Small congregations are the backbone of the church.
Over 90 percent of churches are under 200 people. As many as half of all Christians attend a small congregation.
But if you take a look at the dominant teaching about church leadership, you might think that all those churches are broken, and all those fellow believers are doing something wrong.
Because we're constantly making one big mistake when teaching them about church health and effectiveness. And by making that mistake, we're failing them.
Here's our mistake:
We're not helping small churches be strong, healthy and effective at the size they are now. Instead, we're giving them the impression that they need to get bigger first.
Help Small Be Healthy
Think about it. How many books, conferences, podcasts and articles are focused on breaking the 200 barrier without even giving churches under 200 the smallest hint about how to be effective at the size they are currently?
When so much of our teaching is aimed exclusively at pushing small churches to get bigger, we leave good, but struggling churches and pastors with the unintentional impression that there's nothing they can do to be healthy and effective right now.
Small Isn't Broken
To be clear, I have no problem with teaching about how to break growth barriers. Growing above 200 in average attendance is an especially challenging step, and churches need all the help they can get to navigate it successfully.
But the failure in so much of our "breaking barriers" instruction is that we're not just teaching, "if you want your church to break through to the next size, here's how." It feels more like "if you don't break through to the next size, there must be something wrong with you, your church and your leadership."
Certainly, there are many small churches that are stuck, stubborn, and refusing to change. But that's not the case for the majority of them.
Most churches (and certainly most pastors) want to be more healthy and effective. Most want to grow numerically. But when we constantly bombard small churches with a message of "here's how to get bigger", without also encouraging and helping them understand "here's how to be healthy at the size you are now", we're failing them.
Being Great While Small
About the only time most small church pastors hear about the dynamics of how a healthy small church functions is when we want them to drop that style of leadership so they can adapt leadership more appropriate for a larger size.
"If you're going to pastor a bigger church, you need to stop doing this (small church leadership principles) and start doing this (big church leadership principles)."
But what about the vast majority of churches that are likely to stay small? Or the churches that may not stay small, but want to do the small things well while they're small?
Encouraging and Resourcing The Small Church
There's a whole lot to learn about how to nurture, lead and find great joy in a small congregation.
Let's stop failing our peers in ministry. We need to give them tools to lead their current congregation well instead of treating their current size as a problem to overcome.
We can’t just push them to get bigger. We need to help them rediscover what’s great about small churches. They need encouragement, resources and collaborative partnerships more than they need an unrelenting push to increase numerically.
Rather than dismissing small church principles as irrelevant, we need to ask “what does a healthy small church look like? What do they bring to the body of Christ? And how can we encourage their full participation in the mission God is calling all of us to participate in?”
Pastoring a small church is not a penalty for doing something wrong. It's a specialty – and it's worth doing well.
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