By T. R. Robertson
In towns and cities all over America, small churches are known for more than their Sunday morning services. I asked the leaders of several small congregations (under 200) to share how each church serves their community. The answers prove it doesn’t take a big congregation to have a huge impact.
Community Use of Facilities
A small-town church building may be the largest assembly place in town. Many of those congregations regularly allow the community to use their facilities for nonreligious events.
“We don’t charge for people to use our building,” said Drew Snyder of Ashland Christian Church (Missouri), a congregation of about 180. “We’ve housed multiple weekly groups for AA and NA and offer the building for weddings and funerals at no cost to the community. This is a way that we can let people know we care, especially during times that are usually a financial burden. It’s a way for us to let people know that God’s love is unconditional and universal.”
The Keosauqua Christian Church (Iowa), a congregation of about 45, gathers high quality secondhand clothing from several sources throughout the year. The ladies of the church carefully go through them to sort out clothes with permanent stains, inappropriate logos or artwork, and immodest styles. “Then we open our church basement for three consecutive days, usually right before school starts, for the annual giveaway,” said minister Bill Shewmaker. “It’s a concept that was very hard for many people to understand, as in, ‘If it’s free then it can’t be any good.’”
Many small churches provide backpacks filled with school supplies to children in the community. Ashland Christian Church gives away school supplies, garage sale items, and food, all for free, the first week of August; 2016 was the ninth consecutive year for the festival. “We had people come from five different counties, and we served at least 130 families, handing out 280 bags of school supplies. That’s our biggest undertaking. We also have clothing giveaways and drives during the winter and spring—again, all for free—that have built off of that event,” said minister Drew Snyder.
While many small churches have programs to help school children, the Rich Hill Christian Church (Missouri), a congregation of about 115, focuses on the teachers and staff of the local schools. “We do several things for our community—most notably our School Teacher/Staff Appreciation Lunch,” said Barrett Case, minister. “The day before school starts, we put on a meal for all the local school staff. We collect school supplies for a few weeks and give them to the teachers and staff. This has taken place for almost 20 years. Everyone, especially the people in our church, looks forward to this annual lunch.”
The First Christian Church of West Plains, Missouri, a congregation of about 150, serves the babies—and parents—of the community with their Tender Mercies ministry. Every few months they give out boxes of diapers to residents who call ahead and make an appointment to pick them up.
The First Christian Church of Belle, Missouri, was a small congregation of about 75, “most of whom hadn’t dealt firsthand with addiction or recovery or even what that looked like,” according to minister Mitchell Seaton. Yet recognizing a plague of addiction in their town, they started a Celebrate Recovery Program in their church. As a result, they’ve become known as “the church that does the recovery program.” They’ve not only become a valuable resource for the community, the congregation has also grown from 75 to 175.
More than 20 volunteers from First Christian Church, along with other churches in the community, gather to pack food bags for students in the school system who otherwise may not have sustainable meals for the weekends. “I have the unique privilege each week to help deliver these food bags, alongside some incredibly faithful high school students,” said minister Mitchell Seaton.
It is mostly true that in a small town everyone knows everyone else. Small-town churches have learned to see this as both a unique opportunity and a challenge when providing benevolence assistance.
“We have a teacher from the local school district who keeps her eye out for ones that truly could use some help,” said Charlie Worstell, minister of Mount Zion Christian Church in Tuscumbia, Missouri, a congregation that runs in the 40s. “For the last few years we’ve filled pantries for families that are short on funds. At Christmas we adopt a family by buying gifts for them. At the beginning of school each year we buy school clothes and supplies for different families. But the congregation does not even know the names of the families.”
“As a small church, we have to be creative with our resources so they can stretch further,” said Jaylin Storm of the Oak Grove Christian Church (Missouri), a congregation of about 60. “To do that, we work with other small churches in the area with different denominational backgrounds, and we also work with the local government. Most of our benevolence money goes to the local community service league. The church across the street has a food pantry, and some of our members volunteer there. The pastor of that church met me shortly after I arrived in town to give me info about the food pantry. He invited me to send anyone over if they need food before we buy groceries for people.”
Partnerships with Local Organizations
“It’s impossible to help everyone who calls for help,” said Drew Snyder of Ashland Christian Church. “Instead of trying to figure out who to help and who not to help, we’ve chosen to go the route of supporting larger groups who can do a lot more than we can.”
Blue Ridge Christian Church, a small congregation of about 150 in the rapidly growing city of Columbia, Missouri, maintains a pantry of food and other supplies for use by Rescue Innocence, a local ministry that reaches out to homeless and indigent people who are at high risk of exploitation by human traffickers.
Many small churches volunteer with local food banks for manual labor like sorting and packaging. Often this is done by specific groups within the congregation, such as the youth group, seniors group, Sunday school classes, and small groups.
When floods and tornadoes strike in rural areas, local small churches often become a focal point for relief efforts. When tornadoes struck across Alabama in April 2011, churches like Huntsville Christian Church, a congregation of 140, were able to provide assistance in nearby communities. Their efforts were multiplied beyond their own means through the financial and physical help of congregations from not only the South but also as far as Ohio and Michigan. The local knowledge of the people and needs makes small churches a valuable resource for congregations across the country to focus their desire to help.
These are just a few of the creative ways small churches are serving their communities. What is your congregation doing for the people in your town?
T. R. Robertson is a freelance writer in Columbia, Missouri.