Small Churches are the Next Big Thing
Are intentionally small churches any better than intentionally big ones? It depends.

In a conversation last week about the virtues of small churches, a pastor friend of mine, Chuck Warnock, quoted a passage from John Zogby's 2008 book The Way We'll Be: The Zogby Report on the Transformation of the American Dream (Random House). Zogby prophesies that "The church of the future will be a bungalow on Main Street, not a megastructure in a sea of parking spaces. It's intimacy of experience that people long for, not production values."

On the face of it, I couldn't be more pleased with that prediction. I've pastored two small congregations and am now a member and deacon in another, where my wife serves on staff. My experience with these churches has led me to believe that small congregations are uniquely positioned to carry the gospel into the world in the 21st century. Few things would make me happier than if the "next big thing" in Christian ministry conversations was the small church.

But the context of Zogby's forecast gives me pause.

Zogby is a political pollster who checks the nation's pulse during elections and that sort of thing. He has also worked in consumer polling—researching what kinds of products people like to buy. His book, The Way We'll Be, is an account of the changing values of Americans as those are evidenced in voting and purchasing patterns. So when Zogby says that the "church of the future will be a bungalow on Main Street," what he means is that religious consumers of the future will prefer small congregations. He isn't making any claims about the inherent value of small churches, about intentional philosophies of ministry, or about the role of the church in God's vision of redemption. He is simply talking about consumer patterns and preferences.

I don't fault him for that; this is what he does. What concerns me is that it is easy to imagine how the consumer appeal of small congregations could quickly become a motive for keeping a congregation small. Right now, most of the conversation about organic and simple and house and, increasingly, traditional small churches is dominated by voices that advance theological and ecclesiological reasons for thinking mini instead of mega when it comes to ministry. But American Christians love polls; and when word gets out that the average church shopper prefers a small, intimate worship experience, it is very likely that we will lose sight of our theological and philosophical principles and start appealing to pragmatics. Instead of celebrating small churches because they are better positioned to reach people at the margins, better equipped to empower the laity for the work of ministry, and more inclined to cooperate, rather than compete, in ministry, we'll be touting small size as a strategy to get people in pews.

May 26, 2010

Displaying 1–10 of 13 comments

Amanda Rizzo

October 08, 2010  12:06pm

I believe that small churches and big churches can both be effective if they have the right vision and goals. I have seen churches that hold no more then 25 people have a good and caring relationship with there community. I have also seen big churches do the same thing. It really all comes down to the people who are attending the church, there is that saying, it's not the building that makes the church but it is the people. next time you visit a big or small church observe the people, see if they are willing to leave their comfort zone or if they are content where they are.

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Danielle Keller

September 14, 2010  8:06pm

If our goal as a body of believers is that churches grow and reach out to more people, how can small churches be the church of the future? I think satellite campuses are good ideas as branches off very large churches but I don't think that small church congregations should be the next thing....

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JR Rozko

June 02, 2010  12:38pm

Excellent article Brandon, thanks for your thoughts. This is along the lines of what I was trying to get at in this post ( re: the subtle seduction of making "missional" marketable. As Americans we have a very great tendency toward equating, "becoming all things to all people," to leveraging the consumerism so ingrained within our culture. This is precisely the point at which I think missional theology and ecclesiology bears such great significance and why many of us exert great effort in defending a proper understanding of those topics. Thanks again.

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June 01, 2010  9:05am

"The church of the future will be a bungalow on Main Street, not a megastructure in a sea of parking spaces. It's intimacy of experience that people long for, not production values." - John Zogby "...I agree with Zogby: I think that the future will belong to small churches...People who value intimacy and authenticity...will be drawn to smaller, local congregations." - Brandon O'Brien The Apostolic Exhortation "Familiaris Consortio" by Pope John Paul II promulgated in 1981 appears to be prophetic in light of this matter. It calls the family "the domestic church." While the encyclical does not give a full development of the idea of "the domestic church," "the church of the home," it does begin to explain the insight as follows: "The Holy Spirit, who is poured forth in the celebration of the sacraments, is the living source and inexhaustible sustenance of the supernatural communion that gathers believers and links them with Christ and with each other in the unity of the Church of God. "The Christian family constitutes a specific revelation and realization of ecclesial communion, and for this reason too it can and should be called 'the domestic Church.' "The spiritual communion between Christian families, rooted in a common faith and hope and given life by love, constitutes an inner energy that generates, spreads and develops justice, reconciliation, fraternity and peace among human beings. "Insofar as it is a 'small-scale Church,' the Christian family is called upon, like the 'large-scale Church,' to be a sign of unity for the world and in this way to exercise its prophetic role by bearing witness to the Kingdom and peace of Christ, towards which the whole world is journeying."

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D Carlson

June 01, 2010  6:54am

Lord, deliver us from our trendiness. Amen

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Phil Hawkins

May 31, 2010  10:41am

This reflects the "church" application of a prediction I saw years ago–the book "Megatrends" back in the '90s suggested that as our culture became more "high-tech" people would want and demand more "high-touch" as a balance. For instance, not only has acoustic music come back into favor, there has been a trend away from the big instrument manufacturers to small custom shops staffed by a handful of people (as a woodworker I'm tempted to try it myself). We buy much of our meat from a slaughterhouse in a small town where they process the animals of the local farmers and 4-H kids rather than Swift, Hormel and Tyson. If you start digging around, there is a lot of this going on.

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Bill (cycleguy)

May 28, 2010  5:50am

Excellent thoughts. I was directed here by another blogger because I wrote this post on mine: I really don't mind being in a small town and a small church but I am not interested in jumping on any bandwagon to be "current."

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May 27, 2010  8:14pm

I have thought a lot about this topic (I read Zogby's book last year). I am currently in a house church myself and have found most people I talk to about very suspicious of it (one neighbor said, "I don't go to cults in homes"). So I am skeptical that others will like attending house church. A few years ago I attended a house church conference and remember hearing that as many as 60% of house church attenders also attend a "brick church" (my term for a church with a building). My anecdotal experience would indicate that this is true. Many house churchers like to live in both worlds. Big box churches make this even more likely. The relative anonymity of the big box church seems to encourage this. Since you don't HAVE to choose, go to both! So... I think this is the real future. It will most likely be a mixed model with people experiencing both at different stages of their life. This has lots of theological ramifications as well, of course.

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May 26, 2010  4:22pm

This gives me hope. I stay in touch with the members of the small church I attended when I was growing up. I long for that kind of church to return. One that is more concerned about your spiritual well being than how trendy they are or how many attend. There is also a great deal to be said for small intimate congregations where you are exposed to all generations and the pastor knows your name.

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May 26, 2010  11:36am

CORRECTION: I meant to say that authenticity and intimacy are NOT the sole property of small churches. I said the opposite of what I meant. Doh!

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