A Guide for Being Smaller

David Schoen is Minister for Church Legacy & Closure, UCC Church Building & Loan Fund.

In one of her last interviews, Dr. Phyllis Tickle, scholar and author of The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why said, “An emergence gathering can be as few as six or eight people gathered in a home. The majority of them are small. I would say 35 and under folk, probably, gathering.” The interview was in 2010, well before the pandemic.

Today as we deal with the impact of the pandemic, many congregations are facing just such a future of learning to be smaller.

The recently published Twenty Years of Congregational Change: The 2020 Faith Communities Today Overview written by Scott Thumma of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research reports that since 2000 the median average worship attendance in the United States has decreased ‘by over 50% from 137 to 65 attendees in weekly worship services……with Mainline Protestants having the smallest median size of 50 worship attendees.’

Please note that the Faith Communities Today overview also reports that although the average worship attendance has decreased ‘34% of all religious communities grew by 5% or more (in attendance) and 23% by 25% or more between 2015 and 2020.’

Reflective of the growing number of smaller congregations, the UCC Statistical Profile 2020 published by the Center for Analytics, Research & Development, and Data (CARDD), also reports a decrease in average worship attendance since 2000 “In 2019, over eight in ten churches in the UCC (85.3%) had a weekly worship attendance of fewer than 100… over half (54.1%) of all UCC congregations now have a weekly worship attendance of 1–50 individuals.

Looking closer at the information in the UCC Data Hub, from the churches with 50 or less attendees in worship, there are 1250 active congregations that report 25 participants or less in worship which is 25.7% of UCC churches. Of those churches, 869 reported 20 or fewer participants in worship.

If the impact of the pandemic will be to intensify the trends happening in churches before 2020, we will continue to see an increase in the number of small congregations.

How are congregations, church leaders, and pastors preparing for such an impact?

Like Dr. Tickle’s interview comments on small group gatherings, Rev. L. Gail Irwin wrote in 2020 a Vital Signs and Statistics blog on The Ten Person Church.  Gail reflected on exploring the micro church, small groups of people meeting weekly for worship or prayer as a viable option during the pandemic. Such groups rely on strong lay leadership. In fact, Dr. Tickle, in her 2010 interview on small groups,  said ‘That kind of group cannot afford a clergyperson.’  Trible went on to say that pastors could serve five or six such groups and encouraged bi-vocational ministers.

Preparing pastors for serving smaller congregations calls on denominations and seminaries to be encouraging ministers capable of entrepreneurial leadership creating multiple streams of income, as well as developing and strengthening congregational leadership for small groups gatherings.

How can congregations live into a smaller future? Here are three suggestions.

  • Simplify
    A church leader from a small-town rural church facing a pastoral transition sought information on new models for the future of its small congregation. The church leader was looking for resources on simple, home, dinner churches. 

Too often churches try to keep doing activities that they don’t have the capacity to do. Streamlining a church ministry offers a simpler model of a small group that prays, worships, studies, or eats together in homes or other spaces, relying on congregational leaders.

Some churches may not have the leadership, resources, or energy to continue and may seek to complete their ministry through closure or legacy. Even after a church closes, folks can still connect in simple moments of prayer, service, study, or fellowship.

  • Focus
    Instead of trying to continue to do many things, a small church can focus on doing the one thing if does well. A church that several years ago had decreased to 8 in worship sold its facility and property. They have generously used and shared that income through the years to meet community needs. Their mission statement expresses well who they are and what their focus is. The church is now worshipping with 30 participants.

‘We are a small, inclusive, welcoming community of passion and purpose who have been living our faith and loving our community since 1862. Even though we are small, we are a strong, cohesive group of Christians with similar values and goals. We meet every Sunday at 5:00pm for worship or learning. But, our primary mission is to identify areas of need in our community and to take action through direct support or by connecting with other non-profits to form partnerships of compassion and justice. These critical partnerships allow us to work together to make an effective impact on identified needs.’

  • Collaborate
    The future for small churches calls for collaboration between congregations large and small, ecumenical and interfaith partners, service agencies, business entrepreneurs, non-profit and/or profit organizations. Together collaborations can strengthen partners sharing vision, mission, space, resources, staff, and expenses.

A small urban congregation is going to continue its service and relationship to its community, by gifting its building to a Cultural Arts Center which has been located in the church serving the Latinx community. The partnership includes an agreement that the church’s worship community of 20 led by a rotating team of three persons will continue to meet in the Sanctuary.

Growing small for the future.

A congregation’s worship attendance size is not the only factor in defining the strength of a church. Simplifying, focusing, and collaborating are options for congregations of fifty or twenty-five or less worshippers to be self-sustaining, resilient, and bold faith communities that play a significant role in their communities over many generations.

‘Never underestimate the power of a small group of committed people to change the world.’ – Margaret Mead.

3 thoughts on “A Guide for Being Smaller

  1. I am retired now. Except for a summer internship in rural South Dakota and 17 years in healthcare chaplaincy, I was blessed to serve larger congregations with my clergy spouse. But as I think about some of the ‘best’ moments, I think our Dine with Nine opportunities to eat, share, learn and grow in small groups were the most energizing and visionary.


  2. I retired in 2020 after serving small town and rural congregations since 1973. The largest church I served was 350 members. I’ve served four multi-point parishes of up to three congregations with up to about 70 miles in between them. While serving a two point parish I also served as a very part time Chaplain at a residential treatment center for emotionally troubled youth. As I prepared to graduate from seminary I had a seminary official tell me he questioned whether I should be allowed to graduate and be ordained because since entering seminary I had claimed that I felt my Call was to serve small town and rural congregations. This he said made him wonder if I “Lacked the drive” to carry the seminaries “Product label”. As a real professional I should strive to be a SR. pastor in a large congregation or on conference or national staff. I have found that among my peers that attitude is held by many. It’s ok to start off in small towns or rural congregations but a REAL PROFESSIONAL CLERGY will strive for larger congregations or staff positions. Through out my career, no matter what I accomplished, I’ve faced being treated by my peers as a second class clergy, patronized, and ignored. At a national church event where rural and urban clergy were suppose to meet together to discuss the church and ministry, we small church and rural clergy were told by the urban clergy we didn’t have anything in common to discuss. Evidently urban clergy didn’t, deal with the Gospel of Jesus Christ, crime, racism, chemical dependency, declining membership, being an important part of the nations foreign policy and all the other issues we in rural ministry did. If you really want to encourage small church pastors it starts with them having the real respect of their peers and being treated as dedicated clergy seeking to do ministry in the church.

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