Theological And Practical Lessons To Be
Learned From The Small Church
Daniel R. Sanchez (1996; 2004).
Review and Expositor Volume 93 (vnp.93.3.357)
Abraham Lincoln is credited with saying: “God must have loved the common man because he made so many of them.” Perhaps the same could be said about the small church. Over 50 percent of the congregations in most major Protestant denominations in the United States are in the small church category.1 In this country there are approximately 80,000 Protestant congregations with fewer than 100 members.2
The Viability of the Small Church
Despite the fact that there are so many small churches, there are those who believe that the small church will follow the trend of big business toward merger and consolidation. The prevailing attitude in business is that “bigger is better, quality is measured by quantity, and success is equated with size.”3 Church growth expert Lyle Schaller, for instance, points out that in 1940 only 10 percent of all groceries were sold in self-service supermarkets, but by 1980 supermarkets that represented only 11 percent of all grocery stores sold 70 percent of the groceries.4 He explains that the number of small family-run neighborhood stores dropped by approximately 20 percent during the 1980s.5 Moving into the 1990s, the trend was toward even larger supermarkets. Huge supermarkets nearly tripled from 14 percent in the early 1980s to 39 percent in 1988. Pointing out that this trend is also evident in other areas, he adds that “the medical clinic is replacing the general practitioner who worked alone. Corporate agriculture is replacing the small family farm. The shopping mall has replaced Main Street as the center of retail trade.”6
Schaller then applies this trend to the smaller churches when he states that small churches are attracting a shrinking number of churchgoers.7 He explains that in the Presbyterian Church (USA), 3.5 percent of their churches include half of all their members. Among Southern Baptists, half of their members are found in 14 percent of their churches.8 The trend, according to Schaller, is toward the large “full-service” church.9
Leith Anderson also calls attention to this trend when he points out that many small business firms are either merging or being forced out of operation by the large franchise establishments. He cites what is taking place in the gasoline
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industry as an example. He points out that large brand-name gasoline stations are being located in rural areas, thus attracting customers who want a wider variety of goods and services than are available in the small, privately-owned gas stations. He adds that many small town “Mom and Pop” type businesses are being forced out of operation by new Wal-Mart type stores.10 Anderson also believes that this trend which is evident in the business world is affecting the small churches of America today.
While the statistical evidence appears to indicate that in some denominations there does seem to be a parallel between the trends that are found in the business world and those in the churches, other factors need to be taken into account as one assesses the viability of the small church.
First, there are generational factors that militate for the existence of the small church. While Schaller states that those born after 1940 are generally more attracted to the self-service supermarkets and full-service churches, he acknowledges the fact that there is a segment of the population that prefers “the convenience stores, the small cooperative stores, the family owned and operated neighborhood groceries, the small bakeries, the specialty stores, and the superettes.”11 According to him, this “older generation” (those born during the first third of the twentieth century), has shown a “willingness to accept a more limited range of choices in favor of the personal service, the intimacy, the familiarity and the friendliness of that smaller institution.”12
Interestingly enough, Schaller points out that many younger adults appear to be following the pattern of their grandparents and not their parents. He explains that the self-service supermarkets and the full-service churches have had limited success in reaching the younger adults who seek a store or a church that specializes in a high-quality but narrowly-defined niche. He then states that “a reasonable guess is that one-eighth of all Protestant churchgoers in the United States in the year 2012 will choose a congregation that averages fewer than 100 at worship, and an additional one-fourth will pick a church that averages between 100 and 200 in worship.”13 The reason that he gives for this is that a segment of the newer generation may follow the footsteps of the older generation.
A second factor that militates for the existence of the small church is that there seems to be a preference for small institutions on the part of certain individuals in the general population regardless of age. Schaller points put, for instance, that “in 1990 two-thirds of those worshipping with a church of the Nazarene congregation were in a church that averaged fewer than 200 at worship as were 62 percent of those worshipping in a United Methodist congregation, 64 percent of those attending a United Church of Christ worship service, and 41 percent of those worshipping with a Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod parish.”14
In the light of these observations it appears to be evident that a case can be made for the viability of the small church from the standpoint of sociological trends. In other words, there are segments of the population who prefer to be a part of a small church, and the projections seem to indicate that this trend will continue well into the next century.
While a case for the viability of the small church can be made on sociological
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grounds, there are other factors, in a sense even more important than these, which justify the existence of the small church before the Lord and the communities in which they serve.
Characteristics of a Small Church
Historically small churches have had some characteristics that have enabled them to engage in effective evangelism and to contribute in a unique manner toward the discipleship of their members. While it cannot be said that these are necessarily absent in the large church, it can be stated that the effectiveness of large churches has often depended on the success they have had in retaining some of the qualities of a small church. Let us examine some of these characteristics.
A. Rich Fellowship
There is a quality of fellowship in the small church that is difficult to duplicate elsewhere. This supportive fellowship is made possible by the fact that church members truly know each other personally and are in a unique position to minister to the needs of one another. When one person experiences sorrow, the entire church is impacted by it. The same is true for such experiences as joy, transition, and success. By going through these experiences together, church members develop a deep commitment to one another as well as to the church. It is true that at times friction develops because the members of small churches know each other too well. Beneath that surface, however, there is a “deep and genuine concern for one another.”15 As they work through their differences and participate together in the ministries of the church, a sense of community can develop that gives them the strength to face the challenges in their personal lives as well as in the life and ministry of their congregation.
This supportive fellowship is described in the New Testament through the use of the word koinonia. In Acts 2, Luke describes the early Christians as continuing steadfastly “in fellowship” (v. 42), and as “having all things in common” (v. 44). It is interesting to note that the same root word is used for both of these concepts. The adjectival use of koinonos can be rendered “common or participating in”; the substantive use can be rendered “partner, associate.” This word can mean, therefore, “fellowship/partnership (with someone) through (common) participation (in something).”16 This “something” in which Christians participated was the shared proclamation of the one gospel. The expression of this fellowship was seen in such tangible ways as the selling of their possessions to help fellow Christians in need (Acts 2:45) and the collection that was taken for the Christians in Jerusalem (Gal. 2:10). The fellowship which they experienced was much deeper than that which comes from participating together in a social event. They had much in common because they were involved in the common task of sharing the good news of salvation and supporting one another in the struggles of life.
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This supportive fellowship is also seen in the “one another” (allelon) passages that are found in the Bible. We are called upon to love one another (1 Thes. 3:12), to confess our sins one to one another (James 5:16), to pray for one another (James 5:16), and are reminded that we are members of one another (Eph. 4:25). The small church provides a propitious environment in which this mutually edifying relationship can occur. This fellowship can enrich the lives of its members as well as minister to many in today’s world who are longing for a sense of community.
B. Effective Discipleship
There is a unique type of discipleship that is found in the small church. There is a sense in which this type of discipleship is not confined to a particular program that is employed to instruct a person after a profession of faith is made or as a part of a denominational emphasis, although these are often very helpful. Instead, this discipleship is an ongoing process that occurs in the Sunday School classes, Church Training sessions, Youth activities, and even the fellowship events of the church. Because the more mature Christians are personally acquainted with the needs of the younger ones, much of what is done in the small church contributes toward the spiritual development and the equipment for ministry of the younger Christians.
Luke states that the early Christians were “continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teachings and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (Acts 2:42). The discipleship of these young Christians was not simply instruction that took place in isolation. Instead, it was a type of learning which took place in community. It was not just the teaching but also the fellowship, the worship, and the prayer which contributed to their discipleship. True to the New Testament term (mathetes), their discipleship was based on a relationship of fidelity to Jesus Christ and to his teachings.
The apostle Paul also speaks about discipleship when he points out that some have been given gifts (i.e., apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, teachers) so that they can equip the saints for the work of service which results in the building up of the body of Christ (Eph. 4:11–12) as Joseph Stowell has noted.
Some of that preparation may be transitioning them from the ways of darkness to the ways of light. Some of it may be exposing them to the reality of the gifts that God has given them and giving them the training and opportunities to fulfill those gifts. Some of the mending may have to do with the brokenness or bitterness of past baggage that disables them and disenfranchises them for effective ministry.17
The small church is often equipped to provide this type of loving, caring, and communal discipleship that equips and involves young members in ministry.
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C. Serious Church Discipline
Small congregations are in a strong position to practice church discipline. Numerous passages in Scripture speak about church discipline. According to the Bible, church discipline should be used to:
(1) Correct a bad situation (2 Cor. 7:8, 9);
(2) restore the fallen (Gal. 6:1; Matt. 6:14–15);
(3) maintain a good testimony in the church (1 Tim. 3:7; 2 Tim. 1:11); and
(4) to admonish the other members so that they do not get careless (1 Cor. 5:6, 7).
In Matthew 18:15–18 Jesus gives specific instructions on the manner in which Christians need to deal with a church member who commits a sin which endangers the fraternal bond of the church.18 Such an offender is to be made aware of his or her sin by the offended party and given the opportunity to repent. If this person repents, then he or she should be forgiven. If the person who committed the sin refuses to acknowledge this, then the offended person and two or three witnesses should confront the offender. Failure to repent should result in the matter being presented to the church which would lead to the expulsion of this person from the fellowship of the church. The purpose is to appeal to the conscience of the offender in the hope that this person will acknowledge wrongdoing and repent in which case the offender is to be restored to the fellowship of the church.
The apostle Paul also gives instructions regarding church discipline. In Romans 16:17 he urges Christians to keep their eyes on those who cause dissension and hindrances contrary to the teaching which they have received and to turn away from them. In 1 Thessalonians 5:14 he urges Christians to “admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, and to be patient with all men.” Paul also urges Timothy to “rebuke publicly those who continue to sin so that the rest may also be fearful of sinning” (1 Tim. 5:10). In Revelation 2:2 the church at Ephesus is commended for not enduring evil men and putting to a test what is falsely called doctrine in many American congregations today.
Because the members of small churches know each other so well (many live in small towns or communities), when one member stumbles and fails to live up to the moral or spiritual standards of the Word of God, or begins to lean toward an inactive lifestyle, the members of a small church usually become aware of it and take remedial action before a long period of time has elapsed. It is difficult, therefore, for members in a small church simply to drift into anonymity or inactivity without some intervention taking place on the part of caring members. Whether this discipline is exercised in a formal or an informal manner varies from one congregation to another and perhaps from one incident to another. The fact of the matter is that because church members know each other so well, there is an accountability there which lends itself to prompt action.
Some church growth experts, such as John Savage, point out that there is a window of opportunity (generally four to six weeks) in which church members
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can be visited, encouraged, and brought back to the church.19 When more time elapses, church members who have become inactive get accustomed to a lifestyle that does not include church attendance. Once this occurs, it is much more difficult to get them to come back to church. There is a sense in which the small church is naturally equipped to deal with this while the potential for restoration is at its highest.
The sense of accountability in the church staff is also an area in which the small church seems to be especially equipped to function. Whatever the size of the church, there appears to be a trend toward less accountability pertaining to the life and ministry of pastors and church staffs. Lyle Schaller expresses this concern when he states:
It used to be assumed that a congregational board of elders, of deacons, or a denominational committee of officials would hold pastors accountable for their actions and teachings. Those systems are being eroded and are less and less effective. As deeply held convictions have been replaced by the belief that one person’s opinion should carry as much weight as anyone else’s opinion, pastors have become more reluctant to hold one another accountable.20
The more that pastors and staff persons are seen as “super-stars” by the members of their congregations, their colleagues, and the leaders of their denominations, the less they are likely to be held accountable. Due to the fact that the staffs of small churches are generally involved in a very direct manner in ministering to the families of the church, a mutual accountability often occurs which is beneficial to both the pastor and the congregation. The small church, therefore, is in a strong position to practice biblical discipline with regard to its staff as well as its members.
D. Participatory Governance
Small churches are in an excellent position to practice a very direct type of democracy in their church government. The small church generally provides everyone the opportunity to become involved in the decision-making process. While large churches find it necessary to work through committees and to have fewer administrative sessions (business meetings), in the small church every church member can have input in every decision (large or small) that the church makes. This direct type of democracy carries with it a sense of ownership that in turn can translate into commitment. Because the church members are involved in the deliberation process and ultimately influence the decision that is made, there is a sense of responsibility that they feel for the implementation of the plans that have been approved. Conversely, in the small church it is less likely that members will feel a sense of marginality based on the perception that other members have a greater opportunity to participate in the ministries and government of the church. The small church may take longer in making
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decisions because a greater consensus may be needed, but when the final decision is made, there is less of a need to motivate the members. Their participation in the entire process has built an inward motivation that is difficult to duplicate otherwise.
E. Personal Pastoral Care
The pastoral care that members get in the small church is also one of the attractive features of this size congregation. The pastors of large churches wisely realize that it is impossible for them to minister personally to the needs of every church member. In order to address this need, the pastors of many large churches view themselves as “ranchers” instead of “shepherds.”21 In other words, they see to it that others minister to the needs of their members because they themselves cannot do it. Most of the members of large churches realize that this is a sacrifice which they need to make in order for their church to continue to grow. They reconcile themselves to the idea that other, well-trained, and dedicated staff persons or fellow members will minister to them in time of need because in many instances the senior pastor will not be able to do it.
The members of the small churches have the blessing of experiencing an in-depth fellowship with their pastor. They can expect to have the pastor visit them not only in times of need, such as when they are in the hospital or when they have a death in the family or some other crisis, but also in times of celebration such as weddings, birthdays, graduations, and even informal gatherings, such as family meals and picnics. They have the satisfaction of having their pastor with them during the most meaningful times of their lives.
The small church lends itself very well for the implementation of the shepherd concept that is found in Scripture. John 10:11–18 describes Jesus’ shepherding activity with the following characteristics: “As the good shepherd he is prepared to sacrifice his own life for the sake of the flock (vv. 11, 15, 17, 18); as the owner (v. 12) he feels particularly responsible for the sheep, and—again as the good shepherd who guards their soul he gathers the faithful to himself, protects them in their tribulations, and leads them to the Father.”22 The good shepherd knows his sheep, sees to it that they get the rest and the nourishment they need, protects them from danger, and is willing to go after the sheep that has gone astray. The sheep in turn know the shepherd, recognize his voice, and follow him.
Applying this concept to Christian ministry, Paul explains that some have been appointed shepherds (poimen) and are entrusted with the task of caring for the congregation (Eph. 4:11). He admonishes church leaders: “Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which he purchased with his own blood” (Acts 20:28). In like manner Peter exhorts the elders: “Shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under for sordid gain, but with eagerness” (1 Peter 5:2). As Arthur Tennis has observed, “In the small church, the pastor can have meaningful, ongoing, personal relationships with every member, knowing each other’s strengths and weaknesses.”23 An additional
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strength is that the pastor can have a personal influence on all of the members, especially at times when they face difficult experiences or decisions. Tennis wrote that “The development of relationships is as important as, or more important than, the development of programs, which is a supplement to and supporter of relationships.”24 The pastor of a small church has the opportunity to serve as a shepherd to his congregation. The members can enjoy the blessing of this pastoral ministry.
F. Effective Leadership Development
Small churches have some qualities that encourage leadership development. Few churches have a higher leadership-to-member ratio than the small church. Due to the fact that most small churches do not have a large paid professional staff, church members are needed to carry out the ministries of the church. Because the need is so obvious and so immediate, church members feel the responsibility of serving in positions of leadership. As they serve, they themselves increase their knowledge and leadership skills. At times larger churches hire staff persons to do what church members were previously doing. This ultimately limits the activities of a church to that which it can pay for through the hiring of staff persons and deprives church members of the opportunity to develop their gifts as they serve.
An additional factor that encourages leadership development in the small church is its informality. Because small churches do not have large paid professional staffs, they are appreciative of the leadership that they do have and encourage then even though some of these may not have the high level of training in that area of ministry. This informality encourages church members to serve in positions of leadership, knowing that everyone else is in the same boat. An incentive for service is provided by the appreciation that is shown for the commitment and effort of the leaders.
G. Strong Missionary Support
Strong missionary support and involvement is often a distinguishing characteristic of the small church. A significant number of large churches, due to the vast number of programs which they promote, have felt it necessary to consolidate the Missionary Weeks of Prayer and the Missionary Offerings for Foreign Missions, Home Missions, and State Missions into a single emphasis at a given time of the year. While a case can be made for consolidating monetary requests, at times much is lost if the members to not take the time to study about the missionary efforts of their denomination and if they do not set aside sufficient time to pray for the missionaries. In contrast with this, the vast majority of the small churches have fewer programs to promote and are often able to give attention to each of these missionary emphases. This generally contributes toward a membership which is more informed and which participates in a more direct way in missionary studies, prayer, and support than
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some of their counterparts in the large churches. Generally speaking, there is a greater involvement in and higher commitment to missions on the part of the members of small churches.
Small churches therefore quite often naturally have some characteristics that contribute to the growth and development of their members. Among these are rich fellowship, effective discipleship, serious church discipline, participatory governance, personal pastoral care, effective leadership development, and strong missionary support.
Characteristics That Keep Churches Small
If the characteristics of the small church described above contribute toward the quality of the discipleship of its members, there is a sense in which some of these same qualities limit the growth of congregations that otherwise would have excellent growth potential. The fact that some churches remain small should not necessarily be seen as the ideal goal for all churches. In his book entitled, The Bonsai Theory of Church Growth, Ken Hemphill describes churches that are kept “artificially small” by such practices as “keeping the pot small, pruning the roots, and pinching off new growth.”25 Small churches that are surrounded by explosive demographic growth should perhaps ask themselves if they are fulfilling God’s purpose in their community. On the other hand, there are churches that are small because the growth potential in their communities is limited or due to a small population and the existence of numerous other congregations in the area. There are churches, however, which are small by design. That is to say, they choose to remain small, yet in an effort to reach their entire community, they sponsor other congregations. The small church, however, should not be idealized simply because of its size. If its has some characteristics that inhibit its growth, it should examine these prayerfully and honestly, for these same characteristics would also affect the quality of its discipleship.
A. An Exclusive Family
The feeling of family in a church may keep others out. The fact that small churches are like one big family has its positive points as we stated above. There is a quality of fellowship which is very special and satisfying. The down side of this type of fellowship is that it can become exclusive. In other words, members can feel so strongly connected with this family that they resist, consciously or unconsciously, efforts by outsiders to become a part of the fellowship of the church. What Steve Sjogren says about small groups certainly applies to some small churches: “Most groups, if left to themselves, will grow cozy and closed. Newcomers are often tolerated rather than heartily welcomed and find it difficult to break in.”26 Church Growth experts, such as Lyle Schaller, point out that in every church there is the membership circle and the fellowship circle.27 People can be a part of the membership circle and not a part of the fellowship circle.
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When this occurs, new people will generally be marginal members or they will not remain in that church very long. It usually takes longer for people to become a part of the fellowship circle of a small church (some time years) or this may never occur. This, then, becomes a barrier for the growth of the church. Some small churches may be surrounded by a community which has excellent growth potential, but will remain small simply because they are not receptive to new people.
B. Entrenched Leadership Patterns
The leadership pattern of a small church can have negative implications for its growth potential. While it may appear as though a small church employs a very pure form of democracy in its decision-making processes, the control of this process may be in the hands of such few people (either formally elected or natural leaders) that new members may never get the opportunity to be in leadership positions. This can lead to the type of inflexibility that stifles creativity and growth. The challenge, therefore, remains one of broadening the leadership base while continuing to maintain a structure which encourages participation from every member.
C. Inadequate Structure and Planning
While informality in the services and activities of a small church often appeal to certain segments of the population, if taken to the extreme, these can stifle its growth. As a church grows, it finds itself with the necessity of developing a more elaborate structure and of planning its activities with more precision. Some of the newer target groups for the small church (e.g., younger adults) who “place a high value on intimacy, friendliness, kinship ties, local traditions, spontaneity and informality”28 are also the types of persons who “seek a store or a church that specializes in a high-quality, but narrowly-defined niche.”29 The challenge for the small church of the future, therefore, is that of retaining its informality and spontaneity while making a greater effort to maintain a high quality program.
D. Congregational Expectations
The expectations of the members with regard to the pastoral ministry which they receive can also inhibit the growth of a small church. While it is a blessing to be able to receive personal attention from the pastor both for the major crises in their lives and the joyful occasions when small groups and families get together, if church members expect the pastor to be present in each of these times, the bulk of the ministry of the pastor will need to be confined to maintenance and nurture. If that is the case, the pastor will not have the time nor the energy to plan and lead the type of outreach activities which contribute to the evangelistic outreach of the church.
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As the small church moves toward the twenty-first century, it can be assured that it has much to offer in a society that is desperately searching for meaningful relationships and values that are lasting and trustworthy. Through its rich fellowship, effective discipleship, serious church discipline, participatory governance, personal pastoral care, effective leadership development, and strong missionary support, the small church can truly be an oasis in a desert of anonymity, superficiality, dishonesty, and purposelessness. The small congregation, however, must be very vigilant lest some of its very attractive qualities become barriers for those who are not long-term members of its wonderful church family.
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