Horton Hears a First United Apostolic Pentecostal Church of God in Christ
A church is a church no matter how small
When we hear the proverb “give me neither poverty nor riches” we cheer the wisdom of it. And then we return immediately to putting in another ten hour day to be able to afford that house on the lake.
That is, we pat the sweet little proverb on its head, and send it on its way.
Similarly, when the book or conference speaker tells us that “church size isn’t everything” we underline or applaud. But I know how we roll. We say that size isn’t everything, and then we count every pregnant woman as two when tallying Sunday’s attendance. Three if she’s carrying twins.
That is, we pat the sweet little saying on its head, and send it off where it won’t trouble us any more. Someday we’ll have a large church, we tell ourselves. Someday we’ll be able to go to bed at night satisfied. Someday people will see that we really are good pastors of real churches.
Someday what we really need is to coax Dr. Seuss back from the grave so that he could create an edition of his classic Horton Hears a Who for small churches. Then we need someone to read us that book at night so that we might go to sleep believing that “a church is a church no matter how small.”
This is a truth that pastors need to keep close beside them. The small church is no less legitimate because it is small. In fact, to be a small church is to be normal. According to a recent report released by the National Congregations Study out of Duke University, half of all churches in the United States have seventy or fewer attendees on a Sunday morning. Nine out of ten churches have less than 360. This means that the church down the road, that large church against which you measure your presumed insignificance, is the aberration. We can’t somehow de-legitimize the majority of churches just because they had “only” forty, or seventy, or a hundred and one in worship last Sunday. To pastor a small church is to do what 70% of other pastors are doing, so you have lots of company.
Your church is small? Okay. Small is normal. A church is a church no matter how small. This is something to take to heart, not to recite and then ignore.
For twenty-five years I pastored Hope Presbyterian Church in Bradenton, Florida. A mile away was the Bradenton House of Prayer, a Pentecostal church whose pastor, Steve, became a dear friend. Steve and I had different training, different traditions, and different styles, and yet we shared the firm conviction that we were both somehow failing because our churches were small. After our kids brought Steve and I together (my son married his daughter) we found ways to cooperate in ministry in “Presbycostal” ways. Our churches came to appreciate each others’ strengths. The churches were different, yes, and they were small, but they were vital and real, shepherding people the other never would attract.
Neither of those churches exist anymore. That’s the hard thing about small churches. They often live on the edge of oblivion, in that space where people and pastor have no choice but to trust less in might and power and more on the Spirit of God. It’s not a bad place to be forced to live, really. And in fact, it’s normal.
A church is a church no matter how small. When small church pastors and their people begin to believe and accept this they can begin to nurture their inherent strengths. And those are many, according to the report cited earlier.
. . . people in smaller congregations give more to their churches than do people in larger congregations. Not incidentally . . . people in smaller congregations also participate more in the life of their congregation than do people in larger congregations.
Small churches draw out the gifts and generosity of their members in ways large churches can’t. These are clear signs of vitality, evidences of people growing as disciples of Jesus. Real ministry happens in small churches, not just large ones.
You don’t need to grow in order to be legitimate. You are legitimate now. Churches need not reach some magic numeric milestone before pastors can judge their ministry to be “sufficient.” Such milestones tend to forever recede into the distance anyway. Ignore them. Your church is what and who it is, and that is good.
But in those dark moments when the clouds of doubt begin to roll in over the horizon, when Sunday’s attendance numbers are full of disappointment even after counting Mr. Jones who intended to be there, but had a flat tire on the way, pull that reliable book off the shelf, Dr. Seuss’s Horton Hears a First United Apostolic Pentecostal Church of God in Christ, and read it. Be reminded that a church is a church no matter how small.
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Horton is an elephant whose extraordinary hearing allows him to hear the mayor of Whoville calling out for help. Whoville is an entire society living on a speck of dust. Horton goes to great lengths to preserve this speck of dust, and to persuade others that such efforts were necessary because, “A person’s a person, no matter how small.”