In Praise of Small Churches
Lately I have been wondering about the relationship between the size of a church and how effective that church is.
Of course that depends on many things, but my opportunities to minister in some 4,000 different churches since 1956 have helped me gain a somewhat informed opinion. I have been in some of the largest churches and some remarkably good small churches.
What I have noted is that little churches tend to produce members with big hearts and big churches, with wonderful programs, always have to fight the tendency to reduce members to a state of passive spectatorship. Many large churches fight this problem with strong small group ministries where, in a sense, you almost have smaller churches within the large church. These tend to be excellent churches for those who involve themselves in the small groups, but those who prefer to remain passive or anonymous can easily do so in a mega-church” environment. Not so in many of the smaller congregations.
I think of one particular church that was small in size. They only had about 50 members, but they were 50 who would be there on Sunday morning and 50 who would be there on Sunday evening. Their choir consisted of 20 people; they had a Sunday School of well over 100 kids, many brought in from the neighborhood. They had a great witness to the community with one full-time pastor, a half-time church secretary and the 50 or so members.
What I liked about that church is that almost everyone participated in everything that the church did. They didn’t need more than 50 members to have a great church. I don’t know how well the pastor preached, because the times that I was there I came as a speaker, and I felt honored to be asked. Somehow I feel certain that the preaching was more than adequate.
That church had reached what I call “critical mass.” Now you may know that term, “critical mass,” from your understanding of nuclear bombs. But let me remind you that the “critical mass” of fissionable material doesn’t necessarily produce an explosion. It produces heat and energy.
My point is, it takes a certain number of people working synergistically in order to make things happen in a church and for a church. A church can’t ever depend on one person, like the pastor, to make things happen. All churches need a number of people working together, and how many will vary according to the talents and the energies of those people who have been called together.
Recently I had the privilege of speaking at a church that had eight members. I admit that I usually don’t get an opportunity to speak in churches that small, but I was covering for my daughter, Ruth, who needed to attend an out of town funeral. I found that church worked beautifully. The members had invited others and there were about 20 in all that attended.
The church consisted of four couples, the youngest of which was in their late ’40s. There was an enthusiastic song leader and a great missionary program. I had the privilege of being their monthly missionary speaker. Once they had been a larger church in a commodious sanctuary, but changes in the neighborhood affected the membership. I was delighted to see a number of children from the neighborhood taking part in their Sunday School and Junior church. Besides that, they had a Sunday evening service and a mid-week prayer meeting.
This small church is able to function because they still have “critical mass.” The four couples are still generating spiritual energy and they have a division of talents that enables them to work together. I’m not saying that large churches don’t have critical mass, but quite often churches with large staffs fail to operate at that energy level because everyone figures someone else is being paid to do it, whatever “it” may be.
To me, a good church is one where everyone who attends participates by exercising his or her gifts, a church that never becomes an audience to the preacher’s rhetorical skill or the choir’s great musical ability. They see themselves as active participants rather than people who come to be spiritually stimulated.
I like small churches where everyone is active, and where the participation of each person is needed and appreciated. Nevertheless, our attendance at any gospel-preaching church makes a statement of what we believe and Who we love.