The Strength of Small Churches

Sometimes I get a little discouraged when I talk to friends in really big churches (did I tell you that Rick Warren and I went to seminary together?  I don’t think he remembers me.) 

Big churches can do some really cool and creative things.  A local large-church TV spot recently advertised their worship featuring “full-stage lighting.”  I’m not sure what full-stage lighting is, but I don’t think my church has it.  Which brings me to my point…

While small-churches may not compete technologically, or in other ways, with large churches, small-churches have a strength that large-churches really have to work at.  Relationships.  That’s right, relationships.  The late Oscar Thompson, evangelism professor at Southwestern Baptist Seminary often said, “The most important word in the English language outside of proper nouns is ‘relationship.’ ” Seems like Oscar was right, and now a major university confirms it.

Stanford Social Innovation Review, in it’s Winter 2007 issue, features Networks for Good Works, an article by Yale School of Management’s dean, Joel Podolny.  Podolny isn’t even speaking of church or faith, just social networks in society.  But it’s what he says later in the article that has real implications for churches — small or large.

  • Podolny quotes sociologist Emile Durkheim, who says, “…when humans have to choose between saving their identity or their own skins, they usually opt to save their identity.  For what is a human life without identity?”

And where do we get our identity — our passions, beliefs, ideals, motivations, and values?  Are you ready for this?  Podolny says “…our identities ultimately come from our relationships with other people — that is, from our networks.”  He goes on to say, “Our networks shape and change our identities.” 

In a previous paragraph, Podolny says, “Networks…are…communities….”  So there you have it — a Yale professor telling us that relationships change our beliefs and that networks are really communities.  Does this sound familiar?  Isn’t that what church, and small-churches especially, are good at? 

In my small-church, our people know each other.  We know when someone is sick or has a birthday or is visiting their grandkids.  We know because 1) there isn’t much news in small towns; and, 2) because we care about each other.  And when we welcome someone new into our circle, we gradually develop the same level of community with them, too. 

So you can have your full-stage lighting.  I’ll take relationships anyday — that’s what really changes people.  I know that’s what changed me, how about you?

(For more on this article, visit my other blog Amicus Dei.)

7 thoughts on “The Strength of Small Churches”

  1. If you think small churches outdo large churches in relationships, why do you blog? Why did Jesus preach and feed thousands? Why did God multiply their numbers that day in Acts? I think the local church is a powerful witness, large or small. Maybe we should just accept that we’re all different parts of the same body.

  2. Hi, Grace. Well, maybe I didn’t say it very well, but my point was that small churches are relational, which I think is a strength. Large churches can have the same strength, but do you know how they do it? Not in the big assemblies, but in small groups — a lot of small churches within the big church. Cho Yonggi’s Yoido church in Korea has over 800,000 members, but they did it by organizing small groups of people who could know each other. Why do I blog? To encourage that kind of face-to-face relationship whether it happens in small or large churches. Thanks for stopping by. — Chuck

  3. Chuck,

    Having been a pastor in a small church and a small group pastor in a small church I enjoyed your thoughts. It is important that those who serve or attend a small church appreciate that size does not reflect value. As you shared, 90 percent or more of American churches have 90 or less members. Furthermore, about 70 percent of American churches have fewer than 50.

    What this means is that small churches, not large, are a truer model. And that when church leaders and strategist use large churches (over 500) or megachurches (over 2000) as their models of how to “do church,” they are in reality only at best communicating to about 5% of the churches in the U. S. This is not an unknown reality amongst pastors.

    In fact, this is why many pastors get so discouraged. Every conference, seminar, and retreat focuses on the sucess of these churches and their pastors. More than this, these same men (and some women, depending on your denomination) are the ones invited to speak at such events.

    My personal frustration is not that I am envious or jealous. My frustration is: 1. These pastors and churches truly don’t understand the model of ministry in a small church, and 2. These same pastors, churches, and strategist often will blame pastors of small churches and a lack of faith for an enability to “grow the church.” This is not said explicitly, but having talked with other pastors of small churches, this is an understood message.

    It is almost funny to think that in a consumer driven world and in a market which 90% of the customers are in one camp and 10% are in another that the 10% are the ones who receive all the attention, merchandise, and help. It is my desire to help create a voice for this 90%. I’m still praying about it, but I truly believe that small churches have more potential and better opportunities to affect change on a larger scale.

    But first, small churches must overcome their fears and inferiority complex. They have to lose their big church envy, and get rid of the idea they are too small to accomplish big things for God.

    When I get discouraged, I remember the story of the older lady who was unable to go to church anymore because of age and illness, but she was able to pray. Each day she would look out her window to the school and playground across the field from her home and pray for the children. She prayed that God would call them to preach the Word of God and be a mighty evangelist for Him. One of those young boys on that playground was Billy Graham.

    One woman shut up in her home was unable to even go to church, and look what God was able to use her prayers to accomplish. What can one pastor in a small church do? Just think about.

    Thanks for the article! Good stuff.


  4. Taylor, thanks and great comments. I agree, we need ways other than size to validate ministry. How about percentage of a congregation engaged in ministry? Or number of helping activities per week? Or some other measure that would really get people going. Or, maybe measure is the problem. What do you think? Chuck

  5. Chuck, I believe the path to helping small churches reach their full potential begins with the pastor. Many pastors dream of being that conference or denominational speaker at that special retreat or conference. We must first deal with our own issues.

    I believe most of these desires to be at “that church” comes from a desire to be professionally appreciated. Let’s face the facts. Most pastors are highly educated, poorly compensated, and seldom respected. I don’t have any suggestions on how to overcome these obstacles. Truly, the same things could be said of Jesus, so what should we expect?

    That being said, the there are two other goals which can be set to help small churches reach their potential. The first is missions.

    You can say all you want about how great large churches are, but dollar for dollar small churches can do missions locally and internationally just as well. I say this because I have seen how large churches do mission. They don’t.

    I know that is a blanket statement, but for the most part it is true. Many large churches are so large that they see themselves as a mission unto themselves. This means they become building centered. Everything happens at the church. In other words, if you wish to be ministered to, you must come to us.

    I have studied many of the largest churches in the world, and the ratio of dollars spent on ministry to members verses money for missions is sad. What is even sadder is few are ever called from these megachurches to the mission field.

    Now step back and look at your local average American congregation of 100 plus. The amount of money given and people going on missions is amazing. Statistically, small churches put big brother to shame. This is not a competition, but small churches need to know that they and not the large churches are making an enormous impart in missions giving and going.

    So, emphasizing your churches missions involvement and impact is a good starting point. And if you are not a truly missions driven church, then become one. Jesus left us here for one reason and one reason only, to tell others what He did for us. If we’re not doing this, then we are just doing stuff for ourselves.

    The second goal small churches can set is to cooperate better with each other. I believe this can be done denominational, but that does not have to be where it ends. The cooperational aspect is something that pastors are going to have to get on board with.

    Most pastors are very protective of their flock, and well they should be. But it still seems there is room for churches to share the burden of ministry together. We are all too independent.

    Cooperation could take place on many levels: locally, regionally, state, continent, world. The opportunities available to us are truly amazing today. Imagine Chuck, you are in Virginia, and I am in Alabama. But we are connected by your post on this blog. These same connections could be extended for the purpose of ministry not just across a few state by around the world.

    Now imagine if not only the pastor took hold of this vision, but members of the congregation did as well. Mission opportunities throughout the U.S. and the world would avail themselves.

    If enough small churches were able to pull together out of a common mission, telling other of Christ, then perhaps, it would even afford these churches a small but loud voice in the larger market place of Christian ideas. So, I don’t know about measures, but I do believe involving our churches in missions and cooperation with each other would help them to grasp a larger view of God, His Mission, and their worth in the Kingdom.

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