By Arron Chambers
My wife and I recently had our fourth child. When we took our new daughter, Payton, to the doctor for the first time, he told us about an amazing medical discovery that could change our lives. He told us about a new pill that has just been approved for use by the FDA. He called it the Magic Pill. It’s a pill that, if given to our daughter, will stop her growth.
My wife and I thought about the possibilities for a while. . . .
First, Payton would never change. No need for child safety latches. No terrible twos. No potty training. She’d never be picked last for kickball at school. We wouldn’t have to watch her go through her awkward teen years when crooked teeth, zits, and glasses spoil the perfect face we currently enjoy. She would never be burdened with the arduous choice of a college, a career, or a mate. If she never changes then she’ll always be our little girl. No changes or surprises for the rest of her life and ours.
Second, Payton would also be less expensive if she remained a month old for the rest of her life. Sure, diapers are expensive, but not as expensive as back-to-school clothes, a pink bike with multicolored tassels dangling from the handlebars, braces, a prom dress, graduation presents, college, a car, a wedding, and a house. If Payton never grows up, then just think of how much money we could save!
And finally, as we considered this Magic Pill, we realized that it would make Payton easier to control. She’d never roll, crawl, walk, ride, skip, run, drive, or fly away, so she’d never stray too far from those who love her best. She’d stay put . . . and that would give us peace of mind.
When babies are allowed to grow they sometimes make foolish choices. My wife can testify that our month-old daughter has never made a foolish choice. In fact, as far as we can tell, she’s never made a choice. The Magic Pill would guarantee Payton would never do anything to disappoint us, oppose us, or hurt us. She’d do exactly what we want her to do and be exactly what we want her to be . . . forever.
As we considered the possibilities, I began to think, not just about my daughter, but also about the church.
God’s ultimate plan is for healthy babies to grow into healthy adults who believe in him, love him, serve him, and tell others about him, so that all people can spend eternity with him. God has the same plan for his church.
In my life I’ve had the privilege of worshiping with hundreds of churches around the country . . . and I’ve come to a conclusion: I think some people wish their church could take this Magic Pill. They’d prefer their church stay small.
Only 2 percent of churches in America attract more than 1,000 in a typical weekend, but these churches—and their dynamic leaders—attract almost 100 percent of the Christian media’s attention. So it might be easy to forget that most of the Protestant churches in America are actually small. George Barna says the typical Protestant church has 89 adults in attendance during a typical weekend.1
Maybe your church is small. Maybe you’re proud of your smallness. Some are. Two summers ago my wife and I were driving on I-90 in New York and we saw a sign at exit 33 advertising the “World’s Smallest Church.” It seats two people. It’s nondenominational and accessible only by boat (that’s vision for you).
Maybe you’re proud of your smallness. Maybe not.
Regardless, small churches are important and valuable to the kingdom. In my experience, many small churches are full of—and produce—spiritual giants. Many are healthy and growing, but will never have more than 100 on any Sunday for many reasons that are beyond their control—not the least of which is being located in a remote area surrounded by few residents. I agree with Barna when he reminds us of this:
Jesus did not die on the cross to fill up church auditoriums. He died so that people might know God personally and be transformed in all dimensions of their life through their ongoing relationship with Him. Such a personal reformation can happen in a church of any size. After all, the goal of every church should not be numerical growth but spiritual health and vitality.2
My concern is not for the healthy small churches, but for the churches that are small and unhealthy because a leader or someone with influence is trying to force the Magic Pill down its throat.
Why would someone want to give his or her church the Magic Pill to keep it small?
A Small Church Never Changes
In a small church it’s not uncommon for people to sit in the same end of the pew on the same row, singing the same songs, hearing the same offering prayer (beseeching God to “Bless the gift and the giver”), eating the same dishes at the same fellowship dinner, and seeing the same faces for decades. Change is not always a welcomed visitor in a church that values sameness.
Change is scary to people who cherish sameness, so sometimes they will passively, or aggressively, resist change. They refuse to give up their seat for a first-time guest, their old building for a new building, and their preferences in music styles—so they fight—afraid that if they give an inch on the use of hymnbooks, they’ll be dragged a mile closer to Hell by some pierced teenager with a loud electric guitar, a video projector, and an ungodly agenda.
But God designed this world and everything in it to change. Day to night, winter to spring, and birth to death are all essential cycles in a healthy life. The church is a body—much like my daughter’s—and healthy bodies change. Healthy change is embraced and celebrated in healthy churches.
A Small Church Is Less Expensive
It costs to reach people for Christ. Growing churches must spend money on facilities, staff, and programs to facilitate ministry and community outreach. A small, unhealthy church may have an old building with no mortgage (it was paid off by Alexander Campbell about 200 years ago), an old preacher with no pension plan, and a bunch of old programs with no strategy for reaching lost people.
But, it also costs to keep the church small. Churches that resist growth often pay the price by being seen as irrelevant by the community, by finding it impossible to keep a preacher more than a couple of years (or keeping a preacher who wants to stay but can’t raise his family on what they can afford to pay), and by struggling to keep their children and grandchildren from leaving the church at the first opportunity.
A growing church, just like a growing child, is expensive, but growing churches, just like loving parents, are willing to pay the price because the rewards are out of this world.
A Small Church is Easier to Control
Some churches are led by a board, some by a preacher, and some smaller churches—sadly—are being led by a family or individual desperate for control. Often small churches are made up of several large families and—in unhealthy small churches—you might find the most powerful family trying to use its influence to control the church. This control can be aggressive (voting down new proposals, politicking, gossip, confrontation) or it can be passive (withholding tithes, cutting the preacher’s pay or benefits, and absence from important or new programs). Either way, it’s an attempt to control the church . . . and it’s wrong.
The church is not ours to control. The church is a body controlled only by Christ. He’s the head (Ephesians 1:22), and his church is the body (Ephesians 5:23)—and he expects his body to grow (Ephesians 4:26).
A growing church, just like a growing child, does not belong to us, but to God. Our responsibility is just to encourage healthy growth.
After thinking about the possibilities, my wife and I passed on the Magic Pill. I hope your church will, too.
1George Barna, “Small Churches Struggle to Grow Because of the People They Attract,” The Barna Update (September 2, 2003).
Arron Chambers is preaching minister with Southside Christian Church in Orlando, Florida. He is a contributing editor for CHRISTIAN STANDARD and blogs on our Web site.