Imagining the Small Church: Celebrating a simpler Path

Steve Willis, Alban Institute, 2012

Reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

        Willis identifies the small church as one with an average worship attendance of 100 or fewer; his denomination has about 10,500 congregations, of which about 7000 are small churches; these are the congregations he has served in his 30-years of pastoral experience, bearing witness to what has seen G-d doing in small churches.  ‘This book boasts no ten or fifteen steps to a successful small church, but encourages the reader to give up on steps altogether—and to see with new eyes the joys and pleasures of living small and sustainably. And what they see are love, belonging and faithfulness’ (p xiii).

        Willis develops the concepts of central and peripheral culture (p 4).  This is not simply a division between urban and rural; large populations of marginalized communities also reside in urban centres. Churches live and minister in these different cultures.  Often the central culture is simply seen to be the way in which things work and that voices at the periphery are not measuring up.  When central-cultural church power fails to respect the differences and imposes itself on small peripheral churches, it causes damage to these congregations (p 6).  As mainline Protestantism has lost power and influence, many congregations are struggling to adapt to the change from being at the centre to being at the periphery.  It’s ironic that some dominant church leaders complain about the way their churches are being mistreated by the changing culture, and they turn around and misuse their power and influence within the church family (p 7).

        This is a wonderful treatment of church growth theory.  For those on the periphery, adjusting to smaller scale and diminishing budgets, it’s a reminder of a simplicity that echoes Jesus’ own teachings and practices. We need not look for the culture’s approval but tend to the people and places right in front of us. And a new application of love emerges (p 97).

Vern Ratzlaff is a pastor and professor of historical theology at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada.