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.
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?