09 September 2014

In praise of small churches — and yet...

by Dan Phillips

I stumbled on an article titled Four Unexpected Benefits of a Small Church, by a church-member named Jonathan Schindler. He develops four "unexpected benefits and opportunities" that are "specifically related" to the smallness of his church, which has shrunk from 150 to the 70-90 range. They are:
  1. Being in a small church has forced me to be in community.
  2. Being in a small church has forced me to serve.
  3. Being in a small church has forced me to reckon with diversity.
  4. Being in a small church has offered opportunities I might not otherwise have had.
Most know that I on principle oppose megachurches, though in recent years I've grown a little wobbly. To be specific: Valerie and I got to talk to people serving at Grace Community Church, and were exposed to the many, many ways they leverage their greater resources to serve, disciple, love, care, and reach out. We agreed: "If you're going to be a big church, this is the way to do it."

That perhaps is a topic for another day; now let's get back to the small church, as Schindler describes it, and get to my own points. I would say three things, to get us going:
  1. I basically agree with Schindler's enumeration, and could expand it myself. However...
  2. If you want to make your pastor's blood run cold, and you want to set him to wondering whether he should move on, tell him you're really happy that your church is staying small, and signal that you'll be just as happy if it never, ever grows.
  3. The content-to-stay-small attitude can be every bit as poisonous and God-dishonoring as the we-must-add-numbers-at-all-costs attitude.
Perhaps what I want to say can be best expressed as yet another list:
  1. If you think that verses like Matthew 28:18-20; Acts 6:7; 12:24; 13:49; 19:20; Colossians 1:6; 1 Thessalonians 1:2-5, 8-9; 2 Thessalonians 3:1; 2 Tim. 2:9 and others all describe goals and values and events for a distant and fading past, as relevant to us today as tongues and prophecies, feel good about staying small.
  2. If there aren't any unbelievers or mis-taught, untaught, immature believers living with ten miles of your church, feel good about staying small.
  3. If the Gospel isn't anything you think your neighbors need, and you think that's okay with God, feel good about staying small.
  4. If you feel like you have a note from God excusing you from finding ways to reach out with the Gospel, feel good about staying small.
  5. If you haven't learned the Gospel well enough to explain it to anyone else, and you don't want to learn the Gospel well enough to explain it to anyone else, and you think that's okay with God, feel good about staying small.
  6. If you just don't want to have to learn more names and think that's okay with God, feel good about staying small.
  7. If you just don't want to have to accommodate people with different tastes, temperaments, and preferences than you, and you think that's okay with God, feel good about staying small.
  8. If your pastor doesn't really preach anything anyone needs to hear, feel good about staying small.
  9. If it doesn't matter to you that your church dies when the current crop of 50-to-80-year-olds dies, feel good about staying small.
  10. If the sight of cults and false teachers growing like weeds while the truths you cherish lie unheard and unloved doesn't matter to you, and you think that's okay with God, feel good about staying small.
  11. If you just don't want to have to deal with different skin-colors, and cultures, and accents, and ways of dressing, and hair-cuts, and jewelry, and educational level, and you think that's okay with God, feel good about staying small.
  12. If you just don't want to have to deal with babies, and children, and teens, and singles, and people in their 20s and 30s who don't have it all together yet, and you think that's okay with God, feel good about staying small.
  13. If you've got your church crafted exactly to mirror all your wants and your preferences and your styles and your opinions, and you don't want to risk any of that being challenged, and you think that's okay with God, feel good about staying small.
I want to be as plain as I possibly can be:
  • Not one syllable of anything I just wrote should make any pastor or church member feel bad or inferior or self-reproachful about the bare fact of his church's relative smallness. It is perfectly possible for a church to be small precisely because it is being faithful to God (cf. 2 Tim. 4:1-4; cf. John 6:66).
  • The only people who should feel a sting from what I just wrote are those content with not growing, not striving, not reaching out, not evangelizing, not making disciples, not penetrating his community, and not being impelled by love for God and man to get out of his comfort-zone — including saints who believe in outreach in theory, and think other people really should be getting on with it.
  • do not think a church should grow to be as big as it possibly can.
  • Once a church gets beyond the point where shepherds can know sheep and where real fellowship is happening (Jn. 10:3, 11, 14; Galatians 6:2; 1 Thess. 5:11; Heb. 3:13; 10:24-25), they should plant other churches with their own apprenticed in-person on-site flesh-and-blood pastors. Then rinse, and repeat. Multiply Biblically-faithful, Christ-centered, Gospel-preaching, Bible-teaching churches.
  • If a church is surrounded by unbelievers, and yet never or seldom baptizes converts, never or seldom takes in and loves and disciples not-there-yet believers, never or seldom grows outside of a narrow age/culture range, then every leader and every member should cry to God day and night for the spread of the Gospel, and that church should leave no legitimate stone unturned in its seeking for effective ways to reach out with the Gospel.
I think this should be the attitude of every member and every leader: If our church does not grow at all, God grant that it be despite our best and unceasing efforts and most earnest and continual prayers — and not ever greeted with smug complacency.

Dan Phillips's signature


Tom Chantry said...

This reminds me of a quote I once heard attributed to Spurgeon (which is like a quote attributed to Lincoln or Twain; perhaps KJ can confirm) when asked if it were possible for a true and faithful preacher to produce no converts. He replied that it was, but that it was not possible for him to be content with it.

Similarly, small churches have their advantages, but contentment with smallness is a complicated matter. If by "content" one means accepting of providence, fine. But how easily it becomes merely wanting things to stay this way.

I remember once hearing a long-time member of a church actually complain that the church was growing (and it had only gone from about 150 to 200!) The reasons all boiled down to "This is less comfortable for me," and little of it had anything to do with the health of the church. I suspect several items on Dan's checklist probably described that church member fairly well.

DJP said...

AND EVEN MORE to be sure I'm clear: I'm not finding fault with Schindler's article or attributing any of this to him. It's just that that article prompted these thoughts. I started to add it for Friday's post, then realized I had more to say about it than would fit in that format.

DJP said...

Thank you, Tom. No one should (or, I hope, reasonably could) accuse me of counseling discontentment with God's providence, His sovereign will. As always, you put it well.

Webster Hunt said...

We left a larger church body two years ago which had roughly around 700-800 members, and joined our current local body which maybe has 200, tops. At the former, the lead pastor maybe knew 1/10 of the members, where at the latter, the pastor at least knows most folks by name - he even spends time at the beginning of each Sunday service making notice of new faces, and has whomever invited them introduce them to the body. My wife and I were quickly comforted with being in this local body, and the pastor preaches skillfully in a way that is not above the member's understanding.

So when I read today's list, I thought about all those times where I've said things like "Big church bodies can't work as well" and I thought twice. I'm sure that my pleasant experience with a smaller body would have led me to one of those "then stay a small church" bullet points.

Great post.

Michael Coughlin said...

Good points.

Jim Pemberton said...

This has been my thinking for some time. I'm convinced that if a church grows beyond a senior pastor to know each member of the congregation, the church is too large. Preaching should primarily be to your own congregation and if a pastor can't know his congregation personally, a wise pastor will do them the service of planting a second church with another pastor so that all may be served. My church is large for our area with about 1100 active members and each member of the pastoral staff pretty much knows and prays for each member of the congregation.

On another note I have to observe an important difference between Schindler's list and yours. Schindler's #3 indicates diversity in a small congregation and your #7, #11 and #13 indicates a lack of diversity. I've seen small churches follow either pattern. Schindler seems to be addressing the tendency of larger churches to form cliques of like-minded people over and against a small church in a hard area where people have no option but to go the only church near them. This is the case in many Northern areas. Your observation is like it is in my area: people have a variety of options and they go to the church where they are most comfortable, which is typically like the whole church is just one clique of the same kind of people. If you want diversity in my neck of the Bible Belt, you have to find a larger church. Too many small churches are not healthy in this regard.

JackW said...

Your experience with GCC mirrors mine with Parkside Church in Ohio. It can be done well, but we don’t hear much about those churches, it’s the questionable ones we hear about most.

I like a small church myself, but find myself in the minority. Most people seem to like larger churches as evidenced by the fact that the larger the church, the more people that show up for it.

Mark Kendrick said...

I think that a lot of people go to big churches so they can blend in & not be held accountable.

Dana~Are We There Yet? said...

Thanks for putting into words what I've thought, what has come into clearer focus, over the course of many years. Am I correct when I boil it down to meaning that the size of the church is less of a concern than orthodoxy and orthopraxy, and that it is absolutely the responsibility of those who've undertaken the responsibility of shepherding God's flock to know (well enough to mete out discipline when needed) the sheep?

Brad Mason said...

Our church generally grows slowly, then plants new churches, as people are usually traveling a bit of distance to be there. So we plant one in their area. But, something of interest to me, it seems that when there is a real "pop" in membership (usually in response to the church filling up) it tends to lose a chunk soon after because the elders refuse to bend on something (like paedocommunionism, being the latest of these events).

It is also notable that there are some strong doctrinal churches in the area where, strangely, no one will ever see anyone over the age of 50 bringing a friend or family member. Have they already played out their Rolodex?

DJP said...

That last paragraph wins, if not the Internet, this meta thus far.

Deb W . said...

One of my absolute favorite posts, Dan. Well stated all the way around.

Benjamin Glaser said...

You can tell this is a bunch of baptists when they talk about two-hundred member church being "small". ;)

That is a mega-church to us Presbyterians. :)

Stephen said...

I'm with Ben Glaser - a 200-member church I can only dream of here in middle England! Nonetheless, this is a great article. Extremely helpful to have pointed out some poisonous attitudes. When I told a visitor that we wanted and needed to grow, and she answered, "Why? This church is so lovely as it is!"

Well, it's nice to hear that but thoughts like "Great Commission?", "Glory of God?" and "Viability?" popped into my mind (frankly, I'm not sure which came first).

DJP said...


Does the article mention a congregational size number?

Robert said...

Great post, Dan. To borrow from Francis Schaeffer, I think that one of the big problems here is the idol of personal peace. People want to have their comfort zone and that applies just at much at church as it does in the home.

Morris Brooks said...

As a small church pastor, I like this post. There are certain areas of small-mindedess that keep small churches small, but just because a church is small doesn't mean it necessarily has the small church mentality. Also, just because a church is small does not mean it cannot make big impact for the kingdom...for who has despised the day of small things.

DJP said...

Or, in other words...

Morris Brooks said...

Leave it to Yoda to be succinct :)