What does it look like to be both small and spiritually healthy? What does it look like to have chosen a path that involves a passionate, deep commitment to faith, and yet set aside the illusion that growing as a discrete institutional structure means a thing to the Creator of the Universe?
We’ve walked together through my own faith community, eighty souls and change, a modest sanctuary for a modest tribe. But the learnings for good strawberry smallness are to be found other places, and so we’ll whittle down, cutting away the layers like an onion, smaller and smaller.
And yes, I know, I’m mixing garden metaphors. But so it goes.
How small can a church be, and still be a vibrant, living manifestation of the Reign of God?
For answers to that, I conducted a sequence of interviews with individuals who are deeply engaged in the lives of small faith communities. From these, I’ve selected three that meet a specific set of criteria. These gatherings are 1) different from my own community, 2) increasingly smaller than my community, and 3) seem particularly illustrative of vibrant, life-giving fruitfulness.
The first community that drew my interest was Dayspring, an offshoot of Gordon Cosby’s Church of the Saviour.
The Church of the Saviour is a church in Washington, DC, that was formed and shaped by the vision of Gordon Cosby in 1947, as a Protestant community of radical discipleship. Their focus was both inward and outward, maintaining and developing a deep personal spiritual life and simultaneously engaging in a life of service to the broader community.
Initially a small community of thirty to forty souls, it grew until it had reached the point where it was pressing out against the boundaries of being a “pastoral” sized congregation, at around a hundred and twenty. Rather than developing infrastructure, formalizing leadership, and continuing to expand, Cosby and others chose to break the community up into smaller, intimate gatherings of twenty to thirty individuals.
One of those communities settled into a retreat facility on 200 acres near Germantown, Maryland, which in the 1970s was still a primarily rural area. I journeyed there from my own Maryland congregation, riding my motorcycle through the endless and expanding sprawl of what is now the exurban fringe of the Washington/Baltimore megalopolis.
Dayspring, on the late fall day I visited it, felt like a magical place. I pulled into the long, gravel drive, and rode past some simple homes on my right, none of which presented as a sanctuary. On my left, gardens were being put in, long rows of plantings. Wending my way through the woods, I found myself after a while at the end of a long drive, looking out over fields, as the leaves cascaded down sunstruck in the bright light of mid-day. It was silent, and impossibly lovely, and I was in the wrong place. The retreat center was before me, but there was not a soul around.
I fumbled around for my cell, and called my contact, who graciously pointed me back in the right direction.
I was shown, for a while, through the simple and unadorned life of the place. The meeting room, where worship was held, simple and spare, with a stillness to it. Wooden chairs, mounted on pegs on the walls. A wooden floor, neatly swept. It felt faintly Shaker. The pavilions and amphitheaters, where worship could be held in nature during the warmer months. It was primal, elemental, and completely devoid of shine and sparkle.
Two days prior, I’d had a sustained conversation with Katherine Gibson, who serves as the clerk of the committee that runs the Dayspring community. An older woman, she’s been part of that community for decades, and it has been her primary faith gathering for well over thirty years.
In our interview, she shared with me that Dayspring is a community that, as she sees it, feels a sense of unsettledness and challenge. What they perceive is being asked of them now as a community of faith is immensely difficult. A substantial part of that difficulty comes from being an intimate community, close to the earth and creation. From the 1958 start date of the retreat site, members of Dayspring have lived on site and all been a part of the retreat center focus. They became a formal church in 1976, after two years of prayer and discussion, after Gordon Cosby aggressively pursued his strategy of separate communities.
At Dayspring, community arose out of the land. Tending to the land had always been a ministry within Dayspring. From the very beginning, there was an emphasis on gardening, farming, and the earth. That had a profound impact on the dynamics of their community life. As she described it:
“Being present in land makes for a very keen awareness of earth-creation focused faith, particularly with the pressing development around the retreat facility. We’re very connected to the 200 acres of the land that we maintain and sustain. It’s part of our ongoing call to the contemplative life, to earth care and earth living. That also drives us to much prayer and intercessory prayer, because we really feel the impact of human beings on the earth that God gave us.”
A significant challenge lies in the size of the community relative to their beautiful, bucolic site. Dayspring now stands at eleven core members, who have all made a covenant commitment to actively participate in mutual spiritual and communal disciplines. Another circle, and a slightly different covenant, adds another twenty individuals who also actively participate. There are thirty or so total individuals, with some younger, but most in their fifties or sixties.
In that group, there is no pastor, and no paid leader. Everyone is a lay person, and every person has a particular responsibility. There are two to three elders who do worship and pastoral care, stewards who manage the land and maintain the various buildings and structures. There’s a, council, and a monthly meeting as members. Everything shared in leadership, and as Clerk, she oversees the monthly meetings. Her job is to keeping track of consensus. Every decision...all of them...are approached by consensus. There is no voting, no sides. Instead, there’s the process of mutually seeking the leading of the spirit.
I asked her what the key features of a healthy small faith community might be. She thought for a moment or two.
“What’s most important is a deep grasp of the spiritual life and spiritual disciplines. For Dayspring, prayer, silence, and those things that shape the inner dimension are the core of our community life. We’re always shaping and continually growing in our spiritual practices. It’s not easy to do, but essential.”
What else, I asked? She thought for a moment, then said:
“Shared leadership is also really important.. If you have just...um. I...in a small community you know each other very well, you know, and if you can name each others gifts and live out of those together, that’s vital. It’s so much better than ‘just roles.’”
“Lively worship that expresses the faith is also key, and music is a huge part of that...and...play is a big part of that too. ‘Play’ is...ah...not necessarily socializing, not just games. It’s...a sense of...joyousness and liveliness and enjoyment of the doing of things together. It’s that sharing of life, the basic things, like cooking, and meals, fellowship...everything that makes for shared connection, and for us at Dayspring, it’s particularly love of the land.”
I asked her, then, what she saw as the primary threat to the health of their communities.
“Fear is maybe the biggest threat. Fears and frustrations within the community are the primary challenges we face, particularly because we’re so small. And if you’re a small community that owns land and facility, decisions about those things can be immensely challenging. Finances in particular can be a tremendous challenge, and in my experience they’re a large part of what makes for frustration in a small community. You have to make difficult decisions, and those difficult decisions make process challenging. This can be so true, particularly in consensus, and spirit-leading models of decisionmaking. It’s just so easy to hurt one another, so easy to damage the relationships everyone has with one another, and those are so important, at the heart of community.”
She went on:
“There are external challenges, too. Mostly, we feel the pressures on the land and pressure coming with the growth of all of the developments around us. It gets harder to do what we do, with the impingement of local government demands and regulation. We feel it more than we used to, and it places significant limitations on what we can do.”
Every community faces challenges and transitions, be they large or small, and it’s important not to create a fantasy or idealized version of what small can be. But Dayspring, for a generation, has stood as an example of a strawberry community. It is a church that “gets it,” that manages to focus on both faith and the life together in a way that resonates powerfully with the core of Christian faith.
And at twenty five total participants, it’s small, unquestionably. But let’s go smaller.
For that, I once again threw a leg over my motorcycle, and rode. It was another perfect late fall day, the sky bright and cloud dappled, the trees in color and the air just on the cusp of warm enough. My journeying took me to the west this time, out past the sprawl of Washington, deep into the state of Virginia. I entered the Shenandoah Valley, wending my bright yellow Suzuki along beautiful country roads, past fields and farms, over hills and dales, and...well...you get the idea.
When I crossed over the Shenandoah itself, I angled an abrupt right, and the road grew smaller, barely even a two-lane.
I arrived at Holy Cross Abbey, a Benedictine/Trappist monastery near Berryville, Virginia. There was a faint hush about the place, a discernable calmness of spirit that seemed to permeate the reality of the day. I’d arrived as the mid-day worship was underway, and lay people on retreat made their way to the chapel, I sat in the shade of an oak and waited. A cat, mewling and purring, kept me company as I sat there.
I was waiting for a meeting with Father James, the subprior of the monastery, who’d agreed to talk with me about the life and dynamics of that little gathering.
When it was clear the worship was done, I went to the monastery door, and rang the doorbell.
Father James answered the heavy wooden door, robed and quietly smiling as he welcomed me. We settled into a sparely decorated room, and sat, and talked. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect talking to a monk, having not done so before. What I encountered was a pleasantly serene human being of good humor and thoughtfulness. He’d been part of the order for thirty seven years, having initially pursued his vocation through the Franciscans. In addition to being subprior, he was also the Guestmaster for the monastery’s retreat house, a librarian of sorts, and the cantor responsible for leading the sung prayer.
Holy Cross Abbey follows the Rule of St. Benedict, and has been in existence since 1950. It draws its lineage from the 900 year old Cistercian reforms, which, as he explained with a smile, could be a little intense. I visualized those monks from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, whopping themselves on the heads with boards, and as he wryly described the medieval practices of penance, I wasn’t far off.
“We mitigated most of that craziness in the twentieth century,” he grinned.
I asked him about their numbers, and how they’d grown or changed.
“We didn’t set out with the goal of being small,” he said. “But most of the houses of our order are now small. Back in 2008, we had a series of conversations with a facilitator, because when you get to having our numbers, you need to start taking that seriously and planning for the future.”
How small, I asked.
“We’ve been up to twenty four individuals,” he replied. “But right now, there are ten of us under our roof.”
Small indeed. So I asked: given a gathering of just under a dozen, then, what makes such a community healthy and spiritually vibrant? He thought for a measured moment or two.
“We’ve learned that quality of communication is key. I know, that might seem peculiar, given our spiritual focus on silence. But so much discord can get swept under the rug under the rubric of silence and holiness. Sure, silence is an environment for the life of this vocation, and having space for silence is a vital part of our order. But even then, honest, open, and faithful communication needs to be present.”
“In addition to communication, we’ve found that small communities thrive when they develop a style of leadership that engages and empowers everyone. Every member of the community needs to know that they are a vital part of the process of shaping and guiding the direction of the community. That’s been hard, making that transition, because the way our Catholic orders had worked historically was very hierarchical in nature. As our numbers have grown fewer, it’s been more and more important to move away from the idea that the abbot is in charge of everything, and that’s been difficult for some to adapt to.
And not just the abbot. One of the deficits of the old monastic structure was that you could get lost in your role. What you were doing was necessary for the community, but your job could become your identity, something you clung to, something you used to keep yourself from being truly in relationship to others. That produces its own form of silence and solitude. But it’s an alienating kind of solitude.”
He thought for a few more moments, then continued.
“Another source that helps: we remain vital because we arise from a nine-hundred year old tradition. There so much richness there, if you approach it honestly. Every new challenge we encounter makes us engage in a recasting of our storytelling. Our past is something we deal with concretely, and knowing our story removes that sense of strangeness as we engage with the new.
Much of that vitality feeds into our liturgy and our learning to do liturgy together. We’re continually employing and encouraging the talents of the members, asking ourselves: ‘How do we channel our talents in the interests of the common good. We see the limits, especially with so few of us, but even those limits can be viewed as a resource.
Accountability to one another is absolutely key, in terms of grounding and discerning our vocation. In the old model, gifts were like putting someone on an assembly line. But that’s a procrustean mistake, because real discernment of vocations is absolutely key to the health of our community. Even when it’s not working exactly as we’d like it, the mutual process of discernment through relationship is a lifegiving thing.”
We talked for a while longer, and then I asked about the particular challenges he saw communities facing.
“Well, some of our biggest challenges come because we’ve been around for so long. When our movement began, the human lifespan was forty six years. You can do just about anything for forty six years. But how do you sustain a discipline for sixty, or seventy, or eighty years? It’s hard, in life, to open up honestly with what’s really going on in your life, washing away the fantastic and the dreamy ideals.
We also face a real challenge when it comes to recruitment. Without people coming in, houses in the order just can’t continue. So they close, and we have to come to terms with that. It does happen, more and more as the flow from national cultures around us grows more secularized.
It’s also really hard finding a fit between ourselves and the economic and political world outside. Fitting our order into the financial system is a challenge. How do we eat? How do we live? Our community supports itself financially, but there’s always so much learning to be done as we try to manage these issues. It’s an ongoing challenge, finding that balance between sustaining community and supporting the spiritual life of our vocation. How do we manage the resources we have so that we’re honoring our call to be better stewards of creation?”
We talked for a while more, about faith, about the beauty of their 1,200 acres, about land practices, about literature and storytelling.
And then I was off, riding home in the first darkening hints of twilight. It was a remarkable place, small but unquestionably alive spiritually.
But healthy churches can be smaller still.
For that, I got off of my motorcycle and onto social media. There, I pitched a Facebook message to someone I’d known through internet conversations for over a decade, as part of the early conversations of the Emergent church movement. We’d never spoken in person, though, and I knew it was time to remedy that.
John Young is one of the founders of a house church in the Fort Worth area, a community named, simply, “Movement.” I called him up, one evening after he’d gotten home from work. We chatted for a while, about life, and then I asked him about the size of his community, which he’d founded eight years before, after getting his Masters of Divinity at Baylor.
“We’re six total individuals, three couples, and that means every week a little different. When you grow or shrink, it’s a seismic event. Things can feel very very volatile. Because we’re so few, we have a very informal worship. When we get together, there’s food, people, and scripture, with occasional music. Things are very fluid in terms of weekly dynamics. By design, we’re totally egalitarian and leaderless, with no hierarchy. That means there’s no safety net...no performance at all, no prep...the idea that a “service” is being provided is completely removed. Instead, we’re asking: what value do you contribute? That’s the question that gets asked every single week. We’re high engagement, high focus on gifts and abilities. Honesty and openness is absolutely central. You will be in fellowship, so you have to be.
Our transitions have occurred based on life stages, as smaller community has changed. When we were all young and single, and folks were dating, community focus is that and managing that. When you’re this small, your focus is on community and the interplay of life dynamics, wherever you are in life.”
I asked him what congregations or communities had inspired him.
The church that had most impacted his understanding of church was a small independent Baptist group called “Harbor,” which he’d experienced in Houston. It was a small church of recovering addicts, with two to three houses to support them. He was really moved by that form of ministry, dangerous, daring, one that both transformed and cost a great deal emotionally and spiritually.
He’d also been part of a little African American community, and a college ministry had been profoundly formational.
“In those little churches, you’re seeing the depth of commitment. In a little church, it just has to be a personal connection. You have to WANT to be there. You’re not offering anything in a small church, other than a vision of life done differently.”
Life done differently. I liked that turn of phrase, so I asked him what that “life done differently” looked like.
He sighed, and paused. Then he said,
“There’s discipleship, loving one another well, you know, all those churchy answers. But it’s really not a “churchy thing” at all. When it’s just us, just a half dozen human beings trying to follow Jesus, there is no corporate “glow.” It’s the healthy people that count. If you’ve got healthy people, then you’ve got a healthy church. There’s no program or leader. If the community is healthy, it’s because the individuals who comprise the community are healthy and self sacrificing. You can’t hide in small community. They know your shit. Can you be honest? If you can, then the spiritual maturity will be there, and the community will be healthy. In a “microchurch,” it’s relational, it’s all about the dynamics of personhood.
For us, really caring matters, and learning and growing matters. Half of group have M.Divs, so there’s the dynamic of three highly informed perspectives. The conversational dynamics and relational dynamics of mutual sharing and accountability that come out of that are key. We read similar books, we share in mutual discipling and discussion.
And there’s the money. We do money differently. When you have no overhead, no paycheck to worry about, you still have to ask as a Christian, “what do you do with your money?” We’ve tried to find creative outlets for giving and using our collective resources. That’s hard, sometimes, but in other ways, it’s been liberating. It’s neat not to have to think about the financial aspect of church. I mean, not at all. Not at all. All of the anxiety of budget and income is gone. In every church I was part of, money was a huge point of stress, and drove so many of the decisions of churches. It becomes nothing more than a cycle of product development and reinvestment in facilities. Money is no longer a factor.”
So, what have been the challenges, I asked.
“The hardest part is the numbers. I mean, we’re really just two families plus another one with a kid. We’ve grown and shrunk, and grown again. We’ve gotten large enough that we had to talk about multiplication and division...and right as we were getting there, various different events totally beyond our control caused the community to fall in number by around two thirds. That can be dispiriting, confusing, if your commitment to the path you’ve chosen is not core.
I mean, I look around, and I hear all this talk of megachurch dieoff. That’s totally premature. Most people like big churches. It’s what they want. It’s a whole bunch easier, for one. And being part of a small church is just too risky. People are going to opt for the easiest path. Unless you have a heart issue with the way big works, you’re going to choose big. Everybody here in Texas sure does.”
We talked for a while more, about the metaphor of strawberries and the small sweet communities. It grew late, and I reluctantly wrapped things up.
I realized, after we finished talking, that I’d talked a great deal in other conversations...and in the one I’d had with him...about how to “sustain” small communities. “Sustainability” is, after all, one of those lovely organizational buzzwords that makes a manager’s heart go pitter pat. But how did “sustainable” mean anything, in a community so small and so organic? As if reading my mind, I received the following in my inbox the next morning:
“Hey, I want to toss out one other thing when you talk about “sustainable” small groups...I don’t think sustainable and small work together. I’d argue that ‘sustainable’ is dependent upon numbers and structures to sustain. Small groups either grow or die. So neither is really sustainable. They’ll stop being small groups either way. Our group will die at some point. That’s okay for us. That’s the nature of friendships and life, right? We need to give communities permission to die and restore some dignity in death. I’m pretty sure there isn’t a church of Ephesus and a church of Thessalonica any more. That doesn’t mean they weren’t meaningful communities while they existed. Going back to your garden metaphor: Annuals aren’t any less beautiful than perennials.”
So here you have voices from three churches, each smaller than the last. And while none of them meet the standards of endless growth and shine that have come to define excellence in church culture, every one of them is bearing spiritual fruit for those who participate in them. In each of these communities, genuine passion for the teachings of Jesus is manifest. In each of these communities, there’s a deep care for others, a focus on service and hospitality and gracious presence.
Each is sweet and simple, in the way that strawberries are sweet and simple.
So from all of this, what are some of the key ways we can grow and nurture strawberry churches ourselves? Just how do we do that?
LINK TO CHAPTER EIGHT
QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION AND DISCUSSION:
- Two of the three micro-churches highlighted in these interviews are missing one interesting feature: a “pastor” or central authority. Even the monastery was, while having a hierarchy, remarkably “flat” structurally. For family or tribal-sized churches, what are the benefits of having a formal pastor? What are some liabilities?
- The tiniest of the churches in question, the house fellowship in Texas, was notable for two other features: it was not anxious about either money or organizational survival. Has your church ever experienced anxiety around finances or continued operation? How has that shaped the life or direction of the church?
- One of the recurring themes in each of these three interviews is the importance of engaging the gifts of members within small congregations. How effectively does your community engage the gifts and graces of its members?
- Two of the three vital faith communities represented in this series of interviews maintains a powerful sense of shared commitment by having clear and strongly reinforced commitments to a life discipline and way of being. The members of both Dayspring and Holy Cross maintain their commitment in smallness through a covenant commitment to a way of life. To what extent is that true in your community? Would that work in your community?