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Big, Unfriendly Churches Are Bad—But Small Unfriendly Churches Are Dangerous

People are only capable of having relationships with so many people. We don’t need studies to tell us that. We know it instinctively.

That’s why we all behave differently in a large crowd than we do in a small group.

When there are thousands of people in a room, we expect to be an audience, so we become one. Even the presence of a few hundred people causes us to slip into the role of passive observer instead of active participant. That’s not to say that a large crowd is bad, but the mere fact of its size causes us to act more passively, even in church. We put on our polite crowd-smile and become an audience.

But it’s different in a smaller group. We expect people to say hello. We hope for connection. We want to be a part of the conversation.

Today’s post is not a slam on big churches. None of my posts will ever be that. Instead, it’s intended to serve as a caution to Small Churches.

Friendliness is not more likely in a Small Church. But it is more important. 

Why Friendliness Matters More in a Small Church

Because of crowd dynamics, people expect a degree of anonymity in a big church. So if they feel a little lonely, that’s OK. They put on their big-crowd face and soldier on.

But in a Small Church, it’s very different. People come to a Small Church expecting (at least hoping) for connection. They often want it so badly that they feel frightened and exposed by the mere fact of driving into the parking lot.

Walking into a Small Church for the first time can be an act of great vulnerability. They know there won’t be anywhere to hide.

So when someone feels ignored in a big church, it’s pretty bad. But when someone feels ignored in a Small Church, it can be downright brutal, even scarring to their heart and their spirit.

Friendliness, warmth and connection are not automatic in any church. Big churches know this. Small Churches tend to forget it. And when we forget it we can hurt people deeply.

An unfriendly Small Church can be a dangerous thing.

Big churches are aware of crowd dynamics, so most of them work really hard at overcoming the pull toward anonymity. Many of them succeed and are very friendly. It may even be one of the reasons they became big.

Small Churches need to work just as hard at friendliness, warmth and connection as our large church counterparts do. Maybe even harder, because friendliness is more expected and needed when the crowd is smaller.

Don’t Assume Your Church Is Friendly—Help It Get There

A friendly church doesn’t just happen, no matter how big or small it is. Church leaders have to work at it, train people for it and be constantly vigilant about it.

Don’t assume your church is friendly just because the regulars have to be herded out the door so you can lock up and go home.

Make friendliness a priority. It may be one of the main reasons spiritual seekers visit your Small Church. And a lack of it may be the main reason they never come back.

Taking an honest look at your church’s friendliness quotient may be difficult and discouraging. Just a few weeks ago, I was made painfully aware that our church isn’t doing as well at this as I thought we were. But we have to stop assuming. We need to know the truth.

No matter how friendly our church is—or how friendly we think it is—it can always be friendlier. So it’s essential that we do whatever is needed to become more welcoming. Because when we do, we can help change someone’s life.

Being welcoming and friendly is about far more than putting (or keeping) butts in church seats. Just as an unfriendly Small Church can cause great damage, a truly friendly Small Church can be an important first step toward mending people’s hearts, awakening their spirits and preparing their souls for eternity.

So, what do you think? How intentional is your church about being warm and friendly?  

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Karl is the author of four books and has been in pastoral ministry for almost 40 years. He is the teaching pastor of Cornerstone Christian Fellowship, a healthy small church in Orange County, California, where he has ministered for over 27 years with his wife, Shelley. Karl’s heart is to help pastors of small churches find the resources to lead well and to capitalize on the unique advantages that come with pastoring a small church. Karl produces resources for Helping Small Churches Thrive at KarlVaters.com, and has created S.P.A.R.K. Online (Small-Church Pastors Adapt & Recover Kit), which is updated regularly with new resources to help small churches deal with issues related to the COVID-19 crisis and aftermath.