Building a Healthy Small Church

Ed Stetzer: “Faithfulness and fruitfulness are more biblical measures for church health, not church size.”

Many American Christians have this idea that if a church is big, it must be better. Not necessarily. Our obsession with “bigness” can be a reflection of American values rather than biblical ones—size is not necessarily the best measurement of church health.

Is it sometimes OK for churches to be small? Absolutely. But before I give you three questions that can show if your small church is healthy, here are three questions that demonstrate when it is not OK for a church to stay small.

A Small, Unhealthy Church

Is your church staying small even when the community around you is growing?

There is really no excuse for this. Every church in America has unchurched or de-churched people in its neighborhood. As the people of God, on mission with God, we are called to spread the good news and make disciples (Matt. 28:18-20).

Scripture reminds us that we are called to water and plant while recognizing that the actual growth is God’s business (1 Cor. 3:6). Let’s not blame our lack of growth on God’s will if we are not planting and watering in the first place.

Is your church staying small because you refuse to engage the culture around you?

According to our research in Transformational Church, the healthiest churches are those actively seeking to understand and invest in their communities. Some churches have built a bubble around themselves as protection from the world. Sadly, these churches refuse to acknowledge that sin resides in their own hearts (Rom. 5:12), causing them to either implode or die out.

Hasn’t Jesus called us to be kingdom witnesses in a dark and broken world (Matt. 5:16)? How can we do that if we don’t engage those around us?

Is your church staying small because you love your fellowship but not the lost?

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Too many churches—whether 30 members or 3,000 members—are full of internally focused consumers primarily concerned about themselves. We should seek to cultivate intimate fellowship and care for one another in the church family. However, we have to be intentional about reaching out to those around us with the good news of Jesus.

We need to strike a healthy balance between internal health and external reach. This means moving church members from customers to co-laborers by developing intentional strategies to train and launch people in missional living.

A Small, Healthy Church

Is your church staying small because you are in a small community but you are still faithfully engaging those around you?

For churches in small towns it is quite possible to remain faithful and never experience rapid growth. Digging deep roots in one place builds a legacy of gospel persistence. Doesn’t Jesus compare God’s kingdom to a tiny mustard seed or a small amount of yeast (Matt. 13:31-33)? Like those, a steadfast and faithful small church can have an impact beyond its appearance.

Remembering the lesson of planting, watering and growing, we should be encouraged that our task is to share persistently. Where there is little community growth, there may be little church growth, but that shouldn’t keep us from trying.

Is your church staying small because you gather in a transient community but you are reaching new people?

Persistent turnover is a reality for some smaller churches because of their location. Churches near universities and military bases almost have a new congregation every three to five years. Think of these small churches’ kingdom impact as they invest in and train students and soldiers before they are launched throughout the world.

Small churches that recognize a calling in transient places focus on discipling those God has given them, knowing he will plant them somewhere else. These are healthy churches on mission for God’s glory.

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Is your church staying small because of your facility so you are using your resources for other things?

A gripping section in Johnny Carr’s new book Orphan Justice describes the anguish of planning a $10 million building after visiting an orphanage where children were dying from starvation. The struggle eventually led him toward fully investing his life for orphans.

Often, small churches may consider themselves unable to have large kingdom impact, believing size and resources limit them. However, smaller churches have more freedom to focus their time, energy and money toward caring for neglected neighbors, caring for children and supporting church plants—things close to God’s heart.

Bigger is not necessarily better, but neither is smaller necessarily better. Small is not the goal. Let’s face it—a small church that reaches people becomes a larger church, and this is a good thing. Healthy churches grow and reproduce. We have many reasons to affirm small churches, but romanticizing them is unhelpful to the mission. So without idealizing the small church, let’s value it.

Small churches are and have always been the norm. The rise of megachurches is a unique feature of late twentieth century American Christianity. Most likely, megachurches are not going away for years to come, so we need to remind ourselves of the value of smaller congregations. Many small churches are living on mission in their contexts, being about the business of God’s kingdom. Faithfulness and fruitfulness are more biblical measurements for church health, not church size.

Read more from Ed Stetzer »

Ed Stetzer holds the Billy Graham distinguished chair of church, mission and evangelism at Wheaton College and the Wheaton Grad School, where he also oversees the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism.

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Ed Stetzer

Ed Stetzer, is the editor-in-chief of Outreach magazine, and a professor and dean at Wheaton College where he also serves as executive director of the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center. He has planted, revitalized, and pastored churches, trained pastors and church planters on six continents, and has written hundreds of articles and a dozen books. He currently serves as interim teaching pastor of Calvary Church in New York City and teaching pastor at Highpoint Church in Naperville, Illinois.

He is also regional director for Lausanne North America, and is frequently cited in, interviewed by and writes for news outlets such as USA Today and CNN. He is the founding editor of The Gospel Project, and his national radio show, Ed Stetzer Live, airs Saturdays on Moody Radio and affiliates.