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I often hear small-setting pastors and laity use this “just” introduction: “Well, we’re just a small congregation . . .” As if it explains something. About worth. About expectations. About the likelihood of God sending a note of well wishes instead of actually showing up.
And I need to say simply: Enough. Quit just-ing.
It’s anti-helpful, anti-gospel nonsense. Our scripture insists that God is all up in the business of unlikely people and backwater places. Divinity does some of its best work with ragtag groups of formerly-enslaved nobodies. Just-a-boy. Only-a-virgin. An illiterate fisher with ADHD tendencies. Or a desperate, bleeding woman lost in a crowd. The Holy blasts past boundaries of size, power, credentials, and authority like flame through Pentecost haircuts.
So it should not surprise us that God has some important, distinctive gifts for small congregations.
Recognizing these gifts, however, requires some work. Before we can get to the small-setting-strengths-unavailable-to-big-settings, we may have to confront how we overlooked them to begin with.
It starts with the usually unspoken, unchallenged assumption that big-setting worship provides the measuring stick of success. The ideal. The truly excellent worship way.
This assumption, of course, ignores lots of important differences in things like staffing, resources, location, demographics. But once the assumption is firmly in place, lots of small congregations begin imitating. And covering up or covering over the things that don’t measure up to the ideal.
Picture boy David wearing sixty pounds of shiny, man armour.
But there is an alternative. A strengths-based approach. Instead of starting with an ill-fitted ideal, start with your own strengths. Imagine with them. Build from them. Create for them. Move away from anxious comparisons. And toward a new-familiar way.
Like David holding a few smooth stones in his dirty, shepherd hands.
The seven strengths listed below are like those stones. And they aren’t my ideas. I’ve simply observed them in lots of small settings that worked differently. And flourished. Even though the worship workers showed up without bronze helmets and a good manicure.
All of these strengths summon the Participation Advantage. They focus on ways to heighten contribution. And offer worship that is not a fully-settled, repeatable script. Not a polished, expert-driven performance. Not something to be passively observed. But a messy, local co-created encounter.
The kind that sometimes smells of burned hair.
Of course, this is just an overview. We’ll dig into each over the next few months. With instruction, story, and examples. But there’s more good news. I’ve seen small congregations apply these strengths to both church-pew worshipers and home-couch worshipers. As co-creators together. These strengths can also fuel and transform your hybrid-both-and imaginations.
7 Worship Strengths for Small Settings
1. Worship Planning as Stone Soup
The “worship design team” model for regular worship planning can be overwhelming in small settings. Pastors get exhausted. The handful of team members gets burned out. Worse yet, most laity imagine that they don’t have the required expertise or good-enough gifts.
So what if there were a simpler way to plan worship that invited playful, diverse participation, not performance?
2. Practicing Hands-on Contact
It’s easy to get trapped by expectations of efficiency (It’s just easier if I do it all myself.) or excellence (She’s the one who does this task best). But talk to any teacher. Inefficiency and hands-on processes are crucial; we all learn and think differently. And the possibility of bodily engagement for all the people is powerful, forming stuff—unavailable in big settings.
So what if there were dozens of simple ways to get hands-on engagement in worship?
3. Worshiping with Conversation
Completely scripted events may feel safer. But they also make dinner parties dull, stunt relationships, and turn us into passive observers. Not active participants. The drive for worship that is safe and settled leaves out the most basic pattern of holy interaction: actual call and response.
So what if there were easy, powerful ways to include conversation as/in worship?
4. Unleashing Local Signs and Symbols
Words are not the deepest means of formation. Ritual is. And while the cross, Bible, and candles are readily recognized ritual objects, they are not the only ones that can unleash the Good News. Big settings are limited to least-common-denominator signs and symbols. You are not. The sacred resides in the ordinary all around. Right where you are.
So what if there were tools for identifying and including local signs and symbols in worship?
5. Inviting Co-creator Gifts
Laity may worry that their ordinary gifts-talents-interests don’t really belong in worship. But God’s good creation isn’t divided into categories of worship-worthy and not. There is abundance already present in every community. Lavish worship isn’t about seeking gifts in a few narrow categories. It sees all the God-given gifts. Of all the God-loved people. And offers them back in thanks.
So what if there were specific ways to include unexpected gifts from the congregation—and community—in worship?
6. Wagering Leadership
Leadership that exudes confidence, certainty, and expertise works well in boardrooms with layers of hierarchy. But boardroom dynamics don’t necessarily translate to kitchen tables, neighbor-to-neighbor relationships, or community gatherings. In small settings, leadership can invite the community to wonder and create together. And it turns out that wondering and creating together is transformational.
So what if there were leadership practices that could grow participation from your congregation and community?
7. Opening the Word
In small congregations, sermons don’t have to be twenty-minute, climax-of-worship, powerfully-delivered, monologues-by-an-expert. There are so many more lavish options. They can gather folks at a table instead of around a pulpit. And they can open up to include questions, dialogues, testimonies, arts, and holy experiences.
So what if there were a dozen or more ways to proclaim the Word for and with worshipers?
The answer to all those italicized questions: There are.
The kingdom is among us.
Thank you for your ministry,