Ecclesiology and the Small Church

Mark Gorman

This fall Faith Communities Today, a research organization, released its FACT 2020 report on church attendance patterns in the US. This organization has been surveying thousands of congregations for the last twenty years. I paid special attention to the report because, apparently, I completed the survey on behalf of the congregation I was serving at the time (a lot has happened since then, and I have only a vague memory of this, but I was emailed the survey results because I had been a participant). There’s a lot in this report, but the takeaway for me was straightforward: most churches in the US are small numerically (up to 100 people in worship, on average, according to the report), but most Americans who attend church attend large churches (more than 250 people in worship, on average). (An important caveat is that these data were collected pre-COVID.)

In ecclesiological terms, the small member congregation plays different roles depending on a congregation’s tradition. For Eastern Orthodox churches, the Divine Liturgy simply is the church, the whole church, at worship, simultaneously catholic, or universal, and local. The size of the congregation is not so important, because the whole church is really present at the Liturgy. Something similar is true for Roman Catholic parishes, even though the Catholic understanding of the Mass is not identical to the Orthodox understanding of the Divine Liturgy. There may be practical issues in terms of having sufficient priests for numerous smaller parishes, but, ecclesiologically, the central place of the Mass or the Divine Liturgy means that there are no issues, in principle, with smaller churches.

For churches in the Wesleyan-Methodist tradition, however, the matter is less clear cut. On the one hand, our heritage includes the Church of England’s Articles of Religion, which affirm that a church is where the Word of God is preached and the sacraments duly administered. Good preaching and due administration of baptism and Holy Communion can happen as easily in a small church as anywhere else. For United Methodists, a similar affirmation can be found in the Evangelical United Brethren heritage as well.

On the other hand, however, we are also big on missional ecclesiology—or, better to say, a particular understanding of missional ecclesiology. For us, the church of Jesus Christ is the church in mission, and mission means growth. This is especially true since the corporatization of ecclesiastical leadership since the 1990s, when “mission statements,” which we now take for granted, became first fashionable and then requisite.

My own United Methodist Church, for example, added a mission statement in 2000 and revised it in 2008, so that it now reads, “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world”; for the Church of the Nazarene, the church exists “to make Christlike disciples in the nations.” The Free Methodist Church says that the Holy Spirit works to “build and increase the church.” And the Wesleyan Church goes so far as to say, “The denomination exists to help local congregations grow and multiply, be more healthy, and more authentically reflect God’s plan.”

Making (more) disciples: that is a major aspect of a Wesleyan-Methodist missional ecclesiology. And it cannot be denied that this ecclesiology has roots both Scriptural (Matt 28:16–20) and historical (John Wesley’s “to spread scriptural holiness over the land”). But for the small congregation, this missional ecclesiology raises a difficult question. Put bluntly, is a small church that is not growing, and has not grown in some time, still a church? Unlike for the Roman Catholic Church or Orthodox Communion, it seems that for us, in principle, there are serious ecclesiological issues with smaller churches.

As the pastor of two small United Methodist churches, I know well and have rehearsed often the standard small church response to this growth-focused ecclesiology (“We’re growing in holiness,” said just a little smugly). I am also aware of both the special pleading (“Small churches can’t be judged by the same standards as larger congregations”) and the condescension (“One little light shining brightly”) that often goes on. But just as an unhealthy capitalist mindset may be lurking under a growth-focused ecclesiology, so sentimentality for “the little brown church in vale” may lie just beneath this defensive reaction.

A better response would be to reemphasize the part of our ecclesiological heritage friendlier to the small church, the part concerning preaching and sacraments. Yet as more people attend larger churches, decentering growth and size may become increasingly difficult.

I do not think there is a silver bullet for this conundrum waiting to be discovered. It is nonetheless helpful to recognize that the troubles our churches and denominations face may be deeper than the practical issues and changing social dynamics of our day. A proper diagnosis of our ills also means confronting the implications and outworkings of our ecclesiology.

Posted Nov 08, 2021

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