Most of my church experience has occurred in smaller churches. I have served on staff in two such congregations for the last 17 1/2 years, 13 at my current church. The first church grew from about 25 to over 150 in a 13 year period, the last 4 1/2 of which I was the Children’s Director. My current church has declined from 430 to about 230, although we are seeing significant growth in our children’s ministry and as a result our influence on two apartment communities.
As a result, I have a passion to encourage, challenge, and even prod my colleagues in ministry who share the joy (or not so much, as the case may be) of ministering in the small church context. What follows is a brief list of challenges I would like to posit to leaders, asking them to consider their own situations and their own attitudes.
1. Never look down on or think too highly of your situation because of your church attendance or membership numbers. Leaders are notorious for comparing numbers and secretly giving themselves a high five for not being in as dire straights as the next person, or unduly punishing themselves for not measuring up to someone else’s apparent level of performace. Enough already. Here is the real question: is your church healthy? If it is healthy, it will grow naturally. If it is not growing, that does not mean all is lost. Also, are you healthy in terms of your relationship with God, your leadership, and your preparedness to lead your church into the coming years?
2. Your situation is unique and it is common. It is unique because your church has you, and it has all those who serve alongside you, plus the unique and precious people for whom you are responsible both within the church, and within your sphere of prospective influence. It is common because every church enjoys these kinds of opportunities, and wrestles with these kinds of uniquely tailored challenges.
3. Large churches are not the enemy, nor do they necessarily sell out the gospel to draw in crowds. Are there some that seem to emphasize style over substance? Maybe. Why not let God deal with that minority? The sooner we focus on our own assignment the better. This will help us to avoid compromising the message which God has called us to communicate to the lost. And the sooner we treat large churches with respect, the more credibility we will gain as a witness in the community. Also, some large churches are very open to being an encouragement to their smaller counterparts. Be friendly and you might make some friends.
4. In one sense, smaller churches are the norm in the USA. The median church has about 75 people worshipping on Sunday mornings. However, 50% of churchgoers attend larger churches (350 or larger). See these facts and other data at the Hartford Institute for Religion Research’s Fast Facts About American Religion. I recently heard one stat that there are about 4,000 churches per year which close their doors for the final time. We are not keeping pace through new church plants, and large churches are not necessarily seeing the entire benefit from transfer growth. Many people are leaving the church altogether, either to start house churches, engage in a different religion, or simply check out of any kind of organized religious life.
5. We have an opportunity to rethink how we minister in various areas of focus (ie, children’s ministry, youth ministry, families, singles, seniors, men, women, etc) and how we do church. Indeed, we have an opportunity, even a responsibility to rethink how we do life together in the context of a broken world which sees us as irrelevant. They gain this perspective based on our past behavior which typically is a pretty fair predictor of future behavior, unless of course we rethink and creatively re-engage the mission to which God has called us.