Faithfulness & Vitality in Small Places

COMMAnts from the Conference Minister

On a cold and snowy January morning, I drove cautiously on a rollercoaster gravel road toward St. John’s UCC in New Albin, Iowa, our one Conference congregation that sits outside the state of Minnesota. Eventually the road leveled and I could see the church off in the distance, its steeple rising into a wintry gray sky. Aside from a farm directly across the road, there was little else around this rural church, but signs of life at the church were soon obvious as members began arriving for worship.

Inside the sanctuary, I discovered a genuinely friendly congregation. The part-time pastor, Paul Burgess, was stationed at the door to welcome people, and members chatted enthusiastically with me before the service. Multiple generations of family sat in the pews, a 91-year-old man who was baptized at St. John’s sitting a few pews ahead of his son, three generations of another family active in the music program. The choir wore formal robes and youth read scripture. Announcements included community events and details about the next Sunday’s youth group activity.

Afterward, several women gathered around me to tell me about their beloved church and its history, and one of the teenagers told me about the church’s surprisingly large and active youth group. Before they rushed off to the Sunday School classes, they invited me to come back in May for their annual Chicken BBQ event.

All in all, there were about 30 people in worship at St. John’s that morning. A small, healthy, vital congregation, there on a lonely gravel road in farm country of northeast Iowa.

That same Sunday another small congregation gathered for worship in Buffalo, Minnesota. United Faith Community has no church building; the congregation of typically less than 10 people gathers in a meeting room of a local business and shares their worship live on Facebook. Founded just a few years ago, United Faith Community offers a distinctively progressive witness of faith in a community they describe as conservative. Their invitation states: “Come and experience what a truly welcoming and inclusive faith community is like. No pretenses, no judgment, no requirements. Just sharing God’s love with all.” They are served by Ole Olson, a part-time pastor licensed for authorized ministry by the Minnesota Conference UCC, and lay members take an extremely active role, helping to lead worship, Bible studies, and community outreach on a rotating basis. Around Buffalo, they’re known as “that church”: that church that always lifts a public voice when a community tragedy or injustice has taken place, that church that welcomes everybody, that church that has a reputation for service and outreach. This faith community is among the smallest in our Conference, and yet I would hasten to describe it as vital and faithful.

In the Minnesota Conference United Church of Christ, 71% of our 120 congregations have an average of 50 or fewer people in worship on any given Sunday. According to data recently shared by the UCC’s national offices, that figure is just slightly higher than what is true in the whole of the United Church of Christ. The same trend is clear in many other denominations. More and more, “micro churches” are the norm. The pandemic experience and its impact on church life everywhere has accelerated this reality.

For small churches, there are a host of special challenges and questions. How can they afford a pastor? If they have a building, how does its upkeep overwhelm the budget and prevent the kind of ministry the congregation desires? At what point do even the most dedicated members burn out from the constant leadership they must provide to keep the church going? Is a long-term sustainable future possible?

In the Minnesota Conference and across the United Church of Christ, the need to reimagine what it looks like to “be Church” is abundantly clear. We have to prayerfully discern how God is doing a new thing among us. We have to wonder how God might be calling us to let go of what we’ve always known for the sake of a new church and forms of ministry that are aching to emerge. We have to rethink a whole lot of things: pastoral leadership, what it looks like and how it’s formed; church buildings; membership; ecumenical partnerships.

To be honest, there are a lot more questions than answers. No one has absolute clarity about what’s ahead for the Church or what we need to do in the meantime to nurture a faithful, hopeful future. But I think of the two churches I’ve described here, and many more like them across the Minnesota Conference and beyond, and I know this much:

Faithfulness and vitality come in many shapes and sizes.

God is revealed whenever and wherever we make space for goodness, justice, and unfailing love to flourish.

And the Holy Spirit is actively working out among us what we cannot yet see.

I invite your prayers for all our small churches, and for our medium and large churches, too. Each congregation – no matter its size or location — is a blessing in this community of the Minnesota Conference UCC, and each has precious gifts and wisdom to share. For all of you, I am grateful.

Blessed by your ministries,

Reverend Shari Prestemon, Conference Minister

© Minnesota Conference United Church of Christ | 2023