Throughout the pandemic, many Mennonite church congregations have faced the challenges of lower attendance, shrinking budgets and uneasy questions about the future.
Denominations across Canada report lower attendance and engagement in church than in the past. Although the headlines about the future of the church seem to be filled with doom and gloom, for three Saskatchewan pastors, the good news about small churches is very evident.
Sharon Schultz has served as the pastor of Eyebrow Mennonite Church in Eyebrow for nearly 18 years. Her congregation has 30 people, ranging from infants to people in their 70s.
“For me, there’s always life, energy and hope in our church, no matter how many people are there on Sundays,” she says. “Eyebrow Mennonite is really seen as the community church in Eyebrow. There used to be three churches in town, but right now we’re the only active church. We host a community baseball game and campfire in the spring to connect with our neighbours. People who don’t even go to our church call me pastor, which is such a blessing.
“The thing about a small church is that everyone feels like family,” she continues. “Everyone is important. The church certainly has been our family over the past 17 years. Our biological families are all far away, and so the love of our church family has been so important.”
Curtis Wiens is pastor of Aberdeen Mennonite Church, a congregation of 40 people. He knows well the family-like atmosphere of small churches, having grown up attending another small church in rural Saskatchewan.
“One of the really good things about growing up in a small church is the amount of intergenerational relationships that take place,” Wiens says. “I was friendly with people of all ages in my home church and, looking back on it, everyone at the church was involved in some way in my life. We all worshipped together in the same room. We didn’t have any segmentation of age groups that often has to happen in larger churches. That intergenerational integration is so valuable.”
Many of the things that can make small-church life daunting can also be some of its greatest strengths. “For better or worse, there is no anonymity in small churches,” he says. “People can’t really be inconspicuous, even when they’re absent. If someone isn’t there on Sunday mornings, people notice that. Our culture is very much about independence and being an island unto ourselves, but community requires integration. It can be a lot harder for someone to just ‘dip a toe’ into church life with a smaller congregation.”
“Small churches also have the best potlucks,” he says with a smile. “You might think bigger would be better, because there would be more variety at potlucks, but at small churches people really take ownership of the food. Just top notch.”
Warman and Pleasant Point Mennonite
For Len Rempel, who is the pastor of Warman Mennonite Church and Pleasant Point Mennonite Church, located near Clavet, the space that is created by fewer people can make room for new spiritual possibilities.
“In smaller churches, there’s often less formality, which can open things up for the Spirit to work,” Rempel says. “It’s harder to be a spectator in a small church, and there’s often more opportunities to be a participant. It’s important for our churches to celebrate their smallness. We don’t need to get lost in thoughts of who we used to be, but we can embrace who we are now and watch what God can do.”
While a downturn in numbers may sometimes be viewed as the beginning of the end, he sees it differently. “A small congregation is not the precursor to no congregation. The church is not going to disappear, although it may look different in the future. This is God’s church, and God can do what God wants.”
Do you have a story idea about Mennonites in Saskatchewan? Send it to Emily Summach at firstname.lastname@example.org.