How to Worship in Small-Membership Congregations

Worship Matters
by Julia Wallace

This article is designed to give practical ideas and suggestions for celebrating the type of vital worship that is central to the life of the congregation. Worship in the small-membership congregation is the gathering of the family of faith to praise God, simply and honestly. Worship is not performance; it is the presence and a shared experience of the risen Lord. With this understanding in mind, let us examine worship in the small-membership congregation.

 Anatomy of the Small-Membership Congregation
It is not always easy to understand the small-membership congregation, but it is possible to appreciate it and build on its uniqueness. In fact, the key to having vital worship in the context of the small-membership congregation is to know the three S's: size, spirituality, and setting.

Let us consider size first. A small-membership congregation is more than numbers, but size counts. A small congregation is one that has fewer than 200 members (or fewer than 150 in worship). Actually, the small-membership congregation has two categories, each with its own distinct characteristics: the Family Church and the Pastoral Church.

The Family Church has fewer than 60 worshiping members. It resembles a family, with a strong lay person providing leadership and a man or woman to whom the church looks for leadership. The pastor in this church functions as a chaplain who preaches, celebrates the sacraments, and officiates at marriages and funerals. Key decisions are made by the laity. A “bridge builder" introduces visitors to the congregation and eventually shares the church’s history and tradition. When a newcomer joins the church, it usually takes a while for him or her to be adopted into the family and to be invited to share leadership and gifts. The congregation’s leadership structure is small, and individuals often work on more than one specific task or area of ministry.

The Family Church may be apprehensive about change. It is usually easier to focus on conserving what has been than to experiment with what could be. Change means conflict, which may mean losing people that one cannot afford to alienate. New ideas need to be introduced patiently and tested with key leaders. To make accepting them easier, new ideas need to be shaped by past traditions and values, and guided by the hopes and gifts of people in the church today (pastor, leaders, and all members, even the newer ones).

The Pastoral Church has from 60 to 150 members in worship. In this size congregation, clergy are at the center, relating to different key leaders and groups, such as Sunday school classes and choir. The pastor is expected to be at all meetings and to have a key role in decision making. There is strong lay leadership that is shared among key laity. Change is easier in the Pastoral Church than in the Family Church; however, change is sometimes resisted until the impact and opinions of key people surface. The members of the church value knowing one another. Churchwide activities exist, especially fellowship, but people gain a sense of belonging primarily in smaller groups. It is possible to have committees or leadership teams in this congregation.

Both the Family Church and the Pastoral Church tend to be people-focused. It is often difficult to draw up a vision statement or long-range planning guide that these congregations will actually follow. Small-membership congregations operate according to seasons, traditions, and what people feel and think.

Another way to define the small-membership congregation is in terms of its spiritual culture. It is extremely helpful for a pastor to learn the congregation’s shaping stories, traditions, culture, and honored methods for helping people grow spiritually. Some congregations favor revivals, altar calls, private and/or silent prayer time, and open sharing. One way to learn about the congregation’s spirituality is to have a few people mark in the hymnal the hymns that the church knows and then listen to the powerful stories associated with these hymns. Another way is to look at the congregation’s worship bulletins over the last three to five years and ask the question, “Does our style of worship appeal to all the different generations who come here seeking to grow closer to God?”

The last way to define the small-membership congregation is setting. Here a few well placed questions can help in understanding the setting of the small-membership congregation:

  • Is the congregation new and growing?
  • Is it adventurous and still forming its traditions?
  • How open is it to trying new things?
  • Is the congregation older? declining? stable?
  • Where is the church located? In a rural area? suburban or urban setting?
  • Who lives in the surrounding area?
  • How does the church define community?
  • How does the anatomy of the small-membership congregation outlined above relate to worship?

At least the following implications are clear: A pastor in a Family Church needs to consult with or involve  key laypersons in any change or planning for worship. In a Pastoral Church, the pastor can work through a worship team or committee, even as people outside the group are also involved in key decisions.

 The Importance of Worship in the Small-Membership Congregation
Remember that the small-membership congregation pursues the same mission as the rest of the church: to make Christian disciples. Therefore, the means of grace: worship, reading Scripture, celebrating baptism and Communion, prayer, Bible study, fasting and abstinence, small-group participation, Christian conferencing, acts of mercy as well as litanies, prayers of the people and hymns are interwoven in the very fabric of a small-membership congregation’s life together. It is in these experiences that vital worship and new life are found.

The best worship experiences in a small-membership congregation weave together the various facets of the congregation’s life. The people who are in the pew on Sunday are the same ones who attend the administrative council meeting on Monday night, visit a sick neighbor on Tuesday, attend the Bible study on Wednesday, clean the church building on Thursday, work in the soup kitchen on Friday, and mow their lawns and do their laundry on Saturday. In a healthy small-membership congregation, the entire week is brought into focus during worship. It becomes the people's reason for being. In a small-membership congregation, being is usually more important than doing.

This connection between worship and daily life was brought home to me vividly through the experience of flying. To mask my fear of flying, I used to make a game out of flying in an airplane. As the plane would take off, I’d try to locate my church from the air. One time, I couldn’t do it. I could see the State Capital where Jimmy worked, the elementary school where Mary taught, the newspaper office where Owen wrote, the house where Jean lived, but no steeple. Suddenly it hit me: I did see the church, only it was the church visible and present in everyday life. When we gather to worship on Sunday, it empowers us to move outward into the world as a renewed people to be about the business of making disciples even as we strive to live as disciples.

Despite the small numbers that gather, small-membership congregations represent the majority of congregations in Protestant denominations.

Despite the small numbers that gather, small-membership congregations represent the majority of congregations in Protestant denominations. But numbers can be deceiving. Large churches may offer more activities, but one should not disregard the deep level of caring and supportive relationships that happen in a small-membership congregation. Thus, it is easy to confuse quantity with quality in the small-membership congregation. The number of worshipers in the pews does not reflect the total number of people connected to the church. There are networks in a small-membership congregation that move out beyond the actual membership. We often fail to see the communion of saints that gathers with the congregation in worship. These are men and women who were once a living part of the congregation and live on in people’s hearts. People in the pews remember Aunt Massie and the West sisters long after they are no longer present in Sunday morning worship. There are also family connections that extend beyond the sanctuary to unchurched friends and to people who are limited in their ability to leave home. Each person sitting in a pew on Sunday carries the hurts and hopes of the people he or she lives with, works with, and learns with. It is the way things are in the small-membership congregation.

The small-membership congregation may not have the liturgical resources and leadership available for worship that larger churches have. But they do not have to compete! The small-membership congregation that tries to act like a big one will not only feel inferior, but will also fail. Effective and faithful worship has nothing to do with the size of the congregation. Indeed, the small-membership congregation has a simplicity that is appealing in this high-tech, low-touch world. In the small-membership congregation, everyone has a place and a part in the worship service. Some prepare the worship space; others hand out bulletins or greet people as they arrive. Still others arrange the flowers, read the Scripture, share a children’s message, or bake the bread for Holy Communion.

Vital Worship in the Small-Membership Congregation
Vital, meaningful worship in the small-membership congregation requires attention to two factors: intimacy and involvement.

The small-membership congregation worships relationally. One of the strengths of the small-membership congregation is the family atmosphere, where everyone is important, needed, and wanted. Worship in the small-membership congregation is like a family reunion: news is exchanged, people are remembered, stories are told, new members are welcomed, departed people are mourned, and vital customs and rituals are observed. Such intimacy is displayed in a variety of ways: the usher who knows where every worshiper sits on Sunday morning; or the person who taps me on the shoulder, saying, “Julia, you left your car lights on.”

In the small-membership congregation, everything depends on relationships. People connect with one another and interact as reminders of God’s grace in their midst. A depth of caring surrounds the worshiper in a small-membership congregation. The congregation celebrates being the people of God by honoring each person’s place in the kingdom of God. People of all ages are accepted and differences are forgotten. A young person can read the Scripture; an older member can light the candles.

This strong family closeness extends into the congregation’s prayer life. Sometimes it is shown in the humble request of a farmer asking those gathered to remember in prayer the delay in planting because of the heavy rain. Sometimes during the passing of the peace, a young couple asks the congregation to pray for their troubled marriage. In the small-membership congregation, these moments are sacred. They imply a profound level of trust and an intimate connection of life with the holy.

Sometimes the small-membership congregation can seem informal or even spontaneous in the nature of its worship. This is an advantage because people in these congregations want worship to be inviting and accepting of people and also open to the Spirit. Of course, there are also small-membership congregations that are more formal in their style of worship. However, these churches succeed because they respect the congregation’s need for connection. In the small-membership congregation, it is not the style of worship that matters, but rather what worship says about the congregation’s understanding of God, community, and its core values.

Worship in the small-membership congregation is more like a folk dance than a carefully choreographed ballet. Each person participates with his or her own personality and gifts. Moving with others in a spiritual dance as the people of God, small-membership congregations praise the Holy One, who creates, redeems, and sustains them.

In the small-membership congregation, everyone participates; there are no passive observers. The limited number of people and resources available makes it imperative for people to help one another discover their God-given gifts and use these in the community, both in the church and outside. Larry now serves as an usher because a long-time member noticed how well he greeted people when he entered the sanctuary. Larry says that had he stayed in a larger church, he may never have been noticed and asked to serve in this meaningful way. He claims hospitality as his spiritual gift. If liturgy is truly the work of the people, then it makes sense that worship in the small-membership congregation should seek to involve as many people as possible.

Effective and faithful worship has nothing to do with the size of the congregation.

There are many ways to involve people in worship. Someone who is artistically gifted can draw a bulletin cover, construct a banner, make a stole or paraments, or design chrismons. People who enjoy acting can produce a drama. If there is a dancer in the congregation, he or she can be invited to interpret a passage of Scripture or a hymn through sacred movement.

Small-membership congregations sometimes reach beyond their membership to connect with a need or celebration in the community. This happens when civic leaders from outside the church such as the sheriff, doctor, postal worker, or healthcare nurse are invited and recognized for their service in the community at a special celebration. During times of crisis or tragedy, the small-membership congregation is able to bring people together for healing and hope.

 Planning Worship in the Small Membership Congregation
As in churches of any size, worship in the small-membership congregation must be planned with care. Consider the following guidelines for planning vital worship in your small-membership congregation.

  1. Begin with the worship setting. The condition, design, and decoration of the worship space say a lot about the possibilities for renovation and improvement. Does the worship setting look drab, or does it shine? Are the symbols living symbols of faith, or do they represent days gone by? Is the room light or dark? How comfortable are the pews? Are contributions from the current generation prominently displayed, or are only accomplishments of the past honored? Does the worship environment say to a visitor, “Welcome?”

    These questions may be hard for small-membership congregations to answer. They may have lived with the same worship space for so long that they have become blind to its need for improvement. Church members don’t notice the cobwebs on the light fixtures anymore; nor do they see the peeling paint in the narthex.

    To learn more about how the congregation understands its worship life, take a walk around the sanctuary with a group of members. Ask people what they see. Inquire about the meaning of pictures or furnishings and the significance of their placement. Find out where people sit and why. Ask what is valued, by whom, and what can be improved. The goal is not to completely remodel the sanctuary, but to appreciate the worship setting and find ways to renovate it economically, if necessary. Sometimes a fresh, lighter coat of paint does wonders. Pulling up frayed carpet, sanding splintering pews, polishing brass, or adding a banner or two helps immensely.
  2. Plan special worship services in advance. The small-membership congregation tends to be event-oriented. Rather than trying to celebrate the whole season of Advent, it may be easier to plan celebrations that have special meaning for the congregation, such as a special candlelight service or an annual Christmas Eve celebration. If the congregation does celebrate the liturgical seasons, find out how much time is required to prepare adequately for the upcoming season. Some churches meet quarterly to look at what is ahead. Scheduling a specific amount of time for planning is more important than the length of time itself. Poor planning leads to poor preparation and low participation. Always involve lay people in planning!
  3. Make minor changes before tackling major problems. Remember to make small but significant steps! Some innovations in worship can be done simply because of who is doing them. Sometimes it is the little things in a small-membership congregation that make the biggest difference. Here are a few ideas:
    • During the gathering time in worship, make sure that all people are welcomed warmly. This sets the stage for whatever else happens. Recognize by name the man who is back in church after recovering from surgery; announce the name of the new baby born to a young couple present; sing a birthday song to a member. Some churches make their announcements during the gathering. Others have a “Mission Moment” in which to talk about how the church has been in ministry during the past week, or will be soon. A Mission Moment may involve a brief statement about feeding the homeless, Vacation Bible School, collecting baby quilts for the battered women’s shelter, or commissioning people going on a mission trip. Encourage worshipers to make the passing of the peace a meaningful time of connecting with and supporting one another. Invite a layperson to pray an invocation; this signals the continuation of worship as the people gather.
    • Examine the content of the sermon carefully. Most people in small-membership congregations tend to think in concrete, relational terms.1 Therefore, sermon illustrations should relate to the people’s experience. The sermon itself may take the form of a shared message, a dialogue, or a story narrated by different people. It is quite acceptable to involve people in the sermon. Consider the following options as variations upon the standard sermon:
      • Use an object lesson, especially an object that is a part of the congregation’s culture.  
          Jesus did this with the mustard seed, remember?
      • Have a question-and-answer session that relates to the Scripture reading.
        Invite questions or even doubts raised by members of the congregation, and seek the answer  together.
      • Ask a member of the congregation to give a testimony in response to the Gospel reading for the day or the message of the Gospel.
      • Interview members of the congregation on a specific topic. For the sermon, have a conversation with one or two people around a specific focus relating to the Scripture reading for the day. Give individuals advance notice of the question or focus. Be specific in what you are asking them to share and how much time is available.
      • Use gifts of people to assist in presenting the sermon. For example, a photographer can illustrate the Scripture reading with slides; a dancer can interpret the Bible text with sacred movement; a potter may shape clay on a wheel as you preach on spiritual formation.
    • Allow prayer to be a time in which the whole worshiping congregation participates. Pause to hear the joys and concerns or prayers of the gathered community.  Pray for the ministry of the congregation and those involved, even for yourself.  Pray for those in the community who do not know Christ. Remember to recognize unspoken prayer requests.
    • Continually assess and evaluate the worship experience of the congregation. Occasionally, the small-membership congregation should look at how and why it worships, asking; “What are the traditions we value?” “Why are they important to us?” “How do we start new traditions?” “Are people motivated and energized during worship?” “Are people engaged in the movement of the service?”
      Evaluate carefully the responses to these questions in order to consider new possibilities.
    • Involve others in planning and leading worship, considering the following possibilities:
      • Use Bible study as a worship planning activity. If the congregation meets regularly during the week for fellowship and study, it could look at the next Sunday’s lectionary readings or the Scripture passage the pastor chooses. Small groups could paraphrase the text, write a prayer, or even select hymns.
      • Provide opportunities to talk about worship or a particular sermon series. This can be an informative and formative time for those who want to talk about the worship experience or their response to God’s call on their lives.
      • Hold a four- to six-week class to study worship. Invite laypeople to be teaching partners. Consider having a youth or children’s service.
      • Train laypeople as worship leaders. Recruit people to read Scripture, prepare the elements for Holy Communion, light candles, and serve as greeters. Always offer training.


Improving the Quality of Worship
In the small-membership congregation, the quality of worship depends on intimacy and involvement. Therefore, it is important to personally recruit people to help plan worship. In deciding when to meet for planning, the pastor should respect the calendars of the people he or she serves. In a rural setting, for example, the meeting should not be scheduled during busy planting and harvesting times.

The planning team may initially consist of only a small core of respected laity. Some of these may be the people who lead the music, prepare the altar, or serve as head usher. It is important to include recent members as well as a variety of age groups. Before the group gets down to the work of planning, they should spend time praying and getting to know one another. Team spirit is important.

Key leaders in the congregation should be aware in advance what the worship team is planning. A member of the worship team could share the team’s ideas at a church or administrative council meeting, listening to council members’ questions and taking their concerns seriously. Patience and perseverance are important. Clear communication is essential.

It is possible to make a change in the way a group worships, especially if the change is well thought out and the people are given time to understand it. Despite possible tension, the easiest place to implement change may be in the congregation’s music, especially if new hymns are chosen and taught with faith experiences in mind. Change should always be done with care, since favorite hymns often have a great deal of sentimental value. The hymns that are chosen should fit the theme and mood for worship, but should also respect the feelings and history of the people in the congregation. Changes in the worship life of the small-membership congregation are possible only when the people are confident that a change respects the culture and rich heritage of the congregation.

The first thing a new pastor should do is ask the lay leader to take a hymnal and mark in pencil each hymn the congregation knows, and then to pass the hymnal around to other key leaders. Each of these leaders should write where she or he learned a particular hymn, or why the hymn is important. The marked hymnal could eventually be circulated to newer members to mark their favorite selections and record remarks in the margin of the text. The pastor can then use the remarks to introduce the hymn in worship.

It is helpful to schedule learning new hymns in the formative times of the year. These times include liturgical holy days, such as Christmas and Easter, as well as special celebrations in the life of the church, such as homecoming and revival. People should have the opportunity two or three times during the year to choose hymns in the worship service and to tell where they learned the hymn and why it is important to them. Also, on occasion, hymns can be sung a cappella. Men and women can be invited to sing different stanzas of the hymn; or the choir and congregation can echo each other in singing. Where there is no choir, the congregation can serve in this role. Organizing special musical groups including a children’s choir, short term or seasonal choir, family choir, or men's chorus to sing for special celebrations is very effective.2 On occasion, a special guest singer or a small choir or quartet from another church could be invited to sing in worship.

Don't forget that not all music needs to be sung. Instrumental music provided by a piano, guitar, or hammer dulcimer can be just as effective as a four-part choir! The United Methodist Hymnal on CD: Accompaniment Edition, which contains piano and organ accompaniment for all hymns in the hymnal, can be effective. God listens to all types of music and instruments.

Creativity in worship is possible in the small-membership congregation. If done in the right way, liturgical and annual seasons and holidays especially lend themselves to trying new traditions and ideas. In planning new, creative ways to worship, it is crucial to involve a variety of church members. Consider the following guidelines and suggestions:

  • Gather a group to study the Scripture and other worship resources.
  • Invite members of the group to help write prayers, to write alternate lyrics to a hymn, or to prepare a drama.
  • Prepare the congregation sensitively. Give advance notice of the special service, as well as the time and the reasons for the service.
  • After the experience, provide worshipers and the planning team with an opportunity to reflect on the experience and to learn from it: What went well? What could have been done better? What should have been left out?

Small-membership congregations can also plan worship services that go beyond the traditional Sunday worship service. Such services should fit the location and needs of a particular congregation and community. Here are some examples:

  • A congregation in a rural setting can plan a fall harvest service to honor God's goodness, while affirming their role as stewards of the environment.
  • A suburban congregation can host a “Parents’ Blessing" service that recognizes new parents who have had a baby in the last year. This celebration of new birth is an opportunity for a congregation to listen to new parents and their concerns and joys, then offer guidance and support for raising children spiritually in the community.
  • A congregation in an urban setting may have a “Shalom in the City” worship service in response to a community cause or crisis. This service may take the form of a candlelight vigil, honoring those who live and work in the midst of the situation (civic, community, and church leadership).
  • “Shared Ministries” can bring together in worship a number of congregations that share a special relationship, for example, cooperative parishes, yoked or federated parishes, clusters, or even a shared focus. This can be done annually, at charge conference, or during special occasions. A church that works in partnership with an agency or organization such as United Way or the Boy or Girl Scouts, may join for worship in which people give thanks for the positive difference the partnership is making in their community.


Celebrating the Sacraments
Baptism is the moment in a small-membership congregation where hope blossoms. It is a reminder that God loves us, regardless of age or maturity; and that God loves the congregation, regardless of size. Baptism brings a sense of hope for the future. The baptismal vows, lighting a Christ candle during the baptismal service, giving a hand-smocked cap to the baby, or having a reception after worship to welcome the family are symbols of an ongoing relationship. For a congregation that does not celebrate baptism often, a service for congregational reaffirmation of the Baptismal Covenant (UMH, pp. 50-53) can be a vivid reminder of God's grace and goodness.

Holy Communion is a remembrance of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. It reminds the congregation of its oneness in the body of Christ. Both the preparation for and celebration of Holy Communion can be a special time in the small-membership congregation. Different people or groups, a children’s Sunday school class, a new member, a women’s prayer group, a young family, or the men’s prayer breakfast group, could be invited to bake the bread for Communion. Preparing bread together provides an opportunity to talk about the meaning of the sacrament, both for the congregation as a whole and for individuals. It can also be a time for sharing faith stories.

Worship is at the heart of the small-membership congregation. Worship that builds intentionally on the intimacy and involvement of people helps provide vital and living experiences, as well as shaping the faith community. Worship leaders can develop or enhance the current style of worship so that it is sensitive to the people who worship and to the purpose and vision of the congregation. By doing this, not only will worship be dynamic, but so will the congregation.



For Further Reading

O For a Dozen Tongues to Sing: Music Ministry with Small Choirs by Deborah K. Cronin (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1996).
Preaching and Worship in the Small Church by William H. Willimon and Robert L. Wilson (Nashville, TN:  Abingdon Press, 1980).



1 See “How to Plan Worship in an Oral Context," elsewhere in Worship Matters. Discipleship Ministries website

2 See "How to Get Along Without a Choir,” elsewhere in Worship Matters. Discipleship Ministries website.


Julia Wallace is a Consultant for Small Church and Shared Ministries.


Originally published in Worship Matters, vol. 2. Copyright © 1999 Discipleship Resources

Categories: Worship Matters