The typical church has about 75 attendees every week. So if you pastor a small congregation, your church isn’t broken, it’s what’s known as normal. And normal doesn’t need to be fixed.
Small churches are the norm everywhere, whether a region or a denomination is in revival or decline. When the church is in revival a big part of revival is the planting of new (and almost always small) churches. When the church is in decline, overall attendance goes down, so the average size stays small then, too.
Over one billion Christians choose to worship Jesus in small churches. Of the more than two billion believers on earth, about half of them gather in smaller congregations of around 250 or fewer attendees. (In America, that number is 350 and under.)
Understanding The Small Church
A small church is a normal church. But for the most part, the books, conferences and classes about pastoring tend to concentrate on big church principles, or on how to help the smaller churches become bigger. That’s not a bad thing, in fact it’s expected, since we all want to learn from those with growing ministries. But when those are our only sources, we can miss a valuable aspect of church life – the vibrant, healthy small church.
Small churches have needs, blessings and opportunities that are specific to their smaller size. And since they are by far the most typical church, it’s important for pastors and church leaders to understand small churches better so we can serve them, the pastors who lead them, and the people in them with greater effectiveness.
I have been a small church pastor for over 30 years. And in the last several years I’ve had the opportunity to spend a lot of time writing for, speaking to and having conversations with thousands of my fellow small church pastors. They represent congregations in every state, dozens of countries and almost every denomination – and non-denomination.
In that time I’ve discovered three specific areas about small churches that every church leader needs to be aware of.
Biggest Need: Encouragement
Small churches, and especially small church pastors, labor under a great deal of discouragement.
They face a constant shortage of resources, ideas, facilities, finances, people, time, you name it. If you pastor a small church, it may seem like your ministry is practically defined by being in a constant state of need.
But what may be even worse than the shortage of supplies is the shortage of encouragement. Small church pastors often feel ignored or belittled when their situation is either overlooked or condescended to by the very people they go to for help, such as fellow pastors, church consultants, and denominational leaders.
When you add all that up, it’s not a surprise that so many small church pastors leave the ministry every year. What’s really amazing is that most of them keep moving faithfully along.
More than anything else, small churches and their pastors need to be encouraged.
- They (we) need to know that what they do has value.
- That they’re making a difference
- That they’re not being looked down on
- That they’re being prayed for
- That someone is there to help
- That they have as much to offer as they have to learn
As small church pastors, we need all the help we can get. Including from each other. As much as you may need to be encouraged today, there’s another small church pastor who needs encouragement from you, too. Let’s set our territorialism aside and be there for each other.
Biggest Blessing: Relationships
Small churches are not necessarily friendlier than big churches. That’s often how big churches became big, after all.
But small churches do offer unique opportunities for relationships that can only happen when the crowd is smaller.
For instance, people in a small church can be known by name. Not just by a small circle of friends, but by (almost) everyone, including the pastor. The entire church notices when someone is missing, and their absence means something to the rest of the people in the church.
In many small churches, kids will have the same person teaching them every year, developing a long-term mentoring relationship with them that will affect the rest of their life.
This kind of closeness and mentoring doesn’t happen by mistake. It has to be encouraged, fostered and nurtured. But when the relationships in a small church are strong and healthy, there’s nothing on earth like it.
More than emphasizing new programs and methods, small church leaders need to learn how to develop and strengthen relationships. In fact, relationships are everything the church is supposed to be about, anyway. Our entire mission is about helping people develop a relationship with Jesus and healthy relationships with other people.
There may be a lot of things big churches can do that small churches struggle with. But every church of every size can have great relationships – as long as we make them our priority.
Biggest Opportunity: Discipleship
The greatest churches are built, not on big programs, beautiful buildings or even great preaching.
The backbone of a strong, healthy, effective church is always discipleship. Equipping the saints for the work of ministry (Ephesians 4:11-12 [ESV]).
Making and training disciples is what the elements of a great church (worship, fellowship, teaching, ministry and evangelism) are designed to promote.
You don’t need to have a big church to do discipleship well. In fact, smaller churches have a great opportunity to disciple people using the greatest discipleship method ever used. It’s the method that was used by Jesus, the Apostle Paul and the early church.
In a small church, people can be mentored, not just by a small group leader, but by their pastor.
Direct access to the pastor is not necessary for great discipleship to take place. Big churches often do great discipleship in small groups and on ministry teams without the lead pastor ever being directly involved – and that’s great! But for many people, being pastored by their pastor is a special and very helpful part of their spiritual growth.
People are not wrong to want to be pastored by their pastor. And pastors aren’t wrong to answer that calling by engaging in hands-on, relational discipleship.
Now, if that gets in the way of church growth, then we’ve got a problem, but it isn’t necessarily the hindrance to growth we’ve been led to believe it is.
We Need All Sizes Of Churches
There is a role for churches of all styles and sizes in the kingdom of God.
Big churches meet some needs, small churches meet other needs.
If you serve at a big church, the blessings and opportunities are often more obvious. If you serve in a small church, the blessings may be less obvious, but they are just as real.
Whatever size church you serve, Jesus has you there for a reason.
The body of Christ needs to do a better job at encouraging discouraged churches, capitalizing on their blessings and taking advantage of their opportunities.
The mission deserves nothing less.