By Steve Matthews, Senior Associate Consultant, FaithX
Four years ago, I was asked to preside at the funeral of one of my favorite aunts. She was born in East Tennessee and grew up in the Blue Ridge mountains of North Carolina. She was one of 9 children. She and her siblings and parents really cleaved to the notion of a small church as the epicenter of village life. At her funeral we sang The Church in the Wildwood. The words to the first stanza are:
There’s a church in the valley by the wildwood,
No lovelier spot in the dale;
No place is so dear to my childhood
As the little brown church in the vale.
It’s a nice and sentimental vision. Maybe it harks back to a simpler time, or maybe it was just an idealized notion of what my family thought church “ought” to be. In any case, a lot has changed in church-land in 100 years and in our culture regarding church.
As a consultant working with redeveloping faith communities, two questions come to mind when I think about accompanying small congregations:
- Just how big is “small?”
- How do small churches discover and engage missional opportunities?
I live in the “Bible Belt” where there are still plenty of congregations with more than 100 people attending on any given Sunday, and by some measures, these would be considered small churches. In other places in the US, an attendance of 20 people is considered a fine worshiping community. Churches may be small for any number of reasons. Conflict within, decreasing population centers, societal ambivalence toward religion, poor leadership, changing demographics, or lack of missional vision. Sometimes small churches are discounted for their smallness and perhaps excused for not being engaged in their community because they are surviving by the skin of their congregational teeth.
Yet, most small congregations have the opportunity and the capacity to impact their community in compelling ways. Most small churches are where they are because at one time their location was considered strategic. Perhaps in rural areas they were planted equidistance from small communities. In some cities, they were often situated in areas where they could serve the needs of growing communities.
Much has changed in the proverbial “vale” in recent years (whether rural or urban), and maintaining vitality and sustainability in these worshiping communities may feel like an uphill climb in 2022. One thing has not changed. Faith communities still have an opportunity and responsibility to engage with one another and neighbors in life-transforming ways. We are all still called to connection and to the transforming work of God, no matter how small we may be.
FaithX wants to accompany small congregations in this work of missional visioning, and there are many entry points. Perhaps the most accessible is the Neighborhood Demographic Report (NDR). These reports paint a picture of your neighborhood and shine light on your own missional discernment. This interactive report is available with or without consulting services (although we highly recommend at least one hour with one of our consultants). You can learn more about the NDR (formerly the Neighborhood Missional Intelligence Report) here. We are also working with cohorts of small churches within an Episcopal diocese on an exciting project called The Vitality Improvement Project for Small Churches.
If you are a small church, how is your “vale” calling you to engage more faithfully? How might we walk alongside you in this important and vital work?
Oh, and if you want to hear the Church in Wildwood sung by another East Tennessee native, you can listen here…