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In Praise of Small Churches

Learn how church dynamics shift as congregations change size. A feature story exploring small churches, like All Nations Christian Reformed Church in Halifax, Nova Scotia, that are making the most of their size.

Recently, nearly half the congregation surged forward to lay hands on a fellow member as he was ordained campus pastor to nearby Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. They were kids, senior citizens; professors, barely literate; poor, prosperous, in between; people with Asian, Caribbean, European, and North American accents.

The moment showed how much this small church has changed. Like many Christian Reformed Churches in Canada, the one in Halifax was founded by Dutch immigrants. They didn’t worship in English till the early 1960s.

In 1978 the congregation changed its name to All Nations Christian Reformed Church. And by 2000, All Nations CRC reported its membership as 28% Dutch Canadian, the rest from other nations.

“At Pentecost, we’ve asked people to say John 3:16 in their first language. One year we had more than a dozen languages,” says John Barnstead, who began attending back when the congregation met in a converted Victorian home.

This small strong congregation knows better than to try to be all things to all people. It does what smaller congregations are uniquely suited to do—worshiping and eating together, loving God and neighbor. And it’s working through growing pains with grace.

Even kids feel included

In his book Effective Small Churches in the 21st Century, Carl Dudley writes, "When church size is measured by human relationships, the small church is the largest expression of the Christian faith."

That’s because, while people in larger churches often think of a small group or committee as their network of care, people in small churches develop caring relationships throughout the congregation. 

For example, ask what people like about All Nations and you’ll hear the same answers from all ages. They love doing communion with everyone in one big circle around the sanctuary. They describe the congregation as a family. They feel part of the worship.

“I like that every week we go through a page of the church phone book during the congregational prayer,” says Simon Walker, age 12, who plays African hand drums in church.

“I like that, too, because it reminds me of people who might not come every week. And there’s a lot of community with music because so many of us (in junior and senior high) play instruments in worship,” Ben Diepeveen adds.

Most of the church’s teens or pre-teens have read Scripture, played an instrument, or danced with flags during worship. Teens feel free to invite people decades older to do something fun together.

The choir teaches new songs to the congregation. Liturgies and songs use “we” and “our” far more than “I” or “my.”  International students with heavy accents volunteer to read Scripture.

“Flexible and generous”

“We try out a lot of different things in worship. Our church is very eager and flexible. We rarely don’t do something because we don’t dare.

“It’s hard to separate worship from the life of the church. People have such generosity that flows in and out of worship. That might be a function of a small church,” says Len Diepeveen, worship committee chair.

When people step forward with gifts, worship leaders try to make space. Dorette Pronk says she was raised in a strict Reformed church in the Netherlands so at first resisted what she heard God calling her to do—dance with flags during worship songs and lead others to do so.

Jessica Schuringa says that simply seeing the dancers in her peripheral vision “allows a more physical kind of worship. Anyone can join in if they want. It is not practiced nor orchestrated.”

A first-time visitor commented that after seeing the flag dancing, she felt confident that the church would also accept her, a young single mom.

Pastor Dave Vroege is always looking for people’s gifts and ways to use them in worship. He offers easy steps for shy people to participate, such as asking a deacon to pray after an offering.

Before the Thanksgiving service, he invited people to bring things they were thankful for or that represented their thanks. (And he assured everyone ahead of time that whatever they brought up during the service—“webkin, action figure, apple, CD, or hydraulic excavator”—could be taken home afterwards.)

“There are priorities in worship planning that hold solid, so the means can change. People trust that the Word is central, intentions are good, and not a lot of ego is involved,” says Valerie Walker, who leads the congregation’s Children and Worship program.

Loving God and neighbor

Vroege and other members say they’re glad the congregation has so many gifted musicians. They wish they had more people to do visual arts or plan multisensory services. Some years there aren’t enough kids in a given age group to have boys club or girls club.

All Nations focuses ministry on worship, education, fellowship, and outreach. These four mark health in churches of any size, according to David R. Ray in his book The Indispensable Guide for Smaller Churches. Ray says small churches are “the right size in which to love God and neighbor.”

Jane and Doug Porter led an adult Sunday school class in planning services for Lent and Eastertide. The class helped plan liturgies. For Lenten evening services, eating a rice and lentils supper together was part of the worship. During the Easter season, the congregation met in homes for lunch together after church. Four years later, people still talk about what that experience taught them about the fellowship and communion.

Every Sunday morning, along with collection baskets, deacons bring forward food donated for the church’s emergency food pantry.

“I’ve had my junior high Sunday school students or Little Lambs (preschoolers whose moms are in a weekday Bible study) help bring the food from the sanctuary and pack it in the emergency cupboard.

“We talk about who needs food and what they’d like to receive. Kids start to pick out and bring in food on their own,” says Elna Siebring, the church’s part-time administrator and community networking coordinator.

She meets with the Homeless Network and people from other churches to share ministry ideas and address community needs. “I meet monthly with deacons and with Pastor Dave and invite the congregation to ‘come and see,’ ;” Siebring says.

Members now help other churches staff Saturday breakfasts and Sunday suppers for homeless people. The church donates space for art therapy, substance abuse, and other community meetings. And when they take a special offering, All Nations deacons describe the cause before the offering and pray for the local ministry after the offering.

Dynamics of Congregation Size

If it seems that almost every churchgoer you know attends a large church, you might wonder why you see so many small churches.

A Congregations Magazine summary of recent research on congregation size says studies show that most congregations are small. Nearly 60% of churches have less than 100 people, including children, at a typical service.

At the same time, most churchgoers attend larger churches that draw more than 350 people to Sunday worship. In fact, half of U.S. churchgoers are concentrated in only 10% of its churches—the largest ones. The situation is similar in Canada.

Understanding how congregation size affects dynamics helps churches grow with grace.

Church size and culture

By most measures, All Nations Christian Reformed Church in Halifax, Nova Scotia, is a smaller congregation. The church directory lists less than 200 people, including children, regular attenders, and non-attending spouses of active members. The congregation has less than 80 adult professing members.

Church consultants often help pastors and members sort out congregational issues according to these church size categories:

  • Family church (fewer than 50 active members): Longtime members set the direction and see the minister’s role as offering pastoral care.
  • Pastoral church (50 to 150 active members): Church life revolves around relationships, with the pastor and key lay leaders at the center.
  • Program church (150 to 350 active members): As the church grows too large for the senior pastor to know everybody, church programs become more important. Lay leaders or extra staff offer pastoral care.
  • Corporate church (350 or more active members): People come to the church for excellent worship and excellent programs. They receive pastoral care mainly through their small group.

These categories are based on an oft-quoted but out-of-print booklet, Sizing Up a Congregation for New Member Ministry, written by Arlin Rothauge and summarized here.

Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, says there is no best size for a church. However, since congregation size often determines culture more than denomination or region do, Keller suggests looking at potential blessings and pitfalls of church size.

He notes that larger churches often have “difficulty keeping track of members who begin to drop out or fall away from the faith.”

All Nations CRC is small enough to notice who’s not there. “I raised my family in this church. But after my marriage broke down, I withdrew from church. The church didn’t withdraw from me, much to my surprise. After four years I began coming to church again,” says Holly Bell, now on the worship committee.

Between sizes

Experts differ on whether church dynamics shift when regular Sunday morning attendance tops 150 or 200 or slightly more. But most agree that the hardest transition for most churches is between pastoral and program sizes.

People at All Nations CRC speak of their congregation as “personal,” “intimate,” “like a family,” “a place where you visit one Sunday and people remember your name the next week.”

They exemplify what Carl Dudley writes in Effective Small Churches in the 21st Century, “The essential character of the small church is this capacity to care about everyone personally. The small church cannot grow in membership size without giving up its most precious appeal, its intimacy.”

Before calling Dave Vroege as their pastor, the congregation overwhelmingly agreed that they wanted someone excellent in both preaching and pastoral care (see questions 9 and 10). They gave the lowest priority to calling a minister who would develop and administer programs for members and visitors.

Ironically, playing so well to their strengths sometimes pushes Vroege and All Nations into an awkward “in between” situation.

“We used to share prayer requests in the morning. As the church got bigger, people couldn’t hear as well, so it didn’t feel as corporate,” Valerie Walker says.

Her son David, age 13, says, “I liked it when you could request prayers. Other people said it took too long.”

Elna Siebring says the congregation used to celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays together, at the church. “We don’t know everybody anymore. Not everyone gets invited to events in homes—or maybe no one notices who can’t come unless they get a ride.

“If you’re spending time with people who aren’t included, it sometimes means giving up relationships that are more comfortable,” she says.

Elder Dale Poel says, “How does worship respond to people’s needs to be enfolded? It’s an ongoing question.”

Small and spiritually strong

Churches that compare themselves to larger congregations sometimes feel inadequate. However, as Congregations Magazine explains, research shows that congregations don’t have to be large to be spiritually strong.

What matters more is how involved people are in worship and beyond. It’s easier in larger churches to simply show up for worship and leave. In smaller churches, the need for everyone to pitch in draws people grow closer to God and each other.

All Nations belongs to a denomination that lists ten characteristics of healthy congregations. These include proclaiming God’s Word with power and integrity, receiving the gospel promises in the sacraments, promoting genuine loving fellowship, and advocating justice for the poor and the powerless. None of these depend on being a large church.

The evening service at All Nations works especially well with a small group. It’s based on lectio divina, a way of meditating with scripture, and includes monthly communion.

“With our evening worship attendance dwindling, I thought I’d try out lectio divina during evening worship in Lent. It was so popular that we’ve continued it,” Vroege says.

Evening worship happens in the cozy church library. The group is small enough for people to share prayer requests. Visitors often wander in off the street and feel comfortable to stay.

“One woman with spiritual difficulties feels most accepted in lectio divina services. She says she can’t handle morning worship,” Vroege adds.

Learn More

All Nations members Jane and Doug Porter have led two grant projects. They trained members young and old to read Scripture more dramatically. Doug created Awesome in Glory, a blog that inspires scripture readers. The Porters also led an adult Sunday school class in planning services for Lent and Eastertide.   

Get sermon and devotional ideas from Proclaiming the Christmas Gospel: Ancient Sermons and Hymns for Contemporary Christian Inspiration by Dave Vroege and John D. Witvliet. 

All Nations Christian Reformed Church builds fellowship through an annual church hike.

Want to get musically inspired and help homeless people heal in Halifax? Buy a Shining Lights CD. All Nations community networking coordinator Elna Siebring recommends the book What Every Church Member Should Know About Poverty by Bill Ehlig and Ruby Payne.

All Nations CRC learned a lot from having two members attend the triennial Street Level Conference(the next one will be March 25-29, 2009, in Ottawa, Ontario). It’s a conference for Canadian Christians working to end poverty and homelessness.

If it seems your church is changing its personality through growth or decline, then get insights from these books:

Read prayer requests from small churches in the Presbytery of Ohio Valley. Get inspired by signs of vitality in small churches across the U.S.

For fascinating research on religious trends in Canada, check out the work of Reginald W. Bibby, a sociologist at the University of Lethbridge in Lethbridge, Alberta.

If you agree with Richard K. Bliese’s Christian Century article on how small churches are uniquely equipped to reach the unchurched, then check out this Barna Group study on unchurched Americans

The Hartford Institute for Religious Research maintains a treasure trove about congregational research. Use the National Congregations database to create tables, such as the relationship between congregation size and numbers of people in church music groups.

Congregational Resources offers advice on church size transitions and small church vitality.

Learn more about Sustaining Congregational Excellence, a grant program for Christian Reformed churches in North America that have 100 adult professing members or less.

Browse related stories about Epiphany in missional churchesfilling your life with scriptureinvolving more people in worship and rural churches.

Start a Discussion

Talk about your church’s culture and characteristics:

  • Is your congregation small or large compared to All Nations CRC? How is your church culture the same as or different than All Nations?
  • Describe an experience that helped you see that your congregation’s size shapes what people want or expect from your pastor and your worship services.
  • Is your congregation going through a size transition, either growing or declining? What worship practices are most helpful to you as your church deals with this change?
  • In what ways has your congregation’s changing size affected specific worship practices? How can you give members a chance to voice their sadness, relief, or gladness about these changes?

Share Your Wisdom

What is the best way you’ve found to help your congregation identify opportunities and challenges related to your church size?

  • Did you design a project to help members improve how your church welcomes and enfolds people? If so, will you share it with us?
  • As attendance grows, have you figured out how to stay connected with people on the margins, perhaps older adults and their caretakers, people with disabilities, or people with less income or education?