catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 9, Num 2 :: 2010.01.22 — 2010.02.04


Small church, big church

A search for just right

I’ve had a see-sawing relationship with the size of our churches, with all the vertigo and shakiness that metaphor suggests.

I grew up mostly in military chapels, though I do remember at one of my Army dad’s stationings that we had to find a civilian church to attend. We started out at a huge Presbyterian church with a cavernous sanctuary and a congregation that seemed, to my six-year-old self, to number into the tens of thousands. It wasn’t long before my family had resituated itself into a smaller Baptist church that a friend had recommended, and there we remained until our next Army-compelled shake-up. It was a decent size, but not flashy.

Even in the next set of military chapels we attended, we veered toward the middle of the road. We eschewed the largest, most popular chapel as well as the sparsely attended chapel at the farthest barracks, and made our home instead at Goldilocks’ favorite: the one that was just right.

Eventually, though, my father retired from the Army and my family had to settle into civilian life for good. We visited the Congregational church my aunt attended and decided to stick around.

But it was small. Really small. Like, dying small.

Seventeen years later, it still is, and my parents still attend, through the firing and hiring of a few pastors and some half-hearted attempts to draw in new blood without actually doing anything to change the very structured, very old-school way the church does things — or the very structured, very old-school theology and political bent.

I think I’d feel out of place, though, if I ever returned for a visit and found it had become popular, if its little quaint New England clapboard building ever actually filled on a Sunday.

And therein lies the schizophrenia. I disdain both big and small.

I suspect small churches are withering, and that big churches are superficial. But if a medium church stays medium, then isn’t it stagnating?

Once I struck out on my own, apart from my family of birth, I had a chance to choose my own church, with the size ideal for me. In college, I flirted with several churches, in addition to the concept of skipping church entirely, but mostly bussed out to an Evangelical Free church that was, as the Baptist church of yore, of respectable, middling size — perhaps a few hundred people.

Soon, though, I got tired of getting up in time to catch a bus and took to stumbling across the frozen lawns of our Illinois campus to the one church I could walk to. It was nondenominational, and large. Being situated firmly in the land of the megachurches, it didn’t perhaps aspire to such heights as that, but it was large enough that I could be — and was — completely anonymous. My most surreal experience came when I inadvertently sat next to Miss Illinois and her boyfriend, and a newspaper photographer snapped us all during the prayers. Miss Illinois’ boyfriend hissed at me for the disturbance, as if I were somebody. No, no, I assured him, I am nobody; it’s your girlfriend drawing the attention. Being nobody at a church suited me for my college purposes, when my connections were to fellow students and church was just a Sunday chore, but I knew I would never have chosen it were it not so conveniently close.

In marriage, my husband and I purportedly had to reconcile two experiences of church and two sets of desires. As it turned out, we agreed in this as in most things, including what to eat for dinner pretty much every night.

But agreeing on what we wanted in ideal terms didn’t make it easy to find a home. In the twelve years we’ve been married, we’ve attended a variety, hoping to find a place to nest.

There was a seeker-friendly Christian Reformed startup, trying to be a megachurch but mostly being a mega-lot-of-work for those of us who were nurturing the growing hordes.

There were a few dusty traditional churches of various denominations, where no one but the pastor greeted us after the service and the rest of the small, white-haired congregation eyed us suspiciously from across the reception room.

There was a traditional United Methodist church that had just undergone a severe change of theology, and leadership, and was still struggling to reinvent itself. We weren’t sure that what we had in mind was what they had in mind.

We flew loose again, untethered.

We landed for some time at an emerging Evangelical Covenant church. The size was just right when we arrived. Maybe we couldn’t remember every one of a couple hundred names, but we recognized all the faces.

But the whole reason we had alighted there, of course, was that it was growing. The whole reason we felt welcomed there was because it was courting newcomers.

And so it grew, and it outgrew us.

Despite having been in leadership there for six years, no one knows our faces anymore. When we attend one of the three crowded services, someone’s always bound to ask us, “Are you new here?” — if, indeed, anyone talks to us at all.

We dreamt of a church where we could feel essential again, where we could live out the dreams God’s been laying on our hearts.

We started a small group, and it has remained just that: four people, two of them us. We’ve been meeting each week for two years, and we’ve just recently decided it will stay small.

Far from feeling stagnant, it feels cozy.

But it is not church, not in itself.

We are pursuing right now a dream so tentative, so potentially embarrassing, that I hesitate to put it to paper for fear that it will be thrown back in my face in the future.

We are starting a home church. There are six adults, and four young children.

It is small. It is very small.

It intends to grow, though it is not yet.

I don’t know when it will be the right size. I don’t know whom we will alienate as we grow and change. Perhaps ourselves.

Maybe one day we won’t feel at home again.

Maybe it will grow over-large, and we will divide organically and become multiple right-size churches. But maybe we will resist such divisions.

Is there any other way, though? Is it even possible to get a church to the just-right size, and then leave it there?

Small can be good. It can be a chance to connect on a deep level. What is church, after all, if not worshiping within relationship? Small gives you a chance to plug in and give back, because there is no chance you will be missed when the call for volunteers comes around. Small means you must participate, must give of yourself. In a small group, everyone will see if you pass the question. Everyone cares if you don’t show up.

My parents’ church is like the good part of a small town. Everyone knows everyone else’s business.

It’s also like the bad part of a small town. Everyone knows everyone else’s business.

Big can be good. It can be a chance to sit back and rest, if a period of rest is called for. It can be good for newcomers, who would be overwhelmed by having so much expected of them. It can be good to be part of something vibrant and growing and exciting and popular.

At the same time, big can often mean diluted, a service and program to suit the lowest common denominator. Big means multiple service times. It means not knowing who else goes to church, or if they showed up that day. It means the pastor probably doesn’t know your name. It means families are split up into different programs instead of learning and meeting as a unit.

I like to think there’s a best of both worlds, a middle ground of some idyllic number that merges the community of the small with the vitality of the big.

We’ll keep trying. We’ve tried to find it, and now we’re trying to make our own.

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