By Greg Petrie, District Representative, Northwest District
Big Things in Small Churches
It’s easy for small church congregations to feel inferior to larger churches, viewing themselves in terms of what they don’t have, who they aren’t, and what they can’t do. Most small churches have experienced families who visit once, but ultimately choose a larger church for its vast array of children’s programs. However, I believe smaller congregations have an advantage over larger churches in one essential area. That is the ministry and practice of prayer in the country church.
To quote from someone who has expressed it better than I, Brad Roth, in his excellent book God’s Country: Faith, Hope, and the Future of the Rural Church writes:
“So often, rural congregations suffer from a sense of lack, defining themselves on the basis of what they are not. They’re not big, not in an ideal spot for growth, not chock-full of the city’s creative movers and shakers. It’s time to reject this narrative of scarcity and encourage the rural church to begin to see itself as the caretaker of a different source of abundance: space for prayer. What if we were to envision the rural church as the special house of prayer sustaining the global church? “We need prayer. We need the power of prayer to fuel the church’s ministry. We need prayer that transfigures our reality so that we can discern what God is up to in the neighborhood. We need to take seriously that prayer is the central work of the church, work that releases us for long and patient abiding in our rural communities and holds us in the presence of God.” (p. 100).
Roth later notes, “I’m convinced that prayer is the central work of the rural church. Especially in smaller congregations, there aren’t myriad volunteers, staff, and programs to be overseen. We have the luxury of time for prayer.” (p. 108)
Prayer in the Country Church: A Unique Strength
The small church excels at praying for one another. I visit about 40 different churches with attendance ranging from about a dozen to several hundred. In most of the smaller churches, they are able to set aside part of the worship service for the public sharing of praises for God’s goodness and answered prayer and prayer requests. In some of those churches, various members of the congregation take turns leading in prayer. Granted, there are those times that end up being filled with announcements disguised as prayer requests or another too-long story about travels to visit grandkids or the latest medical procedure. But I’ve seen countless examples of people sharing a need for prayer—a concern, a fear, or a heartache—and having their family of faith pray for them right then and there.
We recently visited a church in which a woman had found out just that week that she has cancer. She and her husband were obviously and understandably struggling with the uncertainties and the likelihoods. That small congregation gathered around where she sat that morning, put their hands on her and arms around her, and prayed. I know they are continuing to pray for and with her.
Drawing Rural Communities Together
In small rural communities, everyone knows everyone else’s business (for better or for worse). In the small rural church, the people pray for others in the community, as well as any friend or relative they are asked to pray for. I have often seen someone who doesn’t even attend the church say to a church member “Would you have the church pray for my brother? He’s having surgery this week.” And that small church does pray—in their worship service and over their prayer chain.
Prayer in the Country Church: Our Most Important Action
It has become fashionable lately to criticize expressions of “our thoughts and prayers are with them” with the retort “we don’t need thoughts and prayers, we need action.” I support taking appropriate actions to address needs and solve problems, but our central action in our response is prayer. Our response must be both, and in my opinion, prayer comes first. We pray, then mobilize. To again quote Brad Roth, “We need to take seriously that prayer is work—not a cop-out, not thumb twiddling, but the essential work of rural ministry—and then throw our best time and discipline and energy into it. Do the work of prayer.” (p. 109)
Certainly a larger church can provide the means and opportunities for personal, interactive prayer (just as a small church can have great music or a thriving youth group). In general, I believe it’s the small church that does prayer best.READ MORE: Check out Greg’s previous blog article, “What Can One Small Church Do?”