For years, small churches have been considered to be something of a drain on the rest of the church. Periodic reviews, using statistical information (membership, budget, worship and church school attendance, pastoral salary), compared them unfavorably with denominational or national averages. It was assumed that these churches were small for a reason – because something had gone wrong – because they were not growing. Experts were called in to identify what had gone wrong and to recommend how to fix it. If the problem was membership numbers, they rolled out evangelism and member recruitment programs. Poor worship attendance called for programs to enliven worship. For financial stress a stewardship and fund raising effort was prescribed. A loss of focus was addressed by a mission study and strategic plan. And, a new, young pastor was the preferred solution to a problem with leadership.
We believe that this is a wrong-headed approach that falsely equates size with effectiveness. Like Gideon’s army (Judges 6-8), some churches are small for a purpose. They can be more effective precisely because they are smaller. Gideon’s army was reduced in size so that when they drove the Midianites from the land they would know it was God’s work and not their own cunning and courage. Healthy small churches place their trust in God rather than in programs and personalities. Their energy is directed toward discovering what God is doing within and around them so they can join that work.
Healthy small churches have distinct advantages in this age of post Christendom: They can communicate rapidly and effectively; their relationships are deep and strong; they can be nimble in response to changing circumstances; they have a rich experience of trusting God to lead and support them in difficult times; they know and understand the resources (even if limited) that God has placed at their disposal; they often have a history of strong lay leadership; and, they tend to act without waiting for permission if the need requires.
If we want to strengthen our small churches, we will shift away from our emphasis on numbers. We will find ways to help these churches build on their trust in God identify their strengths and claim their worth as effective tools in Christ’s work. Our small churches don’t need more dollars or members. The path to strength and effectiveness is more theological and spiritual than programmatic. They need to acknowledge that they are smaller for a purpose and seek to claim and live that purpose faithfully.