Have you seen the AT&T wireless commercial where a man is talking with some young children around a table and he asks: “What’s better bigger or smaller? Would you rather have a big tree house or a small tree house?” The kids want a large tree house because they could have a disco and get a larger TV in it. The assumption is that the question is silly; bigger is always better. When it comes to cell phone coverage, this is undoubtedly true. A larger coverage area is better than a smaller area. When it comes to churches, the answer may not be as obvious.
Steve Willis, in his book Imagining the Small Church—Celebrating a Simpler Path, makes a case for the special qualities of a small church. He writes that small churches find their “unique resiliency in the loving depths of its people’s relationships and its commitments to the special place where it resides.” When people in a small church think about their congregation, they see the faces and the specifics of the place. They talk about love, belonging, and faithfulness (pp. xii-xiii). People are important in these churches; they remember that great cloud of witnesses who spent a lifetime learning to love one another in that place (p. 34). “Checking in” with one another is a central piece of congregational gatherings, more important that program (p. 50).
He writes about the simplicity of life in most small churches; what is non-essential is stripped away. Willis says that they are not places of pretense (p.18). Small churches are not afforded the luxury of indulging in things that don’t matter. They cannot afford to invest resources in things whose purpose is to flatter the image of the congregation. In small churches people know what is and what is not important.
Small churches are places of remembrance; they elicit memories and feelings that people had in the past. Conserving the relationship between people, place, and remembered events is a source of strength in these congregations. Small churches are not against change; they simply feel that conserving memories of the past is important (p. 36). Conserving the past and preserving the past is not the same thing. To conserve the past is to protect and honor the memories; to preserve the past is to try to live in a time and place that no longer exists.
Our internet-driven, television-altered minds are addicted to changing scenery, sounds, images, and patterns p. 40-41). Wendell Barry writes that novelty is a new kind of loneliness. Novelty is the faint surprises of minds no longer capable of wonder (Wendell Barry, What Are People For?, p. 9). We view continuity as a sign of bored indifference. Yet small churches provide a sense of continuity to our lives. Is this not something we long for—to see that our lives are part of a broader web of relationships, a longer story than our short years? Small congregations can help to heal the fragmentation and alienation that many in our society feel through their attention to people, place, and formative stories about those who came before us in this particular place.
Willis makes a good case for the distinctive and enviable characteristics of small congregations; but they seem so small, so powerless, and so insignificant. They are so easy to drive by, pass over, dismiss. Three stonemasons were preparing stone for a cathedral. A visitor to the stone yard asked them what they were doing. The first one replied: “I’m busting rocks.” The second replied: “I’m making blocks.” The third one replied: “I’m building a cathedral.” This third mason would never walk under the arch of the completed cathedral, but he knew he was part of something bigger than himself and more lasting than his own life. Small churches are part of something bigger than themselves and the lives of their members. They are a single block in a magnificent cathedral. That single block is worth our love and dedication and esteem.