The Strength in Small Numbers

Every year, during commencement weekend at Colby College (where my husband is a professor), there’s a dinner to celebrate those receiving honorary degrees from the College. Faculty and administrators gather for this festive evening, during which each degree recipient has an opportunity to share a few thoughts with the audience.

This year, one of the honorary degree awards went to Edison Liu, President and CEO of Jackson Laboratory, a biomedical research institution in Bar Harbor, Maine. During his remarks, Dr. Liu shared his thoughts on the strength of small—small places, small groups, small communities, small companies. Small can change the world, he reminded us.

I was thinking about small as I cleaned up after our Sunday worship service, on the morning after the honorary degree dinner. Old South is not only small as a congregation, but we also have a small Sunday School—3 boys, the oldest one in kindergarten. Plus, one toddler girl who desperately wants to join in the fun.

Sunday was Children’s Sunday. With our focus on our almost microscopic Sunday School, we were feeling particularly small in number. We weren’t quite sure what was going to happen. This spring, the Sunday School had offered lessons on the “Fruits of the Spirit” (love, kindness, generosity, etc.), but no one knew if the boys would really be wiling to show even the tiniest bit of something they had learned.

In the end, though, it was a wonderful, worship-ful service. One of the boys insisted on sitting up in the chancel with me for most of the service. Another boy wanted to help me with the benediction.

Yes, the group is very small, but there is an unmistakable strength. In this small group, I know those boys—not very well, but I know them. And, they know me. When Timothy decided, sometime near the beginning of the service, to sit with me in the chancel, it was no big deal. When James wanted to help out with the benediction (also not planned in advance), holding out his own arms in blessing, we could do that together. I knew how to talk to James so that he would follow my lead and would know what to do. And, no one in the congregation shook their heads in disapproval.

In such a small congregation, which is getting smaller, it sometimes takes a little something to remind us that there’s strength, and significance, in our small numbers. Our shrinking numbers often bring worry and concern, and sometimes something like an apology for the low attendance. We often allow ourselves to see only the negative aspects of our small gathering. Certainly, there are problematic dimensions to our smallness. But, not everything is bad.

It seems an awfully big task to think that we might be able to change the world, but in our own way, that’s exactly what we do. It’s not big or grand, but it’s there in the ways that we share the love of God, in how we reach out to each other, in the places where we reach out to the community and the world in which we live. We won’t likely change much of anything on a large scale, but in our small gathering, we may just change the lives of a few people. As we seek to live out our experience of God’s love and as we live out the “fruits of the Spirit” in our everyday lives, we do the work of God. It’s not big, but it’s a wonderful thing.

About smaxreisert

I'm a United Church of Christ pastor serving the small, faithful Old South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, in Hallowell, Maine. I was ordained in Massachusetts in 1995, moved to Maine in 1997 and have served the Hallowell church since 2005.
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