This week I’ve been in the midst of a couple discussions about the small church.
It started when a colleague cited a statistic he’d read that 94 percent of churches in North America were small churches. I was tempted to reply that God must love small churches, since the Lord apparently created so many, but before I could, the conversation took a turn and the next comment caused me to pause in wonder: “Small churches won’t change the future.”
Maybe I’m an optimist or maybe I’m naïve… I might even be deluded. But deep inside my core, I believe small churches have the power to change communities.
Community changing isn’t a task for the faint of heart, whether you attend a megachurch or a house church. There’s a sense in which community changing is bigger than all of us. Once upon a time there was a widespread supposition that the church could protest, lobby, and legislate community change. But looking back through the Twentieth Century pretty well turns that on its ear. The church tried Prohibition in the 20s, pacifism in the 40s, anti-abortionism in the 60s, and anti-homosexualism in the 80s, and frankly, we didn’t win any of those battles. In fact, in each of these cases the church lost face and garnered a rather unpleasant reputation.
Real community change has never been achieved through social justice action, whether by protest, lobbying, or legislation. Civil rights, a right and good thing, has done little to eradicate racism, let alone elitism. And though we’ve seen other legislated social changes come and go with one administration or another, the fact remains that the warp and woof of society’s fabric has largely remained unchanged by the church’s collective demands. It’s not that community change isn’t a noble pursuit. Indeed, ultimately, the capital C Church is expected to engage culture and effect changes. The kingdom of God demands it. The issue is how… and if we’re honest, we’ll at least cock our head to one side to question the church’s past performance and results.
Perhaps the time has come to explore a different approach. For just a moment, ponder the following. What did Jesus specifically have to say about the social issues of his day? What did he say about the poor? About the Roman occupation? About racism? About slavery? How did Jesus suggest we engage each of these? Jesus’ solution, and the writers of the New Testament echo and interpret that solution, was for each disciple to live morally ethical lives, to abide by the laws of the government, to pay their taxes, and to make disciples. Not in that order.
I don’t for one moment believe Jesus wasn’t concerned about the social woes of his day. But it’s clear that the solution for his disciples was to busy themselves as the church in things of eternal consequences. When they did, the kingdom of God would follow close behind.
- Change the heart of racists, and racism will cease to be an issue.
- Connect people with addictions to the Great Physician and alcohol looses its noose.
- Immerse local and national leaders in faithful discipleship and politics will play on a different playing field.
When hearts truly change, lives change.
And when lives change, the very fabric of society itself changes.
Historically, whenever the church has lost that focus, its cultural influence has been lost as well.
So, what does this have to do with small churches and their role in changing communities? Numbers vary, but conservative estimates say there are roughly 282,000 small churches in the United States (and some suggest as many as 423,000). However, the vast majority of small churches remain small because they are inward focused. So long as a church is primarily concerned with entertaining the personal comfort and preferences of its membership, it will move, touch, inspire, and influence no one beyond its walls. But when a small church frees itself of its self, then it holds almost unlimited power to change culture. In the words of Margaret Mead, “Never doubt that a small group of committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
Question: How have you seen small churches change their communities? What roadblocks have they overcome? Share your thoughts and questions in the Comments section below.