My Take: The World of the Small Church
by Raj Attiken, September 17, 2015: Most Christian churches are small. More Christians, however, worship in large churches. According to a recent National Congregational Study done by Duke University, 43% of churches in the United States have fewer than fifty adults and children attending, and 67% have 100 or less.[i] These are generally classified as small churches. In those areas of Adventism that I am most familiar with, a small church might be one with fewer than 30 or 40 adults and children in attendance, some as few as 20 or 25.
The following are my perspectives on small churches.
- The smallness of small churches is not a sign of failure. Size is not a useful metric for congregational “success.” The typical “bodies, bucks, and buildings” criteria used to assess success in the church are not helpful with small congregations.
- Small churches are not underdeveloped or malformed versions of big churches. Although many small churches try to imitate big churches in how they worship and conduct their life, they are a different “species,” with different and distinct congregational dynamics than a large church. Happy is the small church that embraces this reality!
- Small churches are usually not on their way to becoming large churches. Most small churches remain small. This is not a reflection on their faithfulness, commitments, loyalties, or spirituality.
- Some small churches were once large.
- Small churches are resilient: they have “nine lives” (see my Opinion piece of August 15 in AT).
- Small churches, like all churches, are not immortal. They die. By some estimates, between 4,000 and 5,000 churches close their doors permanently each year in the United States. Like individuals, churches have life cycles: birth, infancy, adolescence, prime, maturity, aristocracy, bureaucracy, and death. Each stage has its distinct features and challenges. The sequence is not inevitable – it can be intercepted.
- Small churches have some things that large churches don’t. Among them is the possibility of relational intimacy, caring, and support.
- Small churches don’t have some things that large churches have. They don’t have the money that large churches have. They don’t have the multiplicity of skills and abilities that are present in the memberships of large churches. They don’t have what it takes to offer numerous services, ministries, and programs.
- Most seminary graduates will pastor a small church some time in their career. This is not due to a negative assessment of their skills, abilities, or dedication. It is just the way it is.
- Most one-size-fits-all denominational programs are irrelevant to the small church. These programs are designed by denominational staff who are often far removed from the realities of the small church.
- Small churches are resistant to change. This is particularly so in churches that have a long history. They have become comfortable and settled with how things are done, and look at change with a degree of suspicion.
- Small churches can change. If the one or two major influencers in the church can be convinced of the value of the change, the rest are likely to embrace it.
- Small churches have particular expectations of their pastors. They care less about how good a pastor is in planning programs or delivering deep sermons, and more about how much the pastor cares about people, visits them in their homes, and is available to them when they are in crisis.
- For many small churches, the church building is a liability. Buildings consume a large percentage of the church’s financial and human resources in maintenance and upkeep. Additionally, for many churches, the seating capacity of the building is multiple times that of its weekly attendance. This not only affects the relational dynamics when the congregation meets, it also conveys a negative impression to any guest who might show up. The visual impact of walking into an almost empty church building is generally unfavorable.
- Small congregations, especially older, declining ones, have strong attachment to their buildings. The building represents to them the last visible, tangible symbol of the enduring nature of their hopes. Giving up the building for a more conducive and functional setting is a difficult choice.
- Like all other churches, each small church has a unique personality and “soul.” Its personality is shaped by its story. This is another reason why the one-size-fits-all denominational programs have little appeal to small churches.
- Small churches can be tightly knit, closed communities that seal off admittance to anyone new. Such churches have subtle ways of sending messages to newcomers that they don’t belong in the family.
- In some small churches, family feuds become church feuds. An understanding of family systems and family dynamics is helpful if one attempts to facilitate conflict resolution.
- Small churches take vicarious comfort and pride in big denominational events and programs held in far away places. They claim the success of these programs as their success. These “successes” add legitimacy to their existence.
- Small churches generally do not have a pastor of their own; typically they are in a district with other churches that share the services of a pastor. Tithe generated in a small church is usually inadequate to support a pastor.
- Small churches rely heavily on the leadership and involvement of many or most of their active members. They have to, in order to keep operating.
- Small churches claim legitimacy for their existence in the assurance that where two or three are gathered together in the name of Jesus, He is present.
- Some small churches live with a diminished sense of self-worth. Some suffer an inferiority complex, partly due to their size, limitation of resources, and lack of recognition by the larger denomination.
- Some small churches feel disenfranchised from the larger denomination and its activities.
- In their missionary efforts, small churches are best at being incarnational rather than attractional. Members can incarnate the gospel among their families, neighborhoods, and communities more effectively than they can attract people to their church through programs and events.
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. There are many of them. And they matter. They matter to God. They matter to those who belong to them. Sometimes they matter to their communities. Small churches are here to stay. Though each one is small, together they have the potential for spiritual impact. They deserve attention. They deserve care. They deserve to be valued. That’s my take!