THOUGHTS ON SMALLER CHURCHES
Like any church, smaller churches have much to offer as well as problems to face. A few weeks ago, I published an article on the pluses and minuses of mega-churches. Whenever you write something like that (or this), you stereotype. What may be true in a general sense is certainly not true for all. Furthermore, mega-churches and smaller churches often face similar issues. Having said that, let me share a few insights about smaller churches.
WHAT SMALL CHURCHES HAVE GOING FOR THEM.
First, in a smaller church you get to know everybody. That’s true especially for the really small congregation, but it is also true for the mid-size church. Those who have been there for some time know almost everyone in the church at least by name or by sight. There is a sense of belonging and a community of spirit that permeates the whole structure.
Second, in a smaller church there can be a greater awareness of needs. Since the members know each other, those who face medical, economic, mental, or spiritual needs are known and have the help and sympathy of others. It isn’t always true, of course, but the response to a need can come more quickly from a smaller group that identifies itself as “family.”
Third, in a smaller church the ministers can truly shepherd the sheep. Although I’ve never thought it was the minister’s responsibility alone to call, counsel, or shepherd, there is a sense of closeness that develops between the committed shepherd and the congregation. The minister almost becomes a “father” figure and has far more direct contact with his flock than the senior minister in a mega-church. In a mega-church, one of the members asked the caller who had come to see them in the hospital when the senior minister was going to come see them. The caller responded, “You don’t want to be that sick.” And so it goes!
Fourth, in a smaller church there is a stronger sense of tradition. Tradition can be either good or bad, but when it is good it binds together people better than slick programs or beautiful structures. Traditions create loyalties and identifications that can be positive and helpful.
Fifth, in a smaller church there is a strong sense of identity. Of course, that identity can sometimes degenerate into a prejudice against those “ho aren’t like us.” Nonetheless, there are positive benefits for gathering people together who come from similar backgrounds, interests, and occupations.
Sixth, in a smaller church there is a greater tolerance with those who make an effort. Aunt Mary may not be the most accomplished pianist in the world, but she tries hard and hits most of the notes so she is loved and accepted. Besides, she may be the only one who can even play. Professional quality is not often available in the smaller church, but loving acceptance for those who make the effort is.
DRAWBACKS TO THE SMALLER CONGREGATION
First, in a smaller church you get to know everybody. Yes, I know I put that as a strength, but it is also one of a small church’s greatest liabilities. You can easily identify the trouble-makers, gossip-mongers, and those who are spiteful and bitter. Because they are known, they are often accepted without question. Furthermore, because everyone knows everyone every statement must be examined lest it cause offense or misunderstanding.
Second, in a smaller church a threat to leave or withdraw support creates a crisis. In large congregations, a family may “take their ball and leave the game” without creating as much as a ripple. One unhappy individual choosing to leave a smaller church creates a crisis, especially when their friends know they’re unhappy. Those with money pose an even greater threat. A major contributor who becomes unhappy can create all kinds of problems.
Third, in a smaller church excellent leadership is often in short supply. More often than not, smaller churches are organized in a more traditional fashion with bylaws that require a specified number of leaders. Such specifications lead to ignoring biblical qualifications making availability the primary requirement. The traditional structures in most churches, including some megachurches, creates an adversarial system that leads to trouble. Fortunate are the congregations that have such systems and have successfully avoided conflict.
Fourth, in a smaller church the minister often becomes a chaplain rather than an innovative evangelist. Those smaller congregations surviving a few years with an innovative evangelist don’t stay small. The Ginghamsburg Church near Dayton is a prime example. When the Methodist Conference assigned Mike Slaughter to the Ginghamsburg pulpit, the congregation averaged about 90 in a small building located about 5 miles north of Dayton. The first year, according to Slaughter, the congregation grew to 70. Today, more than 20 years later, this congregation is one of the largest and most dynamic Methodist Churches in the country. Because of their inherent nature, most smaller congregations want a caregiver chaplain and, if the truth were known, do not expect nor do they want to grow.
Fifth, in a smaller church it is harder for new people to find acceptance. Smaller churches often see themselves as intensely friendly … and they are … with each other. A new family or individual often finds it difficult to break in. Only through persistence and effort can they make their way into the circle of acceptance.
Well, there you have it. Just a few observations about smaller churches! Like my observations about megachurches, these are obviously stereotypes and don’t apply to everyone. In my experience, however, I can attest they are generally true.