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The strengths and stresses of small churches

POSTED: March 28, 2016 3:11 a.m.
Kelsey Dallas/

Small faith communities offer unique benefits to members, but declining church attendance creates financial problems.

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One of the United Kingdom's smallest faith groups will hold its last regular Sunday worship service this weekend, after deciding that organizing weekly meetings required too many resources.

"It got to the point when just keeping the rota of Sunday worship going was taking most of the energy of the last half a dozen people," Ed Sirett, a former elder in the U.K.'s Mennonite church, told The Guardian. "We could probably do more to advance our cause if we weren't expending so much effort on something which people weren't coming to."

Church attendance is a growing concern for U.S. faith communities, which have had difficulty attracting young adult members. With fewer people in their pews, churches struggle to collect enough donations, maintain projects that rely on volunteers and stay on top of small projects, as Deseret News National reported in December 2014.

"Each member has so many different jobs" in small faith communities, noted Cindy Wells Hayes, a Methodist pastor.

More than four-in-10 American churchgoers (42.7 percent) belong to a congregation with fewer than 50 members, according to the National Congregations Study from Duke University. A slightly larger group (44.7 percent) attend churches with 50 to 250 members.

In spite of the potential challenges, research has shown that small churches may be healthier than larger congregations, because of stronger bonds between members and more success in attracting new people.

"If you could choose to do just one thing to support and strengthen the growth of (Christianity) around the world, it's hard to imagine a better investment than multiplying, encouraging and equipping healthy small churches," wrote pastor and author Karl Vaters this month in his blog on church leadership for Christianity Today.

Similarly, Neil Cole, a Christian who helps faith leaders plant new churches, has highlighted how small churches are more successful at branching out into new locations than their larger neighbors.

"The stats tell us that 10 smaller churches of 100 people will accomplish much more than one church of 1,000," he wrote recently on ChurchPlanting.com.

However, at some point, it becomes impossible for a church to continue operating unless they gain more members, as the U.K. Mennonites' experience illustrates. This reality has inspired unique responses from some American churchgoers, like a group of "mass mobbers" in Michigan.

"Every month, a group called Detroit Mass mobs picks a church, spreads the word on Facebook — and just like that, it fills up and buzzes with the energy it once had," NPR reported in October 2014.

Although one crowded Sunday can't make up for budgetary or other resource shortages, it does remind people of the beauty of a bustling faith community, said mass mobber Thom Kinney to NPR.

"To be in attendance when it's full, as opposed to just … sparse. There's an electricity that's amazing," he said.
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