Small Church, Big Sanctuary

While Old South is certainly one of those churches that wonders quite a lot about what the future will hold—with our small numbers, our difficulties in maintaining and paying for staff, worries about the demands of our physical plant, etc.—Old South is also a church that has a lot going for it. People genuinely care for one another. We have a shared commitment to worship as well as other aspects of our communal life. We give generously (especially given our size) to mission projects near and far.

On “low attendance” Sundays, though (and there are more of them than there used to be), it’s hard not to feel very small, and insignificant. On some Sundays, the small congregation is scattered, as singles or couples, across the sanctuary. The only group of any size is the choir, and they are, on most Sundays, significantly smaller than they were just a few years ago. Occasionally, it feels like there are just as many people in the chancel area—with the choir and me— as there are in the pews.

While those who are a part of the congregation may know about all of the things we do well as a church, it’s hard not to feel at least a little despairing, fretful and uneasy when there are so few in such a large space.

During the time I’ve been at Old South, attendance has never been what might be described as robust. When I first started, more than ten years ago, average attendance was somewhere between fifty and seventy. In a sanctuary that can hold a few hundred, it never felt full (except for Christmas Eve, Easter and a few funerals), but it didn’t feel empty either.

With average attendance now in the low 30s, worship is starting to feel empty. No matter what we say about our largeness of spirit, or that the numbers don’t matter, that faithfulness to the Gospel is the most important measure, it’s much harder when there’s so much space around us.

It’s too bad that we can’t engage in an “app” that shrinks our sanctuary as the congregation shrinks—now that would be a helpful piece of technology! Instead, we must remind ourselves to see past the empty spaces, and to see the significance of who and what we are.

This is easier said than done.

In a recent blog on the Christianity Today website, Karl Vaters argued, “small churches are a vital component of the most powerful force for goodness the world has ever seen – the gospel of Jesus lived in and through his body, the church.” []

He is absolutely right, and I’ll offer that Old South is a good example. Yet, we stumble in the doubts and worries that afflict us when we gather for worship on lots—not yet all—Sundays of the year when our smallness is not felt as a strength but a very real liability, that in our small gathering we cannot escape the notion that we’ve got ourselves into something we can’t handle. And that is the physical reality of the building around us—aging, and needing of more and more maintenance.

Vaters goes on in his blog to focus on love and encourages, “Let’s shower the world with tangible proof of God’s love.”

The challenge will be, for small congregations in large buildings—like Old South—to see if they, if we, can truly live out of God’s love, loving people more than the building in which we gather. This, I fear, will be easier said than done.

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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