Most Christians are in small churches. Though megachurches usually get more attention, small churches are the backbone of Christianity. People are more likely to come to faith in a small church than in a megachurch.
Of all congregations in the world, most are small, averaging less than 100 people in attendance, so it is important to understand how small churches function. They are not miniature imitations of multi-ministry megachurches. Rather, they have a dynamic of their own, often a slower pace and a more friendly face.
Small churches in our denomination will be a little different from small Baptist, Methodist or Presbyterian churches. Our history and our geographical circumstances will make some things different for us. Yet we can learn from other small churches and get some ideas that may help us in our congregations.
Small churches are not confined to small towns—they are found in the biggest cities, too. Some are dying, but others are thriving, and God is working in and through them. We need to see what small churches do best, so we can make the most of our strengths, and not try to be something we are not. If Christ has made us a little toe in his body, we want to be the best little toe we can be.
Small churches have several important strengths:
- Relationships. People know one another and care about one another. If someone is missing, others notice. When big churches set up small groups, they are trying to imitate something that comes naturally to a small church.
- Involvement. Everyone gets actively involved in the church. A high percentage of people have assigned duties: setup, cleanup, ushering, greeting, sound system, music, scripture reading, teaching children and speaking.
- Stability. Large churches may lose five percent of their members each year. Small churches retain members better, partly through involvement and largely through relationships.
In general, the larger the church, the more business-like it must function. The senior pastor must be an executive, an administrator. The programs of the church must be well organized, well coordinated, professionally done. There must be a clear organizational structure. Small churches tend to function more informally, more through the relationship networks of the church. Decisions are made more on how they affect people, and less on logic.
Church management textbooks are usually designed for mid-size and larger churches, so their advice doesn’t always work in the small church. This is especially true when it comes to programs or ministries. The books say “the more the better. Have something for every age group, every need, every day.” This is impossible for the small church. The small church cannot offer the same array of special-interest ministries. It cannot follow the same methods and expect the same results. It cannot have the same kind of children’s ministry or the same kind of youth group. But neither does it neglect these parts of the body.
Small churches tend to have activities in which everyone is involved: seniors, teens, singles and marrieds, all involved together. The activity is a success if most of the congregation comes. Small churches don’t always have a designated women’s ministry—the women are already involved in ministry. They don’t have a big teen ministry—they involve their teens in ministry and activities anyway. They may have only a tiny children’s class, but they make sure that the children enjoy it and feel welcome at church.
These observations are not intended to be an excuse for small churches to abandon ministries they ought to have, but they point out that a small church doesn’t have to have everything. Women, teens, children and men should all be involved in the church. Small churches cannot do everything, but each one can do something, and they need to do it as best they can.
“Small congregations have more in common with other small churches than they do with larger congregations in the community, or in their denominational communion” (Dudley, p. 16).
“One half of all Protestant churches in the United States and Canada average fewer than 75 at worship, and a fourth average fewer than 35” (Schaller, p. 58).
“Too many small-membership churches spend an excessive amount of time lamenting their weaknesses, bemoaning their shortcomings and emphasizing their limitations. A more productive approach is to identify, affirm, and plan to build on strengths” (Schaller, p. 73).
“God wants us to use what we have, not moan about what we don’t have…. God will not hold you accountable to match the deeds and ministries of a larger church. You will be accountable, however, to be the best small church you can possibly be” (Bierly, p. 75).
“Researcher George Barna has observed that the most effective churches deliberately limit their ministries, focusing on those specific areas for which they have resources and in which they have the ability to serve with excellence. If even large churches have to observe this principle to be effective, how much more do small churches whose resources are even more limited need to follow it?” (No Little Places, Klassen and Koessler, p. 90).
The pastor’s role in a small church is more relational. Leadership is exercised less by command and more by consensus-building. Members want good sermons, but they want good relationships even more. They want pastors who love them, who care for them. They will reject his ideas (no matter how good they are) if he doesn’t love the people.
It takes time for a pastor to build these relationships, to build the trust needed to lead. It usually takes several years. The pastor needs to learn the culture of the church and how to work within that culture. The pastor needs to know how to suggest ideas, whom to suggest them to and how to implement the ideas the members have.
Pastors grow in influence by spending time with members, by visiting the sick, by performing funerals and weddings, by caring about the people. He initiates change more by asking questions, by helping people see the need for change, than by having all the answers.
Churches need leadership, or else they stagnate. Pastors need to be optimistic about what God is doing in the church, and what he may do in the future. Pastors need to help members be excited about the mission, to have a clear idea of what they are doing. This leads to growth.
Healthy small churches grow. Growth can affect the relationship networks within the church, and because of that, some members may resist growth. They do not want new people taking the pastor’s time away from them. They do not want new people taking ministry roles away from them.
Growth means change, and some people have a low tolerance for change. Change means conflict. But a refusal to change means slow death. “We may have to choose between the past and the future, between clinging to our old ways and having a vital church for our children and grandchildren” (Klassen and Koessler, p. 61). If we want our church to survive, we must be willing to change.
How do small churches grow? It is generally through personal relationships, through members inviting friends and relatives to church. People may be invited for special programs, or for a weekly worship service, but the invitation begins with a relationship.
When people visit a small church, they should be warmly welcomed. The greeter or usher does not just shake hands and give a bulletin—the greeter begins a relationship, making the person feel loved, making sure the visitor gives his or her name and address in the guest book.
In many small churches, there is follow-up within the week. A lay member brings cookies, fruit or some gift to say, “We’re glad you visited.” The church is building on its strength: relationships. The church is saying: “We care. We like you. We want you back.” Love is the water that helps the seeds sprout and grow.
The most important ingredient in church growth is the members’ attitudes about their church. They make no apologies for their small size. They belong to the church and are involved in the church not because of its music or its building, but because God is working in the church, and they want to be where God is. When people are excited about what God is doing in their lives, and when they see the church as a place in which God works, they find it easier to invite people. “Come and see,” they say. “I think you’ll like it.”
In our impersonal, technological world, many people are looking for greater meaning to life, something spiritual, something that gives them community and friends. Some try to find this in a bar; others find it in small churches. The people who care about them convince them that God cares about them.
Small churches must look toward God. He’s the one who has set us in our places, and he wants us to be the best we can be, to bloom even if we are small. As long as we are small, we want to be the best small church that we can be.
Resources for small churches
- Steve Bierly, Help for the Small-Church Pastor. Zondervan, 1995.
- Ron Crandall, Turnaround Strategies for the Small Church. Abingdon, 1995.
- Carl Dudley, Making the Small Church Effective. Abingdon, 1978.
- Ron Klassen and John Koessler, No Little Places. Baker, 1996.
- Lyle Schaller, The Small Church Is Different! Abingdon, 1982.
“In a big world, the small church has remained intimate. In a fast world, the small church has been steady. In an expensive world, the small church has remained plain. In a complex world, the small church has remained simple. In a rational world, the small church has kept feelings. In a mobile world, the small church has been an anchor. In an anonymous world, the small church calls us by name—by nickname! As a result, small churches have survived where others have failed” (Dudley, p. 176).