When I was a kid, the two churches I was most familiar with in my hometown were the two churches I ever remember attending growing up, starting out at the First United Methodist Church for the first part of my childhood and then later, as I got older, the First Baptist Church.
While neither were "mega-churches" as I understand the term, both would certainly have fallen on the "larger" end of the scale with memberships in the several hundreds and multiple worship services on a Sunday Morning. Both had large choirs, big youth programs, busy men's and women's ministries. They had active prison-outreaches, campground and benevolence ministries, out-of-country missions trips, and so forth. A lot of good stuff happening! Such was the kind of church life I grew up with and, for many years, all I really ever knew.
Later, I felt a call to ministry myself and ended up going to Bible College to learn to become a pastor. It was there I ever seriously paid attention to the existence of any other kind of church when, as a part of our pastoral training, the Bible Department sent us young aspiring ministry majors on "Pulpit Supply appointments, " not to the kind of large churches I was familiar with, but to small country churches, some out in the middle of nowhere, at times in the middle of a corn or soybean field.
The small churches I'm talking about were your iconic little country church where the building is the sanctuary. In some of these churches, there was no Fellowship Hall or Sunday School wing. Some didn't even have a front foyer. It was just a little sanctuary with two little rows of pews - a room you could literally walk from one side to the other in about 10 or 12 steps. Again, the scene was so foreign to me, and it’s definitely not what I envisioned when I envisioned a future in pastoral ministry. To be honest, some those early Pulpit Supply appointments were down right depressing to me.
I can remember preaching at one church, again out the middle of nowhere, where there were 4 people in attendance—that's right, just 4 people! To make things worse, during the course of my preaching, I noticed one of the old men fell asleep on me, and another decided to leave midway through my sermon. So that left me with an audience of two! I confess, that experience was so discouraging to me, and my initial reaction to it was, “Well, I understand the value for young preachers to preach at small churches like this to get their feet wet, but I certainly wouldn’t want to put down ministry roots in a place like this after I’ve received my training. What a waste. What a waste of an educated minister’s efforts."
I’m going to have more to say about that kind of thinking in a moment, but that’s what I thought. As I went on with my Bible training and continued making my Pulpit Supply rounds, I just assumed the end goal was to end up at a more established church, and ideally to be offered a full-time pastorate with a full-time salary.
Ironically, the more I visited these small little churches (and the more I studied my Bible), the more my attitude began to change and I began to see past the chipped paint and creaking floor boards, and I started paying attention to the old faithful saints who, rather than abandoning ship and going where all the excitement was happening at the big church across town, they sought to persevere and to hold down the fort.
Now, I’ve been around long enough to know there are lots of different reasons why churches are small and why those who attend them keep on attending them. I understand it could be because:
- It’s what they grew up with, so it’s just what they’re used to, or
- It’s because they don’t like large crowds, and actually prefer to stay small, or
- It’s because they’d rather avoid some of the “modern” aspects they see in large churches. Perhaps they prefer old country hymns, or traditional style worship, or
- It's because they have some kind of family stake in the church; their parents or their grandparents started the church, and they’re committed to keeping it alive.
There could be several other reasons as well, but as I surprisingly started feeling what was my own burden for these smaller churches, I don’t think my reasons were any of those. Rather, as I’ve reflected on what changed in my thinking, I think I would sum it up with the following:
1. I have a heart for small churches because of the importance of larger, growing churches.
That is to say, I have a heart for small churches because my desire would be that they not forever remain small churches.
That’s not to say I think a small church is any less of a church because of it’s size. Quite honestly, I could point to a few mega-churches out there that I would hesitate to even call a church because of the false teaching or the cult-like behaviors they practice. Size doesn’t legitimize a church. And yet, we know what God’s will is for his churches, and “church growth” is certainly on his list. Even though, when the Bible talks about church growth, we know it’s primary emphasis isn’t numerical, but spiritual. Ephesians 4:11-13 is pretty clear,
“And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ,* until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ…”
The primary kind of church growth the Bible talks about is a growth in Christlikeness. A church is growing, whether or not it’s taking on new members, if it is becoming more like Jesus. But, we also know part of becoming more like Jesus is reaching and discipling people, which should naturally result in some numerical growth, hence the example of Acts 2:47:
“The Lord added to their number day by day those being saved.”
What I desire to see (and what I want to help support to whatever degree I can) is the expanded reach of those smaller church communities by encouraging more hands on deck to bolster and assist that core of disciples to be the hands and feet of Christ. Unfortunately, I think the instinct of a lot of good and godly Christians out there is to drive past the small churches in their community in order to put their gifting to use where all the action is already happening, rather than considering the impact their gifting could make where there isn’t yet a lot of action happening, but there could be, if only they and ideally a few others invested their energies where their energies could really be used. I have a heart for small churches because of the obvious help small churches need to do the work that they need to do in order to grow.
2. I have a heart for small churches (particularly those in rural areas) because the Great Commission includes rural areas.
I remember hearing a church planter say one time that the model of the New Testament when it comes to church ministry and missions, and therefore the apparent priority and strategy the faithful Christian should invest their attention in is primarily in urban ministry. After all, where did the Apostle Paul go on his missionary journeys? Well, he largely focused on the cities. He focused on places like Ephesus, and Corinth, and Athens, and even Rome!
To that observation, I say, "I agree." The urban centers were a big focus in Paul’s ministry. But guess what? Rural areas were apart of his work too. One author writes,
“It is a significant overstatement to say that Paul’s passion was the planting of churches in metropolitan centers or in the ‘strategic cities’ of the Roman Empire.” (Eckhard Schnabel, "Paul the Missionary")
If you read the book of Acts as a whole, you find Paul not only preached in the big cities, but you find him faithfully serving in the rural backwoods areas as well. Just track his movements in Cyprus. See where he goes in Galatia. It’s not all port cities and capitols.
Not to mention the example Jesus gives us in of his ministry work. Where does Jesus spend much of his time? Yes, he spends some time in Jerusalem and Capernaum, but for the most part, he’s out in the countryside of Galilee interacting with the common folk.
My point isn’t to pit urban ministry vs. rural ministry, but simply to say the Great Commission includes both.
When the Master tells his servants in the parable of the Great Banquet, Luke 14, “Go out to the highways and hedges and compel people to come in…,” that’s literally talking about those winding roads common in first century times that cut right through a farmer’s crops in order to connect with some more public thoroughfare. Literally, that's talking about those paths out in the middle of the cornfield.
My heart is to see not only those in the inner city, or in some fast-growing suburban area, come to Christ. I do want to see that. But, I also want to see that happening in the boondocks too.
3. I have a heart for small churhces because God is just as present in small churches than he is in big churches.
In Matthew 18:20, Jesus said, "For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them." The truth is, it doesn’t take a talented worship team, 60+ person choir, orchestra ensemble, or professionally trained worship leader to facilitate real Christian worship in a Gospel church. Sure, those things are wonderful additions to worship and I personally love being in churches that have them. But, they aren’t fundamentally required elements in order for worship to happen.
I admit, one of the neatest scenes of worship described in the Old Testament is when Asaph and all the other trained musicians are brought to the temple to worship the Lord in I Chronicles 15 and 16. No doubt, the impression we’re meant to be left with in that scene is just how glorifying and honoring such organized and well performed worship is to the Lord.
But remember what Jesus told the woman at the well in John 4. After she raises the question of which is better, to worship on the Mountain in Samaria or to worship where the Jews worship at the temple in Jerusalem. You would think the correct answer is at the temple, with all its special elements of worship, but instead Jesus says:
“Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father…The hour is coming, and is now here, when true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him.” (John 4:21, 23)
Point being, worship can happen anywhere. It isn’t tied to one place, especially not to one place that appears particularly equipped for worship. No, “real worship” can happen in Jerusalem, it can happen in Samaria, it can happen in the small synagogues of the country just as much as it can happen in the large facilities of the temple. For that matter, you don’t even need a small synagogue, which technically would require a minimum of 10 adult men to hold a service according to Jewish tradition. Jesus says, where 2 or 3 are gathered, you can worship corporately. The Lord is present there.
4. I have a heart for small churches because small flocks need shepherds too.
Paul wrote to Titus is Titus 1:5,
"This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you."
Think about that, appoint “elders” (i.e. pastors) in every town. Even the small town? Even in those little towns that have a total population of 42? Yes! Appoint elders in "every town."
I already shared the story of how I used to think about small churches when I was first studying to become a pastor. But sometime I've come to discover since is that I was hardly alone in my ministry bias against small churches.
As I’ve interacted with different seminary students and fellow pastors since that time, more often than not, I meet men who tell me they won’t even consider serving at a small church either because, they say, they have to support their family and require a full-time position, which, obviously, only a larger church can provide. I guess the bi-vocational example of Paul as a “tent-maker” isn’t something they’re willing to consider for themselves.
Or they’ll say, having been to seminary, their level of education over-qualifies them for a smaller church and that their gifting would evidently be better suited in a big church.
I’m so grateful for educated pastors who are well equipped to feed the flock, but, listen, when Paul told Titus to appoint elders in every town, his qualifications list applied across the board, not just for big churches. And interestingly, those qualifications don't even mention a Master of Divinity degree or a doctorate, but a character of godliness and a faithfulness to uphold the plain message of Gospel as it’s been given to us.
It's again unfortunate, but I think the attitude of a lot of pastors out there is to treat smaller churches simply as a training ground, or a stepping-stone, to get to a higher rung on the ministry ladder. In fact, I know one pastor whose served at something like 7 different churches over the years, each church a little larger and providing a slightly bigger salary package than the one before. And what’s the result of that? Well, one of the results of that is that the smaller churches (the lower rungs on the ladder so to speak) can hardly hold on to any of their pastor for longer than a year or two before they move on to something bigger and better. I understand sometimes a church can’t hold on to their pastors because they have a habit of running off their pastors (that’s another topic altogether). Often though it's a pastor's ambitions that draw him away.
I love the advice of an older pastor, writing to one of his younger students recently ordained over a small congregation who’s somewhat discouraged about the small size of his church. The wiser, older pastor writes:
“I know the vanity of your heart, and that you will feel mortified that your congregation is very small, in comparison with those of your brethren around you; but assure yourself on the word of an old man, that when you come to give an account of them to the Lord Christ, at His judgment-seat, you will think you have had enough.” (John Brown, cited by Alexander Grossart in The Complete Works of Richard Sibbes).
That is sound advice. Pastors will give an account for the souls under their care (Hebrews 13:17). And while most pastors want to see their congregations grow and have an increasing number of sheep in their fold, the weight of responsibility that rests on their shoulders even with a small flock will prove heavy enough when we answer to Christ on Judgement Day.
I could keep going, but I'll leave it at that. To end with a short word of encouragement:
If you are a lay-person in the church, perhaps searching for a new church home, don't rule out the small churches just because they’re small and because they don't have all the fancy amenities that the big church down the road has. Consider the impact your attendance, your involvement, your gifting could make in a smaller church setting. If a smaller church environment just doesn’t “feel” like church in your experience, look at the New Testament. Look at the small house churches that started out there without big youth groups, or singles ministries, or mother’s day out programs—as beneficial as some of those things can be--the New Testament church didn’t have those things. It was just a family of believers who had all things in common (Acts 2).
Or, if you are an aspiring pastor out there and gearing up to serve in a church, don’t assume that bigger churches are necessarily a more God-glorifying place to be. It’s not the size of a ministry that validates the minister, it’s his faithfulness in ministry. If God puts you in a big church, that’s wonderful, be faithful in that. If God puts you in a small church, that’s also wonderful. Just be faithful. Be content. Serve the Lord.