May 2021
The Power of Small Churches

The Small Church as Icon

“It was not because you were more in numbers than any other people that the Lord set his heart on you and chose you – for you were the fewest of all peoples. It was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath that he swore to your ancestors.” (Deuteronomy 7:7-8a, NRSV)

“God wasn’t attracted to you and didn’t choose you because you were big and important – the fact is, there was almost nothing to you. He did it out of sheer love, keeping the promise he made to your ancestors.” (Deuteronomy 7:7-8a, The Message)

There’s some important ecclesiological and congregational counterculture embedded in the story of the Exodus. Even at the time, it seems, the numbers mattered. Being big and important mattered. But God, the Creator of Heaven and Earth, tells the people that in his economy, the numbers do not matter. Being big and important do not matter. Faithfulness matters. Above all, love matters.

Many generations later, a man named Jesus would go out into the world and call together a band of followers. The idea that there were only twelve men is false. The Twelve were important, but Jesus’ disciples were more than that and included women as well. But still, none of the Gospels refer to Jesus’ mega-movement. Beyond the Twelve, the numbers did not matter, nor did the size or importance of this band of followers. Faithfulness mattered. And above all, love mattered.

We live and move and have our being in a world in which we are told that the numbers, our size, our importance, do matter. Parishes track their numbers in multiple ways – in budgets, parish registers, church management software, programs, parochial reports. We hear, often, about how our numbers are down, about our decline and eventual death. “Grow or die,” we are told. The status of a priest is measured against the size of her parish. I hear often that bishops need to start doing their job by closing the doors of their smaller churches.

Lord have mercy upon us.

The holiness of small congregations

Life and ministry in a small, family-sized congregation looks different than it does in a larger one. But difference is not bad. As long as a small congregation is healthy and strong, as long as it lives in a spirit of abundance rather than scarcity, small congregations occupy a vital place in our Church and in our world. We can talk about that in terms of the unique strengths of strong, healthy, small congregations:

  • We don’t have the numbers to be missionally scattered. Out of necessity, we have to identify our one, God-given mission and do that well.
  • We are relational in nature. Everyone knows everyone, and so we live in Beloved Community, knowing and praying and caring for one another with a relational depth that is truly holy.
  • We live in a constant state of hope and trust that God will sustain us, regardless of our numbers.
  • We know humility, because we have never been important in the grand scheme of this world. We are seldom noticed, we don’t make headlines and people don’t know our names or where we are located. Priests in small parishes usually are not invited into the big conversations. But we’re not in it for that. We’re in it because we’re disciples of Christ.

Those qualities are all important, and they speak to the holiness of small congregations. But there’s one more reason small congregations are essential to the Church today – we are icons of Godly counter-culturalism.

Defying the culture

American and global culture tell us that the numbers are everything, that size and importance are everything. We defy that. And not only do we defy it, but we proclaim that God does, as well. Our existence is needed because the Church and the world need to see that one’s worth is not wrapped up in numbers or importance. One’s worth comes from God. Full stop. Our existence is needed because the Church and the world need to see that in God’s economy, numbers and size and importance do not matter. What does?

We already know.

Faithfulness matters. Small parishes trust that God is faithful to us. And through our struggles to remain solvent, to remain relevant, to remain missional in spite of our numbers, we live in faithfulness to God and to the Kingdom.

But that’s not all…

Above all, love matters.

Small parishes stand in witness to the fact that in God’s economy, love matters above all else. In a world hungry for money and power, in which people strive for followers and likes, we stand in witness to the fact that above all, love matters. If we but love, we are doing God’s work. The Church and the world need to see more of that. Our communities need to see more of that. We all need to see that God does not love us because of our numbers, our size or our importance. God loves us because we are. And we are called to do the same.

How counter-cultural is that?

And small congregations? We are icons of that Godly counter-culturalism. We point not to ourselves, but to God’s economy, to God’s faithfulness, to God’s love.

And therein lies our strength. Icons are in or out of favor depending on your community. But the world needs more living, breathing icons. We need more people, things and institutions that point toward God. And the small parish, at its best, does that.

I am a priest in a small parish. I do not strive to make us big. I do not strive to make us well-known in the world. I encourage my congregation to be a people that when others see us, they see God at work in their lives. I strive to make us a living, breathing icon. Our very nature, our size, our numbers, our greatness make that possible. God does the rest.

The Rev. Jen Fulton has been the priest-in-charge of St. John of the Cross Episcopal Church in Bristol, Indiana, for nearly seven years. By the numbers, the parish has an ASA of 47 and a deficit budget of $93k. By importance – well, most people don’t know where Bristol is. St. John of the Cross is a part of the small and under-resourced Episcopal Diocese of Northern Indiana, where Jen was ordained one week before stepping into her current call. If you look beyond the numbers, both the parish and diocese are vibrant and missional and, she believes, serve as icons to those who have eyes to see and ears to hear. Jen senses that she is called to small-parish ministry and strongly believes that small parishes are vital parts of the Church. She is married to Brad Fulton, and they have two children, Ben and Leta. They also have a dog (Shannon), a guinea pig (Acorn) and a bearded dragon (Rocky).


This article is part of the May 2021 Vestry Papers issue on The Power of Small Churches