By Tom Ellsworth, Sherwood Oaks Christian Church, Bloomington, Indiana
I grew up in small-town, rural, southern Indiana. At the time, my home church, Central Christian in Huntingburg, averaged 80-100 devoted believers. It was a wonderful place to begin my spiritual journey.
I attended Christian service camps where preachers inspired and challenged me to enter the ministry. Not one of them ministered in a large congregation. My college and seminary education provided me with great ministry tools and resources, but it did not equip me for ministry in a megachurch. That isn’t intended as a criticism as much as a commentary on the mind-set of the day—very few thought in terms of a congregation of thousands 30 years ago.
In 1981, we moved to Bloomington, Indiana, to serve with Sherwood Oaks Christian Church, a nearly 20-year-old congregation averaging 80. Though the church had struggled through some ups and downs—some “downs” I didn’t discover until after we moved—those who remained were wonderful folks committed to being the church God wanted them to be.
My goal was simple: stabilize any losses, start meeting the budget, and grow to about 125 in the first year. Not very visionary, you say? I agree, but given my background it was all I could “see” at that moment.
Little did I know what God had in store! Today the congregation averages 2,600 in attendance and has been through a church fire, a relocation project, and four building programs.
I spent the first 25 years of my life in a small church setting and the last 25 years in an expanding church setting. I wouldn’t trade either experience, but through the years I have learned that regardless of the congregation’s size, certain principles do matter.
Attitude matters. It is essential to remember that church health is more important than church size. Good church health requires a positive, encouraging outlook on both the part of leadership and congregation. I have always believed the senior minister’s attitude sets the tone for the whole church family. A positive attitude from the pulpit can be contagious.
Vision matters. While God established the grand mission for the church, vision is unique to each individual congregation. It can vary depending on a congregation’s distinctive personality, gifts, and community opportunities.
What then is vision? Simply put, it is the ability to see where God is leading and then follow him to that end. Don’t be shortsighted; don’t think too small. God is limitless in his power and resources to accomplish that mission, so dream big!
Relationships matter. Think smaller. That might seem to conflict with vision, but it really doesn’t. It is impossible to maintain personal relationships in a “large-group-only” environment. A small congregation has a built-in advantage because it can be relational with less effort. As a congregation grows, it is easier for an individual to hide in the corners or get lost in the shuffle, so becoming relational must be intentional.
Realizing that “one size does not fit all,” I believe the emphasis should be smaller groups. The focus is not on one style or one size, but rather one goal. Whether a person prefers a class setting, an in-home small group, or a ministry team for their connecting point, the goal must be the same—creating an opportunity and environment for building relationships.
The sad reality is those who never connect with others beyond the corporate worship experience will drift away and fall through the cracks. If you don’t help people connect in the church, they will soon disconnect from the church.
Serving matters. When a congregation adopts a “me first” outlook on programming, or is focused on serving only those already in the church, it has lost sight of the mission. Gone are the days when we could expect our culture to come to the church. We must get out beyond the walls of our buildings—and our personal comfort zones—to follow the example of the One who “came not to be served, but to serve” (Matthew 20:28).
The church must earn the right to be heard. When nonbelievers see the gospel lived out in our communities, then they will be more likely to listen when we speak out about Christ.
It’s really not about size, it’s about being who God wants his church to be. Be positive, dream big, get smaller even as you grow, and act like a servant wherever you live. Don’t be surprised if God transforms you and your church family into a healthy, life-changing congregation.
Tom Ellsworth is senior minister with Sherwood Oaks Christian Church, Bloomington, Indiana.