Bigger is not necessarily better. When I need to tighten a screw in my glasses, I need the right tool for the job—a tiny little screwdriver.
It’s the same with churches. God uses big churches for certain Kingdom jobs, and God uses little churches for specific assignments. Bigger churches can do things smaller ones cannot do. And little churches do things much larger churches can never do.
Statistically speaking, the vast majority of churches in America average less than 500 in weekly attendance. In fact, the best data suggests that approximately 35 percent of American churches average between 100-499, and at least 60 percent of churches in America have an average attendance between 1-99 people.
No more than 2.5 or 3 percent of American churches fall into the category of being a “megachurch.” Those that do are really phenomena of the modern cultural era. It would appear that God in His sovereignty finds small tools abundantly necessary for His work in the world.
Here are three reasons I am convinced God most often builds His church small:
1. Family Connection: While I’m not suggesting that this dynamic of the smaller church is not present in larger churches, I am asserting that it is uniquely present in smaller churches. This dynamic does bring challenges.
When I speak to the board of deacons about an unruly choir member, it may be his wife. Smaller local churches are usually comprised of two or three family groups that make up as much as half or two-thirds of the church membership. In smaller local churches, when two young people from the youth of the church marry, there is a very good chance that they will be united with a number of church members as in-laws.
The great advantage of this dynamic is that when smaller churches aim at evangelism, they have a ready-made mission field of people they know and love. If approached in healthy and simple ways, by inviting unsaved family members to fun but Christ centered outreach events, for example, the family dynamic allows for a kind of familiarity that is just plain difficult to cultivate in larger churches.
2. Friendship With the Pastor: For me, this is one of the most beautiful aspects of the local church. It’s funny to me that I have had more interaction with one of my former pastors, who happens to shepherd a megachurch I was formerly a member of, since becoming a pastor than I ever did when I was a member of his flock. This is really not to his discredit; he is a great pastor and fantastic leader.
The simple truth is that the megachurch high volume of people dynamic does not usually lend itself well to parishioners or visitors getting to know or, in some cases, even shaking the hand of the pastor. In the smaller churches, the man teaching the sermon is accessible. A parishioner or visitor can get to know their pastor, and in so doing gain a more robust understanding of the meaning and context of the perspective he brings to the proclamation of God’s Word.
Rather than becoming a cult of personality with their notoriety centered on their pulpit ministry, the effective local church pastor tends to become more like an extended member of the family. He and his family are common sights at family birthday parties and graduations.
Congregational pastor Washington Gladden said it this way a century and a half ago: “The pulpit is your throne, no doubt, but then a throne is stable as it rests on the affections of the people, and to get their affections you must visit them in their dwellings.” (Gladden, The Christian Pastor, Scribner 1911) The small church pastor is uniquely positioned to be a friend to the members of his parish.
3. Friendship With Others: While it is not always the case that small churches are more welcoming, it is simple logic that a space filled with fewer people is more likely to allow for a new person to become integrated into the faith community. Granted, this is an area of constant struggle in smaller churches. We must take care to avoid an “us versus the world” mentality that tends to make many smaller churches a difficult-to-get-into club, rather than an easy place to assimilate.
If cultivated effectively, the small church is positioned to be a place where “life-on-life” happens in a one-on-one lifestyle of intimate Christian discipleship. The pastor can know his people. The people can know their pastor. In healthy smaller churches who know who they are and accept their role as one of many smaller tools in the Master’s toolbox, the journey of following Jesus can be a deep sojourn walked out in unison with close friends who share a local community, a mutual history, very likely a family connection or two and the love of God together.
We don’t need huge crowds to have a church. We don’t need tremendous financial resources to effectively follow Jesus. We just need a few people who want to glorify God and fellowship together in Jesus’name. “For where two or three come together in my name, there I am with them.” (Matthew 18:20 NIV84)