“What even megachurches can learn from small congregations”

Bill Tammeus, June 21, 2023

The following is reposted with permission from prolific author and faith columnist for the Kansas City Star, Bill Tammeus. In Bill’s Faith Matters blog, he provides excellent and free resources about religion and ethics.[all live links]

When I was a child, my family and I were members of what I think of today as a small church, First Presbyterian of Woodstock, Ill. It had about 250 or so members back then, as I recall.

Today, a small church is more often considered one that draws fewer than 100 persons to weekly worship. And those are the churches that Teresa J. Stewart seems to address in her new book, The Small Church Advantage: Seven Powerful Worship Practices that Work Best in Small Settings.

I say “seems to address,” because, in fact, there is much here in this wise book that could and should interest larger congregations, especially those whose members and leaders often dismiss smaller churches as congregations that so far have failed to grow into large churches.

The New Testament, of course, gives positive witness to small congregations in that Jesus himself says this: “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”

And as Stewart writes, “Christian worship is nothing less than a divine-human encounter. An actual meet-up between God and God’s people.” That encounter can happen in even the tiniest of congregations. “We need,” she writes, “small, unexpected and unlikely encounters to grasp the fullness of the good news. Or perhaps so it can grasp us.” The problem, she says, is that “small is treated as either defective or immature,” but it need be neither.

Stewart says there are some 177,000 small congregations in the U.S., meaning “churches with fewer than 95 weekly worshipers,” meaning that 70 percent of all congregations are small.

The problem, she says, is that large congregations “have become the goal.” But there’s no reason, she insists, that excellent worship can’t happen in small congregations. And she spends much of the book suggesting how this can happen.

At its root, Christian theology is essentially incarnational, meaning that it recognizes God’s decision to become human as Jesus of Nazareth and to be present — then as a carpenter and itinerant rabbi and now as the Spirit of the resurrected Christ. It’s that approach to theology, Stewart says, that can make small churches hum with life and ministry.

Stewart urges small congregations to resist being seduced into thinking they need to be megachurches. Resistance, in fact, is both necessary and holy, she argues. “Resistance,” she writes, “is the quiet superpower of small groups, outsiders and underdogs.”

Resistance, she insists, “shows up in every book of the Bible. In fact, the salvation story can’t be told without it.”

This book doesn’t offer wispy word of insubstantial hope. Rather, it offers substantive ideas for bringing life, joy and flourishing back to small congregations. And if large congregations are wise, they’ll be paying attention, too.

Now available at Market Square Books, Cokesbury, and Amazon.