have a problem for which you need pastoral support, what do you do? Call your pastor’s cell phone? If you’re a member of Saddleback, you probably have a pastor under the pastor, or maybe you call the hotline, and they get back to you. If they send someone out to your bedside at the hospital at the worst moment of your life, have you even met that person before? Have you heard him preach? Do you know if he’s theologically trained, and do you know his kids’ names? Yeah, it matters. Faith is personal. I know my pastor, or I’m getting to know him anyway, and he’s getting to know me. I have his cell phone number, and I could call it if I need to. He knows I wouldn’t call unnecessarily, and I know he would come see me anytime if I truly needed him. I know he would comfort my family and me with the Gospel if he were there with me at the worst moment of my life.
- I know the people at my church, and not just because of a “small group.” We don’t have small groups; we don’t need them. We don’t organize ourselves generationally–I know the two-year-old, I know the teens, and I know the 80 year-olds. We have lunch together sometimes; I’ll be sitting at a table with a 40 year-old, a 60 year-old, and a 70 year-old, and we’ll have a wonderful time talking about life. In a small church, you know everyone else, their struggles and their joys. You pray for them by name. You know when the person who sits near you every Sunday in the pews isn’t there, and if she misses a couple Sundays, she might get a call or a card. You weep with a friend when they’re sick, when their husband passes away, or when they’re having a bad day. You’re a community of support for each other. You rejoice in the births of grandchildren, in new jobs, in travels and retirements. Sure, you don’t know everyone equally well, but you know most people who stick around. It’s no small thing to walk with people through all the times of their lives and to love them.
- My congregation makes me a better person. Because people know me, they can talk to me. We gently challenge each other’s attitudes sometimes. Recently, I’ve had conversations with people at church about being able to forgive others who’ve wronged you, about confidentiality in church relationships, about whether being “comfortable” at church is a good thing, about the perspective you take when God doesn’t answer our prayers in the way that we want Him to, about dealing with people you disagree with. These personal relationships in the context of faith are very meaningful. After all, being a Christian doesn’t mean you’re suddenly perfect; we can always grow in Christ together.
- We can properly care for people as individuals. We do have some homebound parishioners, and in a small congregation, they can be seen and loved on a regular basis by people they know. Even our sick and frail elderly who do come to services yet know that they have people who care about them and ask how they’re doing on a regular basis. If something comes up, we know about it, and we’re there to help.
The measure of a congregation’s health is not whether it is growing; it is whether the Gospel is being properly proclaimed and the Sacraments are being rightly administered. The Gospel grows a collection of people into a community of love. God loves us and shows us what love is. We are taught to love. We love each other. May we always continue to grow in faith, hope, and love.
Christ’s church and real Christians never boast of great achievements. His kingdom is not of this world. Here the great achievements belong to tyrants and crooks. God’s successes in this world are always modest, for His triumph is in the realm of the spirit. -Rev. Richard Wurmbrand in Reaching Toward the Heights