In this repost of a classic article that first appeared in Christian Standard on May 20, 2012, Tom Claibourne responds to some fairly typical stereotypes about small churches. Claibourne is in his 40th year serving with Bethlehem Church of Christ, Winchester, Ohio. He recently was inducted into the Christian Village Communities Hall of Faith; his induction video celebrating his life of ministry is available at the church’s Facebook page. (Read our October 2019 issue for articles about challenges facing rural and small churches . . . and possible solutions.)
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By Tom Claibourne
Small church. What is the first image that comes to your mind when you hear those two words? A few months ago I decided to conduct an unscientific survey by posing that question to more than 40 leaders who serve in varied ministries of all sizes from across the country.
Many responses were negative: No vision. Failing. Stuck. Irrelevant. Inward-focused. Politics. Legalistic. Narrow-minded. Stagnant. Unfriendly. Low impact. Backward. Not healthy. Internalized. Limited.
Others were complimentary: Big heart. Warmth of relationships. Connecting. Relational. Built-in small group.
Some were simply realistic: Home to the majority of America’s Christians. Restricted by something (location, leadership, the past, etc.). Rural. Fewer resources. Work harder for the same results. The core churches of the Restoration Movement.
Several were quite interesting: Steeple. Flock. Choir. On every corner. Grandma. And this detailed description: “white, small, clapboard building on the outskirts of a small southern Indiana town.” (I was disappointed he didn’t include exact dimensions and how many tombstones were out back.) A similar response specified “in the wildwood.” One preacher who travels and speaks quite widely made this interesting distinction: quaint (if it is in the country), unfriendly (if it is in the city).
A few responses were hopeful: Salt of the earth and heart of the kingdom. Hope. Untapped potential that can be realized if change is embraced. The beginnings of a larger church as we go and make disciples.
One pattern that emerged was a bit surprising to me. The most harshly negative replies came almost exclusively from preachers who have had long associations with small churches. About 25 percent of those I surveyed were from churches of more than 1,000 in attendance, and they offered mostly positive observations. Very intriguing!
Despite the wide variety of responses from my survey, I would like to respond to some fairly typical stereotypes about small churches.
Small churches are primarily in rural areas.
Many are. The country roads of America are dotted with countless small places of worship. In my survey the country/rural emphasis easily outnumbered all the other responses.
While it may seem there is a tiny church near every cornfield, there may be even more of them in the small towns and large cities of America. Ignoring this demographic reality will hinder attempts to assist or advise small congregations not in a rural setting.
Small churches are simply miniature versions of large churches.
This stereotype is naïve and dangerous. What works in a large church may not work in a small church. In One Size Doesn’t Fit All, Gary McIntosh brilliantly explains how small, midsize, and large churches function differently according to their size. The structure is different (single cell vs. stretched cell or multiple cell). Decisions are handled differently in a small church (made by congregation vs. made by committees or by staff and leaders). Growth patterns, obstacles, and strategies vary according to size.
The small church is a completely different organism than a midsize or larger church.
Many of them are. So are many midsize and large churches. But many small churches are not. Some are downright cold and exclusive, convincing themselves they’re friendly because they’re friendly to each other. Members smile and laugh with their family and friends, while staring indifferently at the rare first-time attendee.
One of our newer members at the church I serve remarked that we are a much friendlier congregation now at 250 than we were nearly 30 years ago when only 85 people were attending. She visited here once then, and she can feel the difference.
Churches of any size are friendly because they choose to be friendly, and design deliberate strategies to welcome and assist guests from the moment they drive onto the church grounds.
In small churches people all know each other.
Often this is true simply because most of the members are from a handful of large, extended families. They know each other well, not necessarily because they are part of a small church, but because they share the same great-grandparents. Once you get outside those bloodlines there is not always a deep, intimate knowledge of each other, especially in rural areas where people tend to be uncomfortable with openness and transparency.
I have actually observed deeper interpersonal relationships, confession, and openness in the lives of Christians involved in small groups in large churches than I’ve seen in small churches. It is a matter of intentionality.
Small churches live in the past.
This is often true. Some older members are glad to tell you about the three-week revival in 1963 when the building was so full that people were looking in through the windows. They’ll also praise the nearly perfect preacher who was adored in the early 1980s.
Not every smaller congregation has been around for lots of years, but many of them have. Older, smaller churches often commit systematic, congregational suicide by going to one of two extremes. They either back into the future while looking to the past (and then lament the fact that no young people are around anymore), or they show blatant disregard for time-honored ministries and traditions in a misguided attempt to bring relevance and instant growth.
Balance is critical, so small churches need to celebrate past victories, recognize years of faithful leadership, and rejoice over life-changing moments that have occurred. Churches can learn from these things, while moving forward with exciting dreams and timely, well-explained changes.
An old Russian proverb says, “Dwell in the past and you’ll lose an eye. Forget the past and you’ll lose both eyes.” Churches need to honor the past while not dwelling there.
Small churches are afraid of numerical growth.
This usually happens if any of the following conditions exist:
• A particular individual or family has dominated the church for decades and fears losing control.
• Most members believe the church will lose its perceived closeness and friendliness if it grows.
• People incorrectly assume a church must compromise biblical truth to grow numerically.
• Members hate the thought of people who are “not like us” attending.
• Older members fear being lost in the shuffle as new people, programs, and priorities emerge.
• Change is viewed as a dangerous threat.
It is exciting, however, to watch when small churches decide to take Jesus’ Great Commission seriously, deal with the above barriers in a wise, prayerful way, and strive for a healthy balance between evangelism, discipling, and shepherding as they begin to grow.
Small churches cannot offer creative programming.
This is pure myth. Yes, there are limitations for small churches, but creative does not have to equal expensive. A small budget can actually be a great incentive for creativity. It forces a congregation to evaluate, prioritize, and make adjustments.
Members of small congregations need only to ask themselves what unique niche they can fill in their particular community that no other church is providing. Maybe a deaf ministry, after-school program, live nativity scene, support group, or targeted benevolence program. The church leaders need to be like the men of Issachar “who understood the times and knew what Israel should do” (1 Chronicles 12:32).
Small churches cannot grow again once they have declined or stagnated.
Sure, there are some congregations that died many years ago, have no desire for a resurrection, and should be given a decent, respectful burial. While closing a church or carefully merging two smaller congregations may be necessary on some occasions, we need to be hesitant to write premature obituaries.
Small, struggling churches need to remember the biblical “remnant principle.” Throughout the Old Testament the people of Israel would die off, turn their backs on God, or intermingle with pagan nations, but later God would use the remnant, the remaining faithful few, as seed for future growth.
God began the human race with one couple. He started over after the flood with just eight people. Jesus built the foundation for his church on a mere 12 followers, who multiplied until the numerical growth became incalculable.
Let’s be realistic about the obstacles, but optimistic about the potential. The same God who can renew an individual’s life can also revive a congregation that strives to be faithful and effective.
Small churches cannot have a big impact.
The fact is, a church of 75 people in a village of 800 may have a far bigger influence in its setting than a megachurch has in a city of 1 million. With members acting as salt and light throughout most areas of town life, the small church can have significant impact.
Small churches also have had a far-reaching impact beyond their own community for many years as their own young people have grown up, moved away, and served in other churches. Small churches are not able to hire a staff member to fulfill every role, so members begin at young ages serving in the nursery, children’s ministry, music ministry, and in many other capacities. By the time they go off to Christian colleges, they have often served in various leadership capacities. They’ve essentially served in unpaid internships and are ready to use their training within the larger kingdom of God.
Small churches are less faithful and successful than large churches.
This depends on how we define terms. In Jesus’ parable of the talents (Matthew 25), he made clear that the two men who doubled their talents were equally faithful and successful. Even though one started with two talents and another with five, his words of praise were identical for both because both of them doubled the number of talents they controlled (25:21, 23). It wasn’t the number of talents that mattered, but the servants’ faithfulness in multiplying them.
In light of Jesus’ teaching, let me ask some questions to help us put this issue in perspective.
At what attendance level does a ministry become significant? One hundred fifty? One thousand? Is the faithful preacher who pours his life into a small group of inner-city people less productive than the man preaching to 400 in the suburbs? Is the courageous missionary struggling deep inside the Muslim world with a handful of converts less productive than the man leading 2,000 in a more receptive field?
Was Jesus more productive when he fed 5,000, or when he talked to Nicodemus, or when he discipled the Twelve? When Philip baptized throngs in Samaria (Acts 8), was he more productive than when he converted the lone Ethiopian on the desert road?
We serve the Lord of the universe who calls all kinds of people to all kinds of ministries in all kinds of settings so that all people can have the opportunity to respond to the gospel message of Christ. Jesus is the Master we are seeking to please.
Small and large are relative terms. Let’s build faithful churches that take Jesus’ commission seriously, whatever our size and location.
Tom Claibourne serves with the Bethlehem Church of Christ in rural southern Ohio and enjoys breaking stereotypes.