Finding Life in a Small Church

By Tim Owen

They said they liked the church. I thanked them and asked if they would tell me what had attracted them to our church. Friendliness and warmth were mentioned, and then to my horror, they said, “the small congregation.” Talk about a rollercoaster of emotions.

I was happy because they liked us, but sad because they had used the “S” word: small. Living under the misguided impression that a small church and a spiritual church were anything but synonymous, I had become disillusioned. Seminars led by pastors of megachurches experiencing explosive growth year after year headlined the conference mailers I received. Reading their material compounded my impression. Was I lazy, apathetic, or not spiritual enough?

While any or all three were possibilities, in time I grew to realize that congregation size doesn’t necessarily equate with success in God’s scheme of things. As stewards, our success is measured by faithfulness.

Churches, both small and large, when they are good stewards, bring honor to God. I’m for the church, large and small, and believe in it. However, some see the small church as weak, unable to minister effectively in today’s complex society. I’m of a different opinion.

Small Church Potential

I believe there is nothing the church cannot do for God’s glory with His enabling grace. Believing that, I look at the church and see potential regardless of its size. Seeing potential in smaller communities made the late Sam Walton, founder of Walmart Stores one of the richest men in America. Walton once wrote, “It turned out there was much, much more business out there in small-town America than anybody, including me, had ever dreamed.”

Small churches, like small towns, still do a “good business.” Like the couple mentioned earlier, some people are seeking a smaller church, a compact community where they know everyone.

So, what’s the small church to do? Several years ago, the news told the story of a local bank in Morton, Illinois, that resisted the trend of mergers and acquisitions. The bank not only braved the storms but experienced rapidly growing assets. The bank president was quoted as saying, “The trend toward big banking has actually fueled the growth of this small-town bank, because it offers something increasingly hard to find, namely personal relationships with customers.” 

Is it any wonder the bank’s slogan was: “We pay interest, and we pay attention”? What made that small-town bank special is what also makes the small church special—paying attention.

Unfortunately, size sometimes limits you from doing all you would like to do as a church, but it need not keep you from giving attention to the details. Cards, calls, and visits still make the difference. They communicate to others you care and you are paying attention.

I recall years ago, when a ten-year-old in our church had tubes placed in his ears and his adenoids removed. Would I have known had it been a large church? Perhaps, but the likelihood is that I would not have been there to pray with that young boy and his family. The small church pays attention, and that makes it special.

Quicksands of Comparison

Surely, I’m not the only pastor who has driven by a church facility the size of the local mall and assumed whatever they were doing was better than what our small church could do. However, excellence in ministry cannot, nor should it be, measured by the size of buildings, acres of land, or attendance numbers alone.

Regardless of size, we can strive for excellence in our worship, emphasizing its importance and relevance. A 60-voice choir, orchestra, and sermon streamed around the globe may be nice, but they are not imperative to worship. Use what you have and do it right. And, at least one good thing has come out of the recent COVID-19 pandemic and consequent social distancing: we know small churches can adapt.

The educational arm of the church, including Sunday School and VBS, are vitally important. Because we want to see people growing, we must strive for excellence here. In the end, growing people become involved people. Warren Wiersbe once wrote, “Not all works are going to be big in the eyes of men and be known around the world. But that’s not the important thing. The important thing is that we do our work well, so that it will be big in the eyes of God.”

Have you ever noticed that it isn’t megachurches artists feature on Christmas cards? Rather, it’s small church buildings. They promote closeness, community, and reminders of days gone by.

One of my pet peeves is the lack of customer service these days. Where have all the smiles gone? When did it become bothersome to ask for a refill of iced tea at lunch? Warmth and friendliness may be bygone qualities of the drive-through window, but they should be standard in the church. Scarcity of resources is no excuse here.

The small church may not offer a smorgasbord of programs or facilities requiring a map, but what smaller churches do offer is a unique and distinct worship experience. Author Keith Drury tells of visiting a worship service at a church on the coast of Oregon one Sunday. He found himself immediately impressed. He thought, “If the church is dead, then somebody forgot to tell these people.”

The small congregation totaled 52 that Sunday. Undoubtedly, no one had been kind enough to tell them of their impending death, or that they were a church growth failure. Instead, they were joyful, happy, and serving the Lord. They had discovered what every church seeks—value. We’ll never find that value in trying to live up to the expectations of some church growth guru. The church’s value is based on who we are and who we serve, not how many we run on Sundays. 

About the Writer: Tim Owen is director of events at Randall House Publications. For many years, he pastored Piney Grove FWB Church in Chipley, Florida. He also served as long-time moderator of the Florida State Association.

< Return to PULP1T Magazine | Summer 2020