By Ben Merold, Harvester Christian Church, St. Charles, Missouri
I have a great appreciation for the smaller church. I was led to accept Christ as my personal Savior in a small church. I was encouraged to go into the ministry by that same small church. I learned how to preach and minister in smaller churches. In my 57 years in ministry, including student ministries, I have served five churches. All of these churches were small churches when I went to them. Only once have I accepted the call to a church larger than the one I left, and on that occasion the new church was averaging only about 70 more in attendance. I have spent a large part of my life in smaller churches, holding seminars, revivals, and leadership conferences. If the Lord delays his coming and allows me to serve a few more years, I will probably end my ministry in a small church.
I visit many small churches that are impacting a larger proportion of their population base than the megachurch I presently serve. In fact, we are beginning to see what many of us refer to as “small-town megachurches.” These are churches that are reaching a significant percentage of their local population even though their attendance leaves them far short of the megachurch category.
I firmly believe this is a great day for most of the churches in small towns and rural areas. Thom S. Rainer in his book Giant Awakenings makes this comment:
On the horizon is an influx of people back to small towns and rural areas. In the first three years of the nineties decade, 64 percent of nonmetroplitan counties experienced population growth.1
I have every reason to believe this trend is continuing. Last year I met with the elders of a strong rural church as they planned for the future. This church, reachable only by a gravel road, had constructed a family life center and a new worship center. The elders told me the population of their county seat town was shrinking but the population of the county was increasing. They considered this an opportunity for evangelism and they are absolutely correct.
Small churches can grow.
Small churches can be evangelistic and develop programs to meet needs. They can excel in Christian education, and they can support world missions. In other words, small churches can do most of the basic things megachurches are doing. They may be doing those things on a smaller scale but they may, at the same time, be influencing a greater proportion of their population base.
Small churches can cooperate with each other.
In cooperation with other brotherhood churches, small churches can have strong special events such as seminars, concerts, and educational programs. They can join forces to support living-link missions and become a powerful influence.
In the past few years I have observed situations where a smaller church makes a conscious effort to organize cooperation in the Lord’s work with other local congregations, often with surprising results. As the cooperative effort produces victory, it seems to heighten the evangelistic zeal in all the churches.
Small churches can produce Christian workers.
Recently I attended the chapel service of a small Christian college. The chapel speaker conducted a quick visual survey among the 200 students. About 1 percent of them came from churches more than 1,000 in attendance, and the rest came from smaller churches. In my judgment, about 94 percent came from churches of fewer than 250 in average attendance.
Please do not use these figures to criticize the larger church. There were almost no megachurches in the area of this school’s influence. However, while there is nothing conclusive about this informal survey, we do recognize that a majority of recruits for full-time Christian service still come from smaller churches, which may do a better job of personally encouraging these students.
Yes, I appreciate the smaller church, and want to help them grow. Some of them will become real megachurches; many will become midsized churches. Some will become “small-town megachurches” or “rural megachurches” by reaching 25 percent or 50 percent of their population area.
The megachurch is usually a catalyst for the growth of smaller churches in their area. Let’s thank God for them! But those of us in megachurches must never forget that we started as a small church, may have been converted in a small church, and owe much to the small church.
I want to continue to work for the smaller church and I will pray that they have even more growth and influence for the kingdom of God.
1Thom S. Rainer, Great Awakenings (Nashville: Broadman and Holman Publishers, 1995), 7.
Ben Merold is senior minister with Harvester Christian Church, St. Charles, Missouri, and a member of Standard Publishing’s Publishing Committee.