As Americans, we all know that bigger is better- and in the South, at least, nowhere is this more evident than at church.
Megachurches are where it’s at here in Nashville, with their supersized sanctuaries and celebrity pastors and virtual Internet services, and for many years my family went to one of the biggest, fastest-growing megachurches in town. And there’s certainly a tremendous need for this kind of church. Many people out there- if not most- just want a place where they can go on occasion to get their church on, and a megachurch can provide a semi-anonymous refuge to those who are seeking answers or guidance or just a little divine inspiration to start off their week- no real commitment required.
But my husband and I were craving something deeper. We tried to get more involved at our megachurch– We joined a small group, I participated in women’s Bible studies, we helped out with service projects– and still, we felt disconnected. For me, things came to a head after we got busy and went months without going to a single church service– and not one person from our megachurch even noticed.
While for many, that would be a good thing, we realized that we wanted a more close-knit community. And so with great trepidation, we decided to spend a few weeks visiting some new churches. Of course, every church on our list of possibilities was simply a different megachurch- We didn’t bother considering small churches because… Well, there’s a reason that they’re small, isn’t there?
On the very first morning that we got ourselves dressed and ready to visit a new church on our list, we discovered that we wouldn’t be able to make it to any of the services on time. Dennis wanted to just wait until the next week, but I had gotten myself and the kids all dressed up, dammit, and WE WERE GOING TO CHURCH, come hell or high water. I got online and began looking up service times at every local neighborhood church I could think of, and I found one- a small (!) Presbyterian church just ten minutes away.
Off we went.
We (easily) found a place to park, entered through the church’s double doors, and were instantly swarmed by members, all introducing themselves and re-introducing themselves (this being a neighborhood church, there were a lot of familiar faces) and shaking our hands and basically asking in a very Christian way what the hell we were doing there. It turned out that we were just in time for Sunday School, and we found ourselves swept along in a tide of very jolly and excited people (We have visitors! their eyes gleamed. VISITORS!) into our respective Sunday School classes. Dennis and I were plopped down at a table in a classroom surrounded by about 20 other adults, all of whom were staring at us expectantly. We were mortified.
The lesson began and the first ten minutes were incredibly uncomfortable. Everyone was talking and laughing and there we were, right in the middle of it, feeling like fish in a bowl. But after a bit, surrounded by warmth and friendliness, we both began to relax– and by the end of the class, we were even offering our own opinions. After Sunday School, we met up with the kids, who had found friends of their own and were having a great time, and we went into the sanctuary for church.
The service was different from what we were used to. It was traditional. And small. And none of the men looked like extras in Nashville, and none of the women were swaying and singing with their palms up in the air. My father is Presbyterian and calls them the “Frozen Chosen,” and… well…
But as we sat in the pews among about a hundred other people, a little girl stood up and left the sanctuary to go to the bathroom. And no adult went with her. No one needed to. IT WAS THAT SMALL. Everyone knew everyone. And as ridiculous as it sounds, that’s when I knew I was home.
We left that service with the kids begging us to go back the next week– which pretty much sealed the deal. “Why did you like this church so much, Punky?” I asked my nine-year-old daughter.
“Because people actually looked at me and introduced themselves and asked me what my name was,” she said.
We have now been members for nearly a year, and membership in a small church means that it has become a major part of our lives. We go on Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights and do other church-related things several times a month, and I feel like we’ve discovered the most wonderful secret- Small churches can actually be… awesome. In a nutshell, here’s why:
A small church offers accountability. There have been so many mornings when I would have rather stayed in bed than go to church- but I know that we’ll be missed if we’re not there. If I skip a Sunday or a Wednesday night, I get at least a few texts and e-mails from church friends, asking if everything’s okay. For some, this might be annoying, but I’ve found I really like this kind of positive accountability. Sometimes we all need a gentle push to keep us going in the right direction.
A small church gives you many opportunities to lead. In the megachurches I’ve attended, the music teams have consisted mostly of professional singers and musicians and the church leaders all went to seminary or wrote widely-read Christian blogs or published bestselling Christian books. While there were plenty of ways to get involved, a true leadership role wasn’t realistic for me. In my small church, on the other hand, everyone has to be a leader in some way in order for things to run smoothly, and so I’ve found myself challenged to try things I never done before- like singing in the worship band on Sunday mornings, teaching Sunday School classes, and directing the children’s Christmas pageant. I love that in my small church, stepping up isn’t a big deal– it’s just what you do.
A small church generally has a high concentration of very committed members who will inspire and motivate you to do more. Most members of our church have been there for years- generations, even- and their commitment to their faith and to serving others is so inspiring. These are the kinds of people I want and NEED to be around often, and thanks to my small church, I am.
A small church is less intimidating to children. My kids have flourished in our small church, and it wasn’t until we joined that they were able to articulate that they often felt nervous about going to our megachurch because the composition of their Sunday School classes changed constantly and the services were filled with hundreds of strangers. Now, they know just about every member of their church by name, and the members know them, too. This is very comforting to them and I believe it gives them that sense of extended family that they’d otherwise miss out on since all of our relatives live out of town.
A small church makes it easier for you and your children to form long lasting, meaningful relationships with others. I got to know a lot of people at my megachurch, but I made no close friendships there. Looking back I see that it’s because the groups I was part of were constantly changing. I never had a chance to really get to know anyone over a long period of time. In my small church, on the other hand, I see the same people week after week after week, whether it’s in Sunday School, at Wednesday night supper, or working on a service project together. In just a year of attending church, I’ve already made far deeper friendships with others than I did in 12 years of attending megachurches.
In a small church, the facade of perfection has to be abandoned. I always struggled with the facade of perfection everyone seemed to maintain at the big churches I attended. In a small church, that’s not an issue. Because you see the same people several times a week for years on end and end up covering some very deep, thought provoking subjects when you’re together, you inevitably get to know the good, the bad and the ugly about your fellow members quickly- and to accept everyone, warts and all. This just intensifies the family-like atmosphere within a small church, and I’m loving it.
A small church can offer you diverse relationships with others. One major element each megachurch we attended lacked was seniors. We’ve got plenty in our small church, and I have loved learning from their wisdom and years of experience. They’ve been through most everything I’m going through now, and tend to have great perspective. They’re also very good about continually reminding the younger members about what’s really going to matter when it’s all said and done.
Small churches do big things. My church has around 300 members, but you would be amazed at all of the good they are able to do as a church both in our community and around the world. From providing clean water to villages in Honduras to stocking the food pantry here in Bellevue to delivering wheel chairs to kids in Guatemala to taking care of Christmas for local kids and the elderly, the list of charitable organizations my church’s members donate time and money to each year is mind boggling, honestly. And because our church is small, I get a front row seat to see all of it happen – and I’m motivated to participate in it as well.
I still love our megachurch and all that it does for the community, and it is certainly giving thousands of people in Nashville exactly what they need. I believe it was an important stepping stone for my family to get where we are today– and the best part is that I know the pastor there would say the exact same thing. But I had no idea that a small church could have so much to offer until we literally stumbled into one, and so I wanted to throw this experience out there for you to consider as well.
I don’t write much about Christianity here, because I know that many of you have different beliefs and for most, it is an intensely personal subject. I respect that, I really do. But sometimes, I’ve just got to share what’s on my mind…
and today is one of those days.