Scott Chrostek D’06 was disappointed and upset when, midway through his first year at Duke Divinity School, he received his first summer field education assignment. Surely, it was a mistake, he thought. Or maybe some-body’s idea of a joke.
Chrostek, 26, had assumed he’d be given an internship with a large church similar to the one he attended growing up in a prosperous suburb of Detroit. A former financial analyst with a business and economics degree from the University of Michigan, he pictured himself spending the summer advising a large-church finance committee.
But his assignment: Dana United Methodist Church, in the tiny western N.C. mountain town of Dana, with an average weekly attendance of 51.
What could he possibly learn there, Chrostek wondered.
Just about everything, as it turned out.
He learned how to preach every Sunday. He sang in the choir. He started a church youth group and led work teams of kids who repaired roofs, mowed yards, cleaned gutters, and did other chores for elderly church members and others in the community. He helped start the church’s first week-long Vacation Bible School. He even learned how to wring a chicken’s neck—or, more accurately, how to accept with gratitude and grace a 99-year-old parishioner’s gift of a freshly killed chicken.
Mostly though, Chrostek learned one of the best-kept secrets in modern American Protestant Christianity: Despite enormous obstacles and often overwhelming odds, small churches can be places of extraordinary ministry.
“It was one of the best experiences of my life,” says Chrostek. “I’ve seen what church can be. Those people had more faith and strength for their size than any church I’ve ever seen. If we could get large churches to have the kind of discipleship and faith and humility these people had, the church would be A Force to Be Reckoned with.”
Though often overlooked and subject to stresses as never before, small churches remain an essential part of the American landscape. Finding new ways to support and sustain both these congregations and the clergy who serve them is one of the most important issues facing the church today, say divinity faculty and others.
Numbers alone make small churches hard to ignore. While large and mega-churches make headlines, the simple fact is that most churches in America are small. Overall, 71 percent of U.S. congregations have fewer than 100 regularly participating adult members, according to the National Congregational Survey, a 1998 sample of congregations from across all U.S. denominations. The median congregation, the survey found, has only 75 regular participants.
For Methodists, the numbers are even smaller: Almost 73 percent of UMC congregations have 100 or fewer worshippers on Sunday, according to the 2000 General Minutes of the United Methodist Church. Median membership for UMC churches in 2000 was 112, while the median worship attendance was 53.
If those numbers surprise even churchgoers, it’s because most attend large churches. For Protestant churches generally, the bulk of membership is clustered in a relative handful of large churches. While only 10 percent of U.S. congregations have more than 350 participants, those congregations account for almost half of all churchgoers, according to the National Congregation Survey.
What all this means for Protestant clergy, of course, is that most pastors will spend a substantial part, if not all, of their ministry serving small or medium churches, notes Jackson Carroll, director of the Pulpit & Pew project and the Williams professor emeritus of religion and society at Duke Divinity School. The “church” that most pastors serve looks very different from the “church” that most churchgoers attend.
According to Kenneth Carder, former UMC bishop of Mississippi and now the director of the divinity school’s new Center for Excellence in Ministry, the “smallness” of small churches lies at the heart of both their strengths and weaknesses.
“There is great strength in small groups,” says Carder. “Jesus called 12, and Wesley brought people together in small class meetings. We can hold each other accountable and hold each other in love more easily in small groups.”
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