Rethinking Small Churches
Many American Christians have this idea that if a church is big, it must be better. Not necessarily. Our obsession with "bigness" can be a reflection of American values, rather than biblical ones.
Too often we pull our cultural values into our grid for measuring church success. Size is not necessarily the best measurement for church health.
Is it ok for churches to be small sometimes? Absolutely. But before I give you three questions that can show if your small church is healthy, let me ask three questions that demonstrate when it is not OK for a church to stay small.
What does a small unhealthy church look like?
Is your church staying small even when the community around you is lost and growing?
There is really no excuse for this. Every church in America has un-churched or de-churched people in their neighborhood. Moreover, 584 unengaged, unreached people groups are estimated to be living in North America right now.
As the people of God, on mission with God, we are called to spread the good news and make disciples (Matt. 28:18-20).
Scripture reminds us that we are called to water and plant while recognizing that the actual growth is God's business (1 Cor. 3:6). Let's make sure to not blame our lack of growth on God's will, when often we are not planting and watering in the first place.
Is your church staying small because you refuse to engage the culture around you?
According to our research in Transformational Church, the healthiest churches are those who are actively seeking to understand and invest in their communities. Some churches have built a bubble around themselves as protection from the world.
Sadly, these churches refuse to acknowledge the deeper root of the world's problems—sin—resides in their own hearts (Rom. 5:12), causing them to either implode or die out.
Hasn't Jesus called us to be kingdom witnesses in a dark and broken world (Matt. 5:16)? How can we do that if we don't engage those around us?
Is your church staying small because you love your fellowship, but not the lost?
Too many churches—whether there are 30 members or 3,000 members—are full of internally focused consumers primarily concerned about themselves.
We should seek to cultivate intimate fellowship and care for one another in the church family. However, we have to be intentional about reaching out to those around us with the good news of Jesus.
We need to strike a healthy balance between internal health and external reach. This means moving church members from customers to co-laborers by developing intentional strategies to train and launch people in missional living.
What does a small, healthy church look like?
Is your church staying small because you are in a small community, but are still faithfully engaging those around you?
For some churches that live and breathe in small rural towns, it is quite possible to remain faithful and never experience rapid growth. Digging deep roots in one place builds a legacy of gospel persistence.
Doesn't Jesus compare the Kingdom of God to a tiny mustard seed or a small amount of yeast (Matt. 13:31-33)? Like those, a steadfast and faithful small church can have an impact beyond their appearance.
Remembering, again, the lesson of planting, watering and growing, we should be encouraged that our task is to share, persistently. Where there is little community growth, there may be little church growth, but that shouldn't keep us from trying.
Is your church staying small because you gather in a transient community, but you are reaching new people?
Persistent turnover is a reality for some smaller churches because of their location. Churches near universities and military bases almost have a new congregation every three to five years.
Think of the kingdom impact these small churches have as they invest in and train students and soldiers before they are launched throughout the world.
Small churches that recognize their calling in transient places focus on discipling those God has given them knowing that He will plant them somewhere else. These are healthy churches on mission for the glory of God.
Is your church staying small because your facility limits you and instead are using your resources for other things?
A gripping section in Johnny Carr's new book Orphan Justice describes the anguish of planning a $10 million building after visiting an orphanage where children were dying from starvation. The struggle eventually led him towards fully investing his life in being a voice for the orphans of the world.
Often, small churches may consider themselves unable to have large kingdom impact, believing size and resources limit them.
However, smaller churches have more freedom to focus their time, energy, and money towards things like caring for neglected neighbors, caring for children, and supporting church plants—things close to God's heart.
Valuing Without Idealizing
Bigger is not necessarily better, but neither is smaller necessarily better. Small is not the goal. Let's face it; a small church that reaches people becomes a larger church and this is a good thing. Healthy churches grow and reproduce.
We have many reasons to affirm small churches, but romanticizing them is unhelpful to the mission. So without idealizing the small church, let's value it.
Small churches are and have always been the norm. The rise of mega-churches is a unique feature of late twentieth century American Christianity. Most likely mega-churches are not going away for years to come, so we need to remind ourselves of the value of smaller congregations.
The typical church has less than 100 in attendance. Many small churches are living on mission in their contexts, being about the business of the kingdom of God.
Having forgotten the value of small, I think we need to relearn that the extraordinary kingdom uses "normal" churches for subversive effects on the culture.
Faithfulness and fruitfulness are more biblical measurements for church health, not church size.