Chicago Tribune: Churches big and small say spirit is the right fit

Churches big and small say spirit is the right fit

One house of worship gets thousands at its services. Another gets far less. Both feel their warmth is what matters

By Emily Biuso
Tribune staff reporter

June 14, 2002

When the congregation of Trinity United Church of Christ holds Sunday services, the parking lots and surrounding streets are jammed with cars. Thousands of worshipers pack the sanctuary, with others filling the chapel and two overflow rooms to watch the sermon via television. The choir alone is 250 people strong.

A 10-minute drive away at Chains Are Broken Ministry, about 40 people file into the sanctuary, which used to house a tavern, and take their seats in auditorium chairs that function as pews. An electric guitar player and an organist provide the music, and worshipers play an active role in the service, taking turns testifying or leading the congregation in song.

Yet despite the vast difference in size between the two South Side congregations, during both services there is hugging, handholding and personal greetings all around. Worshipers at each church say this is where they feel at home.

Raie Williams says she attended a large church as a child and thought that as an adult, she wouldn't want to be part of a small one. Yet for 10 years she's been a member of Chains Are Broken, 433 E. 113th St.

"My church family is more my family than my real family," she said. "God changed my heart about a small church."

But members of Trinity United, 400 W. 95th St., say their church's size is no obstacle to intimacy.

"We're a big family," said Gus E. Bowers, who has been with Trinity for about five years. "And as long as the leadership continues, and I'm sure it will, it'll feel like a small church, although we're pretty big."

Sense of belonging

Researchers who study religion agree that although size may play a role in choosing a place to worship, feeling at home is more important.

"For the most part, the size of a congregation is more a secondary factor rather than a primary factor," said Scott Thumma, a faculty associate at the Hartford Institute for Religion Research. Regardless of size, he said, church leaders and members should be aware of the need for intimacy and socialization.

Though most U.S. churches are small enough for ministers to greet all of their members at service, a majority of churchgoers attend congregations of several hundred people or more, reported a study by U.S. Congregations, an ecumenical agency housed in the office of the Presbyterian Church U.S.A.

The study found that just 10 percent of U.S. congregations draw 50 percent of worshipers a week. The average church in that 10 percent has 380 worshipers, said Cynthia Woolever, director of U.S. Congregations.

"We have small churches dotting the landscape, but in terms of people in the pews and what they're experiencing, half of them are in larger churches," Woolever said.

With 8,000 families as members, Trinity is considered a megachurch, but members say they do not find identity in its size.

"The significance of this church is not so much its size as in terms of its relationship to the community," said James D. Montgomery, one of the founding members of Trinity. "The size is a result of what the church is about."

As the leader of Trinity and the man most responsible for its growth, Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. knows firsthand the demands and benefits that come with leading churches of all sizes.

When Wright first became pastor at Trinity in 1972, he could stand at the door on Sunday and shake the hand of every one of the church's 87 members. Thirty years later, Wright said he'd be standing for hours if he tried to greet every worshiper.

"I miss that. I miss not being able to stand at the door," he said. "And that's the challenge: not being able to be as intimate with members as I want to."

A range of amenities

These days he may not know every face in the crowd, but Trinity has amenities and outreach that many churches can only dream of. Among them are a college-placement office, a bookstore, a hospice and community projects in South Africa, Ghana and other African countries. The church has a staff of 102 employees.

Wright says he recognizes the need to maintain closeness. He encourages members to introduce themselves to one another at services, and he makes a point of attending meetings of each of the church's 70 individual ministries, where he can get to know members.

"We try to make our church feel like the big church with the little churches," he said.

At just 25 regular members, Chains Are Broken has remained about the same size, with modest ebbs and flows, since Pastor Floyd Jackson founded it 32 years ago.

But members of Chains Are Broken also don't see their size as defining them, and the congregation is looking to grow.

Still, they enjoy the close-knit feeling and sense of belonging they get at Chains Are Broken. Some come from as far away as Worth and Des Plaines to hear Jackson preach a service based on Pentecostal traditions.

"The smaller church--it represents a more dedicated, united church for other people that might get lost in a bigger church," said Yolanda Harris, who commutes to Sunday services at Chains Are Broken from her home in Des Plaines.

The biggest challenges for a small church are financial, Jackson said. The staff--including Williams, who acts as the church secretary--isn't paid.

Like Wright, Jackson is keeping an eye on the intimacy of the congregation as the church attempts to grow.

"They don't feel the warmth," he said of members of some large churches. "It's something to be conscious of as we grow."

Copyright © 2002, Chicago Tribune

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