July 10, 2020

The Dark Side of Small

small church

In forsaking the ability to change, they diminish the capacity for hope.

– Kathleen Norris

I have often praised smaller churches. I continue to hope in the restoration of community life across the U.S. and the revitalization of neighborhood churches that will bring the Gospel back down to its proper human scale.

But I am not wholly idealistic and naïve. Wherever there are human beings trying to make it through life together, there are problems. It matters not whether the setting is large or small. Every community of people faces challenges which, if not handled with wisdom, grace, and love, will threaten its health and perhaps even its existence.

dakota coverRe-reading Kathleen Norris’s contemplative classic, Dakota: A Spiritual Geography, I was struck by the chapter, “Gatsby on the Plains,” about how folks in small settings can become insular, resistant to change, quick to turn on one another, vulnerable to conspiratorial thinking, suspicious of “outsiders,” and incapable of absorbing new information. I have seen all these tendencies and more in small communities and congregations. I recognize them in myself.

Kathleen Norris observed how people in her small South Dakota community tended to live in the past, when life was more prosperous and satisfying. “If we could only go back,” they said. Forgetting the problems that were present then and ignoring the progress and positive changes in the world since their community was “Eden,” they long for an idyllic time in the past that was somehow taken away from them. As Norris notes, “Paradise wasn’t self-sufficient after all, and the attitude and belief that it ever was is part of the reason it’s gone.”

She also describes a commitment to stability that becomes, in reality, a death wish. Though the world “outside” may change constantly and dramatic ways, we remain the same and this is to be preferred. “Values that once served to protect and preserve the town become threats to its survival,” Norris notes. When new opportunities that will open up future possibilities present themselves, the cry goes up, “We never had to do that before, and we did alright, by God!”

This leads to new lines being drawn and conflicts. Those who are more open to change may suddenly find themselves on the other side of the aisle in church from those committed to stability. Of her town Norris laments, “It is painful to watch intelligent businesspeople who are dedicated to the welfare of the town spend most of their energy combatting those more set in their ways.” And thus inertia not only cuts us off from the future but also from one another.

Because of this small churches may lose their best and brightest people. This has been happening for a long time in rural communities across our nation. Many leave, never return, and suffer no regrets in staying away from their provincial past. Some do return, often with romantic notions of a simpler life and a supportive face-to-face community. However, Kathleen Norris observed that these returnees themselves often shrank in soul over time: “As their frame of reference diminishes, so do their aspirations and their ability to adapt to change.” She noticed teachers who had stopped reading, youth who saw no point in preparing themselves for anything, farmers who couldn’t grasp the need to learn about changing markets. Many couldn’t imagine the point of taking and reading the newspaper. They lost the virtue of curiosity.

It becomes easier for people who have come to “idealize their isolation” to latch on to conspiracy theories. They see themselves as the holy remnant, guardians of the old wisdom vs. the new, who pridefully lean on their own understanding and skill and threaten the ancient ways of righteousness. Various “shamans” become their guides: political extremists, prophecy teachers, or maybe just the local “expert” who continually dampens enthusiasm for anything outside a local perspective.

This insular thinking sees outsiders, particularly gifted outsiders, as threatening. As Norris says, “Such outsiders can unwittingly pose a threat to the existing social order, and if their newcomers’ enthusiasm doesn’t wear off, if their standards don’t fall to meet the town’s, and especially if they keep on trying to share what they know, they have to be discouraged, put down, or even cast out.” Once evicted, community members may speak of them for years as scapegoats for their own problems. Unfortunately, Norris observes that resisting outside influence to protect our institutions only leaves us with mediocre and unstable institutions.

Summarizing these tendencies, Kathleen Norris quotes G. Keith Gunderson, a Lutheran minister intimately acquainted with the region, who describes the darkness that threatens small communities (and small congregations) with these devastating words:

Progress is illusion and hope is folly. We are born, we live, we die. Leave us alone.

Churches that stay small and isolated because of such attitudes can’t die fast enough.


  1. Having grown up in a small town, in a rural area, I can attest that all of this is true. One thing to note is that gifted “insiders” are very often perceived as outsiders who pose as much of a threat to the established order as those who move in from other places – perhaps more of a threat, as a deviation from the established order is perceived as a betrayal by many.

  2. Having served in smaller churches in the rural parts of the country (and friends with a pastor in VERY rural South Dakota), I can attest to a lot of this. Take all of the upsides and downsides of a church in the city — and reduce it to about 40-50 people in a building where the next town of similar size might be over 100 miles away. That’s close to what you are experiencing.

    Of course, a lot of big city churches have the same problems (how many pray for “Revival” or wish for some semblance of the 50s, even if it’s not as pronounced?), but there’s at least other options in life.

  3. Well said on some of the issues with small churches. I have seen another problem where even those who encourage outreach mis-understand the mega-church movement. They see the mega-church down the street and say “If only we had ….., we would grow”. I have seen the “…” be a gym, a new building, a contemporary service, and many other things. They try this new thing, get into debt, and still don’t grow. They don’t understand the theological and structural changes that make a modern mega-church.

    Now, I disagree with those theological and structural changes that make a mega-church, but I identify with the small church that is dying. In some cases, there are just too many churches in a rural area where young people have left. Churches just have to be closed. In larger cities, perhaps a small church needs to turn its building over to a church that can better reach the racial needs of a neighborhood. In many cases, the church needs to refocus on its community. Every case is different. But, I never have seen a case where just adding a gym or a contemporary worship service solved its problems.

    • Richard Hershberger says

      It’s not merely that the young people have left. Or at least, not in all areas. I live in a semi-rural, semi-exurban county in Maryland. This area was settled by German farmers moving down from Pennsylvania. There are an astonishing number of small rural Lutheran and formerly German Reformed (now UCC) churches.. Back in horse and buggy days those rural churches made perfect sense. There are churches in the towns, too, of course. But back in the day, it wasn’t practical to make a trip into town for Sunday morning service. Now they are only there out of inertia. They each are run by the half dozen families that have run them for the last two hundred years. There is little reason why someone moving in would be tempted to join, even if he lived next door. That’s what cars are for. I expect those rural churches will keep on pretty much forever as living fossils. But people moving into the county will look elsewhere, even within the same denomination.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        My main writing partner is a burned-out preacher in rural Pennsylvania, and he’s told me pretty much the same about his area. You’re never out-of-sight of a small rural church steeple — each with a congregation of maybe a dozen with an average age over 70. And each of those little dying rural churches has some sort of “gatekeeper” with a 200-point inspection you have to pass or Be Cast Into Outer Darkness.

        He’s also told me about a Mega in a nearby city sheep-rustling all those young marrieds with children with varied attractions — how can a small rural church complete with in-building Starbucks clones, rock concert-quality shows, and even onsite amusement parks and pony-ride stables?

        Progress is illusion and hope is folly. We are born, we live, we die. Leave us alone.

        He’s been told the same in almost so many words. “Pastor, the only reason you’re here is to Keep Us Comfortable.” We are born, we live, we die and Go to Heaven. Leave us alone. Just keep us comfortable while we wait to Go to Heaven.

  4. Well, aren’t we optimistic this morning!

    I know it is Lent and all, but still….

    • I thought I’d show that Chaplain Mike is more than a booster for Mayberry. But, for a balancing comment, I’d like to invite you all to Danville, Indiana in May for THIS.

  5. On the March 2 post “Outside the Camp” I went back and read the article at the Jesus Creed blog that initiated it. After reading it, I asked this community to talk about why churches become exclusionary. This post is a better outline than imagined. “Leave us alone” smacks of what humans have said to God forever. If you read the very last sentiment of The Humanist Manifesto III it says “the responsibility for our lives and the kind of world in which we live is ours and ours alone”. And that is signed by Nobel laureates more than any other group. I can understand people who are atheist or agnostic forming this type of attitude, but find it very real and abhorrent in the church communities here( rural). Now I want to talk about “revitalization of neighborhood churches that bring the Gospel back down to its proper human scale”. The insular thinking attitude means that many of us here can’t go into these type of existing local churches and make a difference. We did “house church” for a while, but started two of them that had “drama” type breakups. A third was extremely successful, but ended naturally because of moves by the people attending( including us). We are tempted to “go” to a fairly local church( 15 miles), but are extremely …..the right word…..hesitant.

  6. But …but ,,,I thought with age comes wisdom. You mean sometimes age comes all by itself??? Bummer.

    Love that quaint little country church in the photo today. Hate to think of all the bigotry, ignorance and condemnation that must have happened there. Still …quaint. Not enough parking, though.

    • That quaint little church was likely once a powerful focus of gospel centered life. People who don’t believe down deep don’t start churches. It’s unfair to think that only “bigotry, ignorance and condemnation” have happened there. There is almost certainly a history of grace as well. We need to remember that.

      • I would certainly hope so. I did not mean to imply that there was not good there as well. It’s just that we tend to romanticize those old country churches forgetting how human they were …begun with a passion but eventually slipping into irrelevance. It may be stereotyping, but my thoughts are that so many 19th century churches, large or small, were stern, legalistic and, thanks to the “second great awakening”, adrift in their teachings.

        It has been my experience that, in small towns (like those in our rural area today), those churches were functionally “owned” by a major family or two in their communities who supported them for their own social agendas. That is not saying that faith was not a factor, however.

        • I guess that’s where Jesus’ parable on the wheat and the tares applies, eh? 😉

        • Richard Hershberger says

          Legalist: heck, yes! My hobby is researching 19th century baseball history. There were frequent discussions about whether a Christian could play baseball. Not on Sunday, mind you. That was out of the question. I mean at all. The eventual consensus was that it was possible for a Christian to play baseball, but he had to be constantly on guard against dissipating influences. In 1873 James White got religion. At first he thought he would have to quit baseball, but he had already signed a contract for the upcoming season with the Boston club. This was a dilemma, since by quitting baseball he would also be breaking his word. He decided to play out the season, and in the end he decided to baseball could be compatible with Christianity after all. He is inevitably known today as “Deacon” White, and last year was inducted into the Hall of Fame.

          The taboo against Sunday baseball broke down gradually. It was a bulwark of WASP propriety, but regions with stronger Catholic or German Protestant populations thought it rather silly. Sunday was the only day working class individuals had off, so there was a strong commercial incentive for Sunday baseball. It wasn’t legal everywhere until the 1920s. There is a joke that Yankee Stadium isn’t the House that Ruth built: it really is the House that Sunday Baseball built.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        That quaint little church was likely once a powerful focus of gospel centered life.

        Then Entropy set in.

  7. Yes, yes, and yes. I live in a small town and attend a church of several hundred members (not small by some people’s standards). I’m not from here, though, and am constantly surprised by the inability of members to grasp that the landscape in their community has changed. “Why can’t it be like it was? How can this–meth labs, crime, teen pregnancies–be happening in our little town?” I hear it all the time.
    Ditto the cry of “Why can’t we have a gym, rock band, or whatever else?” because the mega-church 30 miles away does and seems to be growing.

    This is exactly the way it is. Exactly.

  8. There may be less of this in Catholic parishes, simply due to the universal links and authority, but I sure have run into this in the secular world as we have moved around the world. Want to really enhance the wonderful experience that IS middle school/junior high?? Try walking into school as the new kid in a steel mill town, speaking three languages, after living on three continents, and having learned everything in the 7th grade curriculum two years ago in an International School with a British curriculum. Oh yea, and spell “colour” funny….

    • My experience has also been that the attitudes described in the article are a secular, small isolated town problems instead of church problems, but that these problems can concentrate badly in the (small, balkanized) local churches because many of the ones who are most unhappy still think that church will somehow have the solution to their problems.

  9. It is good to acknowledge the difficulties faced by small churches — and in particular by small churches in rural areas. This particular flavor of dysfunction is, of course, a reflection of the general cultural trend toward the evisceration of small town life in the U.S. In fact, it is a reflection of the general cultural trend away from human community in general — in both urban and rural settings. For several generations we have become increasingly rootless, flowing into urban settings whose planners and administrators have gone out of their way to create cities that are designed to facilitate the flow of objects of commerce, while at the same time alienating the ability of people to live together in forms recognizable as community. This flow has been scraping the rural barrel, and we are hearing the echoes of those hollow communities left behind.

    In New England, where I live, this has been happening for well over a century and a half. Our peculiar geography and history have left us with thousands of small spiritually crippled churches — places once vital with gospel life that are now incapacitated by all the factors mentioned in the post above. Strangely, however, the conservatism is often of a liberal nature. The move away from an classically evangelical faith toward unitarianism, universalism and theological liberalism happened well over a century ago. Many of these churches are now stuck in a pattern of resistance to “new comers” focused on teaching the historic faith as taught by the apostles in the scriptures. There is a sense that we are too sophisticated for all the “holy roller stuff” and primitive mythology.

    Add to that the deep New England sense of “no one tells me what to do” and an ingrained and systematized custom of absolute local autonomy — well, we know that the Holy Spirit is the only one who can revitalize these churches. The good news, from my viewpoint, is that Aslan is on the move. We are starting to see signs that the rule of the White Witch is beginning to weaken and a spring of the spirit may be on it’s way.

    I have more thoughts, but I’ll post another comment later.

    • “… we know that the Holy Spirit is the only one who can revitalize these churches. The good news, from my viewpoint, is that Aslan is on the move. We are starting to see signs that the rule of the White Witch is beginning to weaken and a spring of the spirit may be on it’s way.”

      I’d like to hear more about this, Dave.

      • I only very recently accepted my first pastorate in a Baptist church in a small city in northern New England. My viewpoint is pretty limited — but in speaking with other pastors, denominational executives and reading I get the sense that there are churches that are experiencing a gradual but real revitalization. There are, of course, church plants – New England has become a bit of a sexy mission field for church planting groups based in other parts of the country. But more important in my mind are the churches that are returning to the gospel. They will never be large churches as the demographics and the geography simply will not support it.

        There is a move within my denomination to intentionally develop and assist bi-vocational pastors as a way to resolve the problem. One benefit of that movement is that you typically don’t get pastors who are mainly “career minded” who take the bi-vocational route. These are men and women who are passionate about ministering the gospel and shepherding a flock. Because these small legacy churches can afford them, that’s what they are getting.

        These are just a few random observations. I don’t know if what I’m sensing would show up on a survey or study. It’s more of a sense I get, and I’m perfectly willing to admit that there is certainly some degree of confirmation bias at work. There is certainly much darkness and all the kinds of division and calcification mentioned in the post. But there are good things happening at the small church level. All is not lost. Not by a long shot.

  10. This place becomes more and more relevant to me. I am preparing to move just outside a village of 250 souls in a few months. The fact that the property is several hundred yards outside the village limits may be important. I expect to learn a lot. Thanks, CM, for another excellent book tip. I hope David Cornwell adds his take from the boonies.

  11. Chaplain,

    Your cogent analysis of the “Dark Side of Small” also applies to religious institutions, organizations, fellowships, and ministries, who seek to cloister their work behind a carefully orchestrated veil of “separatism”. By allowing only monitored contact with the outside world, these groups create the illusion of social order and preservation of the status quo. Not unlike moribund bureaucracies such separatist religious groups also tend to empower a zealous leader who is dutifully trailed by a minion of lieutenants trading in political intrigue, innuendo, and favoritism, to guard their small turf patches within the larger organization.

    • Chaplain,

      Please allow me to make a word substitution in the above post.

      The word “cloister” was used, in the above post, without intention of reference to any group seeking a place of religious contemplation or meditation..

      A better choice for the word “cloister”, in the above post, might have been “.. who seek to insulate their work…”

      Thank you for allowing me to clairify.

  12. This can also happen to parishes where the demographics have changed over time. In my situation our parish could be coming to the end of its lifecycle. The community is older, there isn’t much building going on to bring an influx of younger people. The newer communities are going to the expanded churches nearby because they are closer and have more amenities.

    We have done our share of inviting but it doesn’t seem to be in the cards. Those left pine for the glory days of this church and as mentioned in this article are not open for change.

    But that’s OK…. This church may be in the sunset of its life and I will stay until the doors are shut, but there are other churches close by. And as we offer less Masses because we now share a priest, that’s OK, gives me a chance to know others if my schedule takes me to another church. Sometimes its OK to let go rather than to hang on at all costs just because….

    No, we are not a rural church. We are a small parish inside a diocese of many. We are in certain ways ‘stuck’. But we will do alright with each other right up to the time we hear the word “merger”.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      I’ currently in mid-life. And I have come to greatly admire those who manage to find a way to ‘fade out’ with grace and dignity. It is an astonishingly hard thing to do. Both hard to do practically, and hard personally – to watch something that is it you beautiful and valuable simply be passed by by others. Whether it is a community, church, or just a project – it is a hard thing to do.

      In an entirely secular context I see this play out – the older gentleman at a community planning meeting utter with almost spitting fury “why is everything about catering *to them*!” [meaning ‘the young people’]. Aside from the fact his statement is false [everything is not about that], that type of claim used to infuriate me – what a close minded bigot. Now I know, from experience – including *with myself* – how “small” can happen, so easily, so gradually. It does not require isolated geography. It seems to happen unless actively resisted; little resentments and dismissals replaying into our ears as if on a loop, even ones from years and years ago. Then all you need is a strong personality to turn it into a community endeavor.

      I wish there was some answer to this, what to do or say once those wagons have circled. Why can’t that angry old man come out on a beautiful spring day and sit in the new park overlooking the [now] clean river – a park that was previously a useless industrial ruin. He could see the gathered oldsters swapping the same stories they’ve probably been telling for 50+ years. Maybe his wife could join the knitting group that meets at the coffee shop? But I know he would never come – he’s shrunk down to small to fit.

      By the grace of God I hope I’m there when I’m gray telling my same stupid stories. Being there is a real accomplishment.

  13. I know someone who has had to close churches in rural areas, and some of the above problems are not doubt root causes. The church becomes divided and people can’t work together.

    I lived in a number of small towns growing up and saw a distrust of outsiders and closed mindedness. I feel sick remembering it.

  14. Patrick Kyle says

    In all fairness, the last 100 years have seen the most rapid technological and sociological change in history. We forget that the rapid pace of this stress, upheaval, and displacement is new. For thousands of years, change came at a glacial pace, with occasional fits and starts of upheaval every few hundred years.

    So now we get to cluck our tongues and wag our fingers at those who have dealt with this change less than gracefully. We can exhort these stubborn rustics to ‘get with the times,’ and come out of the dark ages into the enlightened future.

    I know what it’s like to long for the old ways and wish the clock would stop. Not all ‘change’ is good, neither is everything ‘new.’ Our society is moving ahead faster than our wisdom is able to deal properly with these changes. To make matters worse, wisdom from our past that could be helpful is now being jettisoned wholesale.

    We seem to have grace for everyone except the Christians who don’t toe whatever theological or sociological line our society has determined is acceptable.

    • Your points have been what I normally emphasize when discussing small churches, so I agree Patrick. But I think we should see another perspective as well.

  15. One of the attractions of Orthodoxy for me was the sense of timelessness and changlessness. When you talk about the “fifties” in Orthodoxy you are more likely to be talking about the FOUR-fifties than the NINETEEN-fifties.

    An aged man is but a paltry thing,
    A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
    Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
    For every tatter in its mortal dress,
    Nor is there singing school but studying
    Monuments of its own magnificence;
    And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
    To the holy city of Byzantium

    I have never been, except when I visit the Greek Cathedral in Atlanta, in an Orthodox Parish larger than about 120. Most of them were growing, albeit slowly, even the Greek ones. There is a spectrum of attitudes from very mildly progressive in the Greek parishes to deeply reactionary in some of the ROCOR parishes. However, no one expects everybody to get along, and nobody changes the basics of the Faith. That just isn’t negotiable no matter how unfashionable it gets.

    My former Greek priest is a member of the local ministerial organization which is composed mostly of mainline Protestant clergy. His SWPL creds are impeccable. At the Ecumenical Good Friday service, which was based on the last seven words of Christ on the Cross, his was the only one whose homily wasn’t about some tofu-and-quinoa sociological concern like Occupy Wall Street or Fair Trade. They all ganged up on him afterwards and told him he preached ‘like a Baptist”, like that was a bad thing.

    My son says I’m pretty cool for a 62 year old man. I guess it’s because I read manga and listen to Low Flying Owls. But I’m tired of being cool. Mr. Zeitgeist has gone bonkers. He’s falling and he thinks he’s flying. I’d like to hasten my transition from a doubleplusgood duckspeaker in good standing with the Cool Kids on the Playground to a backwards, dumb as a box of rocks, retrograde, knuckledragging cracker who doesn’t feel guilty leaving when the number of white people in the vicinity drops precipitously, because nobody expects any better from him anyway.

    I don’t think I’d mind those old sodbusting Dakotans.

  16. Good article Mike. Bashing the Megas is very popular these days. But small churches are also staffed and populated by sinners. They can burn you just as fast, or faster, than a Mega church.

    • It does seem to me that even Goldilocks would have a problem finding something “just right” around here. The mega churches, we agree, are awful. — bland theology appealing to the lowest common denominator. Small churches are hotbeds of bigotry, ignorance and condemnation. “Contemporary” services are loud and brash and glitzy and shallow — everything the Gospel shouldn’t be. Quiet traditional services are of course stultifying and dull, applealing only to (useless) old folks. Yet, by golly, *nobody* should ever have the nerve to actually walk away from “church” and become one of those despicable “spiritual but not religious” types.

      Isn’t it more reasonable to assume that different people are called to different forms of worship? A member of a mega-church may be a deeply devoted and thoughtful Christian, but possibly a lot more extraverted than the reserved and private person who finds the Episcopal or Presbyterian church a welcoming home. Likewise, some people like the happy-clappy joyous worship; others find a traditional or liturgical church service much more meaningful. Yet all of these Christians may equally love God and do their best to follow Jesus’ teachings. So do we really need to bash anyone? I do not think that any one church is The True one-size-fits-all Church. I think church was made for man (and woman), not men and women for The Church.

  17. Duron Hippa says

    After reading this article I was drawn to a revelation (of sorts) that had me look at my own urban congregation that is considered a historic churches (120 years old) that has been doing things for a long time. I am not all that convinced that this is only a “rural” issue as I served a church in a MN community that was forward thinking because they were first a mission church in the late 60’s. They really didn’t fit the typical rural church category but where I am now – they do. Two years ago I arrived at a much larger historic church with a school and they exhibit the same traits as the rural churches described here. This congregation is now quickly becoming a legacy church as they frequently wish to live in the past ‘glory years’ and stick to what they know – pushing away any new leadership or ideas. I am fascinated by the perspective in this blog (and following comments) and I would welcome any comments or resources for further study on this issue. Interesting post – very interesting indeed.

  18. davidbrainerd2 says

    “In forsaking the ability to change, they diminish the capacity for hope.”

    Thank God! We all know how great the combo of “hope and change” works out. Namely, not at all.