Why are there so many small churches in the world?
Ninety percent of churches have fewer than 200 people. Eighty percent have under 100.
Small churches are not in the minority. We are the overwhelmingly dominant way people have always chosen to worship Jesus.
Yet, despite this, there are many misunderstandings about the purpose, the nature, the needs, the blessings and the realities of small churches, based on our assumptions, rather than reality.
Here are 3 of those assumptions, followed by 5 often overlooked realities.
Small Churches Aren’t Just…
The most common response I hear when I say not all churches are meant to be big is, “Well, of course. You can’t build a megachurch in a small town.”
True, but small churches (including the one I pastor) aren’t just in small towns. And has anyone followed that line of thinking to its logical conclusion? Do we really expect that every church in heavily populated areas will either be big/mega, or sick and dying? Of course not.
The world is full of failing churches. Hurting churches. Dysfunctional churches. Unwelcoming churches. Unloving churches. Name a human problem and you can find a church that matches it.
Many of those unhealthy churches are small or shrinking. But not all small churches are unhealthy. Most aren’t.
I was attending a ministry conference a few years ago, when they did a giveaway to the pastor of the smallest church in attendance. The pastors in the room applauded as the small church pastor ran to the stage to claim a free grab-bag of “books, CDs and more!” from the host.
Wow! I thought. That’s great! They’re acknowledging the value of small churches. Then the host said, “We’re so glad you’re here! We just love helping start-up churches!” [Cue the sound of bagpipes deflating]
I love helping start-up churches, too. But that wasn’t the question he asked, it was an assumption he made. Surely any pastor of a small church attending an innovative church conference has to be a start-up.
We’re not all start-ups. Most of our churches have been small for a while, and will continue to be, even as we play a pivotal role in the body of Christ.
Some Small Church Realities
Small churches exist for a lot of reasons. Many are in smaller towns, some are unhealthy, and a lot of them are start-ups. But there are other reasons, too.
1. Niche Needs
Many small churches fulfill the needs of a specific group of people. Retirees, recovering addicts, the bohemian downtown coffee shop crowd, and so on. I’m convinced the Niche Church will serve a larger group of people in the next generation or two.
2. God’s Call
Not every pastor is called to put more people in the building week after week, year after year. Many are called to shepherd a smaller group, serving God, their community and the body of Christ in smaller, but still significant ways.
3. Pastoral Gifting
Some pastors, like me, don’t minister well in a church where we don’t know most of the people’s names. We function better on a relational level than a managerial one.
4. Personal Preference
More people are drawn to worship Jesus and serve others in an intimate setting than in a vast crowd. It’s just the way they (we) are.
If that’s not the way you worship and serve best, then find a good, healthy big church. But don’t disparage those who do it in a smaller way.
People who are drawn to worship and serve in small settings deserve great small churches to worship and serve in.
5. The Primary Reality? Small Is Embedded In the Nature of the Church
There are a lot of reasons for so many small churches. Some are due to ill-health. Some – counterintuitively – are because of growth (growing churches planting other churches).
But of all the reasons churches are small, I have come to believe the main reason has to do with the very nature of the gospel itself.
The nature of Church lends itself to smallness.
Worship is both communal and individual. But at its core, it is intimate. We need a community of closeness as much or more than we need an atmosphere of celebration.
Big churches know this. It’s the main reason you’ll often hear megachurch pastors say “we have to grow bigger and smaller at the same time.”
Big churches are good. But small church is normal. And necessary.
Bigness Is an Outlier – Small Is Natural
Big- and megachurches are a gift to the body of Christ. But they have been, and always will be outliers in church life, not the norm. Bigness is the exception, not the rule.
In some cases, bigness happens because we force it. It’s not a natural process. If massive church growth happened as naturally as church growth proponents say it does, then why do we need all the books and seminars telling us how to do it? Don’t normative things happen naturally?
Yes, the church will grow. It’s in the Great Commission, and in the declaration of Jesus that he would build his church.
So let’s pay attention to the way church growth normally and naturally happens, then support it.
We don’t need fewer smaller churches, we need a whole lot more of them.
Copyright © 2016 by the author or Christianity Today.
Click here to read our guidelines concerning reprint permissions.