Tiny churches, big hopes: Why some thrive despite the odds

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The new member ceremony is conducted by Pastor Robin Bartlett, far right, at First Church in Sterling. Mass. Photo by Matt Lucarelli, courtesy of First Church

The new member ceremony is conducted by Pastor Robin Bartlett, far right, at First Church in Sterling. Mass. Photo by Matt Lucarelli, courtesy of First Church

(RNS) Hope, by nature, is defiant, counterintuitive and lodged in surprising places.

So a new report detailing the spiritual, demographic and financial challenges faced by small religious congregations meant little to the Rev. Robin Bartlett.

She plants her hopes for First Church in Sterling, Mass., on firmer ground.

“This does not look like a dying and sad church. It looks like a vibrant and active church on a Sunday morning,” said Bartlett, who usually sees 130 people on Sundays, even though the sanctuary was built for the days when more than 300 came to worship.

Just this year, 30 new members have joined, including young adults such as Ann Taft, 28, who delighted in the warm welcome at First Church: “Everyone was just so excited that I was there.”

Pastor Robin Bartlett hugs a member of the First Church congregation in Sterling, Mass. Photo by Matt Lucarelli, courtesy of First Church

Pastor Robin Bartlett hugs a member of the First Church congregation in Sterling, Mass. Photo by Matt Lucarelli, courtesy of First Church

More people in the pews, more energy for programs, more funds to maintain the roof — these are all keys to survival for such small congregations, according to the latest Faith Communities Today report, released Monday (Jan. 4) by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research.

It finds that congregations with fewer than 100 in weekend attendance — the most vulnerable to collapse — rose to 58 percent in 2015, up from 49 percent five years ago.

READ: Christians lose ground, ‘nones’ soar in new portrait of US religion

Yet the report is optimistically titled: “American Congregations 2015: Thriving and Surviving.”

David Roozen, author of the report and retired director of the institute, wanted to highlight signs of hope in the research by asking about innovation, growth and positive change, particularly in those very small churches. 

He analyzed data from clergy and senior church leaders at 4,436 U.S. congregations. Although congregations serving Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and other religions were represented, they were too few for analysis. Ninety percent of U.S. congregations are Protestant (22 percent mainline and 68 percent white evangelical or historically black congregations) and 6.5 percent are Catholic, said Roozen.

Survival is relatively easy to measure.

An invitation to an event at New Song Church, in Longwood, Fla. Photo courtesy of Rev. Jonathan Iguina

An invitation to an event at New Song Church in Longwood, Fla. Photo courtesy of Rev. Jonathan Iguina

When the Rev. Jonathan Iguina arrived at Iglesia Cantico Nuevo (New Song Church) three years ago, the Pentecostal congregation in a commercial plaza in Longwood, Fla., was on the verge of shutting its doors. The last 19 people in the congregation welcomed the new pastor the first Sunday — and never came back.

READ: Pew study: More Americans reject religion, but believers firm in faith

Iguina dug in. He cold-called former members. He found musicians to play the instruments left behind. He cut “unfruitful” programs such as “a visiting ministry that wasn’t visiting anyone” and boosted outreach to families with children.

As he concentrated on “nurturing the people I found, setting a focus on drawing closer to God,” Iguina said, attendance has inched up to 90 on Sunday mornings, and the church’s debt has been replaced by a surplus.

Cantico Nuevo is an exception, according to the study’s grim overall findings for congregations under 100 in weekend worship: Only about 18 percent say they’re thriving, and 29 percent declare themselves OK.

Meanwhile, two mainline churches in Northern Virginia are selling their grounds to nonprofit groups that will build affordable housing. And at the Southern Baptist Convention, a report showed an average of 1,000 churches a year disappeared from the denomination’s database.

Roozen found that congregations willing to “change to meet new challenges” fell to 62 percent in 2015, down from 74 percent a decade ago.

“Thriving,” however, is a more subjective term.

"American Congregations 2015: Thriving and Surviving." Graphic courtesy of Hartford Institute for Religion Research

“American Congregations 2015: Thriving and Surviving.” Graphic courtesy of Hartford Institute for Religion Research

“It comes down to being all you can be in a religious setting,” he said. “These congregations feel they are energetically living out their understanding of their call.”

Hope thrives where change is welcome, Roozen said. “Thriving congregations are nearly 10 times more likely to have changed themselves than are struggling congregations.”

“That’s critical,” said Nancy Ammerman, professor of sociology of religion at Boston University. She observes that those aging congregations slipping toward insolvency “can take a long time to die because a handful of really determined folks will keep it going. That works — if they are willing to revolutionize themselves.

“People haven’t lost the urge to congregate together spiritually. But how they do it is being expressed differently and the churches that do well are reshaping constantly,” she said.

The Rev. Jon Brown left a denominational headquarters job to lead a congregation of 45 participants at Old Bergen Church in Jersey City, N.J. Five years later, Old Bergen, a multiethinic, multiracial congregation, averages 100 people in the pews on Sundays — and tries new things constantly.

To him, this congregation is “a treasure hidden in a field,” he said, echoing a parable in the Gospel of Matthew.

READ: Black churches bucking the trend of decline

“If we are only concerned with the numbers, that becomes discouraging and a trap,” he said. “It could be that we have just a small faithful group of people continue to be the membership but there is a ministry to the community that is a powerful witness of God’s love and grace.”

Even as they streamlined the programs inside the congregation, members ventured outside, with simple, low-cost activities such as making empanadas to hand out at Pentecost or taking an occasional prayer walk through the city, asking strangers, “How can we pray for you today?”

Old Bergen Church has two advantages over many small, old, urban churches.It has an endowment to support the facilities and its downtown location is proving to be a blessing. Six new housing towers, designed for urban professionals commuting to Manhattan, are being built within four blocks of the church.

These advantages “take the anxiety and pressure off me as a pastor. We aren’t absolutely living on the edge. It’s very possible that our best days are still ahead of us,” said Brown.

In Roozen’s study, the percentage of congregations that reported more than 2 percent growth in worship attendance was at 45 percent, down from 57 percent in 2005.

Congregations that beat the 2 percent growth rate were:

  • located in new suburbs (59 percent)
  • offered “very innovative worship” (53 percent)
  • served fewer than a third seniors (47 percent)

Bethany Lutheran Church, an evangelical congregation in Bigfork, Mont., has none of those advantages.

It’s even smaller than it was when the Rev. Christopher Miller arrived nearly five years ago — down to 92 people at Sunday worship. A contentious split with the more liberal Evangelical Lutheran Church in America prompted young families to leave — and leave behind the debt incurred when the congregation expanded the sanctuary and built new facilities for the youth.

Still, Miller looks up:  “I don’t know what Bethany will look like on quantitative terms but by qualitative ones, God is showing himself faithful.”

His motto is from the Little Mermaid’s song in the Disney film: “I want to be where the people are … ”

READ: The megachurch boom rolls on, but concerns rise as well

That means building relationships, weaving young people into the life of the church, and the church into the community and beyond. The Bethany congregation has built six churches in Honduras with funds raised washing cars and selling huckleberry pies. Next up, installing a free library stand in downtown Bigfork where people who pause to browse can drop a prayer request in a mail slot below the books. The idea, said Miller, is to “show people what is important to them is important to us.”

Attracting young adults and families is a challenge in any location at a time when restless “church shoppers” move amid competing congregations, said Roozen.

Bob Kneeland, left, and Jackson Crosby ring the church bell at First Church in Sterling, Mass. Photo by Matt Lucarelli, courtesy of First Church

Bob Kneeland, left, and Jackson Crosby ring the church bell at First Church in Sterling, Mass. Photo by Matt Lucarelli, courtesy of First Church

While more than 20 percent of the U.S. population is 18–34 years old, that age group represented only 10 percent of U.S. congregations in 2015, down from 15 percent in 2010, the congregations study finds. More alarming, Roozen said, is that fewer churches were making this age group a priority.

The latest Pew Research Landscape study to examine American’s beliefs and practices, released in November, found slow but steady decline from 2007 in the percentages of U.S. adults who say they believe in God, pray daily and regularly go to church or other religious services all have declined modestly in recent years. The chief reason: The rise of people, particularly Millennials, who identify with no religion.

Doug Davis, who grew up attending First Church in Sterling and at age 50 is the youngest deacon, said church elders looked around and saw few young adults in the pews. Davis said, “We realized we were falling behind in energy and that was no way to be vibrant.”

READ: Post-traumatic church syndrome? Yep, it’s a thing

But Bartlett, the 39-year-old pastor, a married mother of three, says membership is 285 people — “They just don’t all attend at the same time.”

When Bartlett started a “pub theology” night aimed at millennials, it was such a hit that older congregants complained, “We like beer! We want this, too!” So she’s added a second night, open to all ages.

Ann Taft is part of the young adult group and looks forward to discussion nights, dubbed “Eat, Pray, Learn.” Her husband, Andrew, once a “militant atheist,” is now on the operations committee. She serves on a task force investigating how the church can be more open to gays and lesbians.

Taft recalls when they were new in town and church-shopping. She soon found “there’s no time to search out and explore every theology,” and ultimately, she took Bartlett’s advice:

“Choose one and go with it and let that be the way God is revealed to you.”

(Cathy Lynn Grossman is a senior national correspondent for RNS)

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  • Dear Cathy,

    Thank you for your article. As a student of church growth, I wonder what name might serve a congregation better than “small church?” Maybe average sized church or normal sized church? Any ideas or feedback?

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  • Religion will continue to carry on in places
    where the Bible is not read very much. It is nice to have a community which gets together once a week for a little positive motivation and coffee.

    But Pastors who preach Jesus as the Bible actually depicts him are the ones who see attendance dropping. Jesus is very judgmental and hard to deal with:

    “Jesus would not permit anyone to carry merchandise through the temple.” – Mark 11:16

    Stick with the coffee and donuts.

  • Steveb67

    Though this is directed to the media, the article could easily be applied to atheists who actually think they know Christianity better than Christians. And they show it by showing isolated verses ripped horribly out of context.


  • @Steveb67,

    I was a Catholic for 49 years – raised kids in the church, taught some Sunday school.
    Most Atheists are former believers.

    But why is “Love thy neighbor” never put into context? Jesus stole it verbatim from Leviticus 19:17–18 which bleeds into this disgusting nonsense:
    “‘If a man takes a female slave for sex who is promised to another man….there must be due punishment. Yet they are not to be put to death.” (Leviticus 19:19)

    The slave is to be punished for having been raped!
    No bible verse was ever improved by “putting it in context” because the Bible turns out to be a horror show.

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  • From what I understand, worship attendance of 90-130 does not represent small churches. More than half of congregations in the PCUSA are less than 100 members, with attendance 1/3 (or so) of that. 130 attending would suggest a membership of 400.

    Or do you have different stats or definitions of congregational size?

  • “He analyzed data from clergy and senior church leaders at 4,436 U.S. congregations.”


  • tom sathre

    Max, How did you miss the many blessings proffered by getting to know God, ‘way out of proportion to following a few “judgemental” rules? (The rules are not “judgemental”, actually, when you read them in context. A lover jealously guarding His bride is entirely consistent with the passage you cited from Mark, and completely explains it.)

    Sometimes you just have to put passages “on the shelf”, saying, “I don’t understand this. I will re-visit the topic later.”

  • tom sathre

    Max, (1) We must not judge an ancient text by modern standards! (2) At least, the text you cite from Leviticus gives the slave some rights by allowing her to cry, “Rape” & identify her rapist(s). It’s not modern jurisprudence, but it’s a step up, isn’t it, from what slaves’ rights were there then? (3) You are to be commended for paying close attention to what you read. Thanks for the chance to chat with you.

  • Interesting you should mention PCUSA. I think the stat you mention about small PCUSA churches is correct and I think it is one that many in the PCUSA do not understand the implications of what it means. My anecdotal experience with these small PCUSA churches tells me they are not doing the innovative things mentioned in this article, therefore the conclusion is………

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  • Ruth

    My husband and I belong to a church with less than 20 people. We had a minister that got caught in a tryst with a young woman in our congregation. At that time we had 40+- members. After that we shrunk to about 14 active members. Our minister came to us and begged us for forgiveness. With that in mind that God had forgiven him who are we not to. At the same time my husband and I were attempting to reconnect with two grand kids that our daughter took away from us intending for us to never see again. We got a lawyer and achieved this, but now word about our old minister was found out by my grandson’s lawyer and we had to sign a statement saying that we would never leave the kids alone with our old minister. Oh and I forgot to mention that our daughter married a transgender man. She is married to a woman and the lawyers see no harm in this because it was accepted by the Magistrates of Cleveland. Talk about hypocrisy this definitely is.

  • Rick

    The verse you linked says nothing about who is being punished, and if it says anything in the surrounding verses you ignored them. How do you know it’s the female slave who’s being punished and not the rapist?

  • Jay R

    Jesus was quite judgmental about people’s actions. People are judgmental about other people. Jesus recognizes the intrinsic value of every person. Loving another has nothing and everything to do with that person’s actions. Try and stay between the lines when you are painting.

  • Most of the churches I’ve attended in my life (68 and counting) had weekly attendance of fewer than 100 people. A church with regular attendance of 75 people is very different from one with fewer than 10. That’s a “tiny” church — and I’ve been a part of a couple of those too.
    From my involvement with congregations as a lay leader concerned with evangelism and “church growth,” if the congregation is looking to fill the pews and pay the light bill, they are doomed to struggle and probably close. If they are, instead, looking to follow God’s will, share the good news and seek justice for their neighbors, they will thrive, regardless of weekly attendance.

  • Pat Philp

    Typical atheist mis-quote. But then why should an atheist be honest. Verse 20 says
    20 “‘If a man sleeps with a female slave who is promised to another man but who has not been ransomed or given her freedom, there must be due punishment.[a] Yet they are not to be put to death, because she had not been freed. 21 The man, however, must bring a ram to the entrance to the tent of meeting for a guilt offering to the Lord.

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