Brandon O'Brien, associate editor for Leadership Journal, has written a new book, The Strategically Small Church. In this work, he seeks to demonstrate how small churches are uniquely equipped for success in today's culture. Ed Stetzer interviewed O'Brien about his book and why being small may be more missionally strategic.
Ed: What do you mean by "strategically small church"? Is this a new church model, like "simple" or "organic" church?
Brandon: A "strategically small" church is one that has learned to recognize and leverage the inherent strengths of being small. Being strategically small means that instead of trying to overcome your congregation's size, you have learned to use it to strategic ministry advantage.
In other words, I'm not advocating a new model of doing church. Instead I'm hoping that by telling the stories of some truly innovative and effective small churches, other small congregations will stop viewing their size and limited resources as liabilities and begin thinking about them as advantages.
Ed: What keeps small churches from becoming "strategically small?"
Brandon: Many small churches try to operate like big churches. The idea seems to be that if we imitate what the megachurches are doing–if we do ministry like them–then we'll grow like them. The trouble is, operating like a big church can undermine the inherent strengths of being small.
For example, as I explain in the book, research suggests that one of the factors that contributes to whether or not young people stay active in church after high school is intergenerational relationships. The students who have more and deeper relationships with adults other than their parents are much more likely to remain in the church in college and beyond. Now, smaller congregations offer tons of opportunity for developing these intergenerational relationships. But the hallmark of large churches is age-segmented ministry, programs designed to separate children from youth, youth from adults, young adults from seniors. When small churches imitate this model, they undercut their advantage for fostering intergenerational relationships.
Ed: So are you arguing that small churches are more effective than larger ones just because of their size?
Brandon: Absolutely not. I have been involved in healthy big churches and unhealthy small churches (and vice versa). But I believe that small churches have some real advantages over larger ones, advantages that could make them more effective in some important aspects of their ministry. That doesn't mean, though, that small churches will be more effective just because they are small. A congregation has to recognize its strengths and learn how to leverage them in order to be effective.
What I'm trying to say is that small churches aren't ineffective because they are small. Size isn't the problem. The problem is being star-struck by mega ministries so that we fail to recognize all the wonderful things the small church has going for it.
Ed: Some people will argue that if a church isn't growing numerically, it isn't healthy. How do you respond to that?
Brandon: First, I would say that there are many ways to gauge the health and vitality of a church. Instead of measuring success in terms of the number of people we attract, we can judge success in terms of how many people we equip and send out for ministry, for example.
Second, in many places, perpetual numerical growth will be impossible: in rural areas where there aren't many people to attract or in urban areas where the cost of real estate prohibits growth. We need to learn to be more creative–and more biblical–about the ways we measure ministry success. The churches I highlight in the book determine their success based on the percentage of their youth and young adults who stay active in church life after high school, the number of people they are training and sending out to launch sister congregations, the percentage of congregants who are involved in ministry outside the church, or the congregation's ability to reach people on the margins. These things may, and sometimes do, result in numerical growth. But they definitely contribute to kingdom growth, which is ultimately much more important.