In church assessment literature, small churches are often considered to be those with fewer than 100 on an average Sunday. In rural communities a congregation of 100 on a Sunday is not small, it’s enormous, unheard of but for funerals. Small is in the vicinity of 20 or less. They’re congregations that slip under the radar of those who write about the state of the church. And why not? Are they not dying anyway? Why bother with them? Some are dying because they’re in dying communities. Some shouldn’t be dying, but are, for lack of competent leadership. Some are not dying at all. In spite of their small size, they are active congregations of worship doing good things in their communities. Many of them in our area are served by retired and non-stipendiary clergy, supplemented by willing lay leaders who may or may not have been through the appropriate approval processes of their denominations.
Often lacking in the usual resources, they can often enjoy an abundance of worship diversity larger congregations in bigger cities seldom have access to. Consider the small congregation I’ve served for seventeen years in rural Washington: Grace Episcopal Church in Dayton, a town of about 2,000. Dayton has relatively few families with young children. In-migration is largely from mature people looking for a nice, affordable place to live. It’s a town with many churches, mostly quite conservative, all declining in membership. Grace Episcopal Church, founded over a hundred years ago, has never been large. Average Sunday attendance boomed to a little over twenty in some years, but hovers around twelve to fifteen most of the time. It’s not a young congregation. Most are in their seventies. A few are older. Fewer are younger. It’s been served by a cavalcade of clergy who come for a season as an adjunct to some other calling. What that has brought is enormous variety in styles of worship, making for a congregation flexible in its willingness to try, or endure, new things.
I began serving there once a month for a Sunday evening Eucharist in addition to my role as rector of a larger congregation some thirty miles away. Why? Because they said the rector of St. Paul’s always served Grace Church, so I did. I’m fairly high church, which suited them well as a change from other Sundays when they were led by a couple of retired clergy, one of whom was rather informal in the celebration of the liturgy, and the other favored something like an anglicized version of a pre Vatican II mass. Try laying a mix like that on a typical big city church.
Clergy come and go in small rural areas. Grace was served for several years by a female priest when such were few in number, and not always welcomed. A college student from a school thirty miles away felt a call to ordained ministry, but being gay, and therefore unacceptable to his home congregation, was adopted by Grace, sponsored by Grace, and is now the dean of a cathedral in a large city. After retirement, I began to serve them several times a month at the usual Sunday morning hour, with weekly adult formation classes thrown in on a regular basis. Everyone came. Other retired clergy taking their turns included a gruff priest who brooked no deviation from his definition of what was right and proper, and a colleague whose approach was folksy and casual. They’ve each retired from retirement, so to speak, making me the old guy, abetted by the latest addition to our revolving clergy cast, a retired farmer-teacher-priest whose down home country style is far different than mine.
Clergy come and go in small rural areas. So do members. A few die. A few move away. A few arrive. The congregation continues on, singing in a variety of keys to adorn their worship. What will be it’s future? The most probable one is that its last members will die, the doors locked, and the property sold. Improbably, they it will continue on as a small aging congregation in which some arrive as some leave – as they have for a hundred years. Could they attract more families with young children? That’s the dream of most congregations. It’s unlikely in a town with a dwindling school age population. Moreover, local families with young children struggle to make ends meet. The percentage living in poverty is very high. Whether they attend church or not, their needs are significant. So this small group of aging seniors has taken on a ministry to care for the needs of children who have never been in the church. Identified through the school system, they’re provided with clothing, food, school supplies, and funds to underwrite activities. Will they and their parents ever worship at Grace Episcopal Church? Probably not. Does it matter? Probably not. If they go anywhere, it will probably be to a non-liturgical conservative evangelical congregation. That’s a disappointment, but it’s also reality. Will that discourage Grace’s ministry to the children? No.
Very small rural churches such as Grace do what larger congregations in larger cities can’t. They can accommodate a variety of worship practices that come with a variety of clergy as the normal way of congregational life. In the context of a community where everyone recognizes each other by face if not by name, they can engage in needed ministry with people who will never become members. They may be very small, mostly elderly, but they need not die, at least not yet.