For the past couple months, I have been filling the pulpit in much smaller churches. I spent August and September in a church that averaged about 45 and most of November and December in a church which averaged 25. I think we topped out at 37 one Sunday morning.
Since I didn’t grow up in a smaller church (my home church had about 200) and in nearly 15 years of church ministry I haven’t served at a church with less than 100 in attendance, this was a new experience for me.
I have come to recognize several major strengths for churches that are smaller in size. Just ask any hobbit, being smaller has its benefits.
1. Limited resources means everyone participates. When you have no full-time paid staff, no secretarial support, no maintenance budget, no internet access, no projection screens, and a 25 year old copy machine that really is a converted home printer, EVERYONE has to pitch in. There are very few observers in the smaller church, which is a good thing. If you are in the family, you have to do your chores just like everyone else. I see this as a huge Ephesians 4:12, “equip the saints for the work of ministry” strength.
2. Simplicity speaks louder than activity. Since there are limited resources and even fewer people, the church has to be very wise about what they choose to do. You have to be thoughtful about what is absolutely necessary and what is elective. When your church budget is less than $500 per week, you can’t give to every organization or participate in every ministry opportunity. So the result is a simpler, more selective approach to ministry, which is radically refreshing. In this case, less is better.
3. People pray for one another…really pray. Since the congregation is small, the relational networks are very close. People truly pray for one another, by name, in worship services and in their prayer closets because they know one another personally. And usually, they have known each other for years which makes the bonds even tighter. As a pastor and preacher, I am spiritually fueled and empowered when I know that I have been prayed for by name multiple times throughout the week by the people I serve.
4. Evangelism is very personal, not programmatic. When someone comes to Christ in a smaller church, there is a direct link to another person who led them to Jesus. There are not programs specifically designed to visit the lost, witness on the streets, or to go soul-winning like in other churches. When a smaller church sees someone come to Christ and baptized, there is great rejoicing because a family member, a child, a neighbor, a co-worker has come to Jesus and the person who led them is sitting right there. Evangelism is cohesive and organic, not scheduled on a calendar. This also helps discipleship flow much more naturally and consistently.
5. Lastly, leadership is truly appreciated. Because of the smaller venue, leadership (whether pastoral or lay-led) is highly valued. People know that you are sacrificing time, energy, and “bigger and better things” to keep this little place alive. And for that sacrifice, the people are verbally and publicly thankful. I have been on larger church staffs where leadership was constantly being second-guessed, gossiped about, and barely recognized for their efforts. This is just not the case in the smaller church.
Starting in January, I am beginning an interim pastorate of a church with about 350 in attendance. I am excited about the opportunity to serve in this great church, but will miss the simplicity of the smaller environment.
I hope in the future I get a chance to return to a smaller church, even for a short season, because it is so refreshing. I can’t seem to get over just how nice it is to be simple.