October used to be the month for counting in church. If it moved we counted it, if it didn’t move we counted that as well just to be sure. The figures were sent off to Church House in London and after a few months with the number crunchers the results were published. Methodism had declined for another year.
Sadly we did not need the statistics to tell us that in the circuits, it was obvious week by week. So in the end, a couple of years ago, the Methodist Church thankfully stopped counting. However we are still obsessed by numbers.
Post lockdown I keep being asked what the congregation was like on Sunday morning. I think the person who asked wanted to know how many people were attending rather than my answer that they were ‘an ugly looking bunch but quite friendly!’.
Why do we equate success with large numbers? Over the years I have been minister to churches of many different sizes and ultimately there is no difference between a 20 member church and a 200 member church.
There are no small churches because people are in them, and the needs of people are as real in little congregations as in bigger ones. In the small churches I served, people were poised to grow. They were ready to move from membership to discipleship. In these churches people got sick, they died, they had discouraging marriages, they had wayward children, they had aging parents to look after, they had stressful work settings, etc. Potential blessings and painful problems were present in small churches just as they were in the bigger ones. Sadly small congregations believe that their problems will be solved if they become ‘bigger’.
I also learned the perception that most churches are larger ones is an illusion. It was true decades ago, and it is still true. The last time I saw a statistic I found that over 50% of Churches in this country have a membership of 75 or less. That may even more post lockdown.
But perhaps most of all, small churches are places to learn what Henri Nouwen once wrote to a friend who was discouraged because of a small response to her ministry, “In the area of spirituality, statistics do not count. Two or three people who hear you well, may be able to do miracles.” Henri J.M. Nouwen, ‘Love, Henri: Letters on the Spiritual Life’ (Convergent, 2016).
In the end there are no small churches only small vision. And without vision the church will perish despite the numbers in the pews on a Sunday morning.
God bless, Alan.