We stepped into the narthex and looked in at 350 seats chockful of graying heads. We were 19-year-old college kids. We were scared off, not only by the gray but also by the full pews of church humming along.
We walked west, through the park towards the large glass panels of a Catholic church already spilling into the parking lot. First service was over. We helped ourselves to donuts from the hospitality table and kept walking. We wandered up 15th Street, unconcerned about whether we would try a third church this morning. We were students; we had given it the ol’ college try.
The doors of Fourth Reformed were open so we wandered in. No one greeted us until we got to the top of the stairs and entered a musty sanctuary. A surprised old man looked up from a welcome table and shouted, “You boys want some sangria!?” He held a bottle of a dark, red, non-alcoholic liquid towards us. I had never seen this beverage before, and I haven’t seen it since. We took some. Service was going to start in 5 minutes. He pushed a package of duplex cookies towards us. We were home.
My friend and I were unknowingly following pastor and author Eugene Peterson’s advice for how to find a new church: Walk to the closest smallest church and go there. As time has progressed, more and more churches qualify as “small”, but they are dying off quickly. There are still lots of “small churches” in the United States, but the percentage of Christians who attend them decreases each year as the percentage of Christians who attend mega-churches increases. As a category, only large churches (congregations over 500) show consistent growth.1 The numbers say that small churches are a losing game, and if churches want to grow, they ought to look to North Point & Saddleback. As a pastor, almost every spam advertisement or email I get is about improving our churches SEO (Search Engine Optimization) and marketing plan. Big church is where the money is at.
I don’t resent a church with a production budget, a marketing team, or musicians that don’t share two copies of sheet music because the printer ran out of ink. They are, in some ways, safer. You can sneak into their dimly lit auditorium anonymously and leave unnoticed. There is a predictableness to the large American church experience that many find comforting. However, as church shoppers increasingly use their phones to find churches, the big ones always have the advantage.
When friends ask for church recommendations, I do what I can to steer them towards the small quirky church on their block. The church my friend and I stumbled into had duplex cookies, and it needed us. That’s what we felt when we showed up that Sunday. Upon reflection, those 19-year-old kids needed that small dying church.
The small church has plenty working against it: The website might not upload properly, the Facebook page hasn’t been updated since 2014, the Instagram account is the forgotten legacy of an intern tasked with bringing an old institution into the 21st century.
The small church also has the problem of intimacy. There is no anonymity in the pews in a church of 40. Hopefully you can avoid being asked to stand and introduce yourself, but there is no guarantee of that. Be especially warned about visiting a small church in the summer. There is always a Sunday in the summer when 11 people show up to service and the pastor vamps for too long about the “summer slump,” while silently wondering if the church has finally run its course.
In worship at a small church, a confusing assortment of instruments are used on any given week. A remnant of liturgical exploration, they tell the story of a worship war that faded into a scuffle when folks realized they couldn’t afford to fight over the music anymore. In a small church, the Prayers of the People slide into open-mic-night quickly, so the pastor sits ready to wrestle it away if necessary. But in the end, the small church knows how to pray for each other and they know that some prayers are best baked and left on a door step.
The small church is riskier to visit, there is no doubt. You might walk in the Sunday Dolores gets her first crack at preaching. But where you find a small church struggling to keep its doors open today, you find a church that is truly bearing one another’s burdens.
The pièce de rèsistance of the small church is the odd assortment of people forced to love each other because they are family, for better or worse. There aren’t enough kids for a youth group, so the older kids just look after the younger ones. The Elizabeth Warren pin-wearing woman who made the church do away with the Styrofoam cups you used to bite into as a kid can’t sit too far from the Make America Great Again hat-wearing grandpa of 12, who always arranges the chairs for the potlucks. The fluorescent lights and red-carpet create an ambiance in the basement for a strange sort of harmony that rarely happens in our world today. People who otherwise wouldn’t have much to do with each other, mysteriously, have everything to do with one another. When the bell tolls for a family moving away or for a saint passing on, it tolls for the entire community.
My friend and I spent our four college years at the small church with the sangria. We led worship and taught Sunday School. Their “college ministry” consisted of Wally, the 60-year-old drummer with shaky hands, stopping by our dorm on Sunday mornings to pick us up. It consisted of the older members figuring out who could have the “kids” over for Sunday lunch.
In the end, that church closed its doors. When a church dies, our autopsy always assumes that it could have lived. If only it had been more open to what God was doing in its midst, or if only it had marketed better or had better music. None of that is necessarily true. Sometimes churches close their doors. Sometimes God is doing something in the midst of the small dying church that has a beauty unto itself that doesn’t need to be justified in perpetual growth.
If you are a small church, be content as a small church. Don’t try to be a big church; you won’t do it any better than a big church. But if you are a small church that loves each other well and welcomes people in whatever way you know how, you will create a beauty that glorifies God.
Today, there is a wonderful new church meeting where our beloved small church died, with better coffee and less Sangria. The story of that transition is not of failure and success. It is the story of a grain of wheat falling to ground so that something new can grow (John 12). It is the story of steadfast faithfulness passed from one congregation to another. You can watch that story here.2