Explain the difference between small churches that are thriving as small churches, that are doing great ministry, that are really spiritually enriching their attendees and the community, and those that are flailing. Is the difference in programming, mindset, an understanding of the community, or something else?
Small churches that are successful, in my opinion, are churches that have spiritual vitality. These are the churches that seem alive in worship, exhibit a contagious enthusiasm for whatever it is they are doing, and know what they are cut out to do. Now all that sounds very general, and it is, but it’s also true. Regardless of programs, regardless of community setting, regardless of size, the small churches that succeed do so because they know why they exist and are committed to expressing their purpose with spiritual enthusiasm. This kind of spiritual vitality is more than attitude or mindset, although that’s part of it. These churches are like the small Christian communities of the book of Acts—they exist as the Spirit of God permeates their fellowship. This spiritual confidence comes from the congregation’s sense of God’s presence in their midst, calling, guiding, equipping, and empowering them for ministry.
How can small church pastors be encouraged? Many feel they’re just failed large church pastors, or that their churches are less than the large church down the street. Where does the right mindset begin?
No one would fault a taxi cab driver just because he isn’t driving a 18-wheeler. A taxi cab has one purpose and an 18-wheeler another, and if you don’t know the difference you’ll be frustrated doing either. That analogy isn’t perfect, but pastoring a smaller congregation is very different from pastoring a large one. Pastors first need to realize that there is nothing wrong with small churches just because they are small. My guess is that most of the churches the Apostle Paul wrote to and visited would be small congregations by today’s measure. But, no one today would suggest that those churches or their pastors were insignificant or failures. Of course, each church had their own unique set of pluses and minuses, but none of those were inherent in their size. Small church pastors—and I’m one of them—have nothing to apologize for. Churches under 300 make up 90 percent of all the churches in America. If anything, small church pastors are part of the largest contingent of pastors in the world. The problem, in my estimation, is that a small church pastor is usually the only minister on staff. Unlike the large church, the small church pastor has to look intentionally for opportunities for support, encouragement and feedback that are available to pastors of larger churches with multiple staff members.
How should small churches measure success?
Good question. Small churches measure success just like large churches—by transformed lives. The mission of the church, whatever its size, is to enable lives to be transformed by the saving power of Jesus Christ. For some that may mean personally confessing Christ as Lord and Savior. For others, it may mean finding fellowship in a small but caring community of faith. For others, transformation may occur as their children are taught, their spouses are encouraged or their light bill is paid. However churches engage in ministry, the mission is to see lives changed by the love of God. In the small churches I have served, I’ve seen marriages healed, forgiveness asked for and received, prayers answered and needs met. And in each of those cases, lives were transformed in the process. Any other measure in a church of any size is just icing on the cake!
There does come a point with small churches, however, where small really is too small to survive. So some degree or growth, or at least retention, is desirable and necessary. How do we walk that line between celebrating small and working hard not to be too small?
Mark Chaves, professor of sociology, religion and divinity at Duke University’s Duke Divinity School, says that churches need three things to survive—members, money and leaders. Jesus said, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in their midst.” So, the question of how small is too small depends on the relationship of members, money and leaders. A church without leaders is not a church, and a congregation with no members can’t be led. But, small churches like Grace and Main in Danville, Va., have figured out how to give 100 percent of all the money they receive to help the homeless in their community. How do they do it? They meet in homes, have no paid staff and don’t plan to incur any additional expenses or debt. A church may be very small numerically but still be a viable congregation if their balance of members, money and leaders works for them.
Small churches just don’t have the resources to meet every single person’s needs who comes through their door or who is in their community. How should a small church go about deciding what to support and focus on, and what to ignore or pass off to someone else?
Small churches can’t do everything, but they can do something. Our local missions budget is a good example of this, I think. This year we have allocated $2,000 to provide emergency help to families in our community. However, because we have limited funds, we set a $50 limit on groceries or gas, and a $100 limit on helping with utility bills. This is intended to be a one-time, emergency assistance, and families are not eligible for this help again within 12 months. In addition, we work with other churches to help on larger utility bills. When funds run out, or when we have spent ahead, we freeze our assistance for a month or so to allow our budget cycle to catch up with our expenditures. By shepherding our resources this way, we are able to help almost everyone who comes to us for emergency help. We also work with our local social services department and community food bank to find longer term solutions to the problems some families experience. So, while we can’t do everything, we can do something within our limited budget.
From your experience, are you seeing younger people interested in a small church environment? The perception is that small churches are often filled with older generations and a more traditional worship style.
Our church is an example of a traditional church with older members. However, four years ago we decided we wanted to reach young families with small children. We spruced up our nursery and preschool space, bought new baby beds and other equipment, and built a safe, commercially manufactured playground behind the church. In our small town, the playground construction was featured in the weekly newspaper. In addition, we formed a Children and Youth Ministry team consisting of our preschool and children’s teachers and parents, and put them in charge of planning events for children and youth. In the course of about four years, we went from very few children to more than 20 now. Some of their parents attend, and some do not, but our intentional commitment and planning led to our success in reaching these young families and their children.