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What Small Churches Can Do

I have a lot of experience in and with small churches through my own pastoral ministry as well as denominational cooperation. I have seen small churches that are healthy and some that are toxic. I have seen some die and some grow dramatically in number.

There are all kinds, and I would never assume all churches considered “small” by their own leadership or by outsiders are the same. But I do want to encourage some of Christ’s smaller churches who are struggling. 

First, allow me to clarify what I mean by “small.”

I understand that the largest percentage of churches in America are under 100 in attendance. While a church of 100 is “normative” in comparison to other congregations, it should be noted that most Christians are found in larger churches. This means that churches of 100 or so people are not “normative” when compared to the majority of other Christians’ experience.

I share this only to explain what I mean by “small” churches. 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.

I am comfortable putting my church in the category of Christ’s “smaller churches.” So for now, let’s forget about the actual number.  What I am writing this week is for the smaller churches that are in trouble. I write this as an insider, and as a lover of smaller congregations.

Three dangerous mentalities.

As I have seen several churches in my area continue to dwindle in size, I have watched the leadership of many of these churches settle into one of three dangerous mentalities: elitism, defeatism and survivalism.

These are mentalities I know well as they have characterized my ministry at one time or another.

1. 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. One book all pastors should read is C. John Miller’s Outgrowing the Ingrown Church. In it, he explains how this elitism works. “What they do is build an attitude of superiority over others by elevating a positive feature in the church life or tradition and then comparing this feature with groups which lack this quality.” (pg 30)

I have seen this among some smaller Reformed churches. 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.

2. Defeatism.

Defeatism, on the other hand, is a giving-up of the leadership. It is the “can’t-do” spirit that has come to believe the lie of the devil: “You are too small and too poor to have any real impact.” 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.

3. Survivalism. 

Survivalism is a shift in ministry emphasis from seeking to be a living, thriving, progressing ministry to one of mere maintence. 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 the 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. The Lord will use you to accomplish his work not because you are right, but because you are his. You will trample the devil underfoot not because of your size, but because of your Savior. Many small churches can do far more than they believe, and part of the key is to stop focusing on their size.