When it comes to assessing ministry trends and strategies, American clergy are concerned primarily with two questions. The first is one of principle: is it true? Like all good shepherds, we want to lead our people toward the pastures that give life, not illusions of life. So we’re wise to be cautious of new trends and novel approaches until we’ve answered the important question: is it true?
But if we’re honest, this is not our only concern. We are also preoccupied with another, sometimes equally demanding, question: does it work? And for the past thirty years or so, the implicit message of the most popular literature on local church ministry is that the way we know something works is if it makes our ministries bigger. Whether they are offering advice on developing a vision statement, attracting and retaining visitors, or managing a building campaign, the dominant voices promise to help you increase attendance in your services and programs. And because they work, ministers often assume these strategies are right and true.
Frankly, I disagree. I believe that small churches—which make up the vast majority of churches—are uniquely equipped for ministry in the twenty-first century and are integral to God’s vision for redeeming the world. Furthermore, small ministries have strategic advantages that make them effective in today’s culture.
Authors James Gilmore and Joseph Pine claim in their best-selling book, Authenticity, that instead of searching for high-quality goods and services, “people increasingly make purchase decisions based on how real or fake they perceive various offerings.” This consumer value has influenced what people look for in religious institutions. A poll at the website ChurchMarketingSucks.com reveals that the number one reason people return to churches after an initial visit is because they deem the church “authentic.”
What this means for churches is that authenticity is a consistent factor in a person’s choice to join a worshiping community. In his book, Lost and Found: The Younger Unchurched and the Churches that Reach Them, Ed Stetzer writes, “One hundred percent of churches [we] interviewed, deemed effective at reaching young people by our criteria, hold authenticity as one of their highest values or has a commitment to being authentic.”
Large churches can struggle with authenticity not because they are phony, but simply because their size can be a liability. The larger an institution becomes, the more likely it is to be run like a business—the worship and programming becomes professionalized and congregants become less directly involved in the church’s ministry. Small churches, on the other hand, more often truly function as a family—with all the blessings and challenges that includes. Many younger worshipers find this refreshing.
Lean and Focused
Small ministries often lack the human and financial resources to run a multitude of programs. This apparent lack of resources is a great excuse for churches to zero in on one or two programs that focus on the unique needs of your local context. A smaller congregation can channel their limited resources into a smaller number of programs and potentially do these few things with greater depth and effectiveness.
Eleven years ago, Edgewater Baptist Church in Chicago felt called to reach out to its community by meeting a neighborhood need. There were plenty of needs. The neighborhood is the American home of a large population of Bosnian refugees and faces the challenges of homelessness. Given its size—around 130 members—the church realized it needed to focus on only one of these issues. There was already a Bosnian church plant in the neighborhood and a ministry to the homeless. One important need that wasn’t being addressed was a lack of childcare for less affluent neighbors. The children of working parents had nowhere to go after school until the end of the work day.
So Edgewater Baptist started Safeplace, an after school program and summer day camp that provides space and time for kids to work on homework, play games, and learn about abstinence, nutrition, and other practical health and safety issues. The church’s decision to subsidize tuition has demanded that it streamline its programming. Safeplace is Edgewater Baptist’s single major ministry. The commitment has paid off. Over 120 kids regularly attend Safeplace during the school year, and there are even more in the summer day camp. Doing less has made it possible for Edgewater Baptist to make a greater impact.
Very often, we judge how committed and engaged our members are based on how actively they participate in official church programming. But chances are you have parents in your congregation that are active on the PTA. Perhaps someone is active in prison ministry or in some form of compassion ministry to the homeless or dispossessed. Rather than pressuring church members to turn all their gifts churchward, some pastors are learning that their small church has a greater impact in its community when they equip and encourage their people to keep serving where they are already active.
Learning to multiply your church’s impact by empowering and releasing members to minister in the community requires that you know your congregants well enough to know what they are passionate about, gifted for, and already involved in. In other words, this strategy for ministry plays to one inherent strength of the smaller congregation—the pastor can know his or her flock intimately.
The statistics are sobering: some commentators project that nearly 80 percent of young people who grow up in church and actively involved in youth programming end up leaving the church by the time they reach college. Sociologist Christian Smith says that the reasons teens give for leaving aren’t dramatic. “Many cannot explain their disengagement from religion;” he explains, “many seem simply to have drifted.” Thom and Sam Rainer state the matter more succinctly, “Churchgoing students drop out of the church because it is not essential to their lives.”
Fortunately there is hope. In her research through the Fuller Youth Institute, Kara Powell has discovered a common denominator among young adults who continue to make the local church a vital part of their lives. Those students who actively seek a church home when they leave their parents’ care after high school are those who have had meaningful relationships with adults in the church besides their parents. Those who had been given opportunities to serve younger children in the church were also more likely to view the church as important to their lives. In other words, intergenerational relationships within the church are an important factor in making sure young people keep the faith.
Instead of providing more exciting age specific ministries, find ways of bringing the generations together. Whether in the worship service, Sunday school, or through service projects, look for ways to develop relationships across generational lines. And for this effort, the smaller the church, the better. In large congregations, the generations have few opportunities to intermingle. In smaller churches, opportunities abound.
Small churches have many valuable strengths, of which I have highlighted only a few. Our main weakness is perception. We must learn to see strengths where conventional wisdom has taught us to see liability. We must learn that when it comes to faithful and effective worship and mission, bigger is not always better.
Brandon O’Brien is editor at large for the Leadership Journal and a freelance writer and editor. He has written articles, interviews and reviews for Leadership, Christianity Today, Relevant, and the Out of Ur blog. Brandon earned his B. A. in English literature and Biblical studies at Ouachita Baptist University and his M. A. in Religion in American Life from Wheaton College Graduate School. He is now a doctoral student in historical theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Brandon participated as Keynote and workshop leader at the IMN 2012 Annual Conference in Buffalo, NY.