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Five Positives in Small Church Ministry

This blog entry is meant to be something of a protest.

I am tired of small-church being put down. I want to stand up and say something positive for small churches.

If you are a small-church pastor or leader or just someone who attends a small church, here are the five biggest positives that I have found as I have met with small-church people across Canada.


Small churches thrive on relationships

If you read this blog on a regular basis, you will soon realize that this is at the heart of my message to small churches.

The strength of the small church should be relationships.

Not only “should” it be relationships. If the small church is going to be healthy, it must be relationships.

I best heard this expressed in a statement that I quote quite often. Unfortunately, I don’t know where I read it. It went something like this:

Large churches take attendance by counting heads. Small churches take attendance by looking to see who is missing.

If anyone has read that quote and knows where it comes from, please let me know. I use it so often that I would love to be able to give credit.

When I wrote my thesis a few years ago, I interviewed six people who had come to faith in Jesus Christ in a small-church setting. In each of those stories, the person attributed their conversion to people in the church reaching out to them and showing that they cared. In each case relationships were at the heart of the person coming to Christ.

I am not saying that people in large churches don’t show love but my experience has been that it happens more naturally in a small-church setting.


Small churches just naturally are inter-generational

One of the advantages that large churches often have is that they run youth programs that small churches can only dream about. They have a youth pastor on staff. They have the funds to plan the kinds of programs that will attract other youth.

There is something though that they don’t have. Their youth don’t have the interaction with other age groups that often impacts their lives.

Large churches are not very often inter-generational.

I love watching teenagers in conversation with seniors, a sight that is quite common in small churches.

I had an elder in one of the churches that I served who would very quietly with no fan fare speak with one of the youth on a Sunday morning and ask if there was anything about which he could be praying for that teenager that week.

Then just as quietly he would go back to that young person and ask how it had gone assuring him or her that he had been praying for them.

That is the impact of an inter-generational church.

When I was a teenager I was approached by an adult in the small church I attended and asked if I would preach every Sunday through the summer in a tiny church several miles into the country. That was my first experience of preaching on a weekly basis.

That is the impact of an inter-generational church.

In a small church with only a tiny handful of teenagers, a couple realized that they could not run a conventional youth group. So, they invited those young people to supper every Wednesday evening and then sat around and talked for several hours about how the Bible related to their lives.

That is the impact of an inter-generational church.

Can a large church make the same impact on its youth? It can but not without a lot of effort. In small churches the adults come into contact with the teenagers every Sunday and with a little thought and planning can use that contact to make a difference in their lives.


Small churches produce leaders

I have served for more than forty years in full-time Christian ministry and most of that time has been in a leadership capacity. My wife has shared every joy and heartache of that ministry with me. We were high school sweethearts who met as part of a youth group in a small church.

My sister spent almost all of her adult life in ministry. Her husband was president of the Northern Canada Evangelical Mission and while he was not part of the youth group, he did grow up in a small church.

Another woman from that youth group spent almost all of her life serving as a missionary in Brazil.

Two other women married pastors and spent their lives serving along side their husbands.

Another woman spent several years working for a Christian camp.

Another served as part of a mission team in Montreal.

Another member of the youth group was part of a mission team in Hawaii for a year.

Several others while not in full-time ministry served as key leaders in their churches.

That is just one youth group in one small church. That kind of impact has been multiplied many times over as men and women who grew up in small churches are providing leadership that is shaping the church in Canada today.


Small churches are tough

Lyle E. Schaller, one of the foremost church consultants of the past half century, in his book The Small Church is Different lists toughness as first on a list of twenty characteristics of a small church. He says this

“The small church is tough. While some may argue this should not be at the top of the list, one of the most distinctive characteristics of the small church is that it is a hardy institution that usually can survive a succession of disasters. By contrast, the large church is often fragile and highly vulnerable to either external or internal erosion.” p. 28

I think that this is a quote that could generate lots of disagreement. Is the small church tougher than large churches? I am sure that there are arguments to be made onĀ  both sides but I agree with Schaller.

I was looking at the website earlier today of a church in the Maritimes that was founded back in the 1780s. My guess is that they have gone through a lot of disasters in their history and they are still in existence.

For more than two hundred years that church has been small but it has been tough. It had to be to survive.


Small churches are and always have been the norm

To quote Schaller again from the same book

“The normal size for a Protestant congregation on the North American continent is one that has fewer than forty people at worship on the typical Sunday morning.” p. 9

It isn’t only here in North America that small churches are the norm. It is all over the world. On every continent thousands of Christians worship in small church settings.

Small churches have been the norm all through history. Whether it was rural Canada in the early twentieth century or frontier America in the eighteenth century or Protestant Europe in the seventeenth century, small churches, all throughout history, have provided the setting in which people have worshiped their God.

Even in New Testament times small churches were the norm. I have often heard Church Growth proponents use the church in Jerusalem as their example. That church experienced tremendous growth with thousands of people coming to faith but it wasn’t even the norm in the first century.

If you read through the Book of Acts you will see that small churches predominated. Paul planted churches in the cities of the Greek part of the Roman empire and then moved on leaving a small handful of believers as the church in that city.

Those churches probably met in homes and probably very small homes at that. Even in centers like Rome the church was made up of small house-churches.

If you are small, join with thousands upon thousands of other small churches around the world and all through history. It is the mega-church that is the anomaly not the small church.

That is my protest. Small churches matter to God and have some positives that need to be celebrated.


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