Can the Small, Traditional Church Grow?

By Matt Pinson

Pastors and leaders of small, traditional churches find themselves awash in a sea of church growth literature that often seems useless to them. On one hand, run-of-the-mill church growth books come from the perspective of “when I came to First Baptist, we had only 250 in Sunday morning worship attendance. Now we have more than 1,000. Here’s how you can do the same.”

On the other hand, most church growth books communicate, whether consciously or subconsciously, that the only way to achieve church growth today is to harness contemporary, mega-church methods that have come into use in the last two decades or so.

Our Context

Most Free Will Baptist pastors start out with traditional churches that have fewer than 100 attendees on Sunday morning.  In fact, 36% of Free Will Baptist churches have 50 or fewer people. Another 24% have 100 or fewer. That makes 60% of our churches with fewer than 100 people in attendance. This is not unusual. The average church in America, regardless of denominational affiliation, has fewer than 100 people in attendance on a typical Sunday morning.

So what’s a small church pastor to do? Is it possible for small, traditional and small-town churches (the kind of churches our Free Will Baptist churches are) to grow? I believe it is and experienced dynamic church growth in my seven years as pastor of Colquitt FWB Church, a smaller, traditional church in a small Georgia town. I’ve found that traditional churches that want to grow can grow even if they don’t have the desire or resources to use contemporary or mega-church methods.

Is Contemporary Culture Unique?

One myth of the modern-day church growth movement is the uniqueness of our contemporary religious situation. The only way we can reach out to a pagan, pluralistic, affluent, educated, technologically advanced and morally decadent culture, it is argued, is to employ marketing methods that appeal to people’s pop-culture sensibilities.

Most Free Will Baptist pastors couldn’t do this if they wanted to, because their congregations are traditional and wouldn’t go for it. Many pastors have an instinctive sense that selling out to pop culture is not the best way to honor Christ in the life of the Christian congregation.

The good news is that we don’t have to sell out to reach out. We can have growth without giving in to the shallow pop culture that is based, not on a neutral worldview, but on a non-Christian worldview.

A few years ago when I was worrying about how to reach this culture for Christ, it dawned on me that there are a great many similarities between our culture and the culture of the New Testament church.

Our Culture and Paul’s Culture

When we compare the culture of today with that of, say, the apostle Paul’s day, we find striking similarities. The culture in which Paul ministered was, like our own, a pagan, pluralistic, affluent, educated and morally decadent culture. Paul faced a variety of philosophies (like the Stoics and Epicureans in Acts 17) and religions. Popular and diverse mystery religions that exalted illicit sexuality of all types were rampant in cities like Ephesus.

The coliseums were home to graphically violent gladiator fights. The amphitheaters featured graphically sexual plays. There was great wealth (and also an increasingly top-heavy welfare system). People were surrounded by a great deal of education and philosophy, and there was no real religious consensus or even agreement on the meaning of truth in the Roman Empire of Paul’s time.

Any of this sound familiar? The only major difference between today’s culture and that culture (as it relates to reaching unchurched people for Christ) is the use of electronic technology like radio, television, video technology and the Internet.

Early Church’s Growth

University of Washington sociologist Rodney Stark recently studied the phenomenal growth of the early church in his book, The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries.  While I would not agree with every conclusion of this fascinating book, it raises an important point: The early churches grew extraordinarily in a cultural environment much like ours.

Keep in mind, the early churches started out at first with mostly poor people. So it wasn’t that they had a lot of money to spend. They were almost always small and informal. They usually met in houses or rustic locations—sometimes even in places like Rome’s catacombs (underground burial places) so as to escape persecution.

The demands were high because they faced persecution and even martyrdom. Membership requirements were strict, and church discipline was stringent. Almost all the money they collected went to the support of the ministry, missions and the poor.

They had simple worship that wasn’t very entertaining to their members, who were accustomed to the garish and spine-tingling amusement so common in Greco-Roman cities. Like the Jewish synagogues, they were long on scripture reading and teaching and preaching and short on musical performance: they had no choirs, no worship teams, no special music, even no musical instruments.

Yet, soon these churches began to attract all levels of people—the rich and poor, the educated and ignorant, the slave and free, people of all races. Why? How could these churches grow in a culture eerily like our own?

Why Early Churches Grew

The answer lies in the New Testament itself. First, we must get back to the basics of the early church: “They continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in breaking of bread, and in prayers.” They sang Psalms, hymns and spiritual songs that accomplished three things: (1) teaching, (2) admonition and (3) making melody in their hearts to the Lord.

They spread the gospel and helped people go other places to proclaim the good news. They had shepherds who lovingly led the flock under Christ as servants and held themselves up to the highest principles of biblical virtue. They had high standards for church membership and discipline. They were concerned about teaching people to take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ.

11 Necessary Growth Elements

What do the characteristics of the early church point to as keys to success in church growth? Here are the main ones, in no particular order:

  • the expositional teaching and preaching of scripture
  • a primary concern for doctrine and theology (they weren’t content to let their discipleship of new believers remain on the level of milk rather thon meat)
  • a deep yearning to see lost people come into the kingdom and to be fellow laborers in missions
  • a strong commitment to personal and corporate prayer
  • pastors who were close to their flocks, preached the Word, ministered to the needs of the flocks as servants and were sensitive to the culture they lived in
  • equipping the saints for the work of ministry (Eph. 4:12)
  • an intimate unity and fellowship among believers (with lots of meals to foster that close fellowship!—see, e.g., Acts 2:42, 46)
  • high standards of church membership and discipline
  • simple, sincere, scriptural worship that was honoring to God and edifying—not entertaining—to His people
  • a concern for helping the poor and downcast, with godly deacons administering that aid
  • fellowship with other scriptural churches

This was the early church’s recipe for success in a society much like our own. Most churches that are not growing (unless they are in a depressed population area or face other mitigating factors) fail to grow, not because they don’t avail themselves of the latest offerings of the contemporary church movement, but because they are not serious about one or more of the above elements. R

Recovering some of these “old” principles will mean doing something “new” for many churches that are set in their ways.

Pastoral Turnover

Certain other things are especially necessary in our contemporary context. First, perhaps the most obvious thing that keeps small Free Will Baptist churches in the rut of lack of growth is pastoral turnover.

In his book, Eating the Elephant: Bite-Sized Steps To Achieve Long-Term Growth In Your Church(a book aimed specifically at smaller, traditional churches), Thom S. Rainer lists short pastoral tenures as one of the biggest reasons churches don’t grow. Studies show that most pastors of evangelical churches stay an average of only two to three years. Yet, recent studies show that pastors who experience tremendous growth do so between their third and ninth year at a church.

Pastors who desire church growth must be committed to shepherding a congregation for more than two or three years. This is part of the close shepherding that we see taught and modeled by Christ and the pastors in the New Testament.

Education and Excellence

In an increasingly educated, information society, pastors must do everything they can to increase their level of education. We must “become all things to all people, that we might by all means save some.” Many of our congregations have levels of education that are increasing at faster rates than that of their pastors. Churches must make it possible for their pastors to further their education.

Related to this, George Barna says in his Index of Leading Religious Indicators, that one thing is constant in today’s society: Unchurched people (as well as churched people) are accustomed to excellence. While they are not as concerned about many of the things we think they are (like worship style), people do want things to be done in an excellent manner.

Embrace Change

Although I’m advocating a method of church growth that does not rely on marketing and pop culture for its methods, I want to emphasize that growth does mean change. Even while avoiding marketing and pop culture, leaders of small, traditional churches cannot afford to be closed to change.

The reason so many in the contemporary church movement are opposed to tradition of any kind is that they don’t understand tradition. They think that tradition means: “We do things the way we do them because we’ve always done them that way.” (Ironically, so often, the things “we’ve always done that way” are just relics of a few decades ago.)

We need to understand that it is possible to be rooted in the past—something that transcends the vicissitudes of contemporary culture—without being straitjacketed by the often- ineffective methods of the 1950s.

Some smaller, traditional churches, wary of the mega-church model that has made church into “McChurch,” avoid any kind of “programs” for fear they will sell out and become something the church isn’t meant to be. Pastors must find ways to foster fellowship for both families and various age groups in the church.

One distinctive characteristic of the early churches (both in the New Testament and in early church history) was fellowship meals—they ate all the time! Many of our smaller, traditional churches need to take a lesson from this. Sociologists concur with what we knew all along from the Bible: eating brings people together.

We must explore new ways to bring people together in fellowship that has unity and edification—not entertainment—as its primary purpose. There is a fine line between programming to entertain people and fellowship that unifies the body of Christ and shows the watching world what being a part of God’s family is all about.

We need to look more deeply into this distinction and develop principles for understanding how to avoid an entertainment orientation.

Be Relevant

Another thing that is vital in our context is relevance. We need to be relevant. When I say this, I do not mean relevant in a shallow way, as if to sing pop music or have a David Letterman-style worship service is being relevant. George Barna has recently demonstrated that unchurched people don’t want pop music and show business in worship. That’s not why they come to church.

What I mean by relevance is learning about where people are, what kind of culture they are coming from, and how to minister to them in their culture. This has been done by foreign missionaries for centuries.

A great example of this is the Apostle Paul in Acts 17. He sought to witness to the Athenian philosophers by making reference to popular philosophies, sayings and thought forms of their day.

Being relevant means pastors should do as much as they can to learn what “wavelength” the people of their community are on and learn to minister with that in mind. This involves familiarity with pop culture, but not selling out to it. People don’t want pop culture when they come to church. They can get that at home on cable television or on the radio or on a DVD.

Being relevant means understanding what people need. Being relevant means connecting with people by letting them know that you understand where they’re coming from’ It means treating them in such a way that they can’t deny that you really love and care about them for who they are.

Feeling of Inadequacy

Many of our pastors of small and traditional churches feel inadequate to be relevant, because they have been told by the church growth movement that the only way to be relevant in contemporary society is to sell out to the pop culture of secular society. Whether they are unwilling or unable to do this, they often feel as though there’s nothing they can do to reach out to unchurched people in these difficult days and achieve real church growth.

Contemporary Worship: Only Way to Grow?

Often church growth books give the impression that a church simply cannot grow if it does not make the change to contemporary worship and pop music forms.

Many of our smaller, traditional churches, who do not have the funds or resources for elaborate contemporary music services, feel inadequate to reach the unchurched and meet the needs of contemporary people.

In a recent article in Your Churchmagazine, Quinten Wagenfield discusses “how new worship forms are pushing audio upgrades.” He says, “When a church decides to include contemporary worship services, its sound system usually requires a major upgrade. Traditional worship can get by with a few mics, an amplifier, and one or two speakers. But contemporary worship . . . requires a far more elaborate sound system” (Source: “Turn Up the Sound,” Your Church, January-February 2001.)

Because of pressure to move toward contemporary worship, many churches have worried that, since their musical or financial resources are limited, their hands are tied in reaching the unchurched.  Yet, research has shown that these worries are unfounded.

What Attracts Church to Contemporary Worship?

These days, sadly, many pastors tend to approach worship music almost entirely from a pragmatic (what works) approach rather than a biblical-theological one. That being the case, it’s ironic that many of the non-charismatic churches that have switched to contemporary pop worship have done so not because their membership was demanding it for praise-and-worship reasons. They have made the transition because they believed it would help them reach modem, unchurched people.

What Unchurched People Want

However, contrary to the received wisdom of many church growth books, the move to non-traditional music and worship is not what unchurched people are looking for in a church. Unchurched people, according to George Barna, prefer traditional hymns in church over contemporary praise choruses.

A 2000 study by Barna challenged “the widely held assumption that the unchurched won’t return to a church if it only offers typical worship services.”

Barna says, “Many churches offer seeker services, expecting those events to make the church more palatable to visitors. However, we found that other things are more important to outsiders than whether or not the service has been designed to minimize traditional religious trappings and approaches. Many of the churches we studied who are successful at bringing unchurched people into the fold have done little, if anything, to alter the style of services they offer. They have realized that other elements make a bigger difference than the style of music . . . .” (Source: “New Book by Barna Reveals Insights on Reaching the Unchurched,” Barna Research Online, October 9, 2000.)

The irony of the contemporary church movement is that it started as an attempt to attract unchurched people, yet many of the methods it employs are not the most successful tools for attracting people unaccustomed to church. For example, the charismatic-style worship that characterizes much contemporary praise-and-worship makes many unchurched people uncomfortable.

The charismatic origins and trappings of the praise-and-worship movement have the unintended side effect of scaring off many unchurched people who are wary of the kinds of emotionalism they have witnessed on religious television. (Some churches that have shifted to contemporary worship have found themselves attracting more transfer members from charismatic-style churches than they do unchurched people.)

In another Barna study identifying the 22 most important things that attract people to a church, worship and music ranked only 12, 13 and 15. The top five things that attracted people were: (1) the theological beliefs or doctrine of the church, (2) how much the people seem to care about each other, (3) the quality of the sermons that are preached, (4) how friendly the people in the church are to visitors, and (5) how much the church is involved in helping poor and disadvantaged people (Source: “Americans Describe Their Ideal Church,” Barna Research Online, October Z, 1998.)

My Own Experience

Readers might ask, “Do the methods outlined in this article work?” My own experience shows that they do.  I once pastored a church in a small farming town with a declining population. Miller County had fewer than 7,000 residents, and the city of Colquitt had around 3,000.

Many in our congregation believed the church was dying. There were few young people. The only people receiving Christ were children of members. Yet, the core membership was ready to grow. Still, members were not resistant to gradual change.

My wife and I made the decision at the outset that we would remain at the church and not leave. The church had been through a spate of two- and three-year pastoral tenures. It was ready for some stability and continuity. This was foundational to the growth the church experienced, because there was not a great deal of numerical growth for the first three years of my pastorate.

During my first few years there, attendance held steady in the high 30s and low 40s. My fourth year is when we began to see numerical growth. Yet, the spiritual growth was being seen very early on. I based my ministry on the above eleven principles, bathed in prayer.

Expositional preaching and teaching is at the heart of worship and church life.  We had traditional, simple, reverent worship services. Our music was basically traditional-evangelical, integrating some of the better “praise songs” that had real theological depth.

Our emphasis had been more on what is called relational evangelism, on training our people to reach out to the people they came into contact with every day, and that worked. We had two Sundays a year—Friend Days—when members invited family, friends, neighbors, co-workers and classmates to church. We started a follow-up committee that contacted first-time guests with brownies or some other baked delicacy and gospel literature and invited them back to church.

We had numerous fellowship opportunities for families and age groups in the church. Those almost always included a fellowship meal. Yet, the emphasis in our “programs” was more edificational than entertainment-oriented.

Providing increased opportunities for teaching, training, fellowship and eating for our youth and children added to growth at all age levels. Reaching children was an end in itself for the kingdom. Yet, it is still true that reaching young people is a vehicle for reaching their parents and other relatives. And it is possiblefor young people to be edified and enjoy it—rather than just being amused or entertained.

I sought to emphasize continuity rather than change. Rather than barnstorming everyone with new programs, I sought to re-invigorate existing programs, such as Sunday School, Church Training Service (both of which are“small groups”), Vacation Bible School, Women Active for Christ, Youth Fellowship, home Bible studies, Easter egg hunts, fall socials, Christmas parties and such.

I tried to maximize the church growth potential of these programs that were already in place. That involved a renewed emphasis on and practice of encouraging and equipping laypeople for the work of ministry.

I stressed Free Will Baptist doctrine and practice, teachingnew converts (and old converts) whywe believe what we believe and whywe do things the way we do. I emphasized the ordinances. Our attendance at feet washing, for example, grew five-fold. I modeled and preached love and unity from the pulpit. I stressed stewardship—of all of life as well as finances—and missions, and those emphases gave our people a larger view that enhanced our growth.

Our attendance and budget grew almost four-fold over seven years. Our giving to denominational ministries increased 15-fold. We completed a 325-seat sanctuary anticipating more growth. We reached people across socioeconomic and educational levels. Most importantly, we reached unchurchedpeople—not just transfer members from other congregations.

And lest people say, “Well, you could have growth like that using more traditional methods because you were in a small town,” let me say that the people in our town had Internet access and satellite dishes just like people in the suburbs. We had drugs and alcohol in our county just like in larger counties. People shopped at malls and Wal-Mart just like city folk. And we had large numbers of people who had never attended church—who were completely unchurched.

Our church achieved growth. Yes, we had to change, but we did so by maintaining continuity with our tradition rather than abandoning it. Most of all, we freshly reinvestigated the early church model of church life, health and growth.

Small, Traditional Churches Can Grow

I am convinced that understanding what caused the early churches to grow and recapturing that dynamic will enable our small, traditional churches to grow. Yet, we must get out of our comfort zones. We must be willing to change.

It is ironic that the latest studies show that what unchurched people yearn for in a church is very similar to the eleven elements the early church exemplified. We must capitalize on this. We must realize that there’s more to church growth than the latest fad. We must understand that without giving into marketing and pop culture, our churches can experience authentic, lasting, God-honoring growth that will glorify God, expand His kingdom, and transform people’s lives with the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Article adapted from Contact magazine, August 2001.