By: Bishop Scott Jones On 8/1/2011
Topics: Bishop's Columns & Blogs
Small is beautiful. The phrase was coined by E. F. Schumacher in a collection of essays in 1973 with the subtitle “economics as if people mattered.” We need congregations that are organized for worship, evangelism and mission “as if people mattered.” People do matter; they matter to God!
John Wesley knew that small groups were an effective means of grace. He stumbled on it by accident. First, he learned the value of a religious society in the Holy Club at Oxford where he, his brother, Charles, and other students gathered regularly to study and grow in their faith. A few years later, he encountered the Moravians, who taught him basic principles of spiritual accountability in the Fetter Lane Society. Then, in 1740, the class meeting was developed. It originally was a way of raising money to pay for The New Room, the preaching house in Bristol. However, combined with his experiences at Oxford and London, Wesley quickly realized that this small gathering also could be an opportunity to help people grow in their discipleship. For more than 100 years, being a Methodist meant belonging to a small group where conversation about spiritual growth was a normal part of one’s life.
I believe that we need to reclaim this part of our Wesleyan heritage. I have been teaching for many years that every Christian—and especially every United Methodist—should worship God in the gathered community every week and should participate in a small group. Such small groups should have five purposes: prayer, study, fellowship, mutual accountability and service. Thus, a Sunday-school class or Emmaus reunion group or United Methodist Men’s group or a United Methodist Women’s circle should regularly do all of those things.
However, what if the congregation is small enough that it functions as a small group? What if this congregation has fewer than 50 worshippers each week? Can it be that incubator for disciples?
Some of our most vital congregations in Kansas are small-membership churches. Their vitality is an expression of the power of the Holy Spirit in their midst as God’s grace is shaping their lives. At these churches, their worship is dynamic, and the power of prayer
is felt. They eat together and support each other in difficult times. They hold each other accountable for practicing the faith. They find ways of serving the poor and needy in their communities and around the world. They study the Bible together. People who come to these churches experience the presence of Christ in their midst.
Too often, we draw attention to our largest churches because of their prominence and the wide impact they have. I am grateful for our largest churches because they do touch so many lives. Yet, I have learned that our best large churches are actively changing lives by organizing many small groups.
Our small-membership churches often are located in small communities. We know that God loves the whole world and that people who live in small towns need the grace of God that only the church can provide. Thus, a United Methodist church in a town of 500 that has an average attendance of 50 can be considered as vital as an urban church that has 500 worshippers. Vitality is determined by the lives that are being changed by the grace of God.
At the same time, vitality involves the congregation’s willingness to engage in spiritual conversations with non-believers and to help them become fully committed disciples of Jesus Christ.
Too often, churches of all sizes become clubs focused on member benefits rather than mission stations that Christ can use to reach people who are not yet practicing the Christian faith.
A small group or small-membership church should figure out how to invite and welcome unchurched people into their midst. Thankfully, we have a large number of such congregations in Kansas. May God help more of us to become vital as well as small.