Imagine the stereotypical country church in a pastoral setting: little white building, green stained glass, a steeple and 100 year old oak trees framing the picture. That’s the church I am blessed enough to serve. She sits off a two-lane country road in the middle of tobacco farms where we define a traffic jam as a logging truck getting stuck behind a slow-moving tractor. In the world of American Christendom, she is hardly a blip on the map. Outside of the 100 or less attenders each week and the 13,000 residents of Lunenburg County, VA, she is probably not a church anyone has heard of. She will never make the Christians Standard’s annual mega-church issue, or their medium sized church issue either for that matter. Like the majority of small churches, she serves her community in relative obscurity, and I am here to tell you, that’s just fine with me.
What I Am Not Saying
Now before you think I am going to go on an ‘anti-big-church’ rant, let me assure you that is not my intent. Neither am I against church growth, after all, if we are making disciples as the Lord commanded, we expect them to attend church! So this is not the ravings of a traditionalist who has seen what the mega-church has to offer and has found it lacking. Rather, this is a celebration of the type of church that many churches, especially in rural settings, find themselves called by Jesus to be.
What is 28.5%? That’s the percentage of churches Jesus had zero condemnation for in His seven letters to seven churches in Asia that we find in the opening chapters of Revelation. Only two out of seven escaped a reprimand from Jesus. Now surely those churches must have been large, wealthy, influential churches, right? Wrong. The most ‘successful’ church on the list is that of Ephesus. Her pedigree was great (what beats getting founded by an apostle and ministered to by said apostle’s personal trainees?). Her effectiveness was real (she put the idol-makers out of business!). Yet Jesus blasts her for leaving her first love. The harshest rebuke wasn’t for the smallest church on the list, but the wealthiest! It is the wealthy Laodiceans that Jesus says make Him so sick He’s about to spit (literally ‘vomit’) them out of His mouth.
So if Jesus doesn’t judge a church by size, pedigree, effectiveness or wealth, what is He pleased with? If Revelation is any indicator, Jesus is more pleased with faithfulness than He is with any of the above. The two churches that He has nothing but praise for are Smyrna, a church ravaged by persecution and poverty, and Philadelphia, a church with ‘little strength’ but absolute steadfastness in the face of trouble. Both churches were in smaller cities, and most likely their size reflected the population of their home town. They weren’t as effective as Ephesus (in fact their local populace had largely rejected them and turned to persecution instead). They were not nearly as wealthy as Laodicea, the banking center of Asia, but it is to these churches that Jesus says, “I know your poverty (but you are rich)… You have little strength, but you have kept My word.” I don’t know about you, but I would rather be small and weak and have the Lord’s blessing than to be the picture of health and wealth and be condemned by Him.
Reconsidering Our Priorities
If Jesus’ rubric for success doesn’t include size, wealth and influence, maybe we need to re-evaluate how we measure the success of a congregation. I live in an area where there are several small churches that have less than 30 a week in attendance. The easy thing to do is look down on them. I have even heard other ministers say those churches just need to throw in the towel and close the doors, and I must admit that I’ve had the same thoughts at times. But I wonder if Jesus would commend them for staying the course when other, larger, more ‘successful’ churches sold out to the latest gimmick or fad to draw people into their services? I propose there are some things that churches do that keep them smaller, but really are good things according to Jesus.
1. Preach the Word Faithfully and Uncensored- Jesus’ ministry was full of ups and downs. He would get popular and then He would have the ‘Take up your cross’ talk. The multitudes would grow, and He would say something bizarre like ‘Unless you hate your parents/give up all you have/eat my flesh you cannot be my disciple.’ Most people found the teachings of Jesus harsh and hard to follow, and the size of the crowd following Him would shrink. How many preachers are willing to take this tactic? The world is thirsty for the Word of God. Biblical illiteracy in America is at an all-time high. We can either bemoan these things, or preach the Gospel, and if it offends someone, oh well! A comfortable person doesn’t move until something makes them uncomfortable. The Gospel, when properly proclaimed, should make people uncomfortable, and if people leave, then they weren’t really interested in Jesus to begin with.
2. Forget the Newest Church Growth Buzzword- Emergent. Relevant. Attractional. Missional. Purpose-Driven. Every year or so a new buzz-word is attached to a book title on how to grow a church. I have discovered that the premise of most of these books are faulty. Their goal is a larger church, not a Jesus-focused Church. Sure they might dress it up with phrases like ‘discipleship’ or ‘evangelism’, but all they really are promoting are marketing techniques disguised with religious jargon. I have found the most effective Church Growth formula is the one Jesus revealed when He said ‘If the Son of Man be lifted up He will attract all men to Himself.’ If we’re not lifting up Jesus, we’re not evangelizing or making disciples.
3. Focus on Disciple Making and not on mere Conversions. Did you ever notice that the group that stayed with Jesus the most never got much more than 70 people? Sure, there were times He preached to thousands, but mostly it was 70 or less that traveled with Him faithfully. Why is this? Because Jesus didn’t want mere converts, He wanted devoted disciples. His Great Commission in Matthew 28 calls us to make disciples, not converts. Only recently has the American Church realized there is a gap between what her members believe and how they live, and she is just now starting to figure out that what she has been missing is discipleship. One reason discipleship has fallen to the wayside is because it takes longer to make a disciple than a convert, so our business-model-turned-into-church-growth-philosophy neglected discipleship in the name of quick success. Yet in a small church, where relationships are sometimes too close for comfort, we find fertile soil for making disciples because discipleship is rooted in relationship.
4. Stay the Course, even when it’s Unpopular- Our culture is becoming more and more hostile to Biblical values and ideals, and sometimes it is tempting for the leadership of a church, regardless of size, to take a softer stance than what the Bible dictates. I think that is a huge mistake. While I believe in speaking in a loving manner, I also believe in speaking the truth. And yes, speaking the truth will make you unpopular and may even bring some unwanted attention your way, but if the early Christians could face martyrdom, I think we can endure a little unpopularity for the name of Jesus.
5. Emphasize Teaching Over Programming- Jesus is more important than Sunday School. He’s more important than VBS. He’s more important than the monthly youth outing or the annual day of service. It’s not that any of these things are bad, it’s just they are programs, and programs in and of themselves are not the point. The Christmas cantata can’t save you. Jesus can. Churches that are heavier on teaching and doctrine tend to be smaller than churches that have a program for everything. If you can do the programs and still teach Jesus, more power to you, but too often I have seen really effective programs nudge Jesus out of the way over time.
Again, let me emphasize, that this is not a rant against larger churches. I believe churches of any size can do the things listed above, and yes, I believe there are some large churches out there who have done so. And no, I don’t believe every small church is healthy either. I have served too many! But, I do believe God has a plan for the small church, and I believe He looks at her much differently than most ‘experts’ do, and for that, I am thankful!