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Characteristics of Smaller Churches--a note from Liz

David Ray’s book, Wonderful Worship in Smaller Churches, is an inspiring resource for churches the size of Church on the Hill. I read it when I first started in Monterey, and found it bolstering of the spirit. 

It’s easy for small churches (which Ray defines as congregations with 75 members or fewer) to feel “lesser than” in more ways than just number of members, and it’s a pleasure to read Ray’s book because he so clearly sees it otherwise—not that the likes of us are lesser than, but that we're poised for a different, more immediate sort of ministry.

So here are some of the 27 characteristics he's collected over the years of his pastoral service in small churches.

  • Worship is the primary activity of the small church.

  • Eating together is their favorite activity.

  • The New Testament church is the model or paradigm of a small church.

  • Small churches are people oriented, not goal or future oriented.

  • Small churches are more likely to laugh, cry, flare up—be emotional.

  • They operate on fluid, people time.

  • Everyone knows, or thinks they know, everyone else.

  • Beyond knowing one another, small churches act like family.

  • In a small church, almost everyone feels that they are important and needed.

  • Organizational functioning is simple rather than complex, and they can decide and act as a whole rather than in subgroups and committees.

  • Communication is rapid.

  • Small churches are known by their distinctive personalities more than their organized programs.

  • They’re likely to be rooted in their history and nervous about their future.

  • A small church’s theology is real, personal, horizontal, and historical; not systematic, vertical, or ethereal.

  • A small church understands mission and prefers to do it in personal, pragmatic, and immediate ways.

  • A small church wants its minister to be a pastor, friend, and generalist; not a professional, specialist, administrator, or CEO.

  • Lay people are more important to their survival than the pastor is; the pastor is critical for their long-term flourishing.

  • Small churches are tough and resilient.

  • Small churches are better at special events than long-term programs.

  • They’re better at meeting immediate needs than long-range planning.

  • Small churches are locally owned and operated.

It's worth noting that, while most "church-goers" participate in large congregations, most churches are small. In fact, 40% of all churches in the U.S. have fewer than 50 people in worship. You could read this as a sad state of affairs, or as a coming back of the alternative politics Jesus had in mind, making a way for communities built on devotion and affection to thrive. No surprise: the latter way is how I read it.

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