The goal for most Western churches lately, it seems, is to go big or go home.
It’s the standard: a ‘successful’ church grows and grows until the growth is, by some metric, no longer sustainable, and then it divides and begins to expand again. All over my neighborhood, churches now have branches and annexes and campuses, each with names indicating as much. Neighborhood Church becomes Neighborhood Church East twenty miles away. This is viewed as a good and aspirational thing, a positive: God’s word reaching more and more and more people every Sunday.
Even churches that don’t divide up into multiple campuses in this manner feel the pressure to “go big”: they hold multiple services to suit all their congregants and worship styles, have to bring out ridiculous amounts of seating for the Christmas and Easter services, and depend on small groups to minister to people on an individual and more intimate level. More is better: seasonal membership introductions always have a full slate. When attendance dips, as it apparently did for my church this past year, the pastor frets over it in a sermon. Growth is good.
But I wonder.
It’s true that big churches mean lots of activities and opportunities for congregants, which is what many believers seem to desire these days. There’s a lot more money and a lot more pairs of hands. But in spite of my initial desires after I first married to attend a “big” church (so unlike my own! so much stuff to do! so crowded on Sunday mornings!), I soon found myself wishing I hadn’t been so hasty in my choices.
The truth is, a “growth is good” mentality doesn’t always benefit the church. The bigger a church gets, the harder for the left hand to know what the right is doing. More people fall through the cracks. It’s easier to get disconnected, or to never connect at all. It’s easy to lose sight of what ministry means. And yet over and over again I encounter in Christians the sense that big means successful and successful means godly, when that equation doesn’t always follow through or work out like it should.
It’s not that I don’t want the church to grow; I do. I just don’t always think it needs to grow into giant mushrooming mega-churches and franchises. Why is the small church viewed as a failure or a problem? If big is good, we assume that little means bad or not enough – we want to remedy it with more. And yet the small church has much to teach and much of value. So I wanted to make an argument for it here: sometimes small is the way to go.
1. Small church means small and intimate community. In a small church, you can’t help but notice when someone doesn’t show up. You don’t need forty small groups to do the work of ministry when people are sick, or someone has a baby, or a family loses their home in a fire – the church is the small group, and that intimacy transitions seamlessly from life to church and back again.
2. Small church means cutting back on what is unnecessary. The budget isn’t a megachurch budget, and you’ll soon find out that buying a ping-pong room for the youth group or a trip to a spa for the women’s ministry just isn’t going to happen. You’d be surprised how creative you can be without the infinite cash flow of a mega-church – and how very unnecessary a lot of church purchases can be.
3. Small church means everybody’s working. There is no “staff.” There are no “ministry teams.” There’s just the congregation, mostly, and a pastor or two, and that means everyone is involved and invested in the work it takes to get everything done. I grew up with a pastor who painstakingly helped set out the candles for the candlelight service and then went and preached it; those serving in the kitchen also did the readings for the service.
4. Small church is embedded in the broader community. Many small churches, especially in rural communities, have a strong working knowledge of the community. I don’t mean a knowledge based on commissions analytics about the area: I mean a lived knowledge from experience about who lives where, who needs what, who’s in trouble, and what’s going on. That matters.
5. Small church minds the gap. At several large churches I have attended, I was struck by the realization that, aside from the people in my small group, nobody from the actual Sunday morning congregation would notice for weeks – if ever – if I randomly died overnight. The church was too big, and the small groups were assigned with the more intimate one-on-one ministry. So we missed people who showed up to Sunday services but never joined a small group, or who visited a small group once or twice but then had to stop attending. Visitor churn meant we sometimes didn’t even notice who came in or out on a given Sunday. Small churches are more equipped to address those gaps. It’s hard to be anonymous and unnoticed in a smaller congregation.
6. Small church can mix demographics. At large churches, small groups and activities can be sliced neatly up by age, occupation, and life stage: married families, singles, the elderly, the youth. At a small church there’s often not enough people to divide up demographically, and so some interesting mingled groups can result! This is good for growth.
I find it hard these days to stumble across a church with less than 100-200 members. And yet I notice them here and there. Recently, my husband and I passed a tiny – tiny! – Episcopalian church with jaunty red ribbons on the door about half an hour from our home. It was no larger than an old-fashioned schoolhouse; the building could not have held more than fifty altogether. And on my old drive to work, I passed a similar tiny Methodist church building: clearly time-worn, clearly small, but with a sign that boasted of activities, plans, and ministries.
Both of those churches are still out there, and thriving. Many small churches are. And we do them and ourselves a disservice if we act like the only way to grow spiritually or to minister to others is to pursue bigger and bigger congregations, more numbers, more money, more, more.
Sometimes a little goes an awful long way.