For many it’s counterintuitive to even consider that smaller can be better. We’re so programmed to the efficiencies of scale and the economic success of national and even global brands. Yet there are moments of truth such as when we try to get service or support for something we bought from a huge corporation or retailer. Their webpage is geared toward selling us more stuff rather than answering our questions.
When we give up and call the toll-free number we enter a merry-go-round of selecting numbers to push from a seemingly endless menu of options. We find ourselves talking back to the automated voice, “Please give me a live person to talk to.” If we’re eventually successful in speaking to a person it will most likely be someone from the other side of the globe who is generally courteous and eager to help but often unable to address my local need. We long for the helpful behind-the-counter wisdom that used to be available in smaller stores and businesses.
I’ve recently been thinking about this in relation to our churches. We’re also programmed to think that bigger is better. Megachurches have been the model of success for several generations. We might ponder the possible correlation between that and the corporate, economic model that predominates in the rest of society. This model predominates even though most of our churches have less than a hundred members.
We’re geared toward programs developed in the past century that small churches struggle to maintain. Finding volunteers for the Sunday school program and the youth program becomes an endless treadmill. On top of that, there’s the pressure to have slickly programmed worship services and to maintain committees for various things.
I recently received the annual statistical survey from our church conference asking for the names of our pastors, our administrative assistant, our congregational chair, our treasurer, our stewardship chair, our church historian, our health promoter, our relief sale contact person, our national women’s contact person, our national men’s contact person, our Sunday school superintendent, our missions coordinator, our peace advocate, our service representative, and our disaster services contact person. It’s enough to give the pastor of a small church an inferiority complex. And that’s the crux of the problem.
We need to rethink church if smaller is going to be better. I don’t know what that will look like but I’m beginning to get a sense of the general direction it will take. Our small congregation in Fairfax recently concluded a study process where we said that it’s our goal to remain small and we want to dismantle the things that separate church from the rest of our lives. We will instead focus on things that connect us such as potlucks, a book club, building a nature trail, and starting a community garden.
To be honest, I’ve always fretted about our small size and felt some urgency to help us grow a bit. So I was somewhat surprised and a bit relieved when we came to the conclusion that we like being small. Now I discover that we’re part of a trend.
In the April 1, 2015 edition of the Christian Century, Carol Howard Merritt writes about what she calls “a trend away from the bigger is better mentality and toward smaller, deeper community. We see this trend when consumers move from patronizing big-box stores to supporting farmer’s markets and microbreweries. People who long for a spiritual life are shifting from the slickly programmed, performance-centered megachurches they grew up in to small, intense, and highly relational communities.” It provides a glimpse of what going smaller and deeper can look like.