With a few exceptions, all churches were small at one time. They began with a handful of people and went forward from there. Some grew a great deal and are still expanding, some grew a little and leveled off, while some failed to grow at all.

If most of the churches in America of all denominations are small -- and in my mind, that means 100 or less in attendance -- then several things are true:

  • In the words of Lincoln about common folk, "God must have loved them; He made so many of them."
  • Small churches must be doing something right or people would not keep attending them.
  • The "bigness culture" that is so dominant in American life has dumped a burdensome load of guilt on these small congregations. "If you're so good, why aren't you big?" seems to be the mantra.
  • For every book celebrating the small church, there are a hundred telling them how to leave smallness behind and become "great."

Someone should put in a good word for small churches. Think I'll give it a try.

Here are my observations on small churches in America.

1) Size does matter

Although we sometimes say that the size of a church is irrelevant, that's not exactly right. Francis Schaeffer said there are no small churches and no big pastors. That's almost right, too, but not totally.

The numbers of people who participate in a church will usually dictate the income it receives and therefore the ministries it is able to do. Size matters.

The church that wants to send its members on missions to Haiti or Belize or Ukraine will need money. It takes members to contribute the money. A small congregation can come up with the resources to fund such excursions, but it's harder.

The church that wants to have a full-time pastor living on the field will need money for his support. The members are the ones expected to give that money. A small congregation will almost always less money.

Size is important.

2) But size does not have to be determinative

The small church can do everything it needs to do and everything the Lord wants it to do. God is its Resource, and His supplies are inexhaustible.

The greatest small church is one where the leaders and members never ask, "What can we afford?" but "What does the Lord want us to do?" Such churches are visionaries.

If the Lord wants a congregation of fifty members to send a delegation to Haiti to help with the rebuilding of lives, a "great small church" will find ways to do it. My opinion is the absolute worst way to fund such projects is for the church to set up a table at the entrance of the local supermarket and ask the public for contributions. That makes the church a charity, not a ministry. Good people will often give a contribution--I try to do so myself--but they will do it warily, unsure of whether the money will ever make it to the designated project.

Better for the members to get under the burden of funding the work. Call the members together, prayerfully set the goal, and ask each one to commit to reaching it.

The fellowship and camaraderie of working together to achieve a big goal will far outstrip the joy of collecting the money at the supermarket on Saturday. The sense of accomplishment once the mission team returns can be life-changing to a small church.

Small churches can do anything the Lord wants them to do. The first congregation assigned to reach the world with the gospel of Jesus was no more than 120 strong. And yet, look what they did.

3) It's easier to get things done in a small church

A church running 50 in attendance will have a part-time pastor and maybe 3 deacons. If a decision needs to be made today, the four of them can meet in the hallway between Sunday School and Church. All the leaders of that church combined will not number more than a dozen. Such a small group can meet easily and quickly and do their business efficiently.