Nearly a year ago, I began my first pastorate at the Cape Elizabeth Church of the Nazarene, a beautiful church in Southern Maine, with around 22 people in attendance each week. For most of my life, I have attended medium-sized churches. So not only was I new to pastoring, I was also new to a church of this size.
Many pastors are like me, since our denomination is primarily comprised of smaller churches. During my time at Cape Elizabeth, I have already learned a few things about communicating in a small church. They all revolve around intentional, purposeful actions.
INTENTIONAL RELATIONSHIP BUILDING
One aspect that helps when communicating in a small church is knowing your people. Small churches allow the pastor to get to know his or her congregation fairly quickly. In smaller churches, it is easier to pick a few people each week to talk with and get to know better.
We can let our people get to know us by being vulnerable and approachable. This kind of relationship building creates a deep trust between the congregation and their pastor. Then we can take the relationship building a step further. It is one thing to see people in the congregation on Sunday morning or at Bible Study, but it is another thing to go to their performances, concerts, parties, and neighborhood events. The trust then transitions from a Sunday morning trust to a trust that allows us each to be involved in one another’s lives. The more we interact with people, the more opportunities we have to speak into their lives—to preach and teach in ways that connect to where they live. The result is a journey together into a deeper faith.
Most small churches are a family. Everyone knows everyone—and their business. When we build this trust and these relationships, we become a part of the family. When you’ve become a part of the family, you can speak frankly and honestly, because they know you are doing so out of love. Hard conversations can then occur. The difficult sermons can then be preached. They know you love them, so they know what you are will help them live deeper into the story of God.
When a person feels genuinely welcomed, he or she is much more receptive to the church. We can create this warmth by greeting newcomers, welcoming them, and embracing them as if they were family. In a small church, a visitor usually stands out. We can let the newcomer know that he or she is welcome, without putting the newcomer on the spot.
Another vital aspect I have learned in communicating with churches is inviting all to participate and helping each congregant find his or her p
lace in the church. Some will be on the music team, some will read scripture, some will greet or serve as ushers, and some may participate in other ways. I have found the overall message and theme of each Sunday is more clearly communicated when a number of voices speak into it. Besides having a role in the Sunday morning service, we can get people involved in many other ways, such as asking them to help clean the church or help the pastor during the week. The important thing is to help people get connected in a way that reminds them they are a part of the family.
Perhaps the most important thing we pastors can communicate in a small church is growth. I am speaking about the ways the people in the congregation are growing as believers in the faith. Remind them of where they have been, where they are, and where they are going. The congregation is often too focused upon the present to see how it has grown over the years. It is helpful for the pastor to be able to show them ways they have matured and become more Christlike. I believe that when we communicate this, we see the people push to grow even further.
Another thing a pastor or worship leader can communicate in a small church is to remind the congregation that Sunday mornings (and other worship gatherings) are not performances. Those of us who pastor small churches know that our worship services do not always come off flawlessly. At times our sermons will fall short, the music will be off key, or we may even forget a part of the service and have to come back to it. Though we seek to be at our best every week, the service is rarely perfect, and the flaws are more evident in a smaller gathering. If a mistake is made, no one is shocked or upset. Our worship times are not a show. Instead, they are a gathering of the family of believers to hear the story of God and to eat the meal that has been prepared for us through the Eucharist.
Leading a small church can bring great joy to pastors as we put time and energy into building relationships and to helping each congregant grow in his or her faith. As a result of communicating with intentionally, we are able to speak into their lives both individually and corporately to the glory of God and the building of God’s Kingdom.
BRENT NEELY is pastor of the Cape Elizabeth Church of the Nazarene in southern Maine.