Today, small churches may tend to feel out of touch and out of place, yet there are real opportunities for ministry even with larger churches with much more impressive facilities and programs within easy driving distance.
Here are the advantages of the small church over the large church in this day and age:
- Able to be personal in an impersonal world: In urban and suburban areas where people may feel swallowed up by the masses of humanity around them, the small church has an advantage, where it can be a place ‘where everybody knows your name.’ Moreover, the small church is able to deal with people as individuals, in a way where they will not be treated as interchangeable parts or ministered to in an assembly line fashion.
- Able to deal with people on a long term basis: This is especially true in smaller and more rural communities. In urban and suburban areas, people tend to be more mobile, to stay for several months to several years and then relocate. Rural churches and churches in smaller communities may see the same individuals over the course of some years. They can be there for people at seasons of life where they may be more open to the gospel and in more need of ministry than at other times. (The danger, though, is that someone can be stereotyped in terms of his or her needs and problems at another time, and present openness and teachability may be ignored because of past difficulties.)
- Able to give people chances to learn and develop their abilities and spiritual gifts: There can be a tendency toward ‘professionalism’ in larger churches, especially in terms of the upfront, visible ministries such as musical ministries. The piano player may be a professional piano teacher or college or university instructor, for instance. There can be an expected polish to the preaching ministry, for a pastor to be appropriate to the larger church. The smaller church can allow people who have definite abilities and spiritual gifts to learn, develop them and shine for the glory of God.
There are also some major difficulties that smaller churches often face:
- Inadequately prepared leaders and teachers: Some may have come into positions of leadership with little more than a lot of nerve and a personal agenda.
- Reliance on the same people in the same ministries for years: The symptoms of someone in the same place for too long are personal weariness, stagnation, and eventually repeated absences in the place of ministry. This kind of neglect leads to an eventual hole which no one will fill because of a sense that that person ‘owned’ that place of ministry.
- Modest facilities: Small churches often have modest facilities and modest budgets for maintenance and upkeep of those facilities to boot. It can be difficult even to get a fresh coat of paint or a different color of paint approved.
- Silver bullet syndrome: A sense of guilt and shame at remaining small tends to a looking for programs and material as the path out of being small. Often someone will suggest that a church try to implement a program similar to what another church down the road is implementing, or a church far in the past had some success with.
- Pastoral instability: The pastors of smaller churches tend to have less experience and shorter stays than in other places of ministry. Pastoral discouragement is common. Distraction from the normal responsibilities of ministry is common as well. Sometimes pastors may try to implement some programs as resume building activities to another place of ministry. There may be a temptation to doctrinal instability or simply spiritual weirdness – either of which can come through isolation from healthy relationships with doctrinally and spiritually sound believers.
Here are some suggestions:
- Determine to be the most loving church that you can be.
I can remember what an acquaintance told me some years ago about the Assembly of God church that he attended: “I couldn’t tell you specifically all that they believe but I know that they love me to death.”
Loving fellow believers is not a slick program, but it is Jesus’s command (John 13:34-35, Revelation 2:1-10). He will not have a church with his name continue without love for fellow believers.
- Pray for God’s guidance for the direction of the church.
Where the church leadership does not have a unified, scriptural vision for the direction of the church which they have found by spending a lot of time on their knees together, the direction of the church tends to be trying one thing after another, and reams of bad advice from the self appointed committees of the self important.
- Determine to follow godly pastoral leadership.
Small churches tend to be notorious for frustrating pastors. Do not issue a call to a pastor whose leadership that you have no intention of following. Do not issue a call to someone whose spiritual or emotional maturity and stability is in doubt or whom you think that unscrupulous people in the church can or will try to control. Rather, make it a common goal to call and follow godly pastors even with their imperfections.
- Welcome and follow up on church visitors.
Visitors will usually be of three types: the curious, the friends or relatives of members and regular attenders, and those seeking a new church for the right or the wrong reasons. Make contact with them. Then see whether the curious will give a hearing to the gospel, or whether the friends and relatives or members and regular attenders have been given an opportunity to hear the gospel. See whether those seeking a new church for the wrong reasons need ministry as much as those seeking a new church for the right reasons – but it won’t be the same kind of ministry.
- Make the most of your current facilities.
Look to make the most of the current facilities. Evaluate the appearance of the church facilities and see if there is anything which needs to be spruced up, repaired or replaced. Building trustees who show satisfaction with church facilities which are starting to run down need to be encouraged or replaced.
Evaluate the parking and classroom space. If there is parking available at nearby shopping centers, office centers, or places of business, make an arrangement to use them on Sunday mornings. Often a charitable voucher from the church can help the owner of the facilities with a tax exemption that will make the deal palatable to the owner. If there are restaurants with meeting rooms nearby, a breakfast class for adults (young adults and singles) can usually meet there.
Plan to move to two services if there is an increase in attendance. Make the plans before the necessity arises, and revise them annually until they are needed. In the meantime, let the people get the dream for two services, and what it can mean for them.
- Keep the Sunday School and Christian education ministry healthy and growing.
Young families with children find a church with no Sunday School or Christian education ministry repelling. Often, if the pastor’s family has young children, the pastor’s wife may start a Sunday School just for their own children, and it then takes off.
One of the threshold indicators that a small church is in line for closing and a merciful death is the absence of a viable Sunday School and Christian education ministry. It’s sad but true that many churches allow these ministries to deteriorate steadily over a period of years, until the primary Christian education ministry is the pastor’s preaching and teaching. Even more sadly, this can happen where there are people qualified to take up these ministries but do not.
- Keep the music ministries and worship services healthy and growing.
Seek to ‘platoon’ responsibilities of up front ministry; let people be a part of the worship team and music ministries for one or two Sundays a month, for example.
Finding and keeping an adequate supply of instrumentalists, particularly piano players, can be a problem. Often a church has one piano player who takes up the ministry for years or even decades, and there is no accompaniment when this person is sick or on vacation. Rather the church should look at this kind of ministry not as one person but rather in terms of primaries and backups. If there are needs for people to come forward and take up this kind of ministry, make it a matter of prayer first, and then a matter of godly recruitment.
Small churches often neglect the opportunity for people to share their personal testimonies in the church service. This gives the ability for others to get to know each other in terms of their spiritual background and history, and serves as a reminder that the gospel works. This can provide an injection of life into services which become routine and predictable.
- Deal strongly, lovingly and ethically with church troublemakers and sexual scandals.
Small churches are often fearful of Biblical church discipline, because of fear that they might drive away key church supporters. Yet it’s often found that small churches remain small because it’s in someone’s perceived interest and it fits someone’s hidden agenda to keep it small. This person aims to keep a small church under control, to try to make it fit their expectations such as some idealized church in the past with which they are comfortable and familiar, and to try to make it fit their hidden agendas.
Another threshold indicator that a small church is due for a merciful death is a church that ends up just being a small, ingrown group who are the long term troublemakers and their cohorts. They have used every trick to make sure things go their own way so that eventually everyone else has been driven away. When this happens, it indicates that there is no core group of people stable and loving enough to rebuild the church upon. Sadly, if the church closes, the members of this group are often not welcome at other churches in the community because of their past reputation, because the other churches in the area have taken in the people that they have traumatized.
Sexual scandals can often cause small churches to stagnate and die. One church where I was pastor had had two men who had been involved in the Sunday School ministry imprisoned for sexual crimes several years before I arrived. This had been covered up during my candidating interview, even though I persistently asked whether any such thing had happened. It’s hard to say what could have been done, but denial of the facts was not one of them.
- Follow up on people who leave the church with the goal of understanding and restoration.
It’s usually best to have two elders or an elder and his wife who can take on the ministry of following up on people who leave the church. Often, before people leave a church, there is usually someone with whom there is visible and persistent friction and sometimes public squabbles for a period of time. DO NOT ENTRUST THE RESPONSIBILITY OF FOLLOW UP TO THIS PERSON OR SOMEONE CLOSE TO THIS PERSON! DO NOT GIVE THIS RESPONSIBILITY TO ANYONE WHO HAS ANY HISTORY OF FRICTION WITH THE PERSON WHO HAS LEFT! You will practically never get anything but self serving excuses and outright lies as to the reason as to why the person left from the person who may well be harassing them and instigating others against them behind their backs.
Understanding what has happened must come first. The elders or the elder and his wife need to be aware of what it takes to rebuild the bridges toward fellow believers who may well be being harassed out of the church. They need to listen first and foremost, and not to try to offer advice, solutions or attempt restoration until the fellow believer has been given a full, fair and loving hearing. Moreover, this needs to be done in a personal visit, and not with a phone call. In addition, they need to be prepared for the possibility that the person who has left has become entangled in some kind of sin. In this case, they need to be prepared to work toward spiritual restoration of a fellow believer with love and patience.
- Develop a loving and confident way to share the gospel in the community.
The things to watch for are that evangelism has adequate materials in terms of tracts and church brochures, and adequate training courses. In addition, the small church can foster more long term relationships than many larger churches and provide ministry to people during seasons of openness in their lives.
Continued failures in this area also indicate that it may be time for a a merciful death for a small church. It’s also a tragedy that frequently occurs that a scripturally based, loving evangelistic ministry cannot take hold in some small churches because of persistent internal opposition and subtle sabotage.
The consistent problem for many smaller churches is fruitless evangelism; this is a case where there is evangelistic activity but no new believers, or believers that come to Christ end up going to other churches. This is a sign that the evangelistic ministry is either sharing a corrupted gospel or God is refusing to honor the lives of the people who are sharing the gospel. People who claim to be sharing the gospel with little fruit may simply be dropping a few gospel phrases or a tract on someone and moving on to someone else. Or, the person may simply not be filled with the Spirit and demonstrating genuine love for the person to whom he or she is witnessing. Or the problem may simply be that the church has so ingrown and that the presence of new believers does not excite them and inspire them to love and disciple the new believers.
- Make the church a healthy place for new believers to come.
Unfortunately, often it is necessary to merciful death to small churches which have seen new believers come to Christ through their ministries and keep on going on to other churches. This is an indicator that there is something repellent about that church to a new believer, since it’s natural for most new believers to want to fellowship with the church that actually shared the gospel with them. It often indicates that most of the people in the congregation not excited about nor loving toward new believers. There may in fact be entrenched unbelief among some in the church, who see the new believers as threats to their entrenched unbelief (Nazareth syndrome). These people may in fact have rejected the gospel in their own lives but stick with the church and stay with the church out of tradition and inertia and not out of any concern for the glory of God and an ongoing, abiding relationship with Jesus Christ.
- Make sure that the pastor and his family have adequate spiritual and financial support.
Churches often flog pastors with with unrealistic expectations and undue attention (fishbowl syndrome). Sometimes pastors must deal with conceited, belittling and presumptuous attempts at controlling them and micromanaging them. Rather, allow the pastor to have friends outside the church fellowship, and provide the pastor with adequate financial support, support with the problems of life and time with his own family.
There are also some things to avoid.
- Avoid too much reliance on videos and media for the teaching ministries of the church.
I fear, in this day, that with the availability of DVDs and videos with preaching and teaching too much reliance is placed on these video ministries in small and larger churches as well. On the one hand, unless these videos are carefully screened, they can be a source of false and unbalanced teaching. But more, the overuse of videos can foster an undue air of ‘professionalism’ as necessary to effective preaching and teaching, and carry implications of inadequacy of, unfair comparisons with, and belittling of the ministry of the existing pastors and teachers in the church. Rather, pray and look for those with the gift of teaching and those spiritually and doctrinally sound to take up regular teaching ministries. Use videos and other media as supplements, but not as a major part of the teaching ministry of the the church. God may in fact have someone waiting on the sidelines who is his choice for this kind of ministry.
- Avoid quickly giving leadership responsibilities to recent transfers, especially those from other denominations.
Ambitious people and itinerant church troublemakers may show up at small churches from time to time. Others in those churches may ‘fast track’ them unwittingly because of some demonstration of their abilities or previous ministries in other churches and an eagerness by the small church to ‘fill a slot’ with a person apparently willing and able. Tragically, they may find these recent transfers are simply transferred problem people. People from another denomination may seek to make the church like the one they just left, despite having made a membership pledge to the doctrines of a new denomination.
On the one hand, many times people who visit and become involved in a church are not potential troublemakers. The truth is that many times believers are either driven out of other churches by continued and persistent harassment by other believers or even church leaders, or they are frozen out by continued and persistent unloving treatment. These people may become good leaders later on after a period where they are allowed to serve and show their true character. They should not continue to be treated like a potential troublemaker but rather treated like a brother or sister in Christ.
- Avoid trying to sign up first time or occasional visitors to ministry responsibilities.
I’ve visited churches with friends, and the pastor has immediately tried to sign me up for something, even through I was a regular attender elsewhere. This can turn off the first time visitor. Rather, give them a chance to become a part of the fellowship and show their spiritual life and true character.
- Avoid self pity for being small.
New Testament churches were not large churches with state of the art facilities. For instance, the church in Colossae, the recipient of the letter to the Colossians, met in the house of Philemon. This suggests that the Colossian church was probably about thirty to forty or so – definitely not anything like a modern megachurch.