Sunday and the Small Church

Product DetailsNOTE: This is a slightly edited repost from May 26, 2009.

Here’s some great stuff from Preaching and Worship in the Small Church by Willimon and Wilson (Nashville: Abigdon, 1980).  In this section (chapter three), Willimon and Wilson write about the primary activity of the small church: Sunday worship.

The authors first lament the fact that many things have taken the focus off Lord’s Day worship in American churches.  Sunday school, Wednesday night prayer services, youth groups, ladies’ groups, mens’ groups, singles’ groups, college groups, endless committee meetings, social-action programs, and so forth threaten the “centrality of Sunday” (p. 39).  “Sunday worship became the victim of the ‘full-program church’ mentality.” 

In the past, a shorthand definition of a Christian was: “He goes to church on Sunday.”  Now that person is “quickly informed that that was only a small part of the Christian life.  ‘What you do outside the church is more important than what you do inside the church,’ was how the slogan went.”  All the other programs and events and meetings and groups “conspired to convince people that worship was only one small part of the full program.”

“Such thinking had an undeniable appeal to the pragmatic, utilitarian, work-oriented society, such as we have in the United States.  Time spent in worship tends to be thought of as idle time – unused time.  We are a nation of doers and achievers.  How can ‘acts’ of worship compete in importance alongside activities such as Christian education, counseling, youth programs, board meetings, Bible study groups, and charitable work?  The ‘active’ church with its doors always open, meetings in progress every night of the week, newsletters recruiting participants for a host of activities, insuring that every person is kept busy throughout the week (provided that person truly wishes to be an ‘active’ church member) has become the paradigm for any church that aspires to greatness” (p. 40).  “Even the worship services of those [busy] churches frequently have a breathless, hurried, distracted quality” (p. 42).

The authors continue the discussion by explaining the fact that doesn’t seem obvious: small churches don’t (can’t!) usually have those programs, events, committees, and so forth, but that is good news.  Because they lack these programs, the authors argue, “small churches celebrate Sunday in a fashion that puts many of their larger sister churches to shame” (p. 41). 

“Congregational worship is a reliable barometer of the life of the small church.  Here the church family will celebrate its victories, lament its defeats, act out its deepest needs.  The small church will often express an intense sense of ownership of its Sunday worship practices.”  Often, Willimon and Wilson note, many small church parishioners will violently react to radical change in Sunday service.   They say well that this should be viewed as a positive thing: it shows that the saints there value the Divine service above other church programs and activities.

This is a great word for those of us who are members of smaller churches (quite a few of us I’m guessing).  It is tempting to emulate the large church down the street and literally “get busy” with all sorts of programs.  The problem with this is, as the above notes well reflect, that the busyness displaces the Divine service on Sunday.  The church gets spread out so thinly that it is like a beehive with the saints all buzzing past each other.  The only time they actually stop doing something is during the pastor’s prayer and brief sermon on Sunday morning, around 30 minutes total.  The rest of the service is filled with activity, swirled in with the activity during the week.  The 30 minutes of “rest” or quietness becomes a footnote in the life of the saint: every second of the remainder of the week has a full calendar screaming: “Get to work!”

I’ve benefited from Lord’s Day worship in a small church.  Sunday is different.  We don’t have programs and activities.  We stop.  We think.  We sing.  We pray.  We hear Scripture.  We rest.  We sit still and be quiet, learning how to receive from God as listeners.  We are fed by Jesus.  We teach our kids to quit fussing around (which we ourselves ironically do all week!); we practice the cycle of God’s time.  This goes against the grain of our nature and culture, but as Willimon and Wilson say, this is a great way for a small church to recover their own unique sense of mission and restore their biblical self-image.  When we in small churches “boldly claim the fundamental significance of Sunday for [our] congregational life,” we will be a great light of “rest” to the darkness of the busy world around us.  And above that, we’ll be reminded that we’re pilgrims who depend on God’s word to live each day of our lives.

shane lems

sunnyside wa

4 Replies to “Sunday and the Small Church”

  1. “Sunday worship became the victim of the ‘full-program church’ mentality.”
    That’s a nice rationalization if you are the pastor of a small church. I have been to both large and small churches, and in my experience Sunday worship is NOT a victim of the “full-program” church mentality.

    Church on Sunday is what we make it. I have been to a small church where Sunday sermons turned into apologetics for the Reformed faith. Is that any better than loud worship music with flashing lyrics on a screen on Sunday morning?

    Like I said, Sunday church is what we make it, be it large or small in numbers. There’s room for all of us.


  2. All this is true, but as a member of a really small church, I have to confess that even without the proliferation of weekly busyness to justify our “can-do” Americanism, church gets very busy even on a modest and small town Sunday–teaching Sunday School, making announcements, taking up the offering, helping distribute communion and sometimes manning the nursery in addition–I am just glad I’m not musical, or I would be on the worship team also.
    This is somewhat tongue in cheek, and I would not trade our congregation for a big one (I think).


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