Small but mighty

Many people think of small congregations in “gloom and doom” terms — not enough people, not enough money, not enough of anything. But the U.S. Congregational Life Survey revealed that small congregations have definite, measurable strengths, strengths that the people who worship there might not always recognize.

Small congregations, in this survey, are defined as those that average fewer than 100 people in worship. Among all congregations surveyed, the average attendance was 90 people, meaning half were smaller than that. In fact, 56 percent of congregations average fewer than 100 people in worship. One of the surprising findings was how well those small congregations are doing, despite their financial struggles and worry about the future.

“Small congregations just beat themselves up,” thinking that getting bigger is what they need to do to succeed, said Deborah Bruce, one of the co-directors of the U.S. Congregations project. “We were very happy to find that small congregations do have strengths.”

For example, small congregations tend to have higher scores than do bigger ones on the “Growing Spiritually” index — outscoring the larger congregations on four of the five elements measured. Small congregations also have the largest proportions of people participating in the life of the congregation beyond worship, involved in small groups, in leadership, and in congregational decision making. Bigger congregations have smaller proportions of people actively involved in congregational life.

“In a small church, it’s much easier to get to know one another, to really feel you connect,” Bruce said. Smaller churches need to learn that they “don’t need to focus on what’s going on in these megachurches to do effective ministry.”

The survey also found that the size of the congregation makes no difference when it comes to offering meaningful worship. Bigger churches might have larger choirs and more flash — but great worship takes places in congregations of all sizes. In fact, in smaller congregations fewer people reported feeling boredom or frustration during the service, and small congregations were more likely to offer worship services that help people with their everyday lives.

People in small congregations were more likely to feel a sense of belonging than people in mid-sized or big congregations. Small congregations are places where the connections are stronger.

Worshipers in smaller congregations also do well in sharing their faith with others — by inviting people to worship, getting involved in outreach to their communities, and looking for ways to talk to others about their faith. In smaller congregations people realize they can’t sit back and wait for someone else to do it.

That’s not to say that everything’s great — many small congregations do struggle, Bruce acknowledged. “They have limited resources and a limited number of people to do what they do.”

And some small congregations have big-church envy, said Cynthia Woolever, the survey’s other co-director. “It’s exceptional where small churches have a really good self-concept. And they should — they have a lot of strengths.” But when a church is barely able to pay its pastor and its bills, “it’s hard to be positive.”

Some of what small churches do best may be because they are places where people really get to know one another. “In larger churches, it’s easier to slide by,” Bruce said. “Come in the back door, sit on the end of the pew, and walk out.” But in a small church, “if you’re not there, people are going to notice. There are more connections. You’re more visible than in a larger church.”

Being a small congregation can be a strength: people come to know one another and to really care.