17 April, 2024

THROWBACK THURSDAY: ‘Small Is Beautiful’ (1981)

by | 4 January, 2024 | 0 comments

Joseph H. Dampier was a native Canadian who served more than a dozen years as minister with churches in Indiana and Pennsylvania before starting a 17-year ministry with First Church in Johnson City, Tenn., in 1941. During his ministry there, he was president of the 1951 North American Christian Convention. In 1958, Dampier became provost of Milligan College. In 1965, he began a four-year stint as dean of Emmanuel School of Religion, before serving ESR as professor of Christian ministries from 1969 to 1982. Joseph Dampier died in 1984. 

_ _ _ 

Small Is Beautiful 

By J. H. Dampier (a Reflections column) 
Dec. 27, 1981; p. 10 

NOT all small churches are alike. Some are small be­cause they are new churches in a growing community. They will outgrow their smallness before long. Some are small because they are in a shrinking community. They are smaller than they used to be and are doomed to get smaller. Some are small because they think small. If they ever got bigger it would threaten the position of the peo­ple who are already there. Some are small because they are located in long established communities and their size is already determined by their location. They might be­come a lot better than they are, but not much bigger.  

Someone ought to say a good word for the small church. The reported observation of Abraham Lincoln that the Lord must love the common people because He made so many of them could be applied to small churches because there are so many of them.  

Only 2 percent of the church members in the United States belong to a congregation of more than 1,000 mem­bers. Statistics of the years 1968–1974 classify 50 percent of Protestant churches as small. Small means a church of 200 members or less.  

In the past this included most Christian churches be­cause we were a rural people. The number of larger churches increased rapidly following World War II when the population of farming communities began to shrink rapidly and the population of suburban areas began to grow. What really happened was that the big churches got bigger because small churches were getting smaller.  

The Bible has more to say about small churches than we sometimes recognize. There were large churches. Jerusalem counted its membership by the thousands from the first day onward. But Jesus chose a dozen men and talked about two or three gathered together with His presence assured to them. Paul (who certainly had great success) mentions churches so small that they met in houses in Rome, Colossae, and Corinth.  

How big should a church be? In America where people worship success, we sometimes talk about not starting churches because they may not grow. We want elaborate buildings (sometimes misnamed cathedrals), large mem­berships, electronic evangelism, a computerized mailing list, and so many members that they do not recognize each other if they meet during the week. (As an example, people from a congregation met at a world convention in a forum and they had never met before!)  

Of course, everyone knows the disadvantages of small churches. If they do get a good preacher, some bigger church takes him just as soon as they get him trained. The size of the congregation limits the amount of money, and many of the things they want to do seem to cost too much. Parents want a church that has a nursery, a junior church, and a lively youth program. People who have sophisticated taste (at least they will tell you that’s what they have) do not want an untrained choir and do not want to improve it.  

Most of us would not be Christians today if the gospel had not come to us by a long succession of little churches that, by modern standards, were programmed for failure. But those churches didn’t know that and just remained faithful.  

Some advantages—Little churches have some real advan­tages. They have a character that is all their own. They are not just miniature replicas of big churches. They can keep it simple. David could not wear Saul’s armor.  

They are organized like a family, not like a corpora­tion. They have the love, concern, joy, and also the sorrows of a family. They are brothers and sisters, not registered stockholders with voting rights. Christians in small churches feel wanted and needed.  

This is the place where Christian leadership develops. Everybody must do something. Probably there is not a big enough budget to hire people to do everything, so every member learns to do something, rather than have a program that does something for him. Their ship is all crew and no passengers. Many so-called big churches would not be able to function without the people who learned the craft of active membership by serving their apprenticeship in a small church.  

Fellowship is not making a list of disputed doctrines or opinions and announcing that we are “in fellowship” or “not in fellowship” with those who agree or disagree on these chosen points. Fellowship really exists among those who know each other’s names and who use those names when they work together in the same cause and for the same Master.  

The preacher who preaches to you is the one who bap­tizes you, marries you, and will preach your funeral. Jerry Falwell is not available. The preacher in a small church is a shepherd both to the sheep and the goats. The Lord may eventually separate them, but small churches that know people will keep on trying.  

In a small church the members get more counseling from their minister than they would from the specialist in a big church. Since the minister does not have a couch or an appointment book, he just keeps on doing the job—but he usually calls it “visiting” and “helping people.”  

Of course some churches are too small. Some should be bigger and some should repent of their small ways and start gaining, but some are victims of the demographic situation.  

How big?—In the type of cultural, social, economic, and political society we live in, every church ought to aim to support its own minister and (if possible) give him enough secretarial help so he can be free to do the work of the ministry.  

No church should be so big that people are only warm bodies in a pew with only one Christian activity—giving an offering.  

Big churches have their place. In some areas you just can’t seem to stop them from getting bigger. But for every such church, there will be a number of small ones. The small ones will have some real advantages, but very often they do not realize it. The majority of Christians will always be members of small churches. The majority of preachers will always preach for small churches. Never apologize for the small size of a church unless you are sure it is small for the wrong reasons. 

Joseph H. Dampier is a member of the faculty of Emmanuel School of Religion, Johnson City, Tenn. 

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