The idea of success being
measured by size has been relentlessly drilled into us by a society
preoccupied with bigness. Mega-grocery stores have put the corner
store—and even the supermarket—out of business. Bigger homes, bigger
motorcycles, bigger hardware stores, gyms—you name it—bigger is better,
and success breeds more success, and bigger gets bigger still.
My father’s generation spoke
in terms of the personal touch, the quality of handcrafted items, and of
humility, keeping things simple, and the value of understatement (speak
softly and carry a big stick). That mindset seems to have been brutally
swept to the sidelines like an Amish carriage on a freeway.
The bigger is better
philosophy doesn’t necessarily hold true in many areas of life. China is
the world’s most populous nation—does that mean it’s the best place to
live? The Roman Catholic church is larger than any other—does that make
them the most spiritual, the most favored by God?
Size often has very little to
do with success or the blessing of God. It could be the result of good
marketing, demographics, or just being in the right place at the right
time. In fact, one could even make an argument that in order to attract
the most people, you’d have to "dumb down" your product, make it more
generic, leave out some of the personality, and those things that might
offend. Seek the lowest common denominator, so to speak. Cater to people
instead of challenging them. One would have to be very careful in such
an endeavor if the product was the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
In the Bible, small and large
numbers are recorded in the same matter-of-fact manner. Luke, the writer
of Acts, mentions three thousand being added to the church in Jerusalem,
and twelve men responding to Paul’s ministry in Ephesus without getting
excited ("wow, 3000!") or apologetic ("only twelve."). God chose a
nation that was few in number to represent Him in the world...
The LORD did not set His love
on you nor choose you because you were more in number than any other
people, for you were the least of all peoples; but because the LORD
loves you, and because He would keep the oath which He swore to your
fathers, the LORD has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed
you from the house of bondage, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.
If God were into numbers He’d
be disappointed with 98% of the churches in the world today. The vast
majority are under a hundred; average size (depending on which survey
you read) is somewhere between 75 and 89 people. Less than two percent
number a thousand or more. In spite of all the hullabaloo about
mega-churches, and all the emphasis on church growth, far more people
still attend small churches.
Are they being shepherded
well? Are their needs being met? Christian Schwarz, a German church
analyst, has done enough research to say without qualification that
churches cannot be measured by the number of people in attendance on a
given Sunday. He outlines eight criteria to measure the effectiveness of
2. Gift-Oriented Teams
3. Passionate Spirituality
4. Functional Structures
5. Inspiring Services
6. Holistic House Groups
His research indicates that
small churches outperform larger churches in all but one of the
above—inspiring worship services. It’s obviously more uplifting to sing
along with 5000 people and a professional band than to have fifteen
people led by a young man that only knows three chords on his guitar.
(Some might argue, by the way, that an effective worship service is not
necessarily measured by human skill and emotional impact.) Schwarz says:
One of our most surprising
discoveries is that (while there are some notable exceptions) the bigger
a church grows, the worse it becomes both in quality and in its
capability to reach new people for Christ.
There are, as Schwarz
mentioned, small churches that are lifeless, and larger churches that do
better than the average. But generally speaking, small churches are far
more effective than large churches, especially very large, so-called
I’ve come up with my own
list—well, my own observations based on quite a little bit of research
of others’ work on the subject—of what makes small churches more
effective than larger ones, in spite of having fewer people, staff,
facilities, resources and programs...
Small Churches Offer Better Fellowship, what one researcher termed
"Authentic Relationships." Seeing as the church is primarily
a fellowship of believers, this should be near the top of any list of
needs that should be met. Admittedly, meaningful relationships are not
always a felt need in modern American society—we tend to be rather
standoffish with one another—but it is, nevertheless a real need. One
couple who recently joined our church testified that they made more
friends in the first month here than in nine years at the larger church
they previously attended.
Small Churches Provide Better Pastoral Care.
Obviously, when your pastor doesn’t know your name, the quality
of pastoral care suffers. In John chapter ten, Jesus speaks of the true
shepherd of the sheep, who calls his sheep by name, whom the sheep
follow because he is no stranger. Unfortunately, many people go to
churches where nobody knows if they’re present or absent, much less the
The small church pastor has
fewer people to watch over, so he can be more diligent. You can call him
at home, instead of trying unsuccessfully to get past a receptionist
with a guard dog mentality. You can observe your pastor’s family life,
see how he reacts to various social situations around the church—from
volleyball games to troublesome parishioners—and decide if this is the
sort of man you want to watch over your soul.
Large churches attempt to
address the need for pastoral care—and fellowship, for that matter—by
organizing small groups, and some have succeeded in getting a
significant portion of their people to attend. The average number of
mega-church members who connect with a small group, however, is fifteen
percent or less (for those who are arithmetically challenged, that
leaves 85 or more out of every hundred people in a large church
basically unshepherded). Furthermore, the cell group leader doesn’t
necessarily have the training, experience or anointing to meet all the
needs of the sheep. God ordained pastors for a reason.
People are Discipled Better in Smaller Churches, for all the
same reasons we’ve already discussed. They have closer, more meaningful
relationships, and discipleship is based on relationship. Even Jesus
didn’t attempt to disciple thousands of people at once; He had an inner
circle of twelve, and possibly seventy others in the next tier.
Discipleship is the process of imparting the day-to-day disciplines of
the Christian walk, the attitudes, the mindset—things that aren’t easily
accomplished without personal contact. Interestingly, small church
pastors, according to a George Barna survey, are more likely to buy
books and materials about discipleship, while pastors of larger churches
buy more leadership books.
Relationships Plus Discipleship Equals Accountability.
Accountability means someone knows you well enough to feel the liberty
to speak into your life. Proverbs 27:17 says, "As iron sharpens iron,
So a man sharpens the countenance of his friend." We all need to be
accountable to someone outside of ourselves—and often to someone outside
of our immediate family, because they can be turned off the path along
with us. Accountability means you have a friend or elder who can ask you
where you were the past two Sundays, or why you haven’t quit smoking
yet. Accountability is mutual: you may be up when your friend is down
and can help lift him to where he ought to be (Ecc 4:10).
Small Churches Involve a Larger Percentage of People in Ministry.
The larger the church, the fewer people actively involved in
ministry; it’s a well-established fact that is reinforced by every study
undertaken. In churches with less than a hundred people in attendance,
31% are involved in some sort of ministry. In churches that average over
a thousand, that figure falls to 17%. Large churches have a tendency to
hire outside staff, while smaller churches generally raise up leadership
from within the congregation. In a smaller fellowship, people feel as
though they have a future in their church, as though their contribution
matters. In larger churches the talent pool is so extensive that most
people are intimidated, and therefore remain on the sidelines.
Small Churches See More People Called into Christian Service.
A large percentage of professional Christian workers, including 80% of
foreign missionaries, come from small churches. This is an incredible
statistic! Again, the reason behind it is no doubt better discipleship
and more encouragement to be in ministry.
Small Churches See a Greater Spiritual Harvest—They Win More People to
the Lord. Christian Schwarz’s
data shows that small churches are actually sixteen times more effective
in winning people to the Lord! You can theorize as to the whys and
wherefores of this phenomenon... large churches have a bigger percentage
of nominal Christians hiding in the safety of the crowd, people are not
discipled as well, they don’t connect, and therefore aren’t as excited
about their church...whatever the reasons, smaller churches once again
outperform large ones in the all-important area of winning people to
God is working mightily
in the small churches of our nation today, and instead of feeling
insignificant because we’re not doing as well as the mega-churches
around us, maybe we should be celebrating how much better than them
we’re doing! We small church pastors and members have nothing to be
apologetic about. Underscoring the effectiveness of smaller ministries
is in no way a matter of "sour grapes." We have nothing to be sour
about! It’s high time we small church people quit feeling apologetic and
started rejoicing in the fruit that we are bearing. Our profile isn’t as
impressive as the larger churches in town, but then again, maybe that’s
the way it’s supposed to be.
Finally, let me say that all
healthy organisms grow and bear fruit. Small churches should be
gradually growing into not-quite-so-small churches, and even into medium
size churches. But as we grow, let us not lose the ingredients that have
made us so effective.
Small Churches Struggle to Grow Because Of
The People They Attract (The Barna Group, September 2, 2003)
Survey Reveals The Books and Authors That
Have Most Influenced Pastors (The Barna Group, May 30, 2005)