The Power of Small Churches
Beyond the Numbers
“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” rings in my head when I think of the institution that is the Church. It’s not because the Church is perfect or because we do not have serious work to do in areas such as racism, inclusivity and loving our neighbor, but because the Church, at any size and when it truly follows the Gospel, is the strongest force I’ve ever known. No matter the number of average Sunday attendees, big, small or somewhere in between, some of our most important measures of success as a Church should be:
- Are we feeding the hungry?
- Are we serving the poor?
- Are we looking out for the incarcerated?
- Are we resisting evil?
- Are we fighting for justice and dignity?
We’d be hard-pressed to find anyone disagreeing with the above. Yet somehow, we keep falling into our traditions of colonialism and capitalism. These traditions fool us into believing that bigger is better, that more money means more security and that more people in our pews (or watching us on Zoom) means we have reached the ultimate success.
Time to revisit our priorities and models
In a world clamoring for change, acceptance and thinking outside the box, the Church must revisit its priorities and models. After all, 2019 parochial reports showed that in the Episcopal Church, the median Sunday attendance is 51, and 75 percent of our churches have an average Sunday attendance that is less than 100. Now that is not a criticism or data to support the thinking that we must do more to add people to our rolls. It’s an invitation to dig deeper and to stop thinking only of the numbers.
In my role as Director of Engagement in the Diocese of Virginia, I work to uplift our congregations of color, as well as to engage all clergy and congregants in the work we vow to do in our Baptismal Covenant and in the Great Commission. In that role, I get to visit all our churches, both big and small, and I am always amazed by the work being done and especially by those considered small or mission congregations.
Consider Iglesia de San Gabriel in Leesburg, Virginia, a small, mission congregation in a wealthy county in the northern part of the Commonwealth. The outbreak of Covid-19 could have been disastrous for them, but due to the ingenuity of its clergy, the Rev. Daniel Rivera and the Rev. Deacon Holly Hanback, San Gabriel prospered. They received funding to help assist the community. They fed many families by delivering groceries, and they continued providing workshops on issues like Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and health information about Covid-19, as well as classes on family planning and reproductive health, catechism and Holy Zumba!
In Falls Church, Virginia, mission congregation Iglesia de Santa Maria also thrives. It holds a program every day. Whether it’s Zumba, hosting a Russian language school, Bible study or cooking classes, it feeds the heart of its community. When repairs and upgrades for the property were needed, the congregants not only provided funds, but also manual labor. Their energy and passion for the work of Christ is shown in every way that is meaningful. Yet, they remain in a category that can make them seem less than they are.
This is creative, outside-the-box thinking and living in a spirit of abundance. While it is true that we must be strategic and fiscally responsible, we must also begin thinking of the Church with a spirit that sees abundance in every way. We have enough people to do good. We have enough money to do good. We have enough. As any of us who work for the church know, a church with more money does not necessarily result in a healthier church.
Jesus’ work is not about numbers
In more practical ways, small churches at times provide more leadership opportunities to those who could be easily marginalized, overlooked or seen as the “other”: younger people, women, people of color, the differently abled, non-native English speakers.
We are at our best when we allow seats at the table for minorities, youth, non-hetero normal individuals and those with different cultures. Why? Because the Kingdom of God is a big, inclusive, beautiful world, enriched by the gifts and talents of all its people.
In the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 18 verse 20, Jesus says, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of them.” This really isn’t a verse about how many people are needed for Christ to be present, because we know that God is with the individual, as much as God is with the 5,000. However, it is a verse that points to the legal Jewish tradition that requires the presence of two or three witnesses to hold someone accountable for their actions. How is this relative? Because as a Church, we must hold each other and the world accountable for times when we are distracted from the good deeds of Christ and his example. It doesn’t take five hundred people, it just takes two or three. Just like a rose “by any other name would smell as sweet,” a church that is doing God’s work, at any size, is just as valuable as any other congregation.
I say this not to begin a competition, but to reassure you that God meets us where we are. That there is room for us all, and we all have a role to play in the life-changing work of Jesus.
Years ago, I was visiting with a new vicar and his vestry who were trying to grow a historic African American congregation in the poverty-stricken and gentrifying east side of Richmond, Virginia. Its average Sunday attendance was somewhere around 30, but they were shining in their community. Among their ministries, they ran an employment program, hosted neighborhood walks to meet and pray with the neighbors and learn about their needs, and they supported a couple educational institutions, to name just a few of their good deeds. There was a lot of anxiety from the vestry about finances and the number of people in the pews, but when I asked the vicar if his goal was to fill the pews or serve the community, he confidently said, “I want to serve the community.” I smiled and encouraged them to find new ways to measure their success and to define “church members.” And, so they did, and continue to do, still fitting in their small building for Sunday worship but much bigger than we could count in the impact they have within the community.
“Small churches are the most normative way Christians gather. Up to 90 percent of all churches are under 200, 80 percent under 100. And fully half the Christians in the world attend small churches.” This recipe has worked for 2,000 years, and while there is always room for growth, it would be less than faithful to question the collective work of countless small churches that together with countless big churches serve their siblings all over the world. Yes, small churches are just as important! Let’s honor and recognize them.
As the Minister for Missional Engagement for the Diocese of Virginia, Aisha Huertas oversees domestic and international missions, racial justice ministries, creation care and multicultural ministries. Through her consulting business, Huertas Strategic Consulting, she teaches anti-racism and offers justice and equity workshops, as well as helping organizations address issues of racial equity. Before joining the diocesan staff, Aisha worked in communications for respected nonprofits like Donate Life America and the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia.
- Enough Love to Go Around by Jimmy Bartz, Vestry Papers, September 2020
- Beyond Average Sunday Attendance (ASA) by Tim Schenck, an ECF Vital Practices blog, October 18, 2013
- Small Church, Big Impact by Nancy Davidge as told by Edgar Gutierrez-Duarte, Vestry Papers, July 2015
- Prayer and Action In a Pandemic by Yesenia (Jessie) Alejandro, Vestry Papers, September 2020
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