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September 2, 2020
Several years ago at my denomination’s annual conference, I was listening to the denominational leader give his state of the denomination talk.
As part of his assessment, he cited statistics that I had heard many times before. I’ve come to learn they are surprisingly universal across denominational lines and geographical regions.
“Over 90 percent of our churches are under 200 in weekly attendance,” he told us. “And 80 percent are under 100.”
He continued to speak, but my mind drifted as I heard this question pop into my mind. What if that’s not a problem?
What if when Jesus said “I will build my church” what He had in mind wasn’t a bunch of pastors wringing their hands because their congregation isn’t as big as someone else’s congregation?
What if Jesus’ idea was for churches of all sizes to work together, with mega, big, small, and house churches each contributing something special to the whole?
Instead, in the last generation or two, we’ve made big- and megachurches the standard, one that most churches will never reach and one, I believe, many of us aren’t supposed to reach because we’re called to be small.
There’s nothing wrong with big- and megachurches; I’m grateful for them. How can we not celebrate it when 2,000-20,000 people gather in large church buildings to worship God? That’s fantastic!
But it’s also cause for celebration when 2,000-20,000 people are worshipping Jesus across 20, 200, or more different churches in groups of 500, 200, 50, and 10. Jesus has been building His church for 2,000 years using all kinds of people, all types of methods, all styles and sizes of churches.
Great churches don't happen by mistake. No matter what size they are. They take prayer, planning, hard work, cooperation, and the calling of God. But no small church can be a great small church if they don’t know they can be a great church.
Too many small churches and their small church pastors are laboring under a false impression—a lie, really—that their small church can’t be great until it becomes bigger. We need to put that lie to rest, starting in the heart and ministry of every pastor of every small church.
Since the small church I pastored (and still pastor) was well under 250 when I heard the message of that denominational leader, I knew the expected response to the statistic should be “Our church is small too.Oh no!” But something inside me broke that day.
Instead I thought “So what?!” So what if our church is small? So what if we’re one of my denomination’s 90 percent? So what if half the people in our denomination are attending small congregations instead of big ones? If they’re doing good, outreaching, Jesus-honoring, kingdom work, so what if they’re small?
As I’ve come to learn since then, the percentage of small to large churches says absolutely nothing about the spiritual temperature of the churches in any denomination or geographical region. If a group of churches are in a state of growth and impact, it will include the planting of new churches that are almost all going to be small. So, when the spiritual health of a region or denomination is growing, there are more small churches popping up, keeping the percentage of small churches high.
On the other hand, if a group of churches are in an unhealthy state, the existing churches will be declining in size, so the number of small churches increases that way. Either way, whether we’re doing well or doing poorly, there will always be a lot of small churches, and that’s a good thing.
There are five reasons why the world needs your small church, as well as small church growth ideas.
We all have different gifts.
Not all pastors have the administrative gift-mix that is required to lead a church of 400 or 4,000. Few do, actually; I know I don't.
If I have to spend more than a couple hours a week on financial and administrative decisions, my spirit starts to shrivel a little.
If you're a shepherd, be a great one and help your small church be a great church. Please remember that shepherding the church doesn’t mean doing all the ministry yourself. That’s a recipe for a burnt out pastor and an unhealthy church. A shepherding pastor still needs to equip the saints to do the ministry, but the smaller the church, the more hands-on that equipping will be.
If we didn't have healthy small churches, what would the alternative be? Obviously, no one is proposing that we close them down if they’re not hitting certain growth rates. Small churches exist, because small churches are needed.
Most healthy big churches work hard at simultaneously growing bigger and growing “smaller,” which happens through small group ministry. Pastors of larger churches need to delegate much or all of the personal pastoral care to under-shepherds, and it's appropriate that they do so. But some people thrive better in their spiritual lives when they are pastored by their pastor, not small group church leaders, and they're not wrong for needing that.
Some people prefer their church experience to be small. From the corporate executive who wants to slow down on the weekend, to the parents who prefer keeping their children in an intergenerational environment instead of another divided-by-age classroom, small simply works for them.
This includes long-time churchgoers as well as the unchurched. The idea that everyone is enamored with a bigger room, more people, and high-end production values has never been true. Just as there are people who prefer a local diner to a chain restaurant, there are people who are looking for smaller environments to discover and live out their faith.
I know, when I say not everyone prefers big churches, I’m running the risk of sounding like Yogi Berra, who famously said of a popular restaurant, “Nobody goes there anymore. It's too crowded.”1
It’s not that I think big churches are dying, or not meeting a need. Obviously, they’re thriving and blessing a lot of people. That’s one of the reasons most big churches got big. But they’re not for everyone.
We need to be sure there are quality options for people who prefer a smaller worship experience
Everyone in ministry should be in agreement that God’s ways are higher than ours, and that the church is His idea. So, while we try our best to discern the smaller details of His will, we need to keep a sense of humility in our strategies. God may have a plan for our church that can only be fulfilled by being small and healthy.
This post was updated on May 4, 2020 for accuracy and comprehensiveness.
Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from Karl Vaters Small Church Essentials: Field-Tested Principles for Leading a Healthy Congregation of Under 250. Used by permission.
Editor’s Note: This post was updated on May 29, 2020 for accuracy and comprehensiveness.