All the big churches get the news. All the megachurch pastors get the book offers, conference invitations, and newspaper write-ups. What about us little pastors with our little churches? Why don’t we experience the kind of growth we desire? Why do our ministries constantly struggle with teeny budgets, a trickle of visitors, and precious few conversions? Why is it that our churches are still small?
There are plenty of reasons why our churches are small. Here are a few of them.
Decline of the Church
Let’s be honest with the condition of the American church and its impact on attendance. Although the past couple of decades have seen the mushrooming growth of megachurches, there’s another set of statistics that tells another story. Of the 25 major denominations, 23 have declined in attendance since the 1980s. Statisticians estimate that the evangelical church has lost 10% of its adherents over the past ten years. John Dickerson’s book The Great Evangelical Recession published in January 2013, declares: “The Great Evangelical Recession is…unstoppable.” His is not a lone voice. The Atlantic’s prediction is stark: “[Evangelicals] will continue their descent into irrelevance.” Thom Rainer’s research found that only 6% of churches are actually growing. The answer to such news should be neither despair nor derision. Facts are facts. The answer is instead to aggressively pursue our mission. And perhaps, from a purely statistical point of view, we shouldn’t expect crowds of people to be flocking into our auditoriums.
Another moment of brutal honesty faces us when we look in the mirror each morning. Not every personality is going to click with every other personality. People don’t choose churches simply based on worship style and how comfortable the chairs are. The man or woman who does all the talking at the front — that’s an important factor, too. If you’re not naturally a magnetic, attractive, hair-gelled-all-up kind of person, that’s totally okay. Paul wrote, “the body does not consist of one member but of many” (1 Corinthians 12:14). Not all pastors are nor should be extroverts. Not everyone is a Billy Graham. Not everyone is a dynamic speaker. You are you, and — because of God’s grace working through you — you as you have a role to play in God’s kingdom. As you labor in your corner of the vineyard, realize that you will reach a certain number of type of people. That may not be a big number. But that’s okay. It’s not a numbers game.
It’s interesting to observe where many of the megachurches are located. A 2,000+-member church is usually located in a community with a population above 2,000. That’s just the way it works. If, however, a church was planted among the Wutun people in Himalayan China, it might not be as big. You see, that people group contains only 2,817 people. Sheer demographics may not tell an inspiring story about potential church growth. Such factors as language, income, race, gender, occupation, death rate, family size, education level, marital status — all of these things have an impact on how, why, where, and if people will attend church.
Church growth. Those two words and the surrounding maelstrom of products and practices have prompted more controversy, sold more books, inspired more pastors, discouraged more pastors, confused more congregations, grown more churches, introduced more industries, and elicited more critics than nearly any other church trend in the past century. From thirty-step handbooks to nine-step conferences, from worship-music changers, to pool-party church advocates, there have been an endless array of things to try to make more people come to church. A healthy skepticism of how-to manuals for creating a bigger church is advised. At the same time, it’s not a bad idea to use good technique in church leadership. The wrong technique may indeed lead to lower numbers.
Now, finally, we’re done with the preceding list of factors for just a moment. Stats, building projects, and rock bands on stage are fun to talk about, but that’s not all there is to consider. Let’s not forget about God — about the Holy Spirit. Who’s building the church anyway? Jesus said, “I will build my church.” Jesus. That’s who. It’s going to happen. We need not fear, fret, and feverishly try to stuff our sermons with more crowd-pleasing one-liners. We need to trust that reality that Christ is the church builder. Jesus is building, has built, and will build his church.
Neither are we to be thumb-twiddling Christians who dismiss “church growth” with a sniff of our nose and a shrug of our shoulders. After all, Jesus declared that he would build his church on something, or more precisely someone — Peter and the millions of other church leaders who would follow through the ages.
Does God promise big churches? No. Does he promise stadium venues? Nope. Does he pledge to a 30% church growth rate during your tenure? Uh, no. Does he want to build your church, though? Yes. But what that looks like in terms of growth rates, pew-purchasing, and stadium-renting is something that we cannot predict.
The Holy Spirit is the ultimate church growth director. He can make your church go from a storefront startup to a megachurch miracle overnight. Like he did on Pentecost, he can initiate a five-thousand-member spike on opening Sunday. Or he may choose to allow a decline, maybe even a total church demise. We don’t know how he’s going to work. But we know that he is working. And that’s really exciting.
Big Church. Small Church. All One Church.
We are not all entitled to lead massive churches, which is totally okay. According to number-crunchers, only 0.3% of all the churches in the United States are megachurches. That’s not three percent. That’s point three percent. (A mega church is defined as a church with a weekly attendance of 2,000 or more.) Heart change can happen in stadium venues as effectively as in small group Bible studies. Churches need not be big in order to thrive.
There are some really big churches. Praise the Lord. There are some really small churches. Praise the Lord. All across the globe, Jesus is building his church in ways that we can see, but often in ways that we can’t see. When we’re so intensely involved in our ministries, it becomes difficult to look up and look in awestruck wonder at the amazing work that God is doing worldwide — in and through his church.
Let us dream God-sized dreams and follow the infinite, unstoppable, earth-changing power of God in our ministries. But let us not grow discouraged when we don’t see the size that we want to see in our particular congregation.