As a small church pastor, I have to believe that small churches can and should do great things as small churches without becoming large. This means that no matter the size, a church has something good to offer, that each church has a purpose given by God other than to grow or die. I think small churches offer a few competitive advantages, to use the language of economics, that we ought to take advantage of, instead of sitting around being envious of megachurches. (Note: This almost goes without saying, but megachurches and program-size churches have their roles too, and are not necessarily bad in the same way that small churches are not necessarily bad. Each has their own strengths and weaknesses.)
1. Small churches can get to know each other individually. Much like small groups of megachurches, small churches can get to know each other’s struggles, talents, situations, and joys. The wonderful advantage the small church has, though, is that we can bring these things into corporate worship, which can make worship a much more authentic thing than it otherwise might be.
2. Small churches can get to know their community. One could argue that megachurches can do this better because they can create impacts on a much larger scale, which is mostly impossible in small churches. But on a person-by-person scale, small churches have the opportunity to create a much greater impact because each individual in the small church can bring the needs of their neighbor to the church. If every person in a megachurch brought a need, the church would get bogged down in requests. But because the small church only has a few people who could bring requests, small churches can spend more time meeting the needs of their neighbors on a small scale. Megachurches could do this too, I’m sure, but small churches do it much more naturally.
3. Small churches create leaders. In the small church, it rarely matters how well you play the piano. If you can play, you can lead worship. It doesn’t matter if you’re not the most dramatic reader, you can lead prayers. It doesn’t matter if you don’t own your own business or hold a position of power in your city, you can serve on your church’s board. Sometimes this creates problems, because people are put into positions they don’t have talents for, but I would argue that it challenges people to become better Christians.
4. Small churches reach small towns. A megachurch won’t put a church plant in rural Indiana. They’ll put plants all around a big city and make people commute. But you’ll find a small church on the corner of a town that doesn’t even have a stoplight to its name. In fact, you may find four or five of them. And those people need a church too!
5. Small churches can be relevant. Notice that “can be.” A sermon can be tailored much more closely to the needs of the community – if the pastor takes the time to do it. Pastoral care can be tailored in the same way. The ministries of the church can be more narrowly focused and directed, if the people of the church make use of their collective wisdom and knowledge of the community inside and outside the church.
I have gone through periods where I wonder why small churches continue to exist. Why do small groups of people get together to spend thousands or tens of thousands of dollars each year on a building and a preacher and/or pastor when they could be using that money to feed the hungry? And sometimes, yes, it is a waste. But a good friend of mind reminded me of this Bible story:
Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
Mary’s sacrifice was wasteful, and the money could have been used to help the poor. But this kind of extravagant love is what small church could be all about. People get together to spend money on a building because the building reminds people of the eternal things in life, people spend money on a pastor because they want to spend money on getting their souls cared for, because they see the need for the community around them to be loved and cared for in a Christian way. This is an amazing and miraculous thing, even when people lose sight of why it is they are doing church together. Let’s not forget that.