The Doc File

The online journal of Luke Dockery

Small Church Strengths

Over the weekend, I had the privilege of doing a Youth In Family Ministry Seminar at the Nicholasville Church of Christ, in Nicholasville, Kentucky. The Nicholasville church is a small (Sunday attendance in the 90s) but vibrant community of believers, and I thoroughly enjoyed my time with them.

Also, my time with them prompted me to reflect on church size, and how congregations of different sizes have different strengths and challenges. We live in a society that tends to default to the “bigger is better” mentality, but I don’t think this is necessarily true. On the contrary, I think small churches have some real advantages.[1] I don’t pretend to be an expert on small churches by any means, but I wanted to share some of those thoughts with you:

  • Small churches naturally foster relationships. This is maybe the characteristic that people think of first, and I think it is true. It is much easier to get to know people and establish close relationships in smaller groups. This is why a lot of larger congregations begin some sort of small group ministry—they realize that they have lost a feeling of intimacy, and so they intentionally become smaller to make that intimacy possible again. One of the key components of the youth ministry philosophy I believe in is that it is vital that young people form genuine relationships with as many mature Christians from the congregation as possible. This happens with a great deal of care and planning in larger congregations; it happens naturally in smaller ones.[2]
  • Small churches can more easily focus on what they’re good at. I work with a wonderful congregation of about 230, and we have grown quite a bit over the last five years or so. We have a lot of talented people and a lot of big ideas. Sometimes, though, we can get distracted by trying to do too many things at the same time, rather than just focusing on a few things that we do really well.[3] Alternatively, in my experience, because smaller churches know they don’t have the resources and manpower to try everything, they can focus instead on doing fewer things better. I am aware of small congregations that have been remarkably effective at supporting missions, training preachers, reaching out to their surrounding communities, and more.
  • Small churches can be very generous. As churches grow in size, they tend to require additional staff and additional space, and both of these can be very expensive. When a sizeable portion of the church budget is tied up in salaries and building payments, it is hard to be as giving to others as you would like. Because smaller churches tend to have smaller, older facilities that are often paid off to go along with a small paid staff (supported by many volunteers), they frequently have a higher percentage of their communal funds to give away in support of missionaries and those who are in need.

I am sure there are other benefits as well, but these were some that quickly came to mind for me. What did I miss?

Small churches come with their share of challenges as well, so I don’t want to idealize them and make it seem like small churches are perfect or that larger congregations are somehow inferior. But in a cultural moment where it can be easy to overlook small things, I wanted to highlight some real strengths.


[1] How big is a “small church”? It depends on who you ask. For the purposes of this post, I am thinking of churches that are smaller than 100 people or so, but I am not thinking in terms of rigid categories.

[2] As I met with members from the Nicholasville church over the weekend, one of the endearing characteristics that I kept noticing was how everyone kept referring to different young people in the congregation by their first names, and everyone else knew who they were talking about. There was no need for clarification because the adults knew the kids and teens. This would not be the case in larger congregations.

[3] When it comes to this particular problem, I (to channel the apostle Paul) am the chief of sinners.

6 Comments

  1. If a small church is in a growing community and is satisfied with remaining small, what is wrong?

    • Luke

      February 4, 2019 at 7:36 PM

      I think at times we can be guilty of being comfortable the way that we are and afraid to make changes. Churches (of any size) should always be looking to add more people to God’s family.

  2. Great post Luke!

  3. Luke, I have to grin a little at your designation of “small.” I work with a congregation that would have to triple in size to meet your definition of small. I get that for many congregations, a group of less than 100 would constitute a small group gathering, but for the majority of congregations west of the Mississippi and east of the LA basin, 100 would be an area wide singing/fellowship night.

    I’m good with the points you make, though. I also appreciate the ministry model you promote that encourages a multi-generational approach to all ministry. In a SMALL congregation it is not a matter of choice – it is a matter of the only way to get things done!

    Peace!

    Paul

    • Luke

      February 5, 2019 at 4:02 PM

      Paul,

      Well, I was trying to reflect the description as generally used in the church size dynamics literature (So for example, Schaller, The Middle-Sized Church describes churches between 100-200 as middle-sized, and anything less than 100 as small), but obviously the terms are very subjective.

      I know that we are largely a small church fellowship in Churches of Christ (however one defines the term), and that trend increases significantly outside of the Bible Belt. Our youth group actually travels to a small, rural congregation one Sunday night per month that averages 20-30 on a Sunday morning (usually less than 10 present on the Sunday nights we are there), so I know congregations get much smaller than 100!

      Thanks for your comments re: intergenerational ministry. Not only is it effective, I am convinced that it is thoroughly biblical as well!

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