Vision for the Small Church

Although I currently worship at a larger size church, I have spent a fair amount of my life attending smaller churches. Recently I attended a smaller sized church, and it gave me some time to reflect on these numerous islands of Christ that permeate America.

Their number is a little deceiving.  For example, 1 in 5 Wesleyans attends a single large church. That means this large church has the numerical equivalence of hundreds and hundreds of small Wesleyan churches.  So while the small church outnumbers large churches in buildings, it does not outnumber the people in larger churches or the influence.

Churches of all sizes are notorious for their antics from time to time.  A large, seemingly fruitful church can undergo a split and its pieces disintegrate. This can especially be the case when a church is built around a particular charismatic personality.

But smaller churches have their splits too.  In a small church a strong individual can wreak untold havoc.  A person with a key decides to paint the inside of the church without telling anyone. Another person leaves because the pastor took down the attendance billboard in the back by the door. Small churches can also be islands of legalism, where visitors who do not dress correctly are snubbed.

A church of any size can get distracted from the bottom line of Christians being in the world: love God and love each other. In church, we love God in worship.  We love each other inside the walls by getting along.  We love those outside the walls by mission. That’s really all there is.  The rest is distraction.

God doesn’t care what the music is, who plays the piano, or who sings the special song. If the worshipers are worshiping, that’s good enough for God. It’s not an excuse to fight with each other. Worship wars show that Satan has gotten the best of us by distracting us.

We can get caught up in fighting political issues from the pew and pulpit. Sometimes this is also a hard heart disguised as faith.  Are you preaching love of one another in the church and love toward both friend and enemy outside the church?  If not, you’ve gotten distracted. The prophetic message is primarily a message for others, not against them. So who is your message protecting or wanting to rescue–or is it just an excuse to excoriate sinners because you think it is allowed in this case?

The thought occurred to me, What would happen to the small churches of America if they focused on loving each other inside and outside their walls?  What if, whenever someone felt like fighting over anything, you returned to the theme–anything but love is a distraction?

I don’t like that style of music. Distraction. I don’t like the way that family dresses. Distraction. Those kids are disruptive and should not be allowed to come back. Distraction. We need to contact our politicians. Probably a distraction.

Might it not transform the church?  Might it not transform America?  A friend of mine said here’s what would happen: they wouldn’t remain small churches for long.

  • B. Whitesel

    Well said Ken. As I research the leadership of John Wesley I find it interesting that he thought the “classes” or “sub-congregations” of of 12-30 people were the key to the Wesleyan movement. He so strongly believed this that you couldn’t attend the lager “society gatherings” (numbering over 1,000 at the Foundry in London) if you didn’t have your “ticket” stamped showing you attended your class meeting (i.e. sub-congregation) that week. Though the “band” meetings were the key for struggling with deeper issues of discipleship, he didn’t require them. Rather John Wesley, I think like you, saw the power in mid-sized groups (called “clusters” by a Wesleyan-style Anglican Church in Sheffield, St. Tom’s). In fact, the Rector of St. Tom’s of Sheffield UK, Mike Breen, told me that when they tracked salvations, most people came to know Christ not in their small groups nor their large gatherings, but in their cluster meetings. And so I think you are right, if church leaders and followers tap the power of these extended-family clusters for loving and redeeming, then another movement might burst forth anew.

  • Amen!
    Thanks for this post, Dr. Schenck – encouragement for “the rest of us” as we faithfully lead in small-church settings!

  • Rob Henderson

    I pastor a small church. What I have learned is the necessity of the sanctification of the Holy Spirit within my own life and the lives of my congregants. We are in a long transition from the gray-haired church I came to in 1999 to a younger group with children. My guess is that we are still another five years of transition.

    I quit looking with jealous eyes at the larger church years ago. That’s the number one risk of pastoring a small church. I don’t get paid “full-time” but work full-time as the pastor. (I am unable to work outside due to physical issues.) We don’t have the “bells and whistles” of a larger church but we do have a handful of committed men and women.

    We do not have the issues that most small churches I know deal with. Perhaps we did before I arrived- I’m not certain, I wasn’t here.) The things you described have their tendencies in the small church for sure. But my wife and I have striven to minister out of a heart of love for each person.

    I can’t explain the issues of being small for others but for our circumstance this has been a sanctifying experience for us and the congregation. God has been doing great things in our midst. We aren’t caught up in the idolatry of numbers- both in money or people. Sure, we need more money and we deal with the frustrations of shortages. However, rather than this becoming an idol it becomes a matter of prayer.

    For whatever reasons we are a small church in Shelby, Michigan. But yet, we are making an impact in our community and will continue to do so. I would love to share more about God’s work here but time does not avail itself for such at the moment.

  • Concerned Preacher

    I agree with you research and conclusions. We do have to create a loving environment where we can nurture each other. I feel there is a missional move coming to America…

  • TerryReed

    Excellent article! Our enemy is the devil, not one another.
    Terry Reed
    Small Church Tools