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Chapter 1: The Lay of the Land

“As we begin to think about Christian Education in the small membership church, it is important to get the lay of the land. To do this we need to look at two things. First, we need to reflect on the nature of the small membership church in general. What are some characteristics of these churches that shape their congregational lives? We also need to do a brief overview of education – what it is, why we do it, and what some of the essentials elements of Christian education are, no matter what the size of the church. Once we have developed this lay of the land, then we will have a good foundation from which to explore the ministry of Christian education in the small membership church in ways that are meaningful and appropriate to these congregations.” (p. 1)

The most common criterion for qualifying a church as “small” is that is has less than one hundred attending worship. Small churches used to primarily be rural parishes or only within small towns, however, today we find small churches everywhere. So, what other qualities are particularly important when planning a Christian education program within a small membership church? According to Tye, there are six qualities that stand out in regards to education.

Starting with the first quality: “a strong sense of community.” (p. 2) Relationships are what matter most to members of a small church, not the programs that are offered. Fostering those relationships and knowing and caring for each other is a priority, central to the church’s sense of mission. Educationally speaking, this means that we should focus on a people-centered education strategy where we pay attention to the particular needs and interests of members through curriculum and methods that give careful thought to how we can address those needs and interests. “In other words, surround the people in the daily, intimate settings of their lives with the teachings of their faith, and they will more than likely “catch a serious case of faithfulness.” “ (p. 4)

Secondly, a small membership church “is like a family.” (p. 4) Often, small membership churches are like a family both figuratively and literally. New members don’t join, they are adopted into this family! These family ties provide comfort and security; they are forgiving of certain slips and behaviors, and supportive of any family member’s vision to improve and enlarge programs which serve the family’s needs. From the Christian education perspective, a benefit of comparing membership to a family image is that we see that many generations make up the church. All generations should be invited to contribute to the church’s Christian education program. “Functioning like a multigenerational family allows the small membership church to be a place where the old can teach the young and where the young can guide the old. It is a place where the one teenager in the congregation can see herself as a vital and needed part of the family, the church. You don’t need a youth group to do this!” (p. 5)

Next, within a small membership church, “traditions run deep.” (p. 6) Orthodoxy and tradition go together hand-in-hand, a beautiful symbiotic relationship. Tye summarizes how deep roots of tradition applies to Christian education within the small membership church (and in this case, a large membership Orthodox Christian church, too) by writing, “Holding on to our traditions helps up know who we are and provides an anchor in a culture that seems to pride itself on living only in and for the moment. A key purpose of Christian education is to provide continuity. It is to pass on the traditions and teachings that form the core of our identity and help us know who and whose we are.” (p. 6)

After that, the author discusses the quality of “a high percentage of participation.” (p. 7) While there may be fewer names on the rolls of small membership churches, research shows that there is a higher percentage of people who actively participate in church activities. This should be encouraging to your small membership church! Small does not mean deficient. Be aware that there is a smaller pool from which to draw for Christian education staffing, and there is a risk of burnout, so use wisdom and caution when forming a volunteer staffing model. Keep it simple and realistic, with room to grow or adapt as opportunities present themselves. “Encouraging ourselves to think of an educational ministry that is woven into the life of the congregation and utilizes already existing gatherings and groupings allows us to take advantage of the higher level of participation and involve all the congregation in the call to Christian formation.” (p. 8)

Next, the author points out that “organization structure is simplified.” (p. 8) There is no denying that small membership churches have fewer people and fewer resources to use in Christian education. Accepting these facts leads to the solution of a simplified organizational structure, which can mean that your program may operate on a shorter time frame, planning will occur closer to an event’s actual date, planning will be informal without multiple special meetings, and often the course of action will be determined through phone calls and conversations during Coffee Hour. It’s good to know that communication is generally faster within a small membership church; this is to your advantage! “Planning does not require a complex organizational structure, but the call to be intentional and deliberate needs to be at the heart of our commitment to Christian education.” (p. 9)

The final quality of a small membership church is “worship is the primary activity.” (p. 9) When a congregation comes together to worship, there is more going on besides worship (even though the Liturgy will always be the most important event we celebrate.) There is education happening! “It is important to celebrate the centrality of worship in the small membership church and to see it as a strength. Also, we need to see, then, that worship is a central context for education in this setting. We need to realize that everything we do in worship is helping to form the people of God, helping them know what it means to be a disciple of Christ.” (p. 10)

Throughout the rest of the chapter, the author reflects upon the essential elements of Christian education as it applies to a small membership church. The following quotes are selections that might provide a starting point as you explore and discuss your church’s educational needs with others who share your commitment to educational ministry.

“Children often learn appropriate worship behavior not from formal teaching but from being in worship on a regular basis and watching the people around them. To understand education as a process of socialization is to understand the importance of participation in the life of the small membership church in its daily, ordinary activities and events.” (p. 13) Church School Directors, please note: Socialization is recognized as a primary method of catechesis in the Orthodox church.

“The basics of education in any setting, including the church, require us to think about what education is, why we do it, where and when we do it, who the participants are, and how we go about it. These are the essentials elements in any educational endeavor.” (p. 16)

Further Reflection (p. 17-18)

List the qualities of a small membership church discussed in this chapter: a strong sense of community, being like a family, deep traditions, high percentage of participation, simple organizational structure, and the centrality of worship. Consider the following:

  • Rank these qualities one to six in terms of how well they describe your church, beginning with one as the strongest trait of your congregation.
  • What other qualities of a small membership church would you identify? Where do these qualities rank on your list?


Relationships are what matter most to members of a small church, so this means that we should focus on a people-centered education strategy. The life of a small membership church is shaped by a family-like structure, a strong sense of community, and deep traditions. And fortunately, these parishes are blessed with a high percentage of participation from members, which provides opportunity for recruitment to Christian education ministry – although a small volunteer pool means the risk of staff burnout is higher, so always be mindful of this.

Up Next...

The remainder of the book “Christian Education in the Small Membership Church” is structured into chapters focusing on the questions of who/where/when/how in Christian education, plus two additional chapters covering resources and guiding principles. The next post in this series will discuss the people of the small membership church: the who. What do we need to know about these participants of Christian education? “In the small membership church, we have to think about the people, who they are, what they want and need, and what we can expect of them.” (p. 19)