SPRING GRAEEN, Wis. (RNS). — Rev. Derek Miller sees the future for the American church.
And it is small.
A Sunday morning in November, Miller, with his guitar in hand, took to the microphone at Cornerstone Church in Spring Green to begin singing “O for A Thousand Tongues to Sing .”
A few people sang along in the sanctuary, including a church elder sitting in front of a pair young children tapping on tambourines. By the time all the latecomers had arrived, there were 12 people in the congregation.
Things used to be very different. Five years ago, when the church was at its height, as many as 100 people would show up for Sunday service. But the 2020 election, the racial reckoning after the death of George Floyd and COVID-19 have taken their toll. On a good day, if everyone shows up, there might be 30 people.
Services can often be a one-man operation. Miller led the singing, preached, and managed the livestream. He also handled the video, moving the camera closer towards the pulpit, and greeting the people online before he began preaching. Miller also wrote the hymn that the congregation sang at Communion.
“Running Over, I’m thankful for your sacrifice,” he sang with a happy baritone. “Running over, please pour your blessings through me .”
Cornerstone belongs to the fastest-growing segment of American congregations: the minichurch. According to the recently released Faith Communities Today study, half of the congregations in the United States have 65 people or fewer, while two-thirds of congregations have fewer than 100.
“Declining Median Worship Attendance among US Congregations” Graphic courtesy of Faith Communities Today
That’s a marked change from two decades earlier, when the 2000 Faith Communities Today survey found the median congregation had 137 people and fewer than half of congregations had fewer than 100 people.
“Shrinking attendance figures coupled with an increase in the number and percent of small congregations obviously indicates that a good many congregations are not growing,” the study’s authors found. “Indeed, the median rate of change between 2015 and 2020 was a negative 7%,” meaning half of all congregations declined in attendance by at least 7%.
While most congregations are small, most worshippers attend larger congregations. Another prominent report, the National Congregations Study, found that while the average congregation is small — about 70 people — the majority of churchgoers are worshipping in a congregation of about 400 people.
The report shows that religious Americans are divided into two types of churches: megachurches and minichurches such as Cornerstone.
The Rev. Derek Miller leads the worship service at Cornerstone Church of Spring Green on Nov. 7, 2021, in Spring Green, Wisconsin. RNS photo by Bob Smietana
Lisa McDougal was one of the Cornerstone worshippers on Sunday. She is a long-time friend of Miller’s wife, Deb. McDougal stated that she enjoys being part of small congregations where people matter more than the spectacle on Sunday mornings.
“It’s a kind of a house church, but in a very nice setting. Or a small group.” she stated. “I don’t want a large congregation .”
Ryan Burge is an assistant professor of sociology from Eastern Illinois University. He knows firsthand about the difficulties faced by small churches. He has been the pastor of First Baptist Church, Mount Vernon, Illinois for about a decade. This is a small American Baptist congregation that he started as a graduate student.
Burge said that
Small church pastors are often under great pressure. Because they are the only ones running things, it can be difficult for them to take time off. What happens to the church if they go?
But, even within small churches, there are still differences.
“With 50 or 60 people, there is a buffer between you and the abyss,” he said. “When you get to 10 to 15 people, there is no buffer.”
The Rev. Jill Richardson. Courtesy photo
At Real Hope Community Church in Oswego, Illinois, a Free Methodist congregation about 50 miles west of Chicago, the Rev. Jill Richardson said her congregation of about 20 people tries to focus on building close relationships and reaching out to the community.
The church purchased its first building recently, a three-bedroom home near downtown Oswego. It hopes to transform it into a space for worship and community events. Richardson also hopes to establish a community garden, but this will take time.
The pastor feels that she is right where God wants.
” “This is the most amazing church I’ve ever been a part of,” she stated.
The Millers met at Maranatha’s campus ministry as students at the University of Wisconsin. They pastored a Madison church for many years before starting Cornerstone. After feeling God’s call, they moved an hour west to Spring Green. This small town is home to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin estate. They wanted to build a church with close ties to the community.
Cornerstone Church of Spring Green,Nov. 7, 2021, in Spring Green, Wisconsin. RNS photo by Bob Smietana
After a friend was killed in a game of racquetball from a heart attack, Derek Miller decided that he would become an emergency medical technician to join the volunteer fire department. Now, he is the ambulance chief of the department and provides emergency care for patients being taken to the hospital.
His volunteer work as an EMT — which during COVID-19 has meant providing testing and vaccinations — allows Miller to minister to the community.
” I think that more pastors, particularly those who live in small communities, should do this,” he stated. It didn’t help grow the church, so I would not recommend it. It’s a great way for your community to be pastor .
Five years ago, the church’s former home was destroyed by fire. The building was destroyed by fire in 2005. Only stained glass and the bell of the church were saved. These items are now on display outside the new structure that is located on the same spot. The church was reborn after the fire. Members rallied to rebuild and neighbors donated to the cause, providing about $30,000 in assistance.
The new building, which can seat about 200 people, features a large fellowship hall where the congregation hosted community meals pre-COVID, and a modern sanctuary equipped with a pair of projectors mounted on the ceiling. The back wall, which soars more than 30 feet high, is paneled in ash board, all milled from a more than century-old tree that once stood on the property and was taken down after the fire.
Things began to fray during the Trump era. The Millers weren’t convinced that Donald Trump was a candidate. If people asked, they shared their doubts.
” That didn’t necessarily go down very well,” Derek Miller stated.
Things got worse in 2020 after Deb Miller, who serves on the Spring Green village board, recorded a short home video detailing why she would not vote for Trump, despite being a lifelong Republican. A group called Republican Voters Against Trump picked up the video and it went viral. It was eventually shown as a montage at the Democratic National Convention, which caught Miller by surprise.
” I didn’t think anyone would see it,” she stated.
The pandemic caused Derek Miller to be in conflict with his roles as pastor and EMT. He saw people with COVID-19 die in the ambulance and when he insisted on social distancing and wearing masks in church, some people objected or left.
Derek and Deb Miller at Cornerstone Church of Spring Green, Nov. 7, 2021, in Spring Green, Wisconsin. RNS photo by Bob Smietana
The Millers have found a saving grace in that they don’t depend on the church for their majority of their income. Miller, an IT professional, ran a consulting business for many years before deciding to go work for a local utility eight years ago.
Balancing all three roles can prove difficult and it is not easy to be a small-church pastor, even in the best times. These days, with COVID-19, polarization and the ongoing splintering of the evangelical world, Miller wonders if there’s a place for a church like Cornerstone over the long haul. To make Cornerstone a sustainable church, will there be enough people who agree with the Millers on conservative theological beliefs as well as their concern for social issues such race and refugees (which they also believe are issues the Bible cares about)?
” That’s only a small percentage of people,” Miller stated.
He still believes in small congregations. He fears that it can be too easy to become a spectator or a buyer in large congregations or to feel disconnected from participation or decision-making in church ministries.
“I believe that small churches are important because I believe that ministry should be done by regular people,” he stated.
Ahead of the Trend is a collaborative effort between Religion News Service and the Association of Religion Data Archives made possible through the support of the John Templeton Foundation. See other Ahead of the Trend articles here.
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