Recently, well known Pastor Andy Stanley made news with comments he made regarding parents who take their children to small churches. To Andy’s credit, he apologized in a very heartfelt way, and my intent here is not to rehash that issue. However, this recent dust up did cause me to begin thinking about the impact small churches have made on my own life and the impact they are making every single day.
For readers of this post who do not know me personally, it’s important to point out that I have a pretty good vantage point from which to speak on this issue. I was raised in a very small rural Baptist church that averaged around 30 people in attendance each week, and the first church I served as pastor averaged 75 in attendance. For the last decade, I have served in larger churches in metropolitan areas. My perspective comes from roots and experience in smaller attendance churches and experience in larger attendance churches. Here are my thoughts….
1) The church that impacts your life is a big church. The Baptist church I grew up in had only three Sunday school classes, did not operate with a budget, and had no paid staff. However, it was at that church where I went to Sunday school, came to know Christ, followed the Lord in believer’s baptism, announced my call to ministry, and preached my first sermon. That church loved me, nurtured me, encouraged me, and helped me begin to walk with Christ. That church is BIG to me. Ask the kid who rides the church van each week if that church is big. Ask the young couple who had a child in ICU and never had to worry about having their other child cared for if their church is big. Ask the lady who was baptized last week in front of 50 people if her church is big.
2) The Biblical pattern seems to be churches of various sizes. There are examples in the New Testament churches in major cities. There are also examples of churches that met in homes. In the book of Revelation the Lord gives His evaluation of the seven churches of Asia. The issue isn’t their size, but rather their faithfulness. You can’t take the New Testament and find the argument that a certain size church is any “better” than another.
3) The headquarters of the SBC (and other denominations) is the smaller church. According to the North American Mission Board website, of the 45,000 some odd Southern Baptist churches, the median church size is 80 in attendance. This fact means that there are as many SBC churches who have below 80 in attendance as there are SBC churches who have above 80 in attendance. A handful of large well-known churches and their pastors command most of the attention, but the reality is that most Southern Baptist work is done by smaller attendance churches. Most pastors who participate in all levels of SBC life serve in smaller attendance churches. We might be astonished if we knew how many millions of dollars are given to the Cooperative Program and mission offerings each year from churches who average less than 100 in attendance.
4) It’s important to have leaders who understand the smaller attendance churches. I came of age in SBC life during the days when great men of God like W.A. Criswell, Adrian Rogers, and Jerry Vines were the dominate personalities and role models in our denomination. While they were very different men, they were beloved by pastors of all size churches. Each of these men started out in small churches in small places. They knew what it was like to serve as the pastor, the youth minister, the janitor, the chaplain, and the administrator all on the same Sunday. They knew what it was like, and they never outgrew their roots. This fact shined through in their ministry and helped thousands of pastors and church leaders identify with them and have confidence in them. There is a great danger when a denomination is increasingly shaped by those who do not understand and cannot relate to the overwhelming majority of its churches and their leaders.
5) “Every church is a great church if it’s God’s church.” Dr. Bill Purvis (who pastors a large church) said those words several years ago. I couldn’t agree more. If we only define a “great” church as one with lots of people, lots of buildings, and lots of prestige then we have missed the Biblical definition of church. The truth is that many churches in small places have a great impact in their communities – far greater than the impact of many large churches in large cities. Would anyone make the argument that a church that averages 1000 in attendance and baptizes 30 people in a year is doing “better” work than a church that averages 100 in attendance and baptizes 10? Bigger isn’t necessarily better or more effective – it’s just bigger. It’s been my experience that many smaller churches are more connected to their community than many larger churches. It’s easy for a large church to become an entity unto itself where its staff and members spend all of their time within its walls. Just because a church is small doesn’t mean it isn’t doing big things. Every church is a great church if it’s God’s church.
Count me as one who loves and appreciates churches of all sizes. I have served in them and preached in them! Some of the greatest pastors, the greatest people, and the greatest stories of life change that I have known come from small churches. Personally, I am praying that each of us seeks to make the church we are part of larger at least by one this week – larger because we lead someone to Christ.