I grew up in a big church community and by big, I mean really big – something like 3,000 families – and Catholic families at that, with a minimum of three kids, but more likely four or five, or an occasional eight. The church sat over a thousand people and most of the services were standing room only. There were a dozen communion stations and a hundred pews. There was big music and an even bigger Jesus behind the altar. In my young mind, everything about that church shouted, “Alleluia.”
On any given Sunday, there were babies crying and toddlers whining, old folks coughing and parents shushing, but it didn’t matter. A thousand voices raised in song, a thousand voices saying, “Amen,” a thousand pairs of knees hitting the ground in unison drowned the distractions out.
That church community was a second home to me. For eight years, I went to school in the shadow of the church steeple and on Sunday mornings, I was back under it for mass and then over to the school gym for doughnuts. You don’t spend that much time in a place without it leaving its mark on you, for better or worse. Thankfully, in my case, it was virtually all for better, but there were a few things I had to unlearn and a few I am still unlearning to this day. The biggest of those was that size matters.
Because my church was big, I developed an unspoken belief that bigger was better, at least as far as faith communities go. Why pray alone when you could pray with 30 classmates, 300 schoolmates, or 3,000 other parishioners? Why sing solo if there is a choir to sing with you? Why go your own way when you could join a parade already in progress? If one was good, two was better and it grew exponentially from there. For someone who struggled to fit in, I liked the safety of being one little piece of a very big pie. I felt like I was part of the in-crowd, part of something powerful, universal and true.
When it comes to community and solidarity, there is power in numbers. A big church means you are doing something right, doesn’t it? The prevailing wisdom is that if you are getting people in the door, contributing and singing along, you must be preaching a mighty fine gospel.
When I grew up and left my hometown, I spent many years trying to duplicate my childhood experience. I wanted big and loud and joyful and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s a part of who I am and what I like best in just about everything from church services to family dinners to birthday parties. But looking back on it now, I see that what I really wanted was to be a part of a church that was part of a scene and I cringe to think how I scorned small churches, with their cassette-tape choirs and single-service schedules. Surely, I thought, they should just give up.
So it is with great irony (which I often think is a sign of the Holy Spirit at work) that our family has found ourselves drawn to a small church community and by small, I mean really small. There are only a few rows of pews, a tiny, but valiant choir and a single service each weekend. But from the time we first walked in the door, Tim and I felt like we were home. The message is loud, the personalities are big and the spirit is joyful. The mission is Love, inclusion, equality and service. It has moved us towards greater humility, compassion, social justice and a lived experience of gospel values. Over time, this community has taught me that size doesn’t matter as much as I thought, but I’ve never quite shaken the feeling that my kids were missing out on a crucial experience of being a part of something big. There is no “safety in numbers” for my kids at this church. Keara and Finn are the only two teens in regular attendance and Molly is one of a half-dozen elementary schoolers. The saving grace is that everyone there knows their names and that is something you just can’t get in a big community.
But I witnessed something at church last Sunday that helped me see in a new light why bigger isn’t always better. It was the First Communion for five of our young members, which is about half of all the children who attend the church. It was exactly like my First Communion and yet totally different. Each child was dressed in her, or his finest. They were surrounded by parents and godparents, aunts, uncles and friends. They walked to the altar timidly, but eagerly. Cameras flashed, videotape rolled and the priests smiled, but that is where the similarities ended. When I received my first communion, I went to the altar with 70 of my classmates. I was one member of a big, white, satiny army and besides my family and friends, hardly any one there could have picked me out of the crowd.
Not so for the little ones this past weekend. The priests blessed each child by name and praised them individually in front of the community for their hard work and unique gifts. Each child was welcomed to the table as a beloved child of God, which we were reminded, we all are. Each child received a gift from the community that reflected their greatest passion, which we hope they will use in the service of others. There was no safety in numbers, no anonymity for these children. Instead, as I looked around at our community, I saw love and gratitude in every visage for the precious gift of these children and my eyes filled with tears and I thought, This is what smaller can do.
Smaller makes us more aware of each and every person and more grateful for each and every gift. It makes us more cognizant of what we have to lose and the part we play in the outcome of everything. It’s hard to remain anonymous in small.
So although I long for my kids to experience what it feels like to get swept up in the movement of a youth group, or a mass of two thousand, I know they are getting something else that is valuable. They are getting called by name. Their unique presence is cherished. They are both receiving and being a blessing each and every time they show up.
Our culture likes to super-size everything – from movie franchises to mega-churches. If some is good, then more is better. I know I always go for the 42 oz Diet Coke instead of a 12 oz can. I love my weekly trip to Costco. More for less? Sign me up! But the last few years have taught me that although bigger is sometimes better, smaller can also be sweeter. There is a beauty in both that I can appreciate more now than ever before. And if at some point, our budget, or time, or church community ever gets expansive again, I won’t be totally relieved to lose the intimacy I have known in these smaller spaces.
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Thank you for this Ali! It is so hard to replicate what we grew up with at SSJ and I have been trying so hard to find it out here. But according to my husband it may just not exist and I need to be ok with something else that although its not the same doesn’t mean its not great too.
I have a feeling there are many of us from that generation that grew up in that church and will never be able to find another experience like it. However, I have learned that it was a wonderful foundation, but that I need to move beyond it. I have found Love waiting other places as well.
Your ideas are both beautifully developed and beautifully written. It makes me more appreciate my “medium” church all the more. Grateful for your wisdom.
This topic is close to my heart.. For the last year and a half we’ve been attending the bigger church. For the first time, my husband attends regularly — maybe because he can be lost in the crowd. There are tons of kids for our only child, who is 10. The longer I’m there the more I miss knowing members from the smaller congregation intimately. It’s a season and a place where we’ve been planted for this time. As one who came from the smaller and is now at the bigger, your insight is right on! Thank you for your writing.
Love you Ali
Thanks Sweetie for remembering SSJ so generously. What made it special for me was the Franciscan spirit. Our small “intimate group” was often at 7:30PM Mass- unpublished in the bulletin, created and run by the young adults who were active in the parish, and everyone knew each other by name. What joyful, special celebrations those were for me!
I do miss that group and Mass, but I have so many positive memories and good friends there that I can never consider leaving permanently. Thanks for sharing your lovely thoughts and prose.
So honestly felt and expressed once again, Ali! I will have the courage to forward to our daughter and family because of your insights which we certainly shared on Pentecost and always. Yes, your family is precious to us us, individually and as a community. My own growing up experince was so similar, and we have arrived at a similar heart place. Love, Bev
Very timely subject as I tallied the camp numbers yesterday…I found myself thinking “hmmm…won’t this be nice and more intimate this year!”
Growing up in a ‘medium sized’ church and now attending a ‘large church’, I couldn’t help but think of my young cousins in Ireland. They live on a remote island off the coast and when I see their First Communion photo’s, they are one of only 2 or 3 children celebrating this holy sacrament together. The entire island community comes together to celebrate these children which makes their day that much more special. Like the community your children are fortunate enough to have!