Having been the pastor of small churches all over Texas and the Midwest, I can attest to the limitations that come with small church ministries. Typically, when I hear people talking about small churches, particularly leadership within small churches, the tone and language of whatever is being said is negative. Many leaders are even apologetic for shepherding small congregations, but almost all feel frustrated by one element or another.
The greatest sources of frustration for most small churches can be summed up in the word lack. Small churches often lack the finances needed to cover their basic needs for operation. They lack the volunteers to start new ministries. They lack the musical talent to play the new worship songs note for note, and they lack the pulpit talent to match up against the TV and radio preachers.
The value of a small church
The question we must ask ourselves is if small churches were merely unable to be useful to God’s kingdom, why is it that more than 85 percent of churches in America have 250 people or fewer? Are these churches wasting everyone’s time? Hardly. They may, however, not understand the tremendous value they bring to God’s kingdom.
If we are working under the assumption that God has preserved our small churches for a reason, then it might be to our benefit to know what those benefits are. In my experience as a small church pastor for over a decade, I see at least three advantages that small churches bring to the kingdom of God.
The first benefit that small churches bring to God’s work in the world is how quickly they can move. The phrase “small is fast” applies here.
When it comes to physical labor and ministry to our communities, small churches will never be able to compete with churches that have budgets in the millions and volunteers in the thousands. With that amount of size, though, comes bureaucracy and planning. Money has to be approved, volunteers have to be coordinated and all of those things just take a while. In contrast, where smaller churches are deficient in size, they make up for with speed.
A few months ago, one of my deacons told me about a man in our community who was about to come home from the hospital after leg surgery. This man would be stuck in a wheelchair for months, if not the rest of his life, and needed a ramp installed at his house. After a three-minute conversation, I was able to approve a budget and my deacon and another volunteer purchased the materials and built the ramp. From start to finish, a need was discovered and met within a 12-hour period. Small is fast.
Perhaps one wheelchair ramp isn’t going to make the front page of any newspapers, but, for one man, God’s people were able to be there for him in his time of need. If we can’t do more, then let’s do what we do with speed and efficiency.
Pastors, in particular, are notorious for focusing on the number of people, or lack thereof, that attend their churches. Obsessing over church size is unneeded and unhealthy, but we must also understand that with large congregations comes the inherent challenge of getting people to connect with one another. As Ulysses Burley III said it, “It’s just virtually impossible to be in [a] relationship with 1000 different people.”
While larger churches are trying to crack the code of getting their people to connect, small churches have community in spades. It’s possible to know every single person in these churches. When people know us, it’s much more difficult to fall through the cracks.
When we get sick, people know. If we are struggling with something in our family life, people know. When we are struggling with anything, our whole church doesn’t just know, but they care. An entire church of people will pray for us, bring us casseroles, babysit our kids and probably mow our lawn.
The blessing of the large church is their global influence. They have the numbers to push a cause forward. With all of that influence comes difficulty in staying focused on where to fit within God’s kingdom. Do we just reach this city, or do we focus on missions, too? Should we have campuses, and, if so, where?
Do we focus on being a church that has dynamic worship or a great theater troupe? Maybe we’re the trendy church that’s taking liberal views on traditional church viewpoints, or perhaps we’re the church that needs to toe the line and keep the conservative values that have allowed Christianity to flourish? Who are we supposed to be?
Questioning the places to focus is not a challenge for most small churches. The limitation in options keeps the mission of the small church crystal clear. My church, for instance, strives to be a spiritual home for every man, woman, teenager and child in our town and surrounding area. We know we are called to our town because our size forces us to be. As such, everything that we do in some way contributes to the spiritual development of our people. Our laser focus allows us to worry about what we’re doing, not why we’re doing it.
The small church matters
As a parting encouragement to small church leaders, what you’re doing matters. It matters for today, and it matters in the eternal sense. When we compare ourselves to larger churches, we’re always going to focus on what they can do and what we can’t. President Theodore Roosevelt once famously said, “Comparison is the thief of joy.”
God has brought your small church into existence and has preserved it for a reason. Embrace the value that you bring to God’s kingdom. When it comes to the many local churches within the universal church of Jesus, there are none better or worse than any others. You are valuable to God’s plan in the world.
Be fast, embrace your community and stay focused.