Is There Still a Place for the Small Church?

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, March 10, 2013

Matthew 18:19-20; Hebrews 10:23-25 GNT

In 1970, there were approximately 50 megachurches in America.  The accepted definition of a megachurch is a church which has an average weekend worship attendance of 2,000 plus.  The number of megachurches increased from 50 to 150 by 1980; to 300 by 1990; to 600 by 2000; to 1,200 by 2005; and megachurches number over 1,600 today.1  More than 50 percent of church attendees in America attend the largest 10 percent of churches. 

But the characteristics of these megachurches are also interesting to ponder.  More than half (54%) of megachurches are nondenominational.  Seventy-one (71) percent are evangelical, another 8% are Pentecostal, and another 5% are Charismatic.  Only 4% are theologically moderate, and less than 1% are liberal.  Also interesting are the megachurch worship characteristics.  Ninety-eight (98) percent use drums and/or other percussion instruments in worship, 97% use projectors for hymns and so on, and 96% use electric guitars.2  Though the rate of growth in the number of megachurches seems to be slowing, the number continues to grow.  That being the case, here is the question for the day: “Is there still a place for the small church like this United Church?”

But let’s look at the other side of the coin.  The “Hartford Institute for Religious Research found that half of America’s congregations consist of 75 weekly attendees or less.”3  Or to phrase it another way, “The median church in the U.S. has 75 or fewer regular participants on Sunday mornings.”  That is, “the point at which half the churches are smaller and half the churches are larger.”4  Now, I realize that sometimes it is difficult to make all the figures add up and get a clear picture of church attendance in America.  But here is a point that maybe we can visualize: Of all the churches that are open for worship on a given weekend, half of those churches will have 75 people or less in attendance.  So although megachurches appear to be playing a prominent role in American Christianity, small churches with an average attendance of 75 or less play just as prominent a role.

One of the facts is the megachurch is not for everyone.  For some people, the megachurch fills a need the small church cannot fill.  But people are different.  For others, the small church fills a need the megachurch cannot fill.  One plus of the small church is it can provide a family-like atmosphere where everyone can know everyone else, if they want to, and feel cared for as one feels cared for in a loving family.  “The Barna Group did a study of . . . Americans to find out what people are experiencing in church, and they found that among people who were members of a church of 100 or less, 81 percent felt as if they were a part of a group that really cared for one another.”3

Small churches can be thriving churches (bursting with life), if they are doing things effectively.  Things like providing loving community, genuine care for one another, opportunities for quality fellowship, joyful and uplifting worship, avenues to spiritual growth for both children and adults, and opportunities to engage in service and outreach to the community and wider world.

The size of a church has never been the criteria for measuring a church’s effectiveness.  We are all familiar with the quote Matthew attributes to Jesus where he says, “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am in the midst of them.”  Matthew set these words to paper (or more accurately, to papyrus), no doubt, at a time when there were many small house churches of a dozen or so people.  Such is the way that early Christianity started out—in small house churches.  A number of Paul’s letters make mention of the church that meets in so and so’s house.  (See Romans 16:5; 1 Corinthians 16:19; Colossians 4:15.)  The effectiveness of a church of any size—whether it be 20 or 2,000—is whether or not it exhibits the essential elements of the well-rounded church—quality teaching and preaching, caring fellowship, joyful and uplifting worship, supportive pastoral care, and opportunities for service to those in the fellowship, the community and wider world.  In the verses that come from Hebrews, the writer links meeting together as a church with love, concern, and encouragement.  This is something that the small church can do best.  Brandon O’Brien, religious studies professor at the college of DuPage, writes that “Much of modern society is so impersonal that I think people are longing for deep and sincere connections with other people.”3  In the words of Russian writer Dostoevsky, “Every man ought to have at least one place where people feel for him!”5  Such a place, such connections, are provided by the small church that is being the church that it should be.

Some years ago, my minister colleague, Vernon Burrows, wrote in his church newsletter, “We come to church because we are hungry for community.  We want to know and to be known.  We want to be in relationship with others.  We want to be able to share and have others share with us. . .  groups, activities, classes are created and maintained and sustained so that relationships can be formed in order that people know they belong and matter and that we can have a relationship to one another . . .”

And I have to agree with Robert Schuller who said it right in contending that “Nothing can be more important to a healthy, self-respecting, honored life than joining a community in which people affirm each other . . . .  The church stands alone in society as an institution dedicated to helping people establish positive relationships.”6  In the small church we rejoice with one another, cry with one another, help one another, and support one another.  Small church worship can be a refuge, a mini-retreat, a place to be reinvigorated and given new strength and perspective on the challenges of the world.  Something like our church’s In-Reach Committee can only work in a small, caring congregation like ours.  Can you imagine an In-Reach Committee keeping track of and responding to the concerns of every member of a megachurch?

Most of us are old enough to remember the sitcom, Cheers, from a few decades ago.  Do you remember the words to the song that brought us that show each week?

Making your way in the world today takes everything you’ve got.
Taking a break from all your worries, sure would help a lot.
Wouldn’t you like to get away?
Sometimes you want to go
Where everybody knows your name,
and they’re always glad you came.
You wanna be where you can see,
our troubles are all the same
You wanna be where everybody knows
Your name.  (by Gary Portnoy and Judy Hart Angelo)
The small church can be that special place where we can get away, and take our worries, and everybody knows our name, and they’re always glad we came.

Returning to the megachurch, “few churches sustain megachurch attendance levels over a long period.  [Of] the ten largest churches in 1969, none . . . are in the top ten today.”1  But for some people, the megachurch satisfies their longing and fulfills their needs.  And who are we to argue with that?

But for others of us, the small church better suits us and satisfies our longing and fulfills our needs.  So in spite of the focus on and hype about megachurches in the media, there will always be a place for the small church like this United Church, I believe.  If half of the churches in America average less than 75 in attendance on any given weekend, the small church must be doing something right.  But being small doesn’t necessarily mean being quality.  Any church—small church or large—has to work hard to assure that all the necessary components of the church—worship, teaching, fellowship, pastoral care, outreach, and service to others—are the best that we can make them.  If we are careful to do this, there will always be a place for the small church.  Amen.

1Thom S. Rainer, The Christian Post, Sept. 19, 2012.   2Leadership Network.   3Meghan Davis, Knoxville News Sentinel, Dec. 15, 2012.   4Hartford Institute for Religion Research.   5Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment.   6Robert Schuller, Believe in the God Who Believes in You.  New York: Bantam Books, 1991. Pp.44, 45.

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About randykhammer

Minister and writer
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