I begin with a disclaimer – I don’t believe the size of a church has any merit in the Kingdom. Neither do I believe a small church (under 200 in worship) or a large church has any advantages over the other. They both are called of God to perform the same mission … to carry out Christ’s last will and testament in both Matthew and Acts and make disciples of Jesus Christ. Churches that make disciples are great churches no matter what size. Churches that don’t make disciples aren’t churches no matter what size.
The truth is, small churches could be God’s gift to the US because there are so many of them. In many parts of the country it seems as if there is one or more on every corner. In every part of the country, we have enough small churches to win America to Christ.
However, every study I’ve seen shows that, except for the first four years of a new church, small churches are accounting for fewer and fewer of the people who claim to attend a Christian church. I’ve seen recent studies that show 50 percent of all US Christians are attending large churches and megachurches.
A few years ago, at the request of a major denomination, I spent two days consulting with eleven small, dying churches in an isolated valley in the Appalachian area. The eleven churches were strung out along a farm-to-market road over a thirty mile area. The total worship attendance of the eleven churches amounted to 125 people. Nine of the churches were separated from each other by no more than a mile and a half.
During the interview process, every one of the church leaders shared with me their church’s struggle to survive. I could feel the bitterness and despair in their voice as they spoke of the callousness of their denomination toward their plight and the loss of their young people.
During the interviews, I asked two questions: “Why are you declining?” and “What is the largest church in the area?” They blamed their church’s decline on the isolation of their location, the declining population of the valley, and the lack of help from their denomination. A favorite phrase was “We’re just a small church.” They also told me that the largest church in the valley had about 35 people in worship.
After listening to the eleven groups tell the same story, I was almost persuaded that I had found the one place in America where churches could not grow. On the way back to the airport I noticed a large, square box-looking building at the intersection of Nowhere and Somewhere. Other than numerous barns, this was the largest building I had seen in the valley. I asked the denominational official to drive by the building. We soon discovered that it was a five-year-old, nondenominational church with a very large parking lot, and averaged 800 attendees in four worship services, most of whom were young adults!
What’s wrong with this picture? Lots. The people I interviewed did little but complain about their smallness and the lack of help from their denomination. They were so absorbed in themselves that they could not or would not admit that it was possible to grow a strong, healthy church in their valley. They could not admit the presence of that big box down the street.
Here is what ten years of consulting has taught me about small churches and what can be done to keep them from continual decline.
Small churches tend not to make disciples because they are ruled by a few heavy-handed individuals who have a deep passion to be big fish in a small pond. Small churches are just about the last place left in the world where good-hearted people will put up with totally dysfunctional people. Maybe it’s time for the good people to treat them like the dysfunctional children they are and hold them accountable for their actions and require them to either repent or ship out. People just don’t join unhealthy churches.
There is only one reason why churches put up with dysfunctional people – they have forgotten why they exist. They are no longer focused on being God’s mission in the world. They are turned inward and focused on themselves. Perhaps it’s time for your small church to clean house.
Small churches don’t make disciples because they are oriented around taking care of their members rather than making disciples (large churches also do this). One of the myths about small churches is that they are more caring than large churches. This just isn’t true. The power of this myth arises from the fact that most small churches make the fatal mistake of falling for the most pernicious of all Christian viruses … the belief that the purpose of the church is to take care of each member’s every need. Perhaps it’s time to reclaim the church’s place in the community by asking your pastor to equip your leaders to go out into the community and make disciples.
Some small churches take pride in being small as if it were a virtue. Some pastors proudly proclaim that they refuse to play the “numbers game.” Others believe in the “righteous remnant” theory of the Old Testament more than the Great Commission of the New Testament. “We’re not declining; we’re just separating the wheat from the chaff.” Sounds like the same thing Jesus dealt with when he went up against the Pharisees. Numbers are people no matter how you cut it.
So what do small churches need to do to make disciples?
The answer is simple for any size church – they need to recover what it means to be a church. By definition, a church is a group of people who have been called out of the world for one purpose – to make disciples, not to care for one another. Churches don’t have a mission – God has a mission and it’s the church. The church has one reason to exist – to make disciples, pure and simple. Small churches need to reclaim what it means to be a church.
Small churches can elect to remain small and still make disciples by deciding to send people away to start new churches every time they reach their maximum size. By carrying out the Great Commission, they are part of the Body of Christ. By starting new churches, they remain small and help expand the Kingdom. This is a win-win strategy.
A Tale of Two Small Churches
Thirtry years ago, Ginghamsburg Church was an old, small, rural church with 90 people in worship meeting in a tiny brick and frame country church, located twenty miles from Dayton, Ohio. Today, it has over 5,000 people in worship at a new site. The principles they use today are the same they used years ago when a young pastor arrived with passion for the lost and a vision for the future. It’s a great place to visit because you can see both the little red country church and the new, modern worship center.
Six years ago, East Canton Church had 35 in worship and a pastor who had responsibility for two churches. Less than 20,000 people lived within a twenty mile radius of the church and the population was declining. In less than four years, the church averaged over 170 in worship and had become a teaching church for small churches. The pastor used the same principles at East Canton that the pastor of Ginghamsburg had used.
Two small churches: both were dying, but now they are thriving because someone decided it was time to be a church and make disciples. Folks, that’s all it takes … along with a lot of hard work and prayer. So go for it.
Question: What else have you found that keeps small churches from making disciples? Share your thoughts in the Comments section below.