By Daniel Schantz
A farmer came up to me after a church service and asked, “Which do you think is better, a big church or a small church?”
I pondered a moment and then answered with a question of my own: “Well, which is better, a big truck or a small truck?”
He grinned. “It depends. If you have a thousand acres of soybeans to harvest, you’ll need an 18-wheeler, but for most farm jobs a pickup truck is about right.”
In other words, there is no one-size-fits-all truck. Likewise, there is no one-size-fits-all institution or church.
Do all convenience stores need to become big-box stores? Supercenters have the best prices, but they can’t be everywhere. Convenience stores are everywhere, and people are willing to pay premium prices for the convenience of a corner store.
Do all small Bible study groups need to become big Bible classes? If they did, they would lose the very dynamic that makes them work: intimacy and informality.
Do all small Bible colleges need to become big Christian universities? Many of our best leaders came from little colleges where they received lots of personal attention from their professors.
Do all small churches need to become big churches?
We need churches of all sizes, but I can speak for the small church model because I have spent my entire life ministering to such churches. At the age of 17, I began preaching in small churches on weekends. Now, 60 years and likely more than 4,000 sermons later—it’s hard to know for sure—I have seen some of these little congregations grow large, many more that have stayed the same size, and too many that have died, which breaks my heart.
If I were to define what makes the small church special, I would say it’s the number of them in existence—they are everywhere and, therefore, inescapable.
Megachurches make up fewer than 2 percent of churches, and they are mostly in large cities.
Smaller churches, on the other hand, make up the largest percentage of churches and they are widespread: on wind-blown prairies, down in dark Ozark valleys, in small towns, big cities, wealthy suburbs, and on the “other side of the tracks.”
I preach mostly in rural and small-town churches, which prevail in northern Missouri. The members include many in agribusiness, such as farmers, seed salesmen, implement repairmen, and workers in the nearby ethanol plant.
This morning, however, I am on my way to Ottumwa, Iowa, fictional home of Radar O’Reilly of M.A.S.H. television fame. I preach here once a month in a small downtown church.
We tend to think of small churches as a rural phenomenon, but most of them—thousands of them—are in the cities.
The Ottumwa church has an entirely different constituency from country churches. In the audience this morning will be firefighters and other first responders, doctors and nurses, social workers, elementary school teachers and college professors, an antique dealer, a publisher, several factory workers, and store clerks.
My country church sermons must be modified to meet the needs of this unique group.
As soon as I cross the state line into Iowa, I begin to see Amish buggies bouncing along on the berm on their way to their house churches. I count 34 of the buggies today.
Why are Amish churches out here in the middle of nowhere? Because this is where many of the Amish people live. Here, they have places to tie up their horses. Here, it’s OK to wear boots to church. House churches don’t need electricity for sound systems or video presentations. In fact, they don’t need any money to “do church.”
House churches, the smallest of the small churches, are a growing movement in America. While it’s very difficult to know how many people attend these churches, they represent perhaps millions in attendance. If persecution increases in this country, the bigger churches will make a great target, and house churches might some day be the only safe place to worship.
Part of the genius of small churches is they make use of local resources to meet local needs. It’s the reason the home school movement exploded . . . parents are able to make use of what they have: a comfortable house equipped with a computer, TV (connected to a DVD player or the Internet), kitchen, and a workshop. An SUV for field trips, a local library, and the local church. They make use of professional neighbors to teach their children skills like advanced math, woodworking, and writing for publication. Every home school is one-of-a-kind.
Small churches are not “all alike.” Go into a country church around here and you will likely hear hymns and gospel, with a few choruses thrown in. In small towns, some churches still have choirs and soloists, with organ accompaniment. In a downtown city church, you might hear a small jazz band playing choruses and hymns, because that’s what they know and love.
Here in the Midwest we have specialty churches, such as cowboy churches, where “you can wear spurs and spit,” as one man put it. They have services during the week as well as on Sunday, and encourage country and western dress and music.
Trucker churches are showing up at truck stops everywhere. Interstate 80 at Walcott, Iowa, has the largest truck stop in the country, with 5,000 customers a day. The truck stop holds church services every evening and again on Sundays, and local ministers preach.
And, yes, there are biker churches where leather and tattoos are welcome and Christian rock rules. When someone is baptized, they don’t applaud or sing “Now I Belong to Jesus,” they rev up the engines of their motorcycles!
Part of what makes small churches useful is their manageable size. Walk into a megachurch and you are confronted with an acre of faces. Even after attending for a lifetime, you still would know only a fraction of the people. But in a small church, you will know everyone’s name in just a few months. More than just names, you learn what people are like, the world over, because these churches are a “slice of life.” In every church you have several “types,” such as the church godfather, who secretly rules the church; the church sweetheart, who charms everyone into seeing things her way; and the church Pharisee, who has never had a sinful thought in his life, to hear him tell it. Personally, I find most members of small churches to be pure gold, ideal models for their young people.
How fortunate for Jesus that he grew up in Nazareth, a town of 500, and attended a small synagogue. It was perfect training for his one-on-one style of ministry.
When I go to a small church, I try to speak to everyone at least once. To do that, I arrive early and linger afterwards. I keep a file on every church I visit, containing members’ names and occupations, as well as prayer needs. I review this file before the next visit.
Over the years I have developed a deep affection for the people in these churches, and I look forward to being with them. My “congregation” is very large—most of Missouri, plus southern Iowa and western Illinois, but my congregation has multiple small sites.
We need churches of all sizes. Each has something unique to offer. If I have one wish for all churches, large or small, it is that they would place less emphasis on getting bigger and more emphasis on getting wider, by starting new churches everywhere. I started life at First Christian Church in Springfield, Ohio, a large congregation that started a new church every few years, yet it never diminished FCC in any way.
To fulfill the Great Commission, the church does not need to be “big.” After all, Jesus said the road is narrow, and “only a few find it” (Matthew 7:14). But the church does need to be everywhere, “in all the world,” where you can’t miss it.
Daniel Schantz is a professor emeritus of Central Christian College of the Bible, Moberly, Missouri.