Small is Beautiful – An Ode to Small Churches

Ok this won’t actually be an ode, 1st because without looking it up I’m not exactly sure what an “ode” is (I just did. An ode is “a lyric poem in the form of an address to a particular subject, often elevated in style or manner and written in varied or irregular meter.”), and 2nd, now that I know what an ode is I also know that I don’t have the skill to write an ode (yes Pamela I hear you “anyone can’t write an ode if they just put themselves to the effort and don’t judge themselves for not writing like John Keats”).

Nope I just liked the sound of the phrase “An Ode to Small Churches” and thought I would use in the title of this post concerning how I love small churches. So let me start with this statement, I LOVE SMALL CHURCHES! In particular I LOVE MY SMALL CHURCH!

At one point in my life my idea of ministry was bigger and better.

I often heard the statement “healthy things grow” as the measure for success. The mindset being that if you are faithful as church you will grow in numbers. I seriously bought into this mindset. If your ministry was effective your church WAS GOING TO GROW.

The problem with the statement “healthy things grow” is manifold, but here are a couple of problems I initially have with the analogy: 1st it nullifies some of our true examples of successful ministry, the greatest of which is Jesus’ ministry. Jesus’s ministry probably peaked with Him having around 25,000 followers (This is an estimate derived from the feeding of the 5,000 and guesstimating the women and children who would have also have been followers) to around 500 followers right after His resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:6). In Jesus’s case healthy ministry shrank. 2nd the analogy doesn’t work in nature either. Healthy things only grow to maturity, if they continue to grow they aren’t healthy. Gigantism is a significant health issue. Organisms grow past their systemic capability and the organism sufferers as a result. We may still be enamored with such growth in organism (who doesn’t love photos of the world’s largest dog?), but we need to make sure and not mistake gigantism for being healthy – it isn’t healthy, it is suffering. Healthy things mature and maturity in nature implies a cessation of growth at least in size.

Please don’t hear this as a “megachurches” are bad rant. They aren’t. I was a part of a megachurch at one point in my ministry and I thought it was a great church. All I am saying is that megachurches shouldn’t be the goal. We need them and some people relate better to them, but that is simply a different style of church, not a better style of church. Small churches are different and that difference offers up some real advantages. Advantages that I love.

I think of megachurches and small churches as being like Starbucks and Ruby Coffee. Starbucks can do things that Ruby can’t. There are opportunities, especially of efficiency, with megachurches/big business. But there are also opportunities that Ruby has that Starbucks doesn’t, or small boutique businesses versus Walmart. I prefer small boutique businesses because of their advantages, other prefer Walmart. Both are fine by me. The same is true with small churches compared to large churches. Both have their opportunities. One isn’t necessarily better than the other. I think we should celebrate those opportunities, rather than the definition of success being that a church become a large church. This is one of the reasons that I loved that Mike Yaconelli, one of my heroes, used to describe his church as “the slowest growing church in America.” He celebrated the opportunities that came from his church being small, rather than striving for it to become “successful” (i.e. a big church).

So here are a few things that I love about our small church:

  • Over the past week I know of at least 1/3 of the “threads” helping someone with significant service. This is the past week, not counting the week before when we had a major storm, when I know even more people were helping others. This was stuff that was organized by the organization church. Nope this was the members of the body making phone calls and sending texts to set something up themselves to help some. That’s a big deal. When I was at Parkview Baptist Church in Baton Rouge at its largest 1/3 of the attenders would have equaled 700 serving on their own initiative without the pastoral staff organizing a service event. Such numbers would have thrilled us.
  • We were supposed to have a baptism gathering two weeks ago. The whole gathering was focused around these baptisms. Three days before the gathering an emergency came up and we had to rearrange everything on the fly. Know whose “panties got in a wad” over the change in plans? Absolutely no one’s, because this is what you do in a small community. The community is more important that the program.
  • People can and do interrupt me during the message to ask questions, add something, or sometimes disagree and nobody ever thinks anything of it. I was at a large conference where someone once tried to ask a question and that question was shot down immediately. I was also at a service where a person went into cardiac arrest and the service continued while the person’s needs were taken care of. You know what would happen at most small churches if someone had a cardiac arrest during the service? Everything would shut down and focus on the needs of the person and his/her family.
  • In the past year over half of the church has led in one form or another during our worship gatherings. This includes singing, preaching, reading scripture, playing instruments, etc.
  • Here’s one that may seem different. I believe there is often more diversity at smaller churches. Small churches need everyone that is a part of them, so small churches often put up with a great deal more difference and uniqueness than larger churches. At a larger church if someone is different from you then you can just avoid them. At a small church that isn’t possible. At a small church you get used to the other person’s idiosyncrasies and love them for and in spite of them. “He’s not weird, that’s just Robert, we all know what he is like and love him.” I love the diversity that this leads to in Tapestry. We have people that are very different from each other in everything except for Jesus.
  • Small churches are often noisy. This might sound like a bad thing but I think it is lovely. I love the fact that our gatherings are full of the normal noises of life. Babies crying, whispered jokes, bibles dropped, etc., etc. Sometimes there might so few people that you can actually hear someone’s stomach growl. You can’t avoid noise in a small church because there aren’t enough people to hide it. A large churches often try to shape the service to avoid distractions and “usher in God’s presence”, small churches remember that God is already present in the noise of everyday life because whether you want it to be or not there will be noise in a small church gathering. Our God is too big to be chased away by a stray sound.
  • Because of our small groups I know that almost half the people at one of our normal Sunday gatherings have read at least the whole New Testament. That’s a huge percentage of the church and makes for some good interruptions during the message.

There are many other reasons that I won’t get into (we have homemade snacks at our welcome table, if something goes wrong a “thread” just gets up and fixes it, our kids regularly get to be a part of worship – from drumming during the music, to singing into mics that may or may not be plugged into the board) etc., etc., etc.) concerning why I love the small church that I get to lead. And again this isn’t putting down large churches. I am really thankful that there are large church for people to go to that need a large church. All I am saying is that rather than small churches being looked at as merely future large churches or failing, we should recognize that small is beautiful and often they are one of the best places for genuine maturity to happen.

Small churches are beautiful and this is a good thing since 60% of the churches in the US have less than 100 people actively involved in them.

I love my beautiful small church.

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