Thursday, July 09, 2009

Often Small in Their Own Eyes

Then I cried out, "Sovereign Lord, I beg you, stop! How can Jacob survive? He is so small!" (Amos 7:5). The prophet Amos was afraid for his people. They were such a tiny nation. In a similar way, sometimes members of a small congregation fear for the church they know and love so well.

In this post, I want to focus on the spiritual and psychological pitfalls of being a small church. But before we go any further, it might be best to step back and establish a few things.

By small church, I mean a congregation with 50 or fewer members. A typical plateau for churches of this size is about 30-35. If and when churches grow larger than that, they often push forward to the next plateau of 70-85. At that point, the congregation becomes a different animal compared to the truly small church it used to be.

How many small churches are there? A lot. Of all the Protestant congregations in the U.S., roughly one quarter of them fall into the 30-35 category. Compare: only about 1% of Protestant congregations in the U.S. have 700 or more members. But 25% of them have 50 or fewer members. So when we talk about the small church, we're talking about many congregations.

Not only that, we're also talking about the size of many churches of the New Testament era. All the evidence suggests that most Christian communities of the first century weren't large at all. I think it's safe to say that most of them would fit our definition of a small church.

Still, today's churches of this size often have a low self-image. When you visit a small church, it's not unusual for one of the members to apologize for the congregation. This is especially true when they ask you where you're from and you answer with the name of a big city or a larger town nearby.

Years ago when I took a "Church Growth" class with Evertt Huffard, he included a unit on small churches. Here are some of the reasons he gave for why these congregations often seem small (read: unimportant) in their own eyes:
  • They don't have a preacher, or can't keep one for very long.
  • There's a nagging sense that the congregation is flopping along--that they just don't do things right.
  • A small budget, shortage of money.
  • Families with children often leave them for a larger, full-service church.
  • American culture associates "bigger" with "better."
  • Typically, the worship isn't conducted by polished leaders. Only a few people are there to sing. It usually isn't an exciting or uplifting experience.
  • The facilities are second-rate.
Experiences in the small church often reinforce negative feelings within the congregation. For example, when a family with children leaves a small church for a larger one, they're told, "We really hate to see you go, but we understand."

In a small church that was once much larger, the baptistery sometimes presents a depressing dilemma. It hasn't been used in years. And it takes money and effort to fill it up and keep it clean and warm. But it seems unspiritual or faithless to leave it empty. What to do? I once heard about a visiting preacher who was looking around the church building. When he saw the green algae along the edge of the baptistery, he remarked, "Looks like this is the only growth you've experienced in a while." Clever. But hardly encouraging.

Sometimes an energetic, young preacher will come to a small church. It's his "first pulpit." Most everyone in the congregation assumes that it's just a matter of time before the preacher becomes bored, or a larger church discovers him and offers something closer to a middle-income salary.

I don't mean to suggest that there aren't any healthy and happy small churches. I know there are, and hope their number grows. I also know that there are huge differences among small churches. No two are alike. Some were planted within the last two or three years and have high hopes for future growth. Others have been around for decades. Many of these small churches were once much larger than they are today. That's an entirely different atmosphere compared to the young small church.

What I've related here is just some of what the I've learned from others and seen through the years. In the next post, I want to talk about some of the real positives of the small church. But before we get to that let me ask, What are some of your observations? Have you ever known or been a part of a slightly-depressed small church? What were some of the experiences that led to those feelings?


Keith Brenton said...

There is absolutely nothing wrong with a small church meeting in a small building and maintaining it as best they can, but ....

... I have to wonder how many churches might begin to grow significantly if they met in more public places (banquet room at the Steak-O-Rama; community center; peoples' homes!) and sold the building and distributed the proceeds to the poor.

What if they didn't try to hire a preacher, but spent the same money training elders and deacons to take up the mantle of proclaiming Christ in their community?

Suppose they got together to serve on Sunday nights, having already worshiped in the morning, to paint widows' houses or mow older folks' lawns or look after kids in the neighborhood so young parents could have a date night?

I know this is kind of crazy talk to folks who are used to the way it has always been, but it's worth thinking about!

Odgie said...

This is not a simple question as there are scores of practical and spiritual reasons that a church might remain small. Some of the small churches I have been involved with were loving, evangelistic churches in an area filled with people who were simply unreceptive to the message. Others can only blame themselves for enforcing tradition as doctrine and taking their smallness as a badge of honor: "We aren't growing because we stand for Truth and others can't handle that".

As you touched on, Frank, the individual and collective psychology of the congregation is key. If they see themselves as small because of some internal failing, then they will never grow in number or in faith.

Frank Bellizzi said...

Keith, these are some great ideas and suggestions, definitely worth thinking about.

Odgie, you've touched on something that been on my mind the last few days: there are so many different SORTS of small churches, so many different facets of their size.

preacherman said...

I was a minister at a small church for 5 years.
It was a loving church.
It was very difficult for us though.
The salary wasn't much.
We had to try to find churches that would help support us.
Most churches don't see small churches a missionary support. They rather see their money go overseas than support a minister in the America.
We were on food stamps and WIC.
No issurance.
Medicaide for the boys.
No other children in the church but mine.
It was tough but I loved preaching and looked forward to sunday and wed.
The church over those five years grew closer than they ever had and although we didn't grow in number we grew in the will and grace of God.
I agree with agree with Keith that there is nothing wrong with a small church.
When I was sick and in the hospital for over 2 months they didn't fire me like other larger churches would. They loved me and took care of me. Allowing me to preach from my wheel chair. Watching me as I walked down in my walker for the first time and preached standing proclaiming the word.
I am forever grateful.

Thank you Frank for this post and being so positive as far as small churches are concerned. We as believers need to do all we can to help them in any way we can. THEY ARE APART OF THE BODY OF CHRIST TOO.

Brian said...

so many of the perceptions that people have are not the least be spiritual. sad.

very good thought about the majority of 1st century churches. of course, they didn't keep attendance records like we do, so we will never know...but we are all about the numbers, quanifiables

looking forward to more. although I will be at camp manatawny next week, I will think of you when I jump in the pool