Battle Cry for Small Churches!

This is a battle cry for America’s small churches!  If you know what “spitting in the wind” means, then you recognize the futility of my battle cry.  In the land of “bigger is better,” “newer is neater,” and “larger is more relevant,” my voice will surely be judged as irrelevant and whiny, if not totally ignored.  More likely, not even heard.  But at the risk of “spit” flying back into my face, here goes!

First, some ground rules.  Ground rule #1 is that there is absolutely nothing wrong with large churches!  So please don’t read into my comments that I dislike big churches.  When I was in seminary in Ft. Worth, Texas, I attended a church that is larger than many Oklahoma towns!  What this behemoth congregation achieved as a result of its massive economies of scale was staggering.  My battle cry for small churches, therefore, is by no means a slam against their larger sisters.

Ground rule #2 regards how small is small, when it comes to small churches?  For argument’s sake, I will limit my scope to a church which sees fewer than 125 regular attendees on a Sunday morning.  If you’re into statistics, consider the following (Source: National Congregations Study, 2007):

  • In both 1998 and 2006-07, the average congregation had just 75 regular participants.
  • In both 1998 and 2006-07, the average attendee worshiped in a congregation with about 400 regular participants.

What this means is that most congregations in the United States are small, but more people are in large congregations.  The study reveals an interesting distinction between large and small churches: “More people mean more resources, more staff, and more programming.  More people also bring more complexity: different kinds of staff, more administration and coordination, bureaucracy, formality, and a loss of the personal touch.”

This brings me to my battle cry for small churches.  Can small churches be the antidote to their larger sisters’ “bureaucracy, formality, and…loss of the personal touch”?  I believe the answer is a resounding yes!  Small churches are perfectly positioned to give starving Americans much of what they hunger for.

For starters, small churches are perfect breeding grounds for real friendships.  Interestingly, today’s social media outlets (Facebook, texting, email, Twitter) don’t satisfy people’s deepest longings for genuine relationship.  Scores of people enjoy multiple Facebook “friends” and yet feel all alone.  Missing amid the electronic connection is the human touch.  Ironically, while Americans enjoy far more contact than ever, fewer people claim the gift of a best friend.

It makes sense.  Simple association with lots of people is not friendship.  You can stand in a crowded room and still feel alone.  In her new book, Alone Together, MIT professor Sherry Turkle writes that technology – despite its many obvious benefits – is also threatening to increase our isolation and make us less human.  Charles Colson added, “Experts say e-mail, online games, social networking, and blogs are addicting in part because they are portable, provide instant gratification, and allow us an easy escape from relationships that may be difficult and require a lot more work.”

"Alone Together"

Interesting.  How like Satan, our ancient enemy and hater of all things pure and godly, to tease people away from true relationship with “instant gratification” (a cheap substitute).  How like him to stir up our laziness by tempting us to conclude that genuine friendship is too “difficult,” requiring a lot of “work.”  Therefore, we “escape from relationships.”

In a backwards twist that spells victory for Satan, Americans, who are starved for authentic friendship, fool themselves into thinking they have found it in the sea of social media, when, in reality, they have embraced a cheap substitute.  Many have no true friends.

Genuine friendship requires two things modern life keeps at bay: time and close proximity.  Let’s carry these factors into church size.  Let’s say that someone desires relationship and therefore concludes that a large church offers the statistically best opportunity, i.e., more potential friends to choose from.

Here, they believe, among so many nice and friendly people, they will find true friendship.  Many do; ironically, many, many do not.  Larger churches’ “formality” and “lack of a personal touch” (to quote the study) stand as great obstacles to newcomers finding relationship.  It’s tough to break in when you’re one among so many.  And what happens to those people born with quiet, passive personalities?  True to form, many hang back and languish anonymously.

The choir at the large Texas church I attended in seminary was bigger than the entire membership of the church I grew up in.  My Sunday School department boasted two hundred fifty members.  Among the thousands at worship service, I never recognized the same person twice.  Face it; many, many people will drown in this sea of anonymity, never finding true friendship.

Anonymity is impossible at a smaller church.  Maybe you can hide in a crowd of five hundred people.  You can try to stand out and still end up blending in a crowd of a thousand.  Without regard to personality type, you will be noticed in a church of less than one hundred twenty five people.  Attend long enough, and, following the rules of recognition and familiarity, you will be seen, acknowledged, and potentially befriended.  Persist in coming, and you will see the same people frequently.

By default, you and they will engage in multiple conversations before and after the service.  Chances are great that at some point, you will hear, “Hey, several of us are meeting for pizza after the service tonight.  Want to come?”  What a beautiful beginning to a wonderful friendship!…made possible, because smaller churches, by definition – and by mathematics, for that matter – foster intimacy.  They provide the two factors needed for genuine relationship: time and close proximity.

Friends relaxing on a Nicaraguan beach after serving together on mission in the bush

Small churches’ second benefit follows closely on the heels of the first.  Small churches not only provide great opportunities for making real friends, but they also foster a sense of belonging.

Allow me to illustrate.  My freshman year in college presented me with two options for intramural basketball.  Option one was the invitation by some acquaintances to play on the hot team comprised of several campus studs.  I would have been instantly cool by association.  Option two was the invitation by two close friends to play with them and four others, all of whom were solid, genuine young men – none of whom were college standouts, though.

Being young and desirous of notice, I leaned strongly toward the studs’ team, the one whose games would be attended by pretty girls!  I’ll never forget the advice Steve, my roommate (who was part of the Option two team), gave me.  Wise beyond his years, he asked, “Do you want to be a small fish in a big pond or a big fish in a small pond?”

I didn’t so much care about fish size, but Steve’s notion of pond size intrigued me.  I envisioned swimming around anonymously, ignored, and irrelevant in a large pond of which people made much ado.  And then I imagined the joy of swimming with friends, the close camaraderie made possible by the small pond.  I chose the closer intimacy of Option two and not only never regretted it but also benefited mightily from it.

Life is not a basketball team, but a ragtag team of intramural athletes poignantly typifies New Testament fellowship and family.  I was important to my teammates, both as a player and, much more importantly, as a person.  They cared for me.  The friendship they extended was not based on my popularity or performance, but solely on the fact that I was their brother in Christ.  They weren’t angling for association with me for personal gain…I had nothing to give!  Our laughter, high-fives, and “Great shot!” comments were genuine and spontaneous.  Hanging out after the games, whether over pizza or milk shakes, was real.

And that’s just it!  Don’t you crave something real, something authentic to belong to?  Are you weary of plastic people, meaningless chatter, and the comparison game?  Deep down, how many people do you know you can count on?…not how many Facebook friends you have.  How many people truly give you their time, talk to you on the telephone (not just a quick text), meet you for dinner, or accept your invitation to hang out at your house?  And if anyone actually responds, is the moment awkward, forced?  How long has it been since you felt the amazing comfort, awesome joy, and laughter and giggles that come only from true relationship?

Facebook carries the potential to masquerade as the provider of real friends

Listen, I’m not suggesting you can’t find these things at large churches.  What I know for a fact, however, is that small churches are breeding grounds for genuine friendship.  They foster a sense of belonging like few other sources.

Many people, by contrast, find the wrong sense of belonging at larger churches.  Their idea of belonging revolves around the social benefit of saying, “We attend church at ______ (insert the name of the newest, coolest church)!”  Association with a trendy church feeds their ego.  Belonging, at first, feels great.  Slowly, however, many find that they are merely part of an organization but don’t actually belong to anyone – not a church family – in a meaningful, soul-enriching way.

Speaking of family, a third benefit small churches offer their members is the full orbed family of God.  Frequent New Testament references portray a family, complete with people of all ages, coming from different strata of class, ethnicity, and socio-economics.  Today’s idea of target marketing to a select, homogeneous group of people comes straight from America’s pragmatic business/marketing principles and certainly not the Bible.  The apostles would respond to the modern church’s defensive response that “It works,” by saying, “But it’s wrong.”

While America increasingly devalues the elderly, they remain priceless gems to any church!

Small churches have a wonderful blend of age groups, heavier by percentage, in fact, with senior citizens.  And given the Bible’s abundant praise of the elderly, its exhortations to younger generations to venerate, learn from, and honor them, I suggest that a church is blessed to have gray haired members.  And the gifts and benefits received by the younger members are too many to count.

Once a week, I meet for breakfast with a small group of retired men in my church.  Gathering at a local café, the setting is pure, good old fashioned friendship.  I am their pastor, but I can’t tell you how often I simply lean my chin on my palm and listen to them talk.  The things I hear!…and the things I learn.  Their stories span lifetimes.  They tell of regrets, things they would do differently if they could go back in time.  They speak of how time and effort have made their marriages better.  These seasoned men have reached an age where posing and posturing are useless.  They’re real, and they’re not too proud to admit their mistakes, thereby allowing the benefits to flow down to me.

I think of the impact the elderly couples of my church have on my four young sons.  Recently, I heard the boys talk among themselves about Bob, for instance, who, at seventy five years, still sports a wonderful head of silver hair.  “Bob has great hair,” one of my boys said.  “Yeah,” another responds, “I hope I have hair like his when I’m old.”  Think about that; my sons, who span from elementary to high school, not only know elderly men, but they know them well.  They know them by name, know things about them, and have an appreciation for them.

Here’s another example.  The boys enjoy water skiing, so not long ago I heard one of them mention Ronnie’s slalom ski tricks.  Ronnie is in his 70s!; yet, the boys spoke of him as if they saw his ski expertise yesterday, when, in fact, they had merely talked with Ronnie about skiing.  Though Ronnie hasn’t skied in years, he has built such a relationship with my sons that he commands their respect.

Talk about counter culture to modern America!  But this is the sort of thing that happens at small churches.  Generations which seldom interact today – children and elderly – do so regularly.  Children know their elders by name.  They learn first hand that seniors are “real,” not just old.  The wonderful byproduct of these shared experiences is that kids honor and revere the elderly, rather than seeing them as useless dead weight, as modern society increasingly portrays them.

A final benefit of small churches is that sheep and shepherds know each other well.  One of Jesus’ most helpful and endearing metaphors is that of Christians being sheep in need of a shepherd.  Jesus says of Himself, “I am the Good Shepherd.”  Proof of this is seen in how intimately close He is with His sheep, so much so that the sheep can distinguish His voice from that of a stranger.  He knows His sheep so well that He notices when one out of a hundred has wondered a way, prompting Him to immediately launch a search and rescue mission.  In the end, the Shepherd loves His sheep so dearly that He will lay down His life for them.

When God calls and equips under-shepherds (pastors) to tend His sheep (members of a church), He places before them this stunning, timeless picture of Christ, the ultimate Shepherd.  Personally, I believe that pastors of small churches find a much more accurate and realistic pasture for their work than do their peers who serve significantly larger operations.  To quote the study again, with reference to large churches:

“More people mean more resources, more staff, and more programming.  More people also bring more complexity: different kinds of staff, more administration and coordination, bureaucracy, formality, and a loss of the personal touch.”

These godly pastors are tasked with so much that they are often robbed of their single, God-given job: shepherding a flock of people.  Left with no other options, they add complexity such as multiple staff, which leads to endless “administration…coordination, bureaucracy, formality, and a loss of the personal touch.”

Large churches have much to offer, but their strengths can also lead to weakness

Pastors of smaller churches, by great contrast, live among their sheep.  They and their flock know one another intimately, and the resultant relationships are extremely practical.

I received a call not long ago from a young man I hadn’t heard from in years.  His words were choked with tears, as he asked (hoped passionately) if I could meet with him – that very day on his lunch hour.  Over pizza, I heard the tragic and yet ubiquitous tale of a wayward wife who was shattering her marriage and family.  Ultimately, as time would tell, she persisted in her rebellion and destroyed everything near and dear to her and her family.  This broken husband needed someone who cared to listen to his heart’s cry.

Who did he call upon?  His pastor, who pastors one of the largest churches in our city.  This grieving husband, calling his church office for the first time in his membership, made it only as far as the receptionist.  She asked the nature of his problem and then assigned him an appointment date and time two weeks later, not with the pastor, but with a staff counselor.

I don’t need to tell you how he felt.  He hung up and called the next pastor who came to mind – me.  He needed someone right then and preferably not a counselor he’d never even seen before.  Though we hadn’t spoken in quite some time, he remembered a connection and assumed (hoped) I would still care.

Why, I ask, did he make the assumption that I would care and meet with him?  I believe that deep down he knew I would be more approachable than his big church pastor.  I have noticed that members of larger congregations often view their pastor much like they do the president or CEO of their place of business.  They see him as important and busy.  Even when they’re near him, they feel awkward, perhaps intimidated.  Taken to the extreme, many large church pastors are treated as local celebrities, kowtowed to by the rank and file members of their own congregations.

Does this sound like Jesus’ sheep – shepherd metaphor?  Not at all.  Jesus’ sheep were only nervous and intimidated around imposters and shepherds of other sheep.  The presence of the true shepherd calmed his sheep, put them at ease, and made them feel comfortable and safe.  Small church pastors, in like manner, are close to their flock, approachable.  They know and are known by their sheep.

In the final analysis, when I consider that most people go to large churches, and when I consider that fewer and fewer church members allow faith to effect their behavior (source: BarnaGroup study, 2004 – Faith Has a Limited Effect on Most People’s Behavior), I can’t help but wonder if this disturbing, faithless trend could be reversed if more people embraced smaller churches.  Chances are great that they would find real friends; a legitimate sense of belonging; a true, full orbed family; and closeness with their pastor/shepherd.  These things translate into a life of faithful peace that Jesus spoke of.

My battle cry for small churches is not a call for faithful Christians to leave their larger congregations.  My call is, however, a reminder to the millions of church participants who are languishing in half-commitment, anonymity, friendlessness, and worldliness – things which can fly beneath the radar at large churches – that there is a satisfying, soul-enriching option.  Go find a flock of sheep who knows and is known by their shepherd, and enter the fold!