The emergence and popularity of megachurches in recent years has led many church-goers to think of success in terms of numerical growth, but small congregations often surpass larger counterparts in important elements like fellowship and unity. Bigger isn’t necessarily better.
The ultimate indicator of success is faithfulness. Any true church—no matter it’s size—is one that faithfully does three things: preaches the Word, administers the sacraments, and exercises church discipline.
But what aspects of congregational life go beyond that basic three-fold criteria to identify a church functioning effectively with a viable future? Both large and small churches face challenges. In a large congregation, government may become unwieldy and members may become invisible. A small congregation may struggle to pay the pastor, assist needy members, or find qualified teachers and office-bearers.
The popular tide appears to be turning when it comes to perceptions of small churches. Over a year ago on outreachmagazine.com, Ed Stetzer urged readers to begin “Rethinking Small.” He asked questions to help churches assess if they are a small, unhealthy church (“Is your church staying small even when the community around you is growing? … because you refuse to engage the culture around you? … because you love your fellowship but not the lost?) or a small, healthy church (Is your church staying small because you are in a small community but you are still faithfully engaging those around you? … because you gather in a transient community but you are reaching new people? … because of your facility so you are using your resources for other things?).
Stetzer wrote that small churches “are and have always been the norm” and the “rise of megachurches is a unique feature of late twentieth century American Christianity.” Because megachurches will not disappear for some time, Stetzer believes it’s necessary to remind ourselves of the value of smaller congregations. He concluded: “Faithfulness and fruitfulness are more biblical measurements for church health, not church size.”
More recent online essays explore the possibilities small churches offer. Karl Vaters (founder of NewSmallChurch.com) describes “Why Small Churches Are the Next Big Thing” (qideas.org) and asks, “What if we paved the way in showing the world what loving one another really looks like?”
He continues, “There’s no better place to express or sense that kind of love-leadership than in a small church. For this reason, I believe small churches are uniquely poised to meet the needs of Millenials and perhaps turn the tide on the trend of the unchurched.”
While Vaters hopes churches of any size that preach Christ’s gospel of grace continue, he sees “a growing hunger for healthy, high-quality, innovative small churches to meet the needs of upcoming generations.”
“The main reason I’m convinced small churches will be the next big thing is because they’ve always been a big thing. Since the day of Pentecost, innovative small churches have been the way the majority of Christians have done church.”
He says, “If healthy small churches can provide opportunities for genuine relationships with God and each other—with practical ministry to the surrounding community—we can be the vanguard of a new church movement. Of course, it really won’t be a new movement—it will be the oldest one of all.”
Vaters’ September 8, 2014, post on NewSmallChurch.com urges: “Don’t try to be successful. Try to do good work.” He defines good work as being God-honoring rather than people-pleasing, Christ-magnifying rather than self-promoting, and Spirit-led rather than numbers-driven.
“When I try to do good work,” he writes, “I may or may not see numerical success. But the effort will always be nourishing to my soul. And to the souls of others.”
Jonathan Schindler, a nonfiction editor at Tyndale House Publishers, recently wrote in Christianity Today’s online Leadership Journal about “Four Unexpected Benefits of a Small Church.” He described how becoming a member of a small church had forced him to be in community, to serve, to reckon with diversity, and had offered opportunities he might not otherwise have had.
While small churches have definite benefits, there’s no denying they face their share of challenges. Small congregations and church plants share certain characteristics, especially financial and leadership struggles, but established churches have a different dynamic. And each congregation is unique.
In ensuing issues, Christian Renewal will explore the challenges and joys of some small congregations in an effort to raise an awareness of the issues they face, to foster an appreciation for their unique situations, and to strengthen the bonds of Christian fellowship between large and small church families in the universal family of Christ.
The above article, written by Glenda Mathes, introduced a series featuring small churches and appeared on pages 14 & 15 of the September 24, 2014, issue of Christian Renewal.