Small Is the New 'Big' When It Comes to Churches
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For decades, mega-churches seemed to be the "thing," driving a mentality of "the bigger, the better." Now, COVID has transformed the way we do church along with the size of our gatherings.
Blackwater Baptist Church
It's Sunday morning at Blackwater Baptist Church in Virginia Beach – a country church that dates back to 1774. Although small to begin with, the pandemic has driven down the number of people in the pews a bit more. "I think we had about a 100-110 coming (before COVID) and now I think today there was like 68, 70 people. So somewhere around 30 percent (fewer), maybe a little more depending," said Lynn Hardaway, senior pastor of Blackwater Baptist. Hardaway says they felt the need for quick changes to keep the church going.
"We did some outside services, parking lot services, changed the way we do communion, the way we take offerings. No more passing things between people," he said. Last summer, they even borrowed a circular horse trough for outdoor baptisms, held Bible studies under the trees, featured an outdoor movie night, and like most churches, turned to live streaming services for those not attending in person.
"But yeah, our folks learned how to do Facebook and how to do social media. I was very proud, especially of the elderly people, that they took on the challenge and learned how to do those things," Hardaway said.
'The Small Church Provides an Advantage'
Today about 380,000 churches dot America's landscape. Of that number, roughly 1,500 are considered megachurches that average 2,000 or more people each weekend. The majority, however, are about the size of Blackwater Baptist or smaller. And according to a 2020 Faith Communities Today study, half of U.S. congregations have 65 people or fewer.
"So that lets you know that God's people prefer by and large smaller settings," Hardaway said. "Now, the megachurches have a part. They have an important place to play for people that want those kind of ministries, but the small church provides an advantage to people that want intimacy and closeness."
Pastor Moses Asamoah of Living Destiny, a small church in Norfolk, Virginia agrees – the isolation caused by COVID is creating a hunger for intimacy. "Somebody actually joined us because they were looking for that place where they can casually walk with their pastor and know the people in the congregation," Asamoah said. "So, the megachurch has its place, but there's a desire to be actually hands-on. So you get to do that a lot in smaller churches."
Thriving During the Pandemic
Unfortunately, the pandemic has caused many smaller churches to close their doors while others are barely clinging to life. That's not the case though at Living Destiny. Pastor Asamoah says despite moving mainly to online services, especially during 2020, they have thrived and even bought a new building.
"We actually increased our giving. We actually saved more money during COVID than ever before," Asamoah said. "I mean, it was amazing because salaries did not change, the rent did not change, so maybe we saved a few dollars on water and electricity because people were not in the building that much, but the main bills of the church remained the same. And so to be able to save that much was just God," he said.
Pastor Asamoah believes prayer led to their success.
"The amazing thing is that our theme for the year 2020 was 'Our Year of the Secret Place' based on Psalm 91. And so in March, when it hit, it was like, this makes sense. This is our year to just be about God's presence. And so the church did well. I mean, because we stood up on the Word of God, right, because God had prepared us up until that time," Asamoah said.
His wife Delali says the church's women's ministry also grew stronger.
"We all had to get used to Zoom, and when it went on Zoom, you know, this is where the young people thrive," Delali said. "They love the technology. What happened was I was able to merge the women's ministry with the young adult ladies, and it was amazing, like, they were mentors and they are now able to understand that there are things over here with our mothers that we need to know that we need to learn," she said.
In addition to pastoring Blackwater Baptist, Lynn Hardaway oversees nearly 100, mostly small churches as part of the Bridge Network. He knows how challenging the pandemic has been.
"Pastors are struggling emotionally with having lost so many members and not sure how to get them back, and some have died, some of the members that they loved have died from COVID or suffered through it, and so there's, and I know everyone in the nation has a sense of this, but pastors, especially because we're people pleasers by nature. And there's no way we can please people right now. There's too many different ideas - mask or no mask, vaccination or no vaccination, and so it has affected the pastor. Some of them are retiring, some of them are just getting out of ministry," Hardaway said.
And according to church growth expert Thom Rainer, 90% of those watching live-streamed services at the beginning of the pandemic have dropped off. "So now they're not attending church and they're not watching Facebook now. They may be catching one of the TV pastors, but we don't know," Hardaway said.
He worries that those who choose not to attend in person may be in danger of losing other even more important Christian disciplines. "Like prayer and reading the scriptures and fasting or whatever disciplines you're doing, so I would say it's important to be around other Christians who are facing the same things that you're facing. That just doesn't happen if you stay at home," he said.
As for the future, Hardaway believes the smaller church will continue to appeal to those who want to be close, intimate and known. And maybe since COVID has isolated so many, as people start to emerge and reconnect, they'll be looking for that smaller congregation for their church home.
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