I’m not sure how it happened. One day while sitting in worship, I looked up and as the choir stood to sing the offertory special, I noticed my ten year old sister with her conductor’s wand – a present given to my musically inclined sister years earlier – directing our church’s small choir. At best, 10 adults participated in the choir with a median age of 55. As a 15 year old, I sank in my pew utterly mortified. Today, as an adult and a youth minister I rejoice in the congregation’s ability to recognize that despite her young age Lacy had a natural proclivity for music and leadership. Our small congregation lost our choir director, but without skipping a beat the congregation immediately looked to the most gifted person they knew to fill the role – an elementary school child!
Growing up, participating, or serving in the small church is not for the faint hearted! Nor is small church ministry worth overlooking, underestimating, or ignoring.
Being raised and nurtured in a small congregation (65 on a good Sunday), I learned a great deal about my faith, the body of Christ, and the role of the Church in the world. On many Sunday nights Agnes, a ninety year old, blind widow, asked me to read the bible to her. As a 12 year old, reading the bible wasn’t nearly the priority my youth leader hoped it would be until I sat by Agnes. Then, I was inspired to read and read as long as she would listen. She hung on my every word as my eyes scrolled over the 48 point font in her Large Print NIV Bible, and I hung onto every word of gratitude and encouragement that she offered to me.
From my upbringing in the small church to my perspective today as a minister in a small New Jersey congregation, I see youth nurtured by grandparents, aunts, uncles, sisters, brothers, cousins, and parents in the faith. Small churches possess the ability to serve as an extended family to youth, while offering youth unique relationships with adults, which often cannot occur without intentionally developed programs in larger congregations. Small churches know the value of young people because they instinctively understand the congregation’s health and livelihood depends on its young people. In small congregations, losing a few youth may mean losing an entire generation.
After spending 12 years in larger congregations (450 – 500 weekly attendees), my involvement in my small congregation reminds me and reinforces the joys of small church ministry. Once again, I’m in a congregation that opens its arms wide to youth; I am repeatedly amazed at the invitations extended for our youth to be full participants in the faith community! When our youth preach, lead the mission moment, cook pancakes on Palm Sunday, greet, play the offertory, share a testimony, serve on a committee, or organize our annual Christmas pageant, they receive love and affirmation. We celebrate their gifts as vital instruments in our mission to “Feed More Sheep,” and know that the invitation to participate in God’s mission extends from the youngest to the oldest congregant.
The small church rarely receives its due respect as a learning hub for other congregations even though the heart of connectional ministry is that we celebrate and recognize all of the gifts in the kingdom of God. All churches possess unique gifts for ministry and as much as the big share with the little, the scriptural witness reminds us that God mightily works through the little – the little children, the little in status, the financially little, those with little influence, and the ones with little voices.
In the United Methodist Church, connectional ministry provides a unique structure for us to share together whether small, medium, or large. Yet, there is still even more potential for us to tap into ways to better connect and learn from one another. Youth ministry in every church faces real and difficult challenges. For the small church, congregations often suffer from cases of “Little Church Syndrome.” Little churches inevitably struggle financially to pay their weekly bills and the pastor’s salary, which makes purchasing curriculum, attending retreats and camps, training volunteers, buying pizza, and other simple activities almost impossible. Little Church Syndrome deflates confidence. As soon as small church leaders attend a conference sponsored training event hosted by a large church with new pool tables, a coffee shop, and a full gym in the youth ministry wing, inadequate feelings surface. Small church leaders often leave more deflated than encouraged saying, “We can never do that!”
As much as the small church needs the resources, the support, and the training from larger churches, larger churches need the voices of small churches to remind them of the value of celebrating young people, creating strong and meaningful relationships between youth and adults, and equipping all young people to explore their vocational calling to live God’s mission in the world.
Rev. Justin Lefto of the KS West Conference awakened my ecclesial imagination to wonderful possibilities for partnership between large and small congregations. He suggested that congregations with incredible annual mission trips could invite a small congregation 20 miles away to partner with them on the trip and the fundraising. What if larger churches invited small churches to teach their congregations about the practical ways they empower youth to utilize their gifts for ministry? What if the large congregation partnered with the small congregation to hold a fall discipleship retreat? What if youth ministries stopped seeing one another as competition and stopped measuring success by the size of the youth room, the number of gaming systems, and the number of paid staff members in the youth ministry and started pooling resources between congregations?
Learning from the little means taking the rules of God’s kingdom seriously and trusting God to use the little to exponentially impact the world, even if it comes through the leadership of a 10 year old!