Over a decade ago, Oasis Church in Redlands, Calif., experienced a split and lost half its congregation. Since then, membership has hovered around 200. Through the years, Pastor Steve Mason struggled to come to terms with the church’s inability to grow. But as a result of this struggle, Mason also learned to focus on something other than numbers: relationships.
I started the church by accident in 1979. I was 24 years old and a successful commodity broker, but I was miserable. My wife and I led a Bible study in our home in hopes of connecting with other Christians. What started out as a few friends, grew to 50 people, then more. We went from our home to a community center, then a school auditorium, and finally into a 33,000-square-foot packing house that we converted into a church. We named the church Oasis because it’s where folks gather for safety, rest, refreshment and nourishment—everything for which people should come to church.
However, since the split 13 years ago, we haven’t really grown, which can be scary when our resources barely pay the bills. But I’ve come to realize that it’s not all about numbers. There’s a misnomer that anything that is healthy is growing. I just don’t believe that. Instead of focusing on growing bigger, we focus on growing stronger. And we do that by developing and maintaining authentic relationships. The New Testament is built around teaching Christians how to treat one another. Relationships are important to Christ.
Our church may be small, but there is no division, there are no power struggles, there is no gossip, ungodliness or slander. The Bible notes how pleasant it is when we dwell together in unity. That unity pleases God more than the attendance.
To be honest, pride is probably one of the main reasons pastors focus on attendance. I’ve been guilty of it myself—feeling embarrassed about our attendance. But despite our lack of growth, I enjoy benefits that trump big numbers. The main benefit is maintaining healthy leadership. Most of my leaders have been with me for 20-plus years so there’s a cohesiveness and trust. Smaller churches don’t fit the American dream and don’t stroke the ego, but maybe that’s another reason God loves them.
The other thing besides a cohesive leadership is the congregation’s active community involvement. Our church family has helped abused children, battered women and those fighting AIDS. We also assist impoverished high school students by purchasing their prom tickets, yearbooks, and graduation caps and gowns to try and make their high school experience as normal as possible.
The church leads people in the following ways: salvation, Sunday morning worship, small group Bible study, stewardship and service. Broken down really simply, I believe that Sunday morning worship and small group Bible studies are two halves of a whole. Sunday morning is more of a spectator sport. Bible study enables members to encourage, correct, challenge and serve one another.
Don’t get me wrong, we haven’t given up on the hope of growing as a congregation. That’s why we’re constantly evaluating our situation. We ask ourselves, “Is there division? Gross immorality? Bad doctrine?” If the answer is no, then maybe the Lord is pleased with how things are going. I can plant. I can water. But ultimately God will determine the size of the church.
Often congregations emphasize the need to attract, becoming so fixated on the people they don’t have that they end up neglecting those they do. Instead of focusing on the numbers, I’d rather concentrate on caring for the people God has entrusted to us. Our church values truth, community and compassion.
I say, build the church on the foundation of godly relationships and leave the work of growth in God’s hands.
—Steve Mason, as told to Christy Heitger-Ewing