It takes only a brief examination of churches in America to realize that most of them are quite small. Depending on the particular study, 51 to 60 percent of churches (all denominations) average only 75 in weekly attendance – a percentage that holds true across racial and class boundaries, as well. Interestingly, though, while half of American churches are defined as smaller than 100 members, more than half of all “professed Christians” are members of the largest 15 percent of churches. This means that the average churchgoer is attending a large church, while the smaller churches seem to be struggling. One writer believes he has defined small churches well, saying, “A small church can be defined as one in which the number of active members and the total annual budget are inadequate relative to organizational needs and expenses. It is a church struggling to pay its minister, heat its building, and find enough people to assume leadership responsibilities” (“A Small church Redefines Its Mission”, Bliese, The Christian Century, July 12, 2003, pp. 24-27). Yet small churches are not dinosaurs that are destined to struggle and eventually perish.
· First, small towns will always have small churches. With a limited population, many churches will reach a maximum size and stay there, having evangelized everybody available. Does this mean the church has failed somehow, or that it will disappear?
· There will always be people attracted to small churches.
· Measuring a church’s value by membership is a superficial way to define success. At one point, Jesus scared away almost all of His followers (John 6:66-69), yet He never considered Himself a failure.
· A number means nothing to God if a church is unfaithful. Who knows how many members the church in Sardis had (Revelation 3:1-6). The only people who pleased God were the “few” who had not soiled their garments with sin.
· Small churches do disappear, however, when they try to be something they are not! Every congregation needs to find its strengths and build on them, not being envious because of the successes of a larger church of Christ a few miles away.
As a congregation, we need to make sure our mission is properly defined. Are trying to look like the denominations around us? Are we jealous because of the packed parking lots of less faithful churches of Christ? Instead of losing heart, we need to see ourselves as a viable, influential, valuable part of God’s kingdom. Those who study larger congregations as models of church growth “often succumb to the myth that large, dynamic, growing churches are the healthy churches. Not only is bigger better, ‘growth’ is obligatory. The myth of size assumes that small churches are de facto struggling, parochial, maintenance-oriented, at risk, and not able to compete in today’s church marketplace. ‘How do churches grow?’ is the question that dominates the literature of church renewal, not ‘How are churches to be the church?’… Breaking the myth of size means realizing that small churches are not necessarily premature, illegitimate, malnourished or incomplete versions of ‘real’ churches. Small congregations are the right size to be all that God calls a church to be” (Bliese). If a congregation has members who are willing to evangelize the lost, respect the authority of the scriptures, and provide for its members in love and charity, it has everything it needs to be absolutely viable.
The measure of a church’s value is not in its membership or its weekly contribution. What makes a church special is the relationships between the people who make up that group. If, then, the quality of relationships is a good measuring rod of a church, then small ones have to be considered valuable. “When church size is measured by human relationships, the small church is the largest expression of Christian faith” (Carl Dudley, http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp). Because small churches have fewer members, those who do show up to church, participate in social gatherings, and make an effort to get involved in the work of evangelism develop closer bonds that are more lasting and meaningful. The problem with large churches is that people get overlooked, or people only get to know other members on a superficial basis. What is better: having fewer, but more meaningful friendships, or having more without any real attachment?
Romans 12:10-13 gives us a good look at how an ideal congregation should be interacting. “Be devoted to one another in brotherly love; give preference to one another in honor; not lagging behind in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord… contributing to the needs of the saints, practicing hospitality.” But it is difficult to do those things at a church of 300! Smaller churches maintain the benefits of:
· Getting to know everybody. While this can lead to an unwillingness to evangelize and add “outsiders” to a happy group, it can also be a sign of great social health in a congregation. It may motivate outsiders to strive for acceptance, or to have a place they are welcome (Colossians 4:5, 1 Thessalonians 4:9-12);
· Knowing everybody else’s names. It is startling to realize that many large churches have to resort to name tags;
· Reducing problems with cliques. At larger churches, the social environment eventually lends itself to the development of “churches within a church.” Only certain people spend time with others. Smaller churches tend to develop synergy (Romans 12:16, James 2:1-9, 1 Timothy 5:21).
Smaller churches help us put a name to a face, or vice versa. When we receive help from the church, we know who is contributing money to the effort (1 Timothy 5:3-16). The real danger of a large churches is that the institution or government of the congregation can very easily replace the personal touch that Christian aid is supposed to have. When a widow is helped, she just gets a check from “the church.” At a smaller church, widows receive a check from people she recognizes, knows, cares about, sees on a regular basis. Smaller church environments force members to be personal, i.e., the “church” does not do everything for me like a big impersonal, mechanical government agency.
It is interesting to see the way some people look down on small churches, describing them as invalid, struggling, always low on resources and manpower. But do large churches have it that much easier? Does having a huge budget, a giant building, and a staff of preachers really clear up that many problems? Or does it just introduce new problems? Admittedly, small churches, especially those in rural areas, cannot afford to update their buildings on a regular basis, purchase the most modern A/V equipment, or pay competitiveness wages to their ministers. The benefit, however, to a small budget is that it keeps things simple.
Large churches suffer from near-implosion when it comes to finances, space, aid to members, and availability of staff members for assistance. Consider, for example, the headache that the church in Jerusalem has to deal with in Acts 6. A great number of widows were being overlooked in a daily serving of food, creating an outcry amongst brethren. The fact that the church was so large in that city simply resulted in great logistical problems – some were getting too much food, others were being ignored, new officers needed to be installed to make sure things ran smoothly, and the time of the Apostles was spent clearing up the matter. If the business meetings of a church of 60 are so encumbered by odd topics, formalities, and frustrations, then just imagine what it must be like to smoothly administer to a church of 600! Or even 6,000 as the case was in Jerusalem.
As a church grows, so does its building – which costs money and manpower. But if the building gets bigger, so does the parking lot, and the insurance, and the security system, and the audio equipment, etc. It is just like the preacher says in Ecclesiastes 5:11! As good things increase, we need to spend more to maintain them.
An Atmosphere of Accountability
Small churches make us accountable to each other and to God, whereas large churches require little accountability (or, at least, have a difficult time with it when they try). We are accountable:
· In our service (2 Thessalonians 3:11-14, Ephesians 4:16, Romans 12:1). When the majority of members at a large church do nothing when it comes to evangelism, service in the worship, or aid to members, it hardly matters. At a small church, however, one or two lazeabouts can destroy the momentum of the work being done. A small church creates an environment of urgency, in which everybody is needed in order for progress to be made.
· In our sin (1 Corinthians 5, Matthew 18:15-20). One cannot get away with much at a small congregation. Everybody sees you, especially those who are more intimately involved with you. There is no hiding at a small church.
· In our attendance. All it takes is one family to be missing for a gaping hole to appear in the auditorium. Small churches make it difficult to skip church without being noticed.
· In our friendliness toward outsiders. After worship at a very large church, a visitor will likely only be greeted by a small portion of those in attendance, but that might still be 20 people. However, if only a small portion of a small church welcomes a guest, that might only end up being one or two Christians. At a church that is small, we have absolutely no choice in the matter! If we want to be remembered as a friendly congregation, it may take almost all of us.
· In evangelism. One study found that most churches only grew to about 35 members without a preacher. With a preacher doing all of the work, churches grow to about 50. With one or two people working hard, a church can reach about 80. If everybody works, the sky is the limit.
One of the most difficult things that a large church has to deal with is being enslaved to the culture around it. Truly, very few churches grow to mammoth proportions without somehow adapting to their society, or finding their niche. Larger churches are slaves to the whims of the world around them. Preach too liberally and the conservatives will leave; preach too conservatively and the liberals will leave. These congregations end up catering to their membership in order to maintain their numbers (like a politician and his constituency) – they know their “target audience” is, preferably, middle class white families.
“Small churches are usually somewhat out of step with culture. They are, so to speak, sociologically challenged. This can be its own blessing. The small church tends to be shaped more by [God’s expectations] than by the dominant culture. While this can separate some churches too much from society, it can also assist the small church in living on the margins of society, where opportunity for mission knocks… It can go places and risk [evangelism] that larger churches would find undesirable or impossible” (Bliese). God’s church should not be ashamed to live on the fringes of society. We are, after all, the Father’s “peculiar people” (Titus 2:11-14). “And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind…” (Romans 12:2). Because we are not bound by the fickleness of members or by our desire to maintain a massive budget, we can be brazen about the Gospel (2 Corinthians 10:3-6).