This Sunday, all over the country and all over the world, a pastor will speak to his church—a little group of ten, twenty, or even less. In some cases, the pastor will be speaking to just his own family. In situations like these, having such a small church can be a little bit disappointing. Maybe even embarrassing. Should you be embarrassed about your small church?
Should I Be Embarrassed About My Small Church?
“So, how big is your church?”
Any conversation about any church inevitably gets around to this question, “So how big is the church, anyway?” It comes in various forms. “Is it a big church?” “What’s your attendance like?” “So, how many people are attending these days?” People want to know the size of a church. Why? Because the number of people attending a church is apparently a big indicator of what kind of church it is, what kind of programs it has, how big its reach is, how well-known it is, and maybe even what kind of pastor is in leadership. For the small church pastor, this can be one of those oh-I-hope-he-doesn’t-ask-me kind of questions. Sometimes the answer is, “Oh, you’re wondering how big my church is? Well, we have about ten people on Sunday morning. Okay, and six of them are my kids!”
Our society, or maybe it’s just our Christian subculture, has an obsession with big churches. Apparently, bigger is better when it comes to churches. The dream of the average pastor is to grow his church to just a few more. If the church is at 60, he’s aiming for 100. If the church is 320, he’d like to hit the 500 mark. Pastors gaze wistfully at the rock-star pastors, hoping that someday they’ll be able to lead a megachurch, complete with JumboTrons, fog machines, a mall-size parking lot, and a Starbucks franchise in the lobby.
Why are we so obsessed with having bigger churches?
Part of the big-church craze is a cultural thing. It would seem that a love for big churches is a product of our age. A generation ago, everything was growing—the economy, the cities, income levels, businesses—and churches followed right along. Church growth gurus found a receptive market for books on Building Bigger Churches, or Miracle-Gro formulas for teeny churches that wanted to go bust. Bivocational pastors of minichurches scurried off the bookstore to devour the latest Ten Methods book for building a megachurch. And all the while, the culture—both the American culture at large, and the Christian subculture—corroborated the belief that bigger is better. Even for local churches.
On the other hand, there’s nothing particularly culturally unique about the big church craze. Big churches have been around as long as churches have been around. Didn’t church growth get started at Pentecost, with three- to five-thousand membership spikes (Acts 2:41; Acts 4:4)? Savanarola preached to thousands. Calvin pastored a reformation megachurch. Spurgeon couldn’t find a London building big enough to hold the crowds that flocked to hear him. Europe is dotted with cathedrals capable of holding huge crowds. Even in the early days of the United States, the Great Awakening left a wake of great churches—mammoth crowds that filled cavernous buildings in major cities. Big churches are a product of the Christian church reality—both modern and historical—which may cause the little church pastor to squirm even more.
Let’s be reasonable, though. Wanting a bigger church isn’t necessarily a lustful sin that must be suppressed. Wanting a bigger church may very well be a healthy desire to reach more people and spread God’s Word. It’s not just about building a bigger church with a higher income, louder music, and softer chairs. It’s about people; it’s about souls. A bigger church is usually able to bring the gospel to more people—whether in small-group discipleship, in big services, in inter-city mission efforts, or in more money for overseas missions. Bigger is not badder. Megachurches are not evil, and it’s perfectly appropriate to aspire to reach more people with the gospel.
Is My Small Church Okay? Six Diagnostic Questions
So, to get back to the original question, is a small church something to be ashamed of? Some would say that it is. If a pastor labors for years in the same area, shouldn’t he see some kind of growth? Let’s ask some questions, and find out if the small-church pastor should be ashamed of the small size of his church.
- What kind of growth are we talking about? To start off, let’s define this word, “growth.” Growing membership is not necessarily the best goal or approach to take when growing a church. Spiritual growth, another important goal of ‘church growth’ is not tracked by attendance records. In fact, it’s not really quantifiable at all. The pursuit for bigger crowds should not eclipse the pursuit for growing relationships with Jesus. Neither growth goals are wrong; both are necessary.
- What kind of area is the church located in? Churches must by necessity and biblical example be responsive to the need and context of their communities. When Paul planted a church in Athens, he spoke about the intellectual preoccupations and notable landmarks of the area (Acts 17:22-28). His strategy and methodology changed according to his context (1 Corinthians 9:19-23). Thus, the surrounding context of a local church is an influential factor in influencing the growth of a church. For some pastors in local communities, growing a church numerically would be counterproductive. A better approach for such a pastor would be to plant another church, not grow a bigger church. Some churches function on a parish model, whereby a certain neighborhood, borough, or geographical area defines the intended sphere of influence. What’s more, there is such a thing as rural areas. Rural means that there aren’t much people living nearby. Trying to grow a megachurch in a rural setting would be foolish. Small is good. Small is okay. Small is nothing to be ashamed of.
- What kind of flock do you have? The community isn’t the only formative factor in church size. The people of the community themselves have a role to play. One pastor’s passion for building a bigger attendance doesn’t mean that bigger is better for the people whom he is leading. Some people need the close-knit culture of a smaller church in order to thrive spiritually. Sure, small groups are great, but a small group isn’t the same thing as a small church. Some people are better suited to the culture of a small church, and that’s fine. A person may say, “I just prefer a smaller church,” which is completely okay. Pastors need not be embarrassed about their people’s growth styles, even if it means that the church has never crossed the fifty mark.
- What kind of pastor are you? Let’s talk about the pastor himself. This article is about, “should I be embarrassed,” meaning the pastor. Face it. Not every pastor is cut out to be a megachurch leader. Every believer has unique gifts (Ephesians 4:11), but it doesn’t follow that every pastor can grow a church of five thousand. This doesn’t mean that the pastor is a horrible speaker or an inept leader. It simply means that he’s not to be a megachurch pastor. We’re not all Andy Stanleys, Rick Warrens, or Chuck Smiths…nor should we be. Nor should we be ashamed of that.
- What kind of strategy are you employing? Every church should be as biblical as possible, but this does not mean that churches can’t employ a variety of strategies. It’s impossible to point to verse in Acts or elsewhere in the New Testament, and say “Aha! Here’s the text that says we should all have megachurches.” The New Testament does not prescribe a house-church only, or a small-church only, or a community-church only philosophy. Like other issues, God has left such things to be discerned by Spirit-led, Christ-following, Bible-obedient Christians. We can be strategic. What strategy should we follow? It depends. One thing is for sure: the megachurch strategy isn’t for everyone. It’s not appropriate for some communities or cultures. For example, let’s say a pastor in New York City has a burden for Nahua immigrants from Mexico. He is Nahuan, and his services are held in Nahuatl. Clearly, this church planter has a strategy which by default, precludes building a megachurch. This is a cut-and-dried example, but it at least illustrates the point that megachurches are only one strategy of many options for mission. There is no reason to be embarrassed about adopting a strategy, biblical and right, whereby your church doesn’t grow much. That’s okay.
- What is God’s will? Finally, be willing to submit to God’s will regarding the size of your church. It’s not fatalistic to say, “God’s will be done” (Matthew 6:10). God’s will is that some churches will remain small. God’s will is nothing to be embarrassed about. And how do you determine God’s will for your church? It’s not voodoo. It’s about day-by-day obedience to the Bible.
In the end, don’t get fixated on whether your church is a little one or a big one. And don’t be embarrassed if your church is one of the little ones.
In fact, if your church is one of the little ones, you’re in good company. In fact 94% of the churches in the United States have attendances below 500. If you’ve never crossed triple digits in your church, you’re in the same boat as 59% of all churches in the States. (Of the 30,000+ pastors and churchgoers who read this blog, chances are that not a single megachurch pastor is going to see article.) Megachurches and megachurch pastors are’t the norm. Being embarrassed about a small church is a real waste of time and effort. There’s nothing to be embarrassed about.
Rather than fret about numbers, focus on reality. There are people—real people—in your church. They need Jesus. They need love. They need encouragement. They need accountability. They need the Bible. Your job as the pastor is to faithfully minister to them. Be faithful to your task. Your identity and worth as a Christian is not defined by the size of your church. Your identity and worth as a Christian is all about Jesus Christ.
How many people attend your church? Forty? Twenty? Two? It’s not easy. Leading a small church is usually a struggle. It’s true that some of the struggles would be alleviated by having more attendance, but keep your focus where it ought to be—off the numbers and onto Christ. And be faithful. Be obedient to your calling.