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Home > Interpreter Magazine > Archives > 2007 Archives > May-June 2007 > Embracing gifts of small churches

The Rev. Sharon Miller celebrates Holy Communion as her Brattleboro, Vt., congregation worships aboard a boat on the Connecticut River. Photo courtesy of Battleboro First Church.
Embracing gifts
of small churches


They don't come with glamour or media attention, but small churches have their own wells of vitality - intimacy, community involvement, flexibility.

And the times are right for them.

The Rev. Clay Smith, head of the Hinton Rural Life Center  of the Southeastern Jurisdiction, consults with lots of small United Methodist churches. His conviction: small congregations are a sector of church life with the greatest potential for growth today.

"They have a strong sense of place, a sense of sacred ground, a feeling of connectedness that the larger culture has lost," he says. "And most have a core of dedicated leaders who want their church to do well."

Many small churches in rural settings have endured uncertainty or decline as young people moved to the cities.

But trends now suggest a shift to smaller towns and smaller churches, Smith says.

Smith's advice to small-membership congregations:

1. Focus on capacities, not deficiencies. "Take what you do well and reach out," he says.

2. See your church through the eyes of a stranger. Announce worship times publicly. Visitors don't know them. Post signs. Wear name tags.

3. Move your church from a tiny "family chapel" notion to a larger view of family. Jesus asked, "Who is my family?" He insisted all people in His midst were loved ones.

4. Market yourself. Create a brochure. Above all, invite people to church. Don't just sit by the side of the road hoping somebody notices, he says.

5. Try Cokesbury's "One Room Sunday School" curriculum created for children in small churches.

Follow the lead of three congregations that embrace their small-church identity and share it with the larger world:

Expect the unexpected at First United Methodist Church in Brattleboro, Vt.

The sermon might turn into an open-ended congregational discussion. In summer, a weekly service might take place on a rented tour boat on the Connecticut River.

"As a worship leader I have a lot more freedom in a smaller church," says the Rev. Sharon Miller.

Seven people plan worship for a season. "When we rent the river boat, my theme is water, and we take in the beauty of God's creation," Miller said. "Worshipping on a boat - we couldn't do that with a big congregation."

With an average attendance of 50, the church was in decline when Miller arrived as pastor in 2004. She helped spruce up the place and supported experimentation. The church now pays its annual apportionments in full.

During worship, sometimes she projects photos of the church family or saints from Christian history. She may show a relevant DVD and ignite spirited comment before the benediction.

"A question coming from the congregation during a sermon might be disruptive in a big church, but here it's like we're in conversation. I think people are hungering for that kind of intimacy."

Children join the Rev. Dan Damon (right) in leading worship in Point Richmond, Calif. Photo courtesy of Point Richmond First Church.
At First United Methodist Church of Point Richmond, Calif., the Rev. Dan Damon is preacher, piano player, choirmaster, counselor and mediator.

Formerly pastor at a large church, he prefers serving at Point Richmond, with 90 members and an average Sunday attendance of 50.

"I can care for the people here - if someone's sick, everybody knows it," he says.

Damon has been at Richmond 12 years, providing stability and momentum. "Here it's like a family. Sometimes there are arguments, but we're going to talk about things."

He added: "People say, ‘Why not close down those small churches here and there and start a new one in the middle?' You might as well say, 'Let's close down this family and that family and start a new one.' ... We claim our identity as a healthy growing small church."

Farmer City (Ill.) United Methodist Church needed new robes for the sanctuary choir. Music director (and board chair) Marilyn Hirschman announced the need one day during the weekly service - and raised the needed $2,000 that morning.

"In a small church, a lot of decisions are made as people stand around after church," she says. "We're active and we get things done."

Now 150 years old, Farmer City Church (membership 150; Sunday attendance, 52) combines intimacy and outreach as it seeks its niche in east-central Illinois.

"I know in our church, when we take communion, I can pray for every single person because I know their story," says Hirschman, who has been music director there 30 years.

The church grapples with issues of replenishing an aging membership. A weekly "God's Kids" meeting draws 20 young people for supper and discussion. Outreach ministries can also attract new members.

The church helps serve more than 3,000 people by contributing to a local United Methodist food pantry and clothes closet, ministries the congregation started.

"In a small church, we have more face-to-face contact with our pastor," Hirschman says. "And there's another advantage - the family circle is the entire church."

Ray Waddle, based in Connecticut, is a columnist and author.

To Learn More

First United Methodist Church of Point Richmond /201 Martina St./ Point Richmond, CA 94801/ (510) 232-1102/

Farmer City United Methodist Church/ 101 S. William St./Farmer City, IL 61842/(309) 928-2355

First United Methodist Church of Brattleboro/18 Town Crier Drive/Brattleboro, VT 05301/( 802) 254-4218/

Hinton Rural Life Center/P.O. Box 27/Hayesville, NC 28904/(866) 389-8336/ /



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