The Spiritually Vitalized Small Church In This 21st Century

Rev. Debra Griffis-Woodberry
Pinnacle Associate

It just feels good to have a large crowd. We are prone to count and track numbers of people involved. It is
absolutely true that we like to have large numbers of people present in worship and other ministries. Counting is a natural and easy way to measure success. However, numbers do not tell the whole story. I quit measuring by numbers a long time ago. Living in today’s post-modern world and post-church culture, the question arises, “Do we need to measure and if so, how?”

Average worship attendance is declining in many places. Many factors cause this reality. Everyone can offer a litany of lamentations of why attendance is down. Whatever the reasons are, church leaders are challenged to embrace this trend not as defeat, but as reality.

In 1985 I was called to serve as pastor of a new start church in Maryland which at that time was associated with the Southern Baptist Convention. My primary experience of church was formed by the Bible Belt culture in which I was raised and in two churches where I worked in associate staff positions. While Annapolis is south of the Mason Dixon line, it was not a southern Bible belt culture.

I learned that persons claiming Christianity were a minority of the population. Of those who were Christian most were Catholic and of the small minority of Protestants, Southern Baptist represented less than 2%. Because the church was receiving denominational funds, I had to submit a report each month. Most of the questions were about numbers; how many people attended Bible Study, what was the average worship attendance, how many professions of faith, how many contacts with unchurched people, etc. There was one section of the report that allowed comments. On the old-style carbon triplicate form, I began to share (anonymously) narratives of the lives of people as they struggled with questions of faith, discerned God’s direction in life, found meaningful and relevant places of service and grew in discipleship. I knew that there was more to measuring success than counting numbers. Our numbers were probably the lowest of any reported. We were a small congregation. Yet, the power of God’s holy spirit was palpable.
On one occasion while in that pastorate, I was on call for a neighboring pastor who was away. I was summoned to a young couple who had lost their infant child to SIDS. In ministering to this family, I learned that the parents were not members of any church. The way they got to me was through one of their friends who worked at the child care center of my colleague’s church. Both the mother and father of the baby were one of five siblings. Both sets of grandparents were living. Of all those people no one was associated with any church. I offered them Christ and the best funeral I knew how to do in my limited experience.

It seemed unusual to me that no one was connected to a church. It is not uncommon today, even in the Bible Belt, to find generations for whom worship attendance is not a part of their life. There are plenty of negative aspects of this reality. We all know them well, including the cost of money and energy to maintain buildings, property, programs and salaries as congregation size shrinks. Often difficult decisions have to be made. Can anything positive emerge from our current post-modern, post-church reality? I think that the answer is yes.

These early years of the 21st Century are an exciting time to be church. Each church (or individual) from within their own denominational (or non-denominational) home, has the opportunity to look in the mirror, not to see what is behind, but to see current reality. How do we look right here, right now? As we glimpse at the near future, how do we want to look and act and be? What is God whispering among us and within us? Whether participation in worship and ministry is declining or increasing these are important questions.

In the document entitled, “American Congregations at the Beginning of the 21st Century”, it is reported that in 1998 and in 2006-2007 the average congregation had 75 regular participants.

Vital ministry can happen through churches of any size. The task for all is to build the Kingdom of God wherever we are. Smaller churches are especially poised to look to lay leadership for ministry. This is turn, calls for training and disciple development of the lay leaders. Realizing limits helps small groups to focus on one or two things they can do well as God leads them. Small settings also foster opportunities for transparency and authenticity. Often when numbers are small people quote Jesus when he said, “when two or three of you are together because of me, you can be sure that I’ll be there.” (Matthew 18:20) These words are often spoken apologetically as an excuse for low attendance. A better practice would be to emphasize with confidence the last phrase; “You can be sure I will be there.”

As 21st Century Christians realize that the ways of the past are not working well for today’s church, we have the powerful opportunity to re-group, discern core values, and speak a relevant, authentic word to our world. It is a good time for creativity. It’s a good time to look at more than numbers.

Rev. Debra Griffis-Woodberry