The church is God’s people gathered and scattered, and Jesus loves the church in its many shapes and forms. Jesus preached to large crowds and ministered to the multitudes. He also invested in a group of 70 followers whom he sent on a mission in his name. He also had a group of 12 followers who walked very closely with him and partnered in his kingdom ministry. In addition, he had a tight group of three (Peter, James and John) who were invited into some of the most intimate moments of Jesus’ life and ministry.
What’s the point? Jesus is about mission, not church size.
He is still building his kingdom, and the church is his vehicle to accomplish this task. Sometimes the best way to achieve his plans is to gather large groups of his people. At other times, our sovereign Lord decides to use lots of smaller gatherings of his followers. In either case, the goal is his glory and the advancement of his kingdom.
There must be something strategic and effective about groups of believers numbering between 50 and 200 because there are so many of them. Over the past 20 years my wife Sherry and I, in partnership with the leaders of Organic Outreach International, have worked with churches around the world. Many of the denominations and networks we serve have studied their congregations closely and embrace the fact that they average around 100 members or attendees in each church that is part of their network, including the Nazarene church, the Reformed Church in America, the Evangelical Covenant Church, the Wesleyan Church, the Christian Reformed Churches of Australia, Living Stones Network in New Zealand and many others.
All of these groups of churches have congregations that are very large and gather with 500, 1,000 or more. These congregations are not the norm—they are outliers. Since God has so many bodies of believers that worship, serve and minister with between 50 to 200 people, there must be unique ways that God uses these size churches for his glory and mission.
I suspect that smaller churches will continue to be the norm going forward. I do not claim any prophetic gifting, and I do not seek to predict the future of the world or the church. What I can do is look back and see the powerful ways in which God has used small churches for his glory and anticipate this will continue and grow until our Lord returns in glory. So, we would be wise to learn from the past, pay attention to the present and plan for the future.
Here are three areas small churches can excel in that church leaders should pay particular attention to.
1. Developing Intimacy
When I moved to Byron Center, Michigan, to pastor a small country church, one of the deepest values of the congregation was the family feel. As a matter of fact, over half the congregation was made up of three families (or people who had married into one of those families). This would have been dangerous if they had been toxic or demanding, but they were wonderful saints who loved to follow Jesus, serve in their church and reach the lost. As new people came, the warmth of the congregation was strong and attractive. It was something to be celebrated and nurtured.
Small churches should leverage this inherent strength by planning social gatherings and celebrating the community and relationships. Not only is this a gift to believers, but also it is attractive to nonbelievers who are weary of isolation and feeling cut off because of COVID-19 and all of the societal restrictions. Small churches can provide a relational reentry point for children, teens and adults if they are strategic in gathering groups to share life, faith and service.
If a church experiences sudden numerical growth, attention needs to be given to maintaining community and intimacy. One of the reasons many churches never grow past 200 people is that the longing for connection can cause cautious resistance. People can start to fear that the family feeling of their church will disappear, and in many cases they are right.
In the coming years, church-planting movements that multiply many smaller churches will likely grow. Also, home-church movements may be increasing in the coming decades. A friend and national church leader in New Zealand just finished many years leading a large and influential congregation in Wellington. He is launching a new movement with a vision to establish many smaller gatherings of Christians in homes around the country. He and his wife have a glorious passion for reaching lost people in their radically post-Christian country and believe a key to doing this will be developing many intimate Jesus communities in homes and neighborhoods all over the north and south islands of New Zealand.
This is not a statement against large churches and gatherings of believers. They have always existed and always will. The church I serve is large, and we seek to build intimacy by creating smaller gatherings for service, fellowship, outreach and learning. But, if a large church does not intentionally design smaller gatherings, intimacy is almost impossible.
If you are part of a small church, do all you can to maximize the intimacy that believers love and spiritually curious people long to experience.
2. Shaping Church Culture Quickly
During an Organic Outreach intensive event in Virginia, I was coaching a church-plant leader. We were working on an exercise that included designing an outreach influence team to help raise the passion and practice of evangelism in every area of church ministry. He mentioned that his church was very small.
I said, “How many people do you have if everyone shows up?”
He smiled. “Nine.”
To his surprise, I said, “Perfect. If you can get all of them to commit to a clear and intentional outreach process, you will have your whole church on board.”
I loved it. He was about to get his entire congregation engaged in outreach as well as set the culture for this fledgling body of Jesus followers.
Culture can be shaped quickly and effectively in smaller churches. This is true of new churches and old ones. Bob Bouwer, a dynamic church leader and pastor, was serving a church that was small and getting smaller every year. He actually predicted the funeral date for the church if they continued on their downward trajectory. Into this discouraging environment, Bob spoke bold truth and invited the church to change. With a smaller church, the work to create a tipping point of new perspective and mission was counted not in thousands of people or multiple hundreds. If he could get a solid core of the dwindling church to embrace meaningful change, it could lead to a bright new future.
Something amazing happened: A devoted group of believers, many of them longtime members, said they were willing to adopt a fresh and biblical vision. Then, they followed through. This commitment tipped the culture of the church, and they became healthy. Then they began reaching new people with the gospel. If you want to learn more about this amazing transformation, read the book Bob and I wrote about it, The U-Turn Church: New Direction for Health and Growth (Baker).
If you are part of a small church and need a new direction, you can lead dramatic cultural change if you can establish a tipping point of 30% to 40% of your existing members.
3. Advancing Accountability
It is easy to hide in a big church. We can come and go and hardly be noticed. We can skip attending worship services, never grow in generosity and avoid using our gifts to serve others, and no one will notice (in most cases). In a small church, this all changes. More people know your name. They know your business and even dare to get into it. When you disappear, there is a greater chance that people will notice, call you and ask how you are doing.
Some people don’t like that level of connection, but we were made for community and should be linked together like parts of a body. The apostle Paul put it this way:
“There should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.” —1 Cor. 12:25–26
The larger the church, the more energy is needed to build authentic accountability. It can be done, but only with a high level of intentionality.
One of the great values of a smaller church is the potential to create a place where each person is needed and expected to use their spiritual gifts. When this happens, the body is strong, and each person recognizes their own value and the cost to the church if they are not engaged. It is truly amazing what a church of 75 to 100 people can do when every person has a sense of calling, gifting and commissioning to some kind of kingdom service. This kind of church creates an accountability level that makes each person know they are contributing to God’s mission in the church and the world.
If you are part of a small church, make spiritual accountability for growth and service a norm, and watch your church change the world.