This attitude toward small churches doesn’t help


I started to let this go. First, because you can’t comment on everything you read in blogs; and, secondly, I could not believe I was actually reading it.  But, I can’t let this go.  Here’s why:  Small churches deserve better than Bill Easum’s recent response to Tony Jones at Emergent Village.  

Easum critiques the emerging church community because most of its churches are small.  Tony Jones asks Easum to explain why he is critical of small churches, and here’s part of his response:

“You have to put this in the context of my experiences with small churches and my understanding of evangelism. Small churches are usually small because of their small, petty attitude. That attitude can be negative, it can be elitist, it can be mean-spirited, or it can be just plain content with the status quo. But I have never found a small church that has been small for many years to be a healthy environment.”

Ouch and wow!  Okay, I’ll try to keep this rational and courteous, but for the life of me I can’t imagine why anyone, much less a leading church consultant, would make that statement.  Almost 90% of the churches in America are small churches.  Are all those churches “negative….elitist….mean-spirited..content with the status quo”?  The answer clearly is a resounding No!  

But, Easum quotes scripture, or at least refers to it, to make his point…

“My experience has been if the church is faithful to the Gospel it grows—period. I could say the same thing about a house church or small group. I base this on the Book of Acts—it is about the growth of Christianity and suggests to me that God wants the church to grow and spread. Read the story—it goes progressively from addition, to multitudes, to myriads of growth.”

Of course, if Easum had read Rodney Starke’s book, Cities of God, he would know that Christianity actually grew at about 3.4% per year for the first 300 years.  So, Easum overstates the growth of Christianity, and fails to note that many of the gatherings of Christians in the book of Acts were small gatherings.  

But, more disturbing is Easum’s contention that there is something wrong with small churches by virtue of their smallness.  In The Way We Will Be, John Zogby, of the global polling firm Zogby International, writes…

“The church of the future will be a bungalow on Maple Street, not a megastructure in a sea of parking spaces.  It’s intimacy of experience people long for, not production values.” -p 215.

Small churches thrive with the attributes that many people seek — intimacy, hands-on ministry, an opportunity to participate, and the ability to know other members.  It is the kingdom of God whose growth we seek, and for God’s kingdom to grow each community of faith plays a different and vital role.  I’ve seen more church pathology in churches who value growth at any cost than I have in the small churches I’ve encountered.  

Easum owes small churches, small church pastors, and members of small churches an apology.  Or at least the opportunity to hear our stories, walk in our shoes, and witness first-hand the effectiveness of ministry in America’s small churches.  What do you think?  Am I wrong, or do you have a different perspective?

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12 Comments

  1. I agree 100%. I am at a small church as well. This guy is very elitist sounding, I can’t believe what he said. Thanks for this. I actually prefer a “small” church b/c you get to know everybody better. Anyways, thanks.

    p.s. if you change your comments so that you don’t have to have a wordpress account to comment, I’m sure you’ll get more feedback. Right now you can only comment on your blog if you have wordpress. Just an FYI, I enjoy your blog, I read it often.

  2. Chuck, you know I’m in a small church just as you are and not at all enamored of the megas. But it’s hard for me to get worked up over what you quoted, when what Bill Easum said was qualified by “You have to put this in the context of my experiences with small churches and my understanding of evangelism” and then ““My experience has been if the church is faithful to the Gospel it grows—period.”

    It is what he has seen over many years of widespread exposure to churches in the US. Maybe his philosophical underpinnings are wrong, but how do we dismiss his experience? I suspect he has heard far more stories from small church pastors than you or I ever will.

    Wouldn’t you agree that a small church that doesn’t grow is not healthy if it is in an environment where growth is possible?

    It seems to me that you took this as a swipe toward emerging forms of “church”, but I don’t agree. If a church is not reaching the lost, and that continues for years, I’d call it a club regardless of whether they meet under a steeple or not.

    I see far more of churches expecting growth at no cost than I do “growth at any cost”, but that’s been my experience so YMMV.

    David

  3. I’m so glad David Wilson responded as he did. I subscribe to your blog and have really enjoyed reading for some time now. This particular post hit home for me so I sat here pondering a response. Mr. Wilson did it for me.
    My husband and I came from a small church. We live in an extremely rural area and the church is 1/4 mile up the road. We went there for 9 years, we were married and my husband was saved in this church. We were actively involved, as it truly was our life. It happens to be a Methodist church, which we never joined, but served in trustee capacity. It’s a practice of the Methodist machine to rotate out pastors. The pastor we served under moved on, but in her ministry in this church we were a thriving, growing, learning, serving (huge on serving) and encouraging-one-another church. The pastor that they appointed systematically removed everyone who believed &/or taught the literal Bible. She shut down Sunday School, because it was Bible Lesson classes and not classes based on her “readings.” She lost alot of members, as well as pretty much threw Jesus outa the building too. She justified it by explaining it’s God’s way of weeding out His garden. It would have been easy to negotiate a common ground within the church, but there’s what’s called a Pastor Parish Relations Committee (PPRC) that’s suppose to be the communication between the parishioners & pastor. And that is headed up by one person, the PPRC Chairperson. When there were issues to be brought before the committee, including the District Superintendent, they were not being represented in the meetings. People were afraid of the Chairperson and anything reported from the congregation to her, never went any further than her and the pastor and they pacified the DS with letters of explanation that let him off the hook of any responsibility to the congregation. This pastor came in with ultra liberal, scriptural teachings, one for example is that satan is not real, he was a misinterpretation of the Bible. When approached by the youth leader & adult Sunday School teacher they were reprimanded and “warned” and their requests before the PPRC committee were never heard. This was when the pastor & PPRC person shut down Sunday School. This is a small, very close community church. What my husband and I learned was that when it comes to a handful of families that run a church there is a web of religious politics that lies at the root. We wanted to find members who had left because they were so wounded, but we were told that “we don’t care if people leave, there’s nothing we can do about it.” When I repeated that statement back to the board I was told. “That’s right.”
    My husband resigned as trustee and our hearts were broken unbelievably. People were upset that we left and begged us to come back. But to this day, 1 1/2 years later, the pastor nor the PPRC person has been to our house.
    We’ve seen first hand, the very best and the very worst of small churches. Mr. Easum’s account is not far off from what we witnessed. But then neither is yours from what we witnessed for the 9 years we did serve at our small church. “If the church is faithful to the Gospel it grows.” Period! Amen. “If a church is not reaching the lost……I’d call it a club regardless of whether they meet under a steeple or not.” Period! Amen.
    We refused to be a part of the club under a false teaching. Sadly, people are comfortable just warming the pews because they’ve been there for forever. They’re not really listening to the words being read to them. They’re just there “sticking together” until the next pastor comes along hoping the next one will be better. There is no growth. There is no Bible teaching. The pastor doesn’t come out of her house or get involved in any way with community or congregation families.
    And is closing we did write a letter to the Bishop. His recommendation was that we meet with the PPRC. He completely missed the part about the PPRC being broken.
    We’ve pretty much healed from the whole ordeal. We’re sad that we’re not there with some of the members of our community and we can see the beautiful building from our house. It took going through 4 seasons of not being there to see it as “just a building.”
    Thank you for the opportunity to share our view point from our perspective.
    Sally

  4. Chuck,

    I agree with you that Easum’s attitude about small churches is not helpful.

    Easum’s own bio on his website says that he is a “pioneer in the church growth movement.” From what I’ve seen of the “church growth movement” it perpetuates the myth that “small is bad and large is good.” That attitude comes through loud and clear in his response to Tony Jones.

    Even though many denominations agree with Easum’s predisposition, I am encouraged because I see many signs that his attitude is beginning to fade among the church at large. I will continue to fight against such an attitude and encourage small church leaders as long as I am able.

    Les

  5. Wow. Somebody hasn’t been looking at his church history:
    According to Ray Simpson in “Exploring Celtic Spirituality:

    “…no Irish church built between the 6th and 12th centuries is more than 60 feet long, and most are much less…”

    And yet this was the time the church in Ireland was at it’s most healthy, spiritual, and experienced the most rapid growth. Funny that…

  6. Whoa!

    Disagreed with many of your comments here. We are called to be faithful, not “large.” How many people followed Jesus closely? Francis Chan said that if Jesus were here today, that he (Francis Chan) would have a larger following than Jesus. Why? Because Jesus called people to such a radical commitment that many people refused to follow Him and even walked away form Him (see John 6). And why does growing always have to be numbers? Some churches are small, period. Jesus had 12. And if numbers are an indication of “success” then is Joel Osteen the most successful pastor in the USA? It doesn’t translate. You don’t find the numbers game in the Bible…

  7. While I’m sure there are examples of small churches that are small for the reasons mentioned, it is generalization at its worst to assume that all or even most are. Some of the healthiest churches I know are small. If Mr. Easum’s experience is different, then I’d suggest he either has been around the wrong churches or needs to change his definition of “health.”

    Even if that was my experience, I’d hesitate to make such a blanket statement simply because of the potential misconception it can cause.

  8. I can’t get to mad at the guy. I was born into a small church. I was saved, then baptized in a small church. I pastor a small church. I’m steeped in it up to my eyeballs.

    Just so you know, I come from a Southern Baptist context which I’m assuming may be different than yours.

    I can’t agree with him in his points as to why small churches aren’t healthy…and I certainly can’t agree with him that “all” small churches are unhealthy. Granted, I can’t agree with the person that says most of our churches, large and small, are healthy either.

    From our latest SBC stats, about 70% of our churches are “small.” We’re loosing around 4000 churches per year, and we’re expecting about 1/2 of all of our churches to be closed by 2030. As I look at other denominational stats, at least the ones that report, all of us are in decline of some sort. My only conclusion is that most of our churches are very unhealthy. American Christianity is a very sick institution. Some might say that it is on it’s death bed.

    Tim Dahl

  9. Although I can agree that a small church does not mean a dead or sick church, I can also say that it can be an indicator of just that. I personally suspect more so than not. But I also do not feel growth equals mega church nor do I feel that large churches automatically mean the Spirit is upon the church. I am in a small church now and I feel it does not seem/feel nearly as dead as the last small church I was member of (to a large degree I grew up in this church). That church I truly felt was dead and nothing more than something along the lines of a country club. This small church is in a town of about 50,000 with about 300 members on the books and at any given worship service only see’s around 60 maybe 80 attendees at best. This was how it has been year after year, without change. I feel it is an indication of its relationship with Christ.

    For a while my family and I would also attend another church which had around 1500 member attendance (in my state that’s mega 🙂 ). Although I think there were a lot of people there because it was “cool” to be there, I also feel there was some life there that did not exist at our other church. There was something there that had more meaning. That church had a more positive impact on my whole family. There was a reason they were growing and attracting people every day.

    As to people being comfortable with the size and not wanting the church to grow, they scare me. Complacency is a dangerous disease. Besides, why wouldn’t Christ want to reach more people – grow his “bride”?

    I must admit that I struggle with this because I can see both perspectives as being correct.

  10. Chuck, please forgive me if this comment is a repeat. I tried to submit it before, but it seems to have disappeared. I am new to blogging.

    Bill Easum’s comment really troubles me. I am the pastor of a small, strong congregation in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, and I grew up in a tiny, strong congregation near Mineral, Virginia.

    Smallness is not a problem for God. Again and again in scripture God accomplishes God’s purposes through unlikely people who are ill-equipped in the world’s eyes. By God’s power, an elderly, infertile couple has a baby, and then God adds descendents as numerous as the stars. This family becomes a blessing to all the families of the earth.

    In the Savior’s eyes, a widow’s two pennies freely given are the most generous gift of all. When Jesus’ disciples offer him their humble meal of bread and fish, not enough becomes more than enough to feed a crowd. Jesus saves not by might or force, but by laying down his life. Then he entrusts the good news of the resurrection to a tiny, frightened church. And by his power–not theirs–the gospel goes to the ends of the earth. Again and again in scripture, God lifts up the lowly, strengthens the weak and grants new life to the dying. No, smallness is not a problem in God’s eyes. God makes God’s power perfect in weakness.

    This is not to say that small churches don’t have problems. Of course we do. But at the root, our problems and our sins are the same that beset churches of any size: centering on self, failing to trust God, and forgetting to seek God’s will. Every congregation is called to repent and believe the gospel! Every congregation is called to take up the cross!

    Numerical growth is going to be very difficult for my small flock. We are in a sea of congregations, with over twenty churches within three or four miles of us, and a new one is moving in soon. Rocky Mount is saturated with churches. May God help us to hear and answer his particular call to us! May he give us the courage to lay down our life, no matter what, even if we literally die!

    Blessings, Mary Todd

  11. Mary, thanks and my apologies for any trouble you had posting a comment. I’m glad you persisted, because you are right on the money. Small is fine. Shane Claiborne makes that point in his book, The Irresistible Revolution. And, my community is saturated with churches, too. Which is great news unless you think your church is going to set numerical growth records. Thanks for stopping by. -Chuck

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