web analytics
small church

small church – is beautiful

church144I recently attended a suburban Anglican church. It shall remain nameless – as its location etc. is not important. I’ll call it St. Alban for convenience. At most the church building could probably hold 130, maybe 150 people. The community who built it probably never anticipated more than a couple of hundred attending on a Sunday – with a couple of morning services and an evening service. Next door they built a vicarage. St Alban has an entrance foyer and a large hall where you can play basketball or do any number of other activities. There are a couple of smaller meeting rooms – easily usable for Sunday School. There is an area where refreshments can be prepared and placed. Then a couple of small offices – one intended for the vicar/parish priest.

In an age of bigger-is-better, mega-churches, even internet churches, St Alban and its architecture speaks of a different approach. It speaks of a local community worshipping and serving where they live. A vision of young families who generally send their children to the local kindergarten, primary school, and secondary school. The church encourages neighbourly care. I recently read of three very successful businesses where the people worked near where they live.

Yes, there will be some travelling to supermarket, even shopping mall, and cinema. Many will travel out of the suburb to work.

fc78se067-02I regularly read about and encounter the enormous energy directed towards creating “Christian communities” of like-minded, same-age congregations. Imagine our multi-faceted society as a gateaux or layer cake. These people want to slice the gateaux, the layer cake of society, horizontally – so that you look around the congregation at slightly-varying clones of yourself – people who think the same, believe the same, dress similarly, like similar music, are a similar age, income-group, culture etc. There is no stress or challenge. And maybe little transformation?

The vision that the architecture of St Alban speaks of to me is quite different. It slices the gateaux, the layer cake, vertically. Sure, not every possibility will be included in the slice – the community just isn’t big enough. But there is a variety of ages and stages, opinions and positions – rubbing shoulders, rubbing the sharp edges off, being the grit that produces the pearl.

There may be a warning in the cake-slicing metaphor. If you attempt to slice a gateaux horizontally, normally you will be very unsuccessful, ending up merely with a lot crumbs and sticky cream.

St Alban’s doesn’t just meet for worship and mutual support. The small number that meet there (relative to the population of the suburb in which it sits) serve and care in the local community. The hall is used for young people to be active together. There are visits to the local retirement homes. The vicar/parish priest is not just there to care for the worshipping community, but is understood by that community to be available for anyone in the suburb. The vicar is a general practitioner, helping people find the resources they need. The vicar is in touch with what is happening in the worshipping community and the wider local community, presiding at the eucharist and other worship as pastor of the community, preaching sermons that connect the timeless message to the actual, known, lived experiences and issues of those in the pews.

Some people want to slice the gateaux, the layer cake of society, horizontally – so that you look around the congregation at slightly-varying clones of yourself – people who think the same, believe the same, dress similarly, like similar music, are a similar age, income-group, culture etc. There may be a warning in the cake-slicing metaphor. If you attempt to slice a gateaux horizontally, normally you will be very unsuccessful, ending up merely with a lot crumbs and sticky cream.

Some groups proudly boast that ten tithing average-income families can support one average-income pastor’s family. Anglicans have never generally got such a ratio, however I posit that a community with an average weekly attendance of a hundred or more can generally support a parish with a vicar.

This post is not even beginning to explore the possible imperative to alter our lifestyle to a more local expression for the sake of the planet and our future. This post is not a denigration of larger churches, nor of the church’s use of the internet. Far from it (clearly) for the latter – it is not a romanticised yearning for a bygone, pre-internet age. The internet complements such a real world small community. This is an attempt to look again at the too-regularly forgotten value of small, local Christian communities where the pastor IS pastor to the faith community, leads, teaches, and preaches to their actual context. And the Christian community not only worships God in and prays for the local community, and really supports each other, it also serves the local community (and beyond) in a multiplicity of ways. They act locally and truly are Christ locally.

Similar Posts:

10 thoughts on “small church – is beautiful”

  1. I can easily imagine that such a church also has a much greater level of participation in worship, community, and each other on an individual basis and as a ratio relative to the total membership. I also would expect to see greater support, cohesion, and administering to each other’s needs that comes with greater intimacy between members.

    I have the choice to attend a Cathedral or my local parish and although the Cathedral is magnificent, I prefer the warmth and intimacy of those who surround me in my smaller-then-a-Cathedral church.

  2. Interested to read Bill Bishop’s The Big Sort – why the clustering of like-minded America is tearing us apart (2008). His Chapter 7 is a major critique of the MegaChurch model… Here we are trying to work out what “holistic mission” might mean, and although we have sone or two much valued large churches, much valued as resource centres with unique contributions to make to people’s journeys, the real action is what happens back on the streets/ in the village afterwards…

  3. I know of many such small churches who are far more active in their communities than their numbers would suppose. Although the electronic media has its place, it can never replace the small active congregations in worship or in service to those communities.

  4. Bosco, you have hit upon what I love about my small church–we have about 60-70 who reguularly worship on a Sunday and we know the lives of each of us all to some extent. My priest has also remarked that the best part of Sunday for him is to go down the rail distributing the Sacrament and to be able to pray for the needs of each of us individually. This little parish lives and loves in the face of the big “mega-church” in town, which to me feels more like “church entertainment.” I feel blessed by our little congregation in a way a big church could not.

  5. I couldn’t help but recall an old treatise called, “The Pauline Liturgy: A True Restoration,” after reading this.

    “The church” where the Station was to take place was a “Basilica,” a great building inspired by architectural tradition as this was understood in the third and fourth centuries, but modified since by the Church for Divine service. Many of the most ancient Roman churches such as St. Clement [Basilica di San Clemente], St. Sabina [Santa Sabina all’Aventino], St. Laurence-Without the-Walls [San Lorenzo fuori le Mura], have preserved this form. And even those which have been altered again and again, like St. Paul Without-the-Walls [Basilica di San Paolo fuori le Mura], have been reconstructed on the same plan. It was that of a long building with a central nave, separated by columns from two lateral naves to right and left, with an altar at the end and in the axis of the principal nave; and behind the altar, an apse. At the end of the apse was the “cathedra,” or Bishop’s chair, and, all around it, stalls for the clergy; this was the choir. The part surrounding the altar is the sanctuary, with an “ambone,” or pulpit, or sometimes two, one to right, the other to left. Why on earth would the Bishops cathedra (chair) and the choir be “behind the Altar”???”

  6. I’ve experienced both the small church community and the large, having grown up in a very small rural church, where on a good day there were perhaps 60-75 people in attendance, to my current church, where there are approximately 3000 families.

    Two of my favorite faith communities anywhere that I’ve experienced in my travels are in Hana, Maui, and Townsend, Tennessee, both virtually tiny, extremely intimate, warm, spiritual, welcoming, and lovely. My experiences in both congregations are happy memories, though fleeting, and I always look forward to returning when I’m in the area.

  7. I note that there is an idea called the “Rule of 150.” Basically, it is the idea that for organizations or groups to thrive without being too distant or bureaucratic, its size cannot be over 150 people. This idea was discussed in a chapter of Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, but the concept has been around for some time before that.

    Indeed, I am in favor of smaller communities in general.

  8. I frequently find that the smaller the church, the closer the congregation and, in particular, the youth is. And, while this is great for the spiritual growth of the individual members, it can be disheartening and difficult for new-comers to become part of the congregation.

    The duty of welcoming new people (a Christian obligation by all means) falls on this tight-knit group, but it can be quite difficult.

    Another thing that I have noticed is that the physical architecture of the church also tends to play a big role. A “modest” church with low ceilings and relatively small/narrow entrance doors, etc tends to feel much “warmer” and more welcoming. By contrast, a architecturally large church with high ceilings and massive entrance doors can discourage close relationships to develop, if they haven’t been there from the start.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.