I serve on a small team of people in my church starting a Spanish congregation, and we’ve had to think through some of the positive and negative dynamics of both being a small church and pastoring a small church.
I was encouraged when I stumbled across Joe Thorn’s helpful article series on For The Church called “What Small Churches Can Do.” This post serves as a short summary of Joe Thorn’s article. You can read all three articles (parts one, two, and three).
What qualifies as a “small” church?
“…A church of 120 feels small to most Christians, and in my assessment is still relatively small by virtue of the number of attenders, members, and leaders it has. Therefore “small” here is not meant to be a derogatory term, but a descriptor. Small churches can be dynamic and healthy.“
Three Dangerous Mentalities for Small Churches:
ELITISM: “Just because you’re small doesn’t mean you aren’t loud and proud. I would know as I have always been the shortest kid on the playground, as well as having led in “smaller” churches. In fact a sense of ecclesial pride often comes to characterize a smaller church in order to justify its smallness…It is easy to accuse the larger churches of having sold out, of not taking theology seriously, or not having real community, or good pastoral care. It’s easy and unfair, but it protects the ego and allows us to feel good about our smallness for the wrong reasons.”
DEFEATISM: “Defeatism focuses on everything the small church can’t do and loses sight of what it can do. This pessimism only happens when we take our eyes off of Jesus, the head of the church, and the mission he has given us.”
SURVIVALISM: “Survivalism is a shift in ministry emphasis from seeking to be a living, thriving, progressing ministry to one of mere maintenance. Survivalism works at keeping the church floating–bailing water, patching holes, but not sailing. The survivalist mentality is a fearful one that refuses to take risks and tends toward an “ingrown” emphasis.”
“Of course the truth is much better than all of this. The small church is not limited in its fruitfulness by its size. It is only limited by the will of head of the church, Jesus Christ. A small church may be relatively small in number, but it wields the power of God through the ministry of the word which the Lord has been pleased to use to accomplish the impossible since the beginning…Many small churches can do far more than they believe, and part of the key is to stop focusing on its size.” (Emphasis mine)
Two things smaller churches do
- You Don’t Have to Compete
“You do not need to compete with other churches in town…Competition is out of place among Christ’s churches for we make up one church, sharing one message, serving one Lord. To compete with another body means we are unhappy over what God is doing in and through them and dissatisfied with what God is doing in and through us.”
- You Don’t Have to Apologize
“I can’t tell you how often I have felt the need to apologize for the size of my church. When people ask about what God is doing we often do not want to mention our size– and are praying they don’t ask…Stop apologizing for your size. We need churches, healthy churches, of every size and shape.”
“Smaller churches are no less hindered from doing what God has called his people to do than are larger churches. Having more people does not maker it easier. Get that. More people does not make it easier. Just have a conversation with pastors of larger churches and you will find that leading God’s people into mission isn’t easy for anyone. In fact, larger numbers often makes things more complicated. However, clarifying what the church is all about and what it will give itself to does make things simpler, if not easier.”
Three Principles for Ministry in a Small Church
- Reaching Out
“If the church does not have an outward orientation it will suffer spiritual stagnancy and grow cold. There is more than excitement when the church is reaching out into the world in word and deed, there is an energy, a power (Acts 1:8) the entire body experiences as it is faithful to make Christ known among the people to whom they have been sent…Churches die when they stop reaching out because apart from that orientation disciples cannot be made. Churches stop reaching out when they are no longer gripped by their own need for grace and its free offer to others.”
- Digging Deep
“Digging deep is pressing on into maturity (Heb 6:1) through the pastoral instruction of God’s word for doctrine and devotion, and the discipling of one another through example, service, and exhortation in community…There is no conflict between reaching out and digging deep. In fact without both a church of any size is sure to be sickly, and will eventually die.”
- Raising Up
“At the very least this means we must find ways to raise up and equip leaders to serve within our own church and also to be sent out to plant new churches or serve elsewhere outside of our own congregation…Raising up leaders will never be a burden to a local church unless it feels the need to reach the lost and disciple the found. Until the church knows this work is too much to be carried out by a few developing leaders will not be seen as critical.”
Four things that even small churches can excel in
1. Corporate worship that is deeply theological, radically Christ-centered, and intensely experiential
2. Community in the church where brothers and sisters know one another well enough to live out the example and the imperatives seen in the New Testament, and
3. Leadership development that is willing to send away a church’s best to bless others, and
4. Service through the church to the community in works of mercy.
(Stay tuned to FTC.co for further articles from Joe Thorn on the four points above.)
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