It was a typical Sunday morning. We got to church early for Bible study, and our kids—Penny, 10, William, 7, and Marilee, 5—scampered downstairs to play. They emerged 45 minutes later to serve as the week’s greeters. Despite some conflict over who got to shake hands and who got to hand out the programs, they managed to greet each visitor with a hug or handshake—Penny’s 70-year-old “prayer buddy,” a former babysitter, a classmate, the head of the volunteer fire department.
During the service, William, wearing a blazer and tie, read Scripture with his dad. When it came time, he moved a small red chair behind the pulpit and stood up tall to read aloud about Jesus’ transfiguration. In the car after church, William said, “I had to say thank you about a bazillion times!” because so many people had praised his reading.
Our church has one Sunday school for children from kindergarten to fifth grade. Most mornings we have 6–8 children and about 60 adults in the pews upstairs. I used to think that the smallness of our church would hinder our kids’ spiritual development. Our former, nondenominational church counted over 400 members, two services, and Sunday school classrooms bursting at the seams. When we moved to a small town, I thought this little church couldn’t possibly offer everything we hoped for. Maybe it could teach our children about Jesus or connect them to community or keep them excited about worship, but I doubted it could provide all of the above without the usual array of programs and events. I wasn’t even convinced that such a small place could help me grow.
We hear a lot today about megachurches—defined as congregations that have 500 or more attendees on average every Sunday. These churches serve the majority of US churchgoers. Still, according to the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, 177,000 churches—about 60 percent of US Protestant congregations—have fewer than 100 attendees each week. The median number of worshipers on a Sunday morning is 75. So our church is the norm. It is easy to bemoan the lack of programs and professionalism, the tight budget and sputtering sound system, but I find myself increasingly grateful for its blessings.
Last year, a friend of ours died suddenly after a car accident. Only 59, he had sat in the pew behind us every week and had volunteered to be William’s prayer buddy. Penny and William cared about him so much they insisted on sitting with me during his two-hour memorial service. In a small church, friendships span generations by necessity. There aren’t enough people to have specialized ministries for singles, families, and the elderly. This means that children, senior citizens, and everyone in between are in it together—in life and in death, in celebration and in sorrow.
Last year, a friend who attends a small church in another town started second-guessing her family’s decision to be there. “The youth group across town has foosball tables and a rock band. We don’t even have a building,” she said. While I too want church to attract our kids, her comment helped me recognize how well small churches prepare our children for the future. For our kids, church involves worship, prayer, Bible reading, and people who love them. That’s it. No bells and whistles. No performance or productions. Just the frail and broken body engaging in the healing work of Christ.
Our kids have been able not only to learn about God’s love for them but also how to love in return. They rolled up their sleeves on “grubby Sunday” to scrub the fingerprints off the walls and clean out the craft closet. They’ve handed out programs and read Scripture and helped with the call to worship. They’ve written notes of condolence. They’ve prayed through the church calendar. They have become an integral part of the work of the whole.
I can’t predict what will happen when our children reach high school. Perhaps they will want to sleep in on Sunday mornings. Perhaps they will wish for more peers—and more anonymity—than they can find at our church. Perhaps they will find the sermon boring, the music tired, the coffee stale. Or perhaps the things I thought were our church’s deficiencies are really gifts. Perhaps they will return week after week to a place where they experience a taste of the kingdom of God, a home that sends them out to be salt and light in the world.
Amy Julia Becker is the author of Small Talk (Zondervan) and A Good and Perfect Gift (Bethany). She lives in western Connecticut with her husband and three children.
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