small church, BIG IMPACT

Your church size has huge implications.

Church leaders often define their career worth in terms of people in the pews.  It always seems to surface within the first two or three minutes of conversations among pastors. 

How’s attendance been recently?  How many did you have at your Easter service?

Although these sometimes feel like “in your face” questions, I don’t think most pastors intend for them to come across that way.  Even pastors of the smallest congregations ask these questions of one another.  I know from first-hand experience.  While leading a church of 30, I’ve asked other church leaders to tell me about their attendance.  It’s the pastoral equivalent of asking your neighbor about the weather.  It’s small talk.

But, it has huge implications.

Don’t get me wrong.  I don’t think every church should be a mega-church.  Far from it.  In fact, I don’t think that numbers should be a primary measure of success in the church.[i]  And I certainly don’t think we should perpetuate a mega vs micro…or large vs small…mentality among churches.  How unhealthy is that?

Here’s where the implications are huge to me.  Strategy.

Malcolm Gladwell has written a book about David and Goliath that adds an interesting dynamic to this conversation.  He says that we tend to overestimate the strengths of the “Goliaths” and underestimate the strengths of the “Davids.”  In other words, Gladwell says that the underdogs of the world are not really at a huge disadvantage.  And the reason he makes this statement is because underdogs are constantly developing new strategies to overcome their weaknesses. 

For example, an Indian-born man who had never physically touched a basketball was asked to coach his daughter’s basketball team.  The players on his team had very little experience with basketball.  They couldn’t shoot well.  In spite of (or more accurately because of) these disadvantages, this coach had one huge strength – ingenuity.  As he learned about the game, he found a formula for winning that involved causing turnovers.  Therefore, he didn’t teach his team to shoot.  He taught them to pressure the other team and cause turnovers.  They utilized a full-court press all game, every game and counted on getting easy baskets from the other team’s mistakes.

This team that couldn’t shoot and started out the season as dramatic underdogs went all the way to the state championship.  (Incidentally, that Indian-born coach decided that he loved the game so much that he bought the Sacramento Kings – an NBA franchise.)

In much the same way, many of our smaller churches do not need another mega-church-style conference to make an impact on their communities.  We need a different strategy. It’s time for us to stop imitating the large churches.  It’s time for us to stop looking at our weaknesses and start focusing on our strengths.

Do you realize that the small church can do many things that the large church considers impossible?  A small church can make a decision…today.  A small church can easily emphasize the importance of intergenerational relationships and is not necessarily stuck in age segmented ministry environments.  A smaller church can include a much higher percent of its membership in ministry participation rather than ministry observation.  And maybe one of the greatest features of being a small church is that you can quickly create a new “brand” for the church.

Several years ago, Bill Hybels and the leadership of Willow Creek did a church-wide study that that opened their eyes to some potential problems in the way they developed “fully committed followers of Christ.”  Hybels wasn’t pleased by this information, but eventually admitted that, “We made a mistake.”  But, because of their size…because of their reputation…because it’s never easy to turn around a massive battleship…creating a remedy for their mistake was an enormous and ongoing project. 

The small church, on the other hand, can turn the ship within a short period of time.  As God leads, a small to medium sized church can develop a new “brand” and community reputation with only a few strategic conversations, a few planning sessions and a church-wide missional activity or two.

Let me give you one example.  In North Carolina, there is some movement beginning to happen in the churches with 250 or less in attendance.  Under the leadership of Neal Eller, these churches are starting to ask the questions, “How are we really helping our people to grow spiritually and how are we impacting our local communities?”  They are also starting to ask, “What would it look like if we adopted the ‘generosity brand’ of the early church?”[ii]

As a result of these pointed questions, some churches are seeing monumental shifts in both their mission and church culture.  Patterson Grove Baptist Church in Kings Mountain, NC recently sent a few members on an international mission trip.  In their old way of thinking, the church would not have been able to do much to support these short term missionaries.  But, as they started to dwell on the generous nature of God…and as they determined to follow His generous ways…they set a goal of raising almost $17,000 to cover the mission trip’s travel expenses.  Not only did this church of 170 cover the expenses within about a month’s time, they decided to keep going and raised an additional $10,000 to directly help the international people they were going to serve.

Beyond increased giving to missions, this church’s new generosity “brand” has led to significant healing in their community.  Pastor Tim Hendricks tells the following story:

During a morning worship service, I prompted the members to do something for someone that could not be repaid. My favorite story occurred during this time and was shared by a woman in one of our small groups.  She told the group that her action evolved around two individuals; two individuals that she had ill-will toward because of work relationships. She had actually left a job because of conflict with personalities of one of the individuals and she had to fire the other one for she was in a leadership position at a bank.

These two ladies were placed on her mind because of the Generosity study. So during the week, she called both of them. One she did not reach but the lady actually called her back when she saw her number on her phone. This lady who returned the call told this woman that she had actually had this woman on her mind for two years now and had meant to call. Every time she picked up the phone, she would say, “No, I don’t need to do this.”

The short version of the story is that both ladies she called broke down in tears when she said her simple message was, “I want you to understand that everything is okay between us now. There is forgiveness, there is peace, and I love you.”

That was her simple statement to these ladies and both broke down and there was restored relationship between the two because of what has happened in her heart during this generosity study. For me, it highlights the impact that it’s not just about money we are talking about. 

Holistic generosity is shaping the reputation of Patterson Grove Baptist Church in both their local community and in their international relationships.  And although they spent several months going deep on the subject of Biblical generosity, it has not taken years for them to “rebrand” themselves. 

What would happen if small churches stopped worrying about the ministry direction of the megas and started pursuing the brand of the early church?

Here’s the thing.  Church size is remarkably important.  When we as church leaders determine to flourish in our current state and size, God can lead us to new areas of strength and Biblical relevance.  God can “make all things new”…even the reputation of the church…as we pursue


[i] Before you unload a “healthy churches grow” email on me, let me just state for the record that I know healthy churches often grow.  But, I also know that some rural areas will never support a church of more than one hundred people.  Sometimes the addition of 5-10 people in a rural setting is the equivalent of a mega-church adding 1500 or 2000 members.  In these areas, “significant” numerical growth is not always feasible.

[ii] See Acts 2411Galatians 2:102 Corinthians 8-9 for a few examples.