Well I was born in a small town
And I live in a small town
Probably die in a small town
Oh, those small communities
– John Mellencamp
Like the John Mellencamp song, I grew up in a small town. I have spent much time ministering in small towns. The first church I preached for was an inner-city congregation, but since then I have made my home in rural towns in Oklahoma and Texas. I was a member of a large urban church during my college years. I was an intern at that congregation, so I got a first-hand look at how a church with several hundred members and a large staff operates. Although I have spent most of my time in rural communities, I have been blessed to worship and serve in churches of various sizes in a multitude of locations.
Small churches are sometimes ignored because of their size. We think that larger is better. People are inclined to believe that the best preachers and programs are at large congregations. If a church is large, most people automatically assume it is successful without ever asking any other questions. Large churches often serve as models for smaller churches, but I have never known of a small church serving as a model for a larger church.
Small and medium size churches in rural areas have much to offer. They contribute significantly to the larger body of Christ. Small churches are not better than big churches, nor are big churches better than small churches. A congregation should not be thought more or less of because they are located in a metropolitan area or a small farming community. What we do need to realize is these churches have different things to offer. They are not the same, and it is important that they listen to one another. We often hear about big churches in major cities, but I want to spend a few minutes reflecting on smaller churches located in communities that are not as well known.
Churches in rural areas are often more diverse. In communities with a larger population, people tend to self-segregate. It is not uncommon to find a vast variety of different churches in a large city. There are conservative and liberal churches. There are black, white, and Hispanic churches. There are churches who don’t think you should have a kitchen and churches that offer traditional and contemporary worship. In most cities, you can find a church where everyone else is just like you. They look like you. They think and believe the way you do. Rural communities don’t have as many churches to choose from. The congregations are smaller, but they are often more diverse. Liberals and conservatives worship together. Instead of the church reflecting the demographics of a single neighborhood, it reflects the demographics of the entire town. It includes rich and poor. It is likely to include people of different ethnicities. In many rural churches, you will find a variety of different people who come together just because they are united in Christ.
Small churches eat together. I’m sure many large churches would do this if they could, but space, time, and logistics prevent them from doing so. It is easier for smaller churches to plan and execute a meal that feeds the entire congregation. This is a tremendous blessing because eating together is a spiritual exercise. Read Luke and Acts and notice how many times meals are mentioned. They are an important part of the church. Meals strengthen friendships. Inviting someone to the table and sharing a meal with them is an act of hospitality. It is a form of ministry. Eating together is essential to the spiritual health of a congregation, and smaller rural churches eat together frequently.
Churches in small communities tend to use all their members. It is possible to be a part of a large church in an urban area and never get involved in anything. It can even be difficult trying to find ways to serve if the church is not actively seeking to get people involved. Anonymity is much more difficult and even impossible in many rural churches. They need people to serve in various capacities. You may even be asked on a whim one Sunday morning if you would like to lead a prayer, wait on the table, or teach a Bible class. Rural churches will more likely use people who may not be used in a setting that is trying to keep a certain appearance. Some urban churches may have an entire staff of professionals, whereas small churches may utilize a member with a mental handicap or someone who tends to stray off topic. I appreciate professionalism, but it is important to remember the body of Christ includes members who do not fit into societal norms. This should be reflected in our worship.
One could easily write a similar article about large urban churches. It is important to remember that churches come in all shapes and sizes. We should not dismiss a church because of its appearance or size, but rather we should seek to learn what each congregation has to offer. This will benefit the larger body of Christ as a whole, and we might be surprised by what we discover.