Small churches sometimes suffer from an inferiority complex. We say things like, “we only have 20 or 30 members.” What some people fail to realize is that large churches are working hard to find ways to help their people feel like they only have 30 members—to feel like they are part of group that truly knows them. Now, larger congregations can offer amazing programming for all ages, full orchestration for worship services, and funding for powerful evangelistic and missions programs. And those are all very positive traits that they can offer their communities. However, a church with hundreds of members has to deliberately find ways to feel small enough for their congregants to feel like they belong and are known within the church. That is why they focus so much on connecting their members to small groups. People sometimes feel like they get lost in larger congregations. So, as smaller churches, rather bemoaning some of the resources we don’t have, we should embrace our strengths. We are a small group already!
See, people want to have a chance to truly know other people, and to be known by them. We crave relationship. We live in a world where we have many acquaintances and colleagues, but far fewer deep friendships. I suspect that is responsible for at least some of the struggles in society. People react violently to get someone to notice them. People hurt themselves because they have no one to talk to about their struggles. People join gangs and cults in order to belong somewhere. People reach out across the internet to find friends and relationships—and sometimes find dangerous characters ready to take advantage of them. People desire to be noticed and known, and will go to great lengths to meet that need.
So, what does the small church have to offer? It is a place where each person can be known by name and their story. Remember the television show Cheers. Here are the lyrics to the show’s theme song:
Sometimes you want to go
Where everybody knows your name,
And they’re always glad you came;
You want to be where you can see,
Our troubles are all the same;
You want to be where everybody knows your name.
(“Where Everybody Knows Your Name” Lyrics by Gary Portnoy and Judy Hart Angelo)
There was something special about Norm walking into the pub, and everyone greeting him by name! While this rag-tag bunch of people came from many different backgrounds, Cheers became their little community where they took care of each other. Even when they didn’t always get along they were family. That is what small churches have to offer—a sense of family and belonging.
See, a large church can offer a specialized ministry for the youth group in a special wing of the church with a specially hired leader. There is nothing necessarily wrong with that. However, when does that young person get a chance to know the Senior Citizens in the congregation–to learn from their elders’ wisdom and to share their strength to serve their elders? When do the adults in the church get a chance to see, acknowledge and nurture the gifts of the young woman if she is only involved in the youth ministry? Who is going to know the teenager well enough to authentically be there for him if he gets into trouble in the community and no longer wants to listen to his parents? A good youth ministry will foster those types of connections—but it requires a deliberate plan in a large church because segregation comes naturally at that size and people can easily assume that someone is meeting the need.
In a small church, there are natural opportunities for cross-generational relationships because there may be no special youth ministry. The bulk of the church supports that young person and may show up to cheer them on at their dance recital, football game and graduation. The congregation as a whole may show up at the home of the church matriarch when her house needs some repair work that she can no longer do on her own. Every toddler in the church has a few sets of extra grandparents—and the parents have a few different people to call on for advice, hand-me down clothes, and help with babysitting.
If the small church is going to survive, we all have to pitch in to do our part. There are very few spectators at a small church. Everyone is an honorary trustee, takes turns teaching Sunday School, and serves a rotation on the Church Council. And there are very few secrets in a small church. Your business is going to be known—and if we remember to love each other that is ok. Some people may think they would prefer it if their church didn’t know their business. However, when the church is at its best and everyone pitches in to help with whatever problem is going on, you quickly realize that there is a certain freedom that comes from having everyone’s dirty laundry on the line and the church’s help when you need it. That’s small town and that’s small church. And it makes the problems feel a little smaller when you realize “our troubles are all the same.”
So, while there is nothing wrong with growing our churches daily (Pentecost reminds us that sometimes growth comes quickly when we preach the gospel well through our words and deeds), we can be content in a season of being a small church too. We can use the season to help people know and be known—and worry more about helping our relationships and our faith grow rather than worrying about the number of people in the pew. In fact, it was when the “church meetings” were just big enough to fit around a dinner table and share communion daily that the best discipleship took place. The early church learned to gather together in small groups, and devoted themselves to studying the word and caring for one another. And it was when the broader community saw the church share communion around the dinner table and love each other well, that the Lord added to their number daily (Acts 2).
In short, being a small church allows you to go deeper in your relationships with one another and God. Then, as the church becomes a place of authentic relationships, it will be attractive to the community. The community will then want to come in and be a part of that. As the church grows, it will then need to find ways to feel small again—to stay connected in small groups that know each other intimately even while being part of a larger church. And this is the cycle: developing intimate relationships in small groups that attract others and then after a season of growth multiplying back into smaller groups again so that each person can know and be known by God and neighbor. It even happened in Jesus’ ministry. He had times where he pulled Peter, James, and John aside to mentor them as leaders. Other times he worked with the twelve disciples or a group of 72 who he then sent out to minister throughout the region. And how could we forget that he also preached to several thousand people during the Sermon on the Mount? If Jesus worked with the few and the many—then so should the church. So, enjoy each stage of church growth as you go!