Church size no barrier to thinking big
By Lisa Cannon Green
Your worship leader only knows three chords. If you pay the part-time secretary, you can’t afford to fix the leaky roof. Without more volunteers, the mission trip will be in trouble.
Welcome to the small church, the fast-growing segment that triggers hand-wringing among the “bigger is better” crowd. The median congregation in America has fallen to 80 weekly attendees, according to American Congregations 2015: Thriving and Surviving a sobering report in January from the Hartford Institute for Religion Research that questions the vitality of small congregations.
Those in the trenches, however, say the undeniable struggles of small churches are a source of power that can’t be matched by the megachurch.
The worship leader with his handful of chords will grow quickly as a leader, using skills that wouldn’t have gotten him onto the platform at a large church, says Karl Vaters, a small church pastor and founder of NewSmallChurch.com.
A financial pinch can nudge small churches into partnerships with other ministries that ultimately strengthen both, says consultant and former small church pastor David Gould.
And hesitant volunteers are likely to grow in faith and commitment by stepping up to meet the church’s need, Vaters says.
In fact, small churches—multiplying like cells of the body—are key to the growth of God’s kingdom, says Elmer Towns, co-founder of Liberty University.
“All churches are small when they begin,” says Towns, pointing to Matthew 18:20: “For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there among them.”
“When Jesus is there, it’s the body of Christ, and therefore a small church is as powerful as Jesus.”
Americans are more open to attending small churches than megachurches, Lifeway Research shows. Only 8 percent rule out churches of fewer than 100, while 29 percent say they would never go to a megachurch.
And the leading edge of the millennial generation—Americans 25-34 years old—shows more openness to small churches than those entering middle age, according to the 2014 survey. Only 5 percent of Americans 25-34 say they would never go to a church of fewer than 100, compared to 12 percent of those ages 35-44.
Millennials’ receptivity to small churches makes sense to Vaters, who says mobility and technology have distanced young Americans from their communities. “We don’t get to know our neighbors, because we’re fully entertained with the screens in our own living room and the phone in our own pocket.”
As a result, Vaters says, millennials are looking for personal relationships—the specialty of the small church.
“My grandparents’ generation took relationships for granted and needed to build structures,” Vaters says. “Having a building and a full-time pastor meant stability and status for them.
“My children’s generation takes the structures for granted and needs to build relationships—so their churches are going to reflect that.”
This shift in focus doesn’t mean millennials are less committed to the cause of Christ, Vaters says. Rather, they’re less committed to the church as an institution and more committed to actively helping the vulnerable and the hurting.
“They will show up and give passionately for hands-on service to those less fortunate than themselves,” he says. “They will take their entire vacation to go to an orphanage in Mexico, where they will work in miserable conditions for two weeks. My parents’ generation would not have done that.”
Towns also sees mobility and technology changing the future of the American church. As people move to new communities, congregations struggle to replace them in the pews, he says. He sees young Americans shifting toward online worship. “In the eyes of the millennials, who live online, that’s the latest church.”
Like Vaters, he sees hope in small congregations—particularly in young, energetic church plants.
“The greatest thing today is church planting, because we win souls,” says Towns. “People come to a new church and get saved.”
The Hartford Institute’s Faith Communities Today report in January noted with concern that nearly 58 percent of congregations now have fewer than 100 people at weekend worship services. That’s up from 49 percent just five years earlier.
Small church leaders say they’ve seen the effects—tight budgets and fewer people to do the work of the ministry. Gould, for example, spent five years living with his wife and three children in the back of the Sunday school wing at First Wesleyan Church in Nashville, Tennessee, which at the time had no parsonage. The family slept in converted classrooms and cooked in the basement kitchen.
Living inside the inner-city church had its perks, Gould says: “It put us right there in the midst of the community, so we heard the same gunshots our neighbors did. It bought us a lot of credibility.”
Still, even the staunchest supporters of small churches acknowledge the pain of limited resources.
“At many small churches, once you pay the pastor and maybe a part-time secretary, you’ve pretty much used up all of your funds,” says Doug Akers, manager of special operations for church partnerships at Lifeway Christian Resources.
Paying the bills is small churches’ biggest challenge today, Vaters says, and he expects it to get tougher in the years ahead.
Despite the struggles, advocates cite many advantages of small churches, starting with personal relationships.
“You go in and everyone knows your name,” Akers says. “There’s a closer-knit fellowship. I chose to leave a large church to go to a small church, and one reason is to have that sense of belonging.”
Small churches have always been the foundation of Christianity, notes Bruce Raley, who was volunteer founding pastor in 2013 for Creekside Fellowship in Castalian Springs, Tennessee, population 556.
The first church was birthed from 120 people who made a difference, and thousands of smaller churches are still making that difference.
Leaders in small churches may question their potential for influence. Proportionally, however, small churches may have the potential for the greatest influence, Raley says. He points out three distinctive traits of small churches:
- Fewer ministries but greater focus. At a small church, resources are limited. Therefore, a small church must focus on what it can do best. Some of the most effective churches are small congregations who have studied their mission field and know how they can affect people in that field.
- Fewer people but greater engagement. For a church to be what God wants it to be, every person must be engaged in ministry. Larger churches allow people to be anonymous, never getting involved. This is less likely in small churches. Not only are people more visible, but the needs are more visible as well.
- Fewer leaders but greater discipleship. Multiple studies show discipleship takes place best in the context of relationships. Transformational Church, Transformational Discipleship, and Transformational Groups all have reinforced this point. And what is the greatest opportunity for relationships to develop? Small groups.
While larger churches focus intentionally on getting people into small groups, in small churches it happens naturally, Raley says.
Members are more likely to know everyone else, and they can influence one another to grow in their faith and ministry. Small churches set the stage for the most effective form of discipleship: when a maturing believer invests in the life of another.
Two-thirds of American congregations have fewer than 100 regular participants, and the share is increasing, the National Congregations Study 2015 from Duke University shows. However, because those churches are small, they account for only 16 percent of American churchgoers.
Most American churchgoers attend larger churches, according to the study. About half are in congregations of 500 or more, where it’s easy for people to develop a consumer mentality and let others take the lead.
But in small churches, people know they’re needed, so they give extra effort, Towns says. “If I’m not there, who’s going to take the offering? Who’s going to teach my class? You know your work is appreciated.”
Taking on those responsibilities builds spiritual maturity in ways church attendance alone cannot, Vaters says.
Hands-on ministry opportunities are easy to find in a small church, he says, where the needs are many and the hands are few.
Finally, Vaters says, small churches will always appeal to people who feel more comfortable in an intimate worship setting. They may want a close relationship with their lead pastor; they may feel intimidated by crowds.
“Small churches have always been around and will always be around. That’s not a problem we need to fix—that’s part of the strategy God wants to use,” Vaters says. “The moment you make that mindset shift, everything starts to change.”
Lisa is a former senior editor at Lifeway Research.