The last post identified some of the pitfalls of small churches. Now I want to consider some of the positives. The following are my own observations mixed in with ideas that I've borrowed from others. Here are three real strengths and values:
1. Small churches experience fellowship naturally.
Ever known a small church that had a small-groups ministry? Of course not. In the small church, the congregation is the small group. Much-larger churches must create and manage what small churches already have, simply because they are small churches. I'm an advocate of the big church, too. But I wonder how much time and money big churches spend in order to provide a time and setting for relationships outside their big worship assemblies? Life Groups, Care Groups, Brother's Keeper, etc. The small church has never needed these terms, nor the expense and structure that go with them.
Along this line, a recent comment by Dusty Chris says it all: I think the small church is alive and well and "gets church" better than its larger counter part "in the big city." [People in small churches] help each other, they love each other, they eat together often, they depend on each other like I have not seen in larger churches. The benefit is in its smallness...everyone has to be available for ministry and leadership. Smallness is not bad. It means there are more opportunities for intimacy and closeness...and that beats the pants off the larger churches. I feel like Norm in Cheers when I walk into the Paonia Church of Christ. Everyone knows my name.
2. Small churches serve as vital outposts for the kingdom of Christ.
Some areas are sparsely populated. Many communities in the U.S. are small. They will never have a big church because there just aren't many people there.
In hundreds of rural counties across the U.S., the population has been in a nosedive since the middle of the last century. For example, here in the Texas panhandle there are only two counties that aren't in population decline, the two that are associated with Amarillo.
Years ago, when I served as a preacher in a small town in Arkansas, I decided to look up the population statistics for the county. The results surprised me. The high-water mark had been the 1950 census, when there were 28,000 people in the county. But each decade since then, the numbers had gone down. The most recent census was 1990, when the county population stood at around 18,000. The membership numbers at church were flat for years, and we just didn't have many new visitors. No wonder. Compared to 40 years before, our population had shrunk by 36%.
Naturally, in communities in numerical decline, a church will almost always dwindled in number. Peter Wagner once referred to this as a church disease which he named population abandonmentosis. This disease has shriveled many churches that were once much larger. Today, those congregations would be classified as "small."
I have to say that there's a soft spot in my heart for these churches. So often, they are tempted to look down on themselves. They're like the guy who's doing what he should, but who still questions and doubts himself; like the older person who no longer thinks he is valuable. These churches need someone to remind them of who they are, and to tell them that by simply being and doing what they do is precious to God and a benefit to community.
Churches in small towns and in the countryside continue to moor the faith of their members as they hold up the banner of the cross. That's no small thing in the eyes of the Lord.
3. Small churches produce kingdom leadership.
I don’t have any statistics for this, but I’m virtually certain of it: I think small churches produce a disproportionately large number of Christian leaders. Many of today's great preachers, teachers, worship leaders, missionaries, etc. grew up in a small church. If you attend a congregation with 225 or more in attendance, the odds are your preacher grew up in congregation smaller than that. Ask him.
What percentage of young people from large churches are growing up to serve as Christian leaders? Again, it's my guess, but I think that number is disproportionately small. Why? Mainly because larger congregations, led and attended by professionals, simply won’t put up with amateur leadership. Not for long anyway. But small churches depend on mostly amateur leadership. If you want to learn how to teach or preach or direct the singing, the small church is where you can get free (and sometimes obligatory) training.
And, there’s a flip side to that coin. Most would-be preachers or worship leaders might never stand up in front of hundreds of people and give it a try. But they would in front of, say, thirty people. And that's a small church.
I don't mean to suggest that Christian leadership is all about being in front of the congregation. We know that it means being connected to people, nurturing others, and teaching them by example to be more like Christ. Again, the small congregation is the place where that opportunity and challenge very naturally presents itself. A person or family can live almost anonymously in a large church for years. I know. I've seen it. But it's impossible to be anonymous in a small church.
So let me ask you: Does any of this sound familiar? What are some of the other positives--strengths and values--of small churches? What kinds of experiences have you had?
Next time, I want to offer some suggestions for encouraging and working with the small church.