I’ve never understood this, but it is commonly believed that the number of people in church on a Sunday morning is indicative of that church’s success, health, and effectiveness. This understanding is so prevalent that I learned early on that when telling people I was a minister, I should expect be asked the size of my congregation. I was haunted by a sneaking suspicion that they were using this number purely to evaluate my performance as a pastor. A small congregation must mean that I was one of the lazy dregs of my denomination, whereas a large church meant I was highly motivated and, here’s a disturbing thought, stronger in my personal faith and obedience to God.
In my mind, churches are like schools; there is no connection between size and health. This is especially true when you take into account things like location, community demographics, or changes in a community’s demographic. The church I grew up in was tiny; we averaged 30 adults on a Sunday, and I was one of the four kids in Sunday school. We didn’t have a youth room or a space just for us because every space (and I mean every) was ours. We didn’t have one day a year where we led worship because we assisted weekly in whatever way we could. No matter your age or skill set, there seemed to always be something you could do and someone willing to teach the harmonizing of service and worship. My earliest memory is helping wash the tiny communion cups. I remember being mesmerized by the wrinkles on the hands of the woman teaching me how to dry as she explained to me why these funny little cups were so cherished. We weren’t related, but she became another grandmother to me just as the other people in the pews filled out an extended family. They taught me that like with family, size is irrelevant because it’s the amount of love that matters. It’s because of that, and because of them, that I have never thought I had to grow up in a small church, but rather, I got to grow up in a small church.
As many congregations are experiencing shifts in size, pastors and leaders are struggling with this brutal assumption that low attendance reflects their lack—their lack of love, education, prayers, preaching ability, holy listening, pastoral care, relatability, and willingness to work. Sunday schools are shifting into one-room models and leaders are adapting church programs so they can accommodate a variety of generations rather than one. Clergy often feel this is something they have to do. However, I see this something we get to do. As a church we get to have over 100 years of life in a room at once. We get to have multiple generations sharing stories, learning, laughing, and celebrating together. Where else in life do we get to be in a space filled with so many gifts, experiences, and stories of faith? Where else do we get to connect and be with people outside of our age, gender, and whatever else would otherwise be the label and possibly limitation of our small group? The church is in a tough place right now, but I believe that this is an opportunity, this is a blessing, and I am haunted by a sneaking suspicion that it might even be the work of God.