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All Churches Great and Small

With this issue, Reformed Worship begins its seventeenth year. Not very old, as journals count years, but when we stopped to think about it, a surprise even for our staff. Many of you have been subscribers since the first issue; many others buy back issues when they begin subscribing. We have a remarkably loyal readership, and we’re grateful.

We’re also approaching six thousand subscribers. Again, not very large, as journals count subscribers, but encouraging, as we continue to see a gentle but steady rise in numbers. Our readers come from more than a dozen different denominations; 81 percent are from the United States, 18 percent from Canada, and a handful from other countries.

Appreciation for the Small

We’ve learned over the years that it’s often smaller churches that rely most heavily on Reformed Worship. In that strange terminology of “vacant” churches—that period when churches are without pastors for a time—others step up to do the planning and assume much of the leadership. Some churches are small in number but large in vision, passion, and gifts—which are sometimes developed in ways that surprise and delight the individual as well as the whole congregation. We often publish imaginative, well-crafted resources that smaller churches send us, which enables them to share their efforts with other congregations. Perhaps larger churches have the greater challenge of encouraging a proportionate number in the congregation to develop their gifts in the service of worship for their communities of faith.

But what is a small church anyway? This summer I attended a large Presbyterian worship conference at Montreat, North Carolina (over a thousand people attending each of two weeks), teaching a daily seminar entitled “Music for Small Churches.” When I asked for a definition of “small church,” the conference organizers suggested I think of a worshiping congregation of three hundred or less, perhaps with only one musician on staff. By that definition, a very large majority of the churches in North America are small!

Lots of churches wish they could be bigger; we don’t often hear of churches that would like to be smaller. There are churches, though, that have deliberately opted not to become megachurches, choosing rather to divide in order to plant new congregations.

The Urge to Grow

Reformed Worship would like to be bigger too; we’d also love to be able to print in full color for every issue, for example. But we work with what we have, grateful that we are breaking even now—which we didn’t do for our first dozen years. Then we were carried by the faithful commitment of CRC Publications; more recently we are also supported by an increasing partnership with the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. So now we cover our direct costs, though we still don’t carry our share of overhead expenses—things like utilities and administrative overhead.

The people of Israel were small too. In the coming season of Advent, we will remember how God came not to the rich and powerful, but to the small and weak. John Timmer, former missionary to Japan—where the church is indeed very small—developed that theme in God of Weakness: How God Works Through the Weak Things of the World (CRC Publications, 1996; 1-800-333-8300). His book was chosen as the Book of the Quarter for Calvin Seminary last Spring, offering a comforting reminder to students preparing to take up positions of church leadership of the many times God chose and still chooses what the world—and we too—would call weak, poor, and struggling. When Timmer spoke to the seminary community, he suggested Luke 3:1-2 as a preaching text next Advent: how God bypassed all the temporal powers and instead came to the desert to just one person to find the messenger to announce the coming Messiah. (By the way, a book of the quarter might be a good idea for an entire congregation, too.)

As you begin another year of church meetings and programs, and as you prepare for Advent and Christmas, remember that though our numbers may be small, our God is not a weak God. And though God works through weak means, we work in the power of Christ and are equipped by the Holy Spirit to do no more but also no less than the service God calls us to. And we are never alone when we worship, for we belong to a great host who together are called the people of God, past and present, local and global. The church of Jesus Christ is never small!

Every congregation has the honor once more this year of announcing a very great message of hope and redemption. We may look small to some, but let’s remember to lift our eyes to see that larger body, and then let’s all offer our best in worship, for God’s sake, and for the sake of the world.

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For additional material from the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, click here.