Small but mighty
Is bigger always better when it comes to children’s work? David Csinos doesn’t think so…
Several months ago, I stumbled across a blog post that offered ideas for ministers and congregational leaders who sought to increase attendance at their churches’ services and activities. Every time I went online it seemed like there were a dozen more friends who were sharing it on social media. But something about the post wasn’t sitting right with me. While the author said, ‘There’s nothing wrong with being a small church’, his suggestions seemed to operate out of the assumption that numerical growth equals congregational health. Therefore, the thinking goes churches that remain small must be suffering from some sort of ecclesiological illness. Despite the thousands of people singing the praises of this post, it didn’t resonate with the congregations and experiences that have been so formative to my life. I’ve been involved in a number of faith communities of varying sizes and shapes. The ones that have left the most profound theological and spiritual footprints in my life have been fairly small.
With so many positive and life-giving experiences in smaller congregations lodged deep within the storehouse of my memories, I’m inclined to disagree with the assumption that bigger is always better and that numerical growth equals congregational health. In fact, when it comes to ways of faith formation that help people better follow in the way of Jesus, I suspect that smaller congregations may actually have the advantage. While this is particularly true for faith formation with young people, smaller churches may be inherently better-equipped to deepen, widen and enhance the faith of all people, irrespective of age. In sharing these reflections, my hope is that people involved in smaller congregations – whether clergy or laypeople – will recognise the power they hold for doing faith formation, not in spite of their church’s size, but because of it.
NO ADDED GROWTH HORMONES
As congregations grow in numbers, there seems to come a point at which they must become quite intentional in their efforts to cultivate community and relationships among members. Ironically, as there are more and more people to connect with in a faith community, it becomes increasingly difficult to form close connections. It’s no wonder then, that at some point many larger congregations tend to add small groups to their list of ministries as a way of helping members build relationships with one another in more intimate communal gatherings.
Children’s ministry has, for several decades, relied on a similar approach to ministry. Sunday School classes are essentially small groups through which children engage in activities with a small number of their peers; the larger a congregation, the more Sunday School classes it tends to have.
While larger churches must make significant efforts to help congregants build relationships with one another, smaller congregations are more likely to be sites in which community members naturally connect. Often they don’t need to be as intentional about getting people to get to know each other because folks already know one another. Just try to sit in a Sunday service amid a congregation of 50, 60 or even 100 members without being noticed. It’s pretty much impossible!
The faith communities that have left the most profound theological and spiritual footprints in my life have been fairly small
I know a lot of smaller congregations use a small-group approach to Sunday school as their primary approach to nurturing faith in children. But what would happen if these churches took steps to integrate their children into the wider community of faith rather than having a number of classes with a handful of kids in each one? If a congregation played to one of the strengths of being a smaller church, it would have a better chance of becoming a place in which relationships are formed and flourish across multiple ages and generations.
FOSTERING CREATIVE FAITH
As congregations experience numerical growth, organisational structures must be produced, adapted and implemented to help clergy, administrators and volunteer leaders effectively plan and lead activities for an increasing number of people. Contrast this approach to ministry, in which a small percentage of leaders organise and implement the core practices of a congregation, with those of smaller congregations. With so few people in smaller churches, a much higher percentage of members need to be involved in providing leadership and direction to the activities that form the core of congregational life. Everyone needs to roll up their sleeves and contribute to the life of the faith community or nothing will get done because there’s no one else to do it!
Smaller congregations seem to be naturally inclined to move away from a faith based on consuming faith (through pre-planned and professionalised worship services, youth events and Sunday school) to one focused on creating faith. Instead of attending children’s ministry activities, children and young people in smaller congregations are poised to become involved in their faith communities as leaders, collaborators and stakeholders. Investing energy into young people as key movers and shakers who create what it means to be the Church together can seem risky in terms of the structures and status quo of congregations, but it cultivates faith in young people in a way that allows them to know that their voices and actions make a difference.
I know first-hand that this was the case for my childhood and adolescent faith. Involvement in creating what it means to be and do church rather than simply consuming congregational activities created for me was vital in my early formation. As a child, I regularly helped my parents with the activities our church was hosting. In my high school years I learned how to play guitar in my church and ended up leading music at the Sunday evening Mass. This happened to be right around 11th September 2001, and I remember making difficult decisions about what it meant to lead the church in singing that Jesus was the ‘Prince of Peace’ after the tragedy in New York City. I had to do some deep theological reflection with the choir to figure out how to sing about peace and love after this horrific event. Without these experiences, I wouldn’t have been able to be part of a team that creates what it means to be the Church.
I’m certainly not the only one who has had experiences like these. As I travel around the world teaching and leading workshops about ministry with youth and children, I often ask participants to identify a spiritually formative experience from their younger years. Many people speak of times when they were given the reins and encouraged to contribute to the life of their congregations as music leaders, Sunday school teachers, members of a service project committee or simply collecting the offering. When I ask how many people in the room were in a small congregation during these experiences, most hands are in the air.
BLESS THE MESS
Like many children, I was obsessed with Lego during my early school years. Part of my nightly routine for a few years was clearing a path on the floor of my room so I could get to my bed without stepping on pointy Lego pieces. There was always Lego all over my floor and although some people might have seen it as a mess, to me the piles of plastic pieces formed a blank canvas ready to birth unlimited creative possibilities.
While recently browsing through a toy store = for a gift for my niece, I noticed that Lego seems to have changed since I was a kid. Rather than being sold in kits with all sorts of pieces that could be assembled in any number of ways, Lego is now packaged in very specific sets with instructions that children can follow in order to assemble a particular vehicle or building.
Smaller congregations are a lot like the Lego I knew as a child. With fewer rigid structures and organisational procedures than larger congregations, they lend themselves to participation in ways that can promote messiness and all the blessings that come with making a mess. In fact, such unfettered and messy creativity is not only encouraged by many smaller congregations I know; it is actually necessary to the ongoing life and sustainability of the community.
Instead of attending children’s ministry activities, children and young people in smaller congregations are poised to become involved in their faith communities as leaders, collaborators and stakeholders
Children and teens often have a reputation as some of the messier people within faith communities. They move furniture, get into bins and storage closets we’d rather they stay away from and leave food on the floor after church lunches. But their messiness calls us all to imagine new ways of doing church together, and it reminds us that church is a space in which it’s okay to make messes – and even mistakes – as we play with our faith and experiment with what it means to be followers of Jesus within a particular community.
A friend of mine is a minister at a small urban congregation, and when I walk through the doors of their historic church building I’m always amazed by how the sanctuary is decorated. This minister wants the children to have a stake in the congregation. She encourages them to share ideas that result in a beautiful mash-up (some might call it a mess) of twinkle lights, banners, drawings and other decorations that the kids use to help reimagine this church’s worship space.
A few months ago in Australia I offered a series of workshops about children’s ministry. At each workshop I led participants through a series of questions about their views of faith formation with children. One of the questions toward the end of the workshop was, ‘How can you assess the effectiveness of your initiatives to engage children in faith formation?’ It was a question that left many people stumped.
Of course, how one responds to this question depends on how that person defines what it means to be ‘effective’, but my assumption is that ministry effectiveness is not measured solely by how many children are attending programmes, but on how much our efforts are helping them better live as followers of Jesus.
When I shared this definition of effectiveness during a workshop, one participant said that it would be tricky to gauge the faith of kids. He wondered how on earth we would measure something that is so fluid and even at times unmeasurable. How do we evaluate people’s journeys with Jesus with all the ebbs and flows that come with the journey?
Another person in the room said that she didn’t actually think that evaluating effectiveness would be terribly difficult with the children in her congregation. ‘After all,’ she said, ‘I know these kids. I know what they’re like and I know what’s going on in their lives.’
Herein lies one of greatest advantages of being a smaller congregation. In such a community, members of all ages and stages know one another as they worship, serve and are formed in faith together. And because they know each other, folks can sense when others are growing on the journey of discipleship and the areas they may be struggling in. This isn’t to say that evaluation forms and surveys aren’t also helpful, but there is perhaps no better way to gauge the faith of those in our congregations – and our own faith – than by being in authentic relationships with one another. When one person reaches a milestone on the journey, we can pause to celebrate with them. Conversely, when someone is struggling in faith, we can gather around them and help carry them forward on the journey.
When it comes to faith formation, good things do indeed come in small packages. Although there are certainly challenges that come with being a smaller congregation, such faith communities possess many inherent advantages for cultivating authentic faith in children and young people (and in people of all ages). I’ve only named four here, but there are several other benefits we could add to this list.
So if you’re part of a small congregation, be grateful for the blessings that come with forming faith in such a context. If you’re a member of a larger congregation, think about the ways that you can ‘think smaller’ and cultivate the attributes of smaller congregations discussed here. When small churches play to their advantages, they can become all-star teams for helping children and young people live as disciples of Jesus.