When Did Being A Small Church Become a Failure?
Of the nearly 20,000 cities, towns, and villages listed in the US in 2015, nearly 17,000 were under the population of 10,000. Only 10 cities were 1,000,000 or more. Yet, the percentage of people who live in urban areas has climbed to slightly over 80%.
For churches, even though we have urbanized, the size of churches remains at around 75 people. Taking onto consideration the number of mega churches that receive the majority of press and project the patterns which they believe everyone should follow, there is still the vast majority of Christians who attend smaller churches. Add to that as well, that in smaller communities churches have a much smaller constituency to draw from; so a church of 75 could represent a greater impact than say a larger church in a metropolitan setting. Also, large metro areas have many small church scattered through neighborhoods. One study I looked at indicated that 59% of those attending church each Sunday will attend one of under 99 people. The next level of the 100-399 would have 35% of those who attend church each Sunday. Also, only 21% of professing Christians attend on any given Sunday.
When we left El Paso, Texas after being mentored there for a year, we were driving along returning to our home of Ohio. I was praying about where to settle, what to do? At the time, the charismatic renewal was in full swing and some churches were growing rapidly in big cities. I asked the question of the Lord, “What about the small towns,?” “Are not the people as worthy and needy as the larger cities?” The answered I received was, “Yes, will you go?” I answered yes to that question and we set out for our home town which had a population of 2500 or less.
It was not easy. A prophet is without honor in his own home town. That is true for anyone wanting to establish a ministry where they grew up. There were judgments made and rumors started against us. We were in the midst of the Charismatic Renewal and people were being born again, filled with the Holy Spirit, healings were taking place, and people were hearing prophetic words to bless them. This was all too much for a small community steeped in Catholic traditions, old line denominations etc. Out of this we began to carve a small witness. The provision of the Lord sustained us.
Small town, small church is scratching out an existence. We met in homes, around dining room tables, rented store fronts, and prayed every step of the way. Help came from many directions and from varied sources.
Small church does not have all the programs that a large church has. It does not have multiple youth groups and expansive children’s ministry. It does not have the fanciest places. We had metal folding chairs with “Jesus” painted on the backs to keep them from being stolen. But what we supposedly lacked and what we did not have to sell ourselves to the world was made up with something else.
Here is what was positive and powerful. We were in need; so we prayed. We were outcasts in some ways; so we supported one another. When we had altar calls, people came. When we worshiped in our rented store front, the Holy Spirit came and made it a temple of his presence. When we preached, the anointing of the Lord was present. When we prayed for people, their lives were impacted. When we had fellowship dinners on folding tables and metal chairs, the sweetness of fellowship was there. When someone suffered, we all knew and helped as able. When we worked, most were there to help.
Our children had to worship with us. It was one large room. When we taught the children a small object lesson, the adults had to listen. We didn’t segregate people by age. We did not think that a child could not understand what the Holy Spirit was doing. We did not think that teenagers were aliens who needed to be by themselves. Small church has to do family things.
What is right about small church? It is more family. It is closer. You know everyone. You get under each others’ skin sometimes. You have to work it out. You make do with what you have. The music can be a little thin at times since there is not a large band or group of singers. You have better discipleship in the long run since you are known from the day you come through the door and people check on you. You get asked where you were last week when you missed. You get asked how you feel, are you over your sickness.
The whole idea of Christian Community can be exemplified best in a smaller setting. You do not get lost in the crowd.
Do churches want to grow? The answer should really lie in the desire for family and friends to be born again, to enter the kingdom of God. We should not be selling Jesus. We should be introducing him to our loved ones. Jesus is not a commodity, but a person. Growing should not be our priority but a result of our priority.
There is no failure in being a smaller church. The failure is only when we stop being a vibrant believer. Small church can be the healthiest atmosphere of all.
I grew up in a really large church. I barely knew anyone. When we missed, no one asked about us. We were not involved in anything other than Sunday mornings. No one asked us to participate, to join any group. We attended church camp, probably the only extra event we did. Most of my encounters with God we alone or at camp.
I think the church world got caught up in the “church growth movement,” which was great in many ways, but soon began to sacrifice the core issues of the faith in pursuit of what would reach these emerging generations. I know there were changes needed and still are needed, but something was lost that is of great value.
In reaction to that movement there arose another movement that took the church back to “house churches.” The qualities of small church were attempted to be regained by having house churches. These somehow lacked the cohesiveness that can be accomplished with a more traditional setting of a small church. Organization, government, and the wear and tear on individuals homes are components of short lived efforts. However, the desire for the intimacy of fellowship, camaraderie, drive this movement.
Today, there is almost a guilt put on leaders and churches if they are not breaking new attendance barriers each month. Really there is a principle that is missing. If you preach the gospel of the kingdom and speak uncompromisingly, will it draw the crowds? Sometimes the message of God is to clean house, address bad situations, speak candidly about social issues. These messages do not draw people; they are swords that divide, correct, call to repentance and honestly, some will not repent and leave.
I do not think that being a small church is a failure. I believe wholeheartedly that small can be alive, vital, powerful, and live giving.
My thoughts have always been that growing a church to a certain number where the fellowship is still intimate is good, and then take part of the church and plant another one. Keeping the church smaller is healthy and multiplication can be facilitated. I have more thoughts for another time.