The online journal of Luke Dockery

Tag: Small Churches

Preparing for Ministry in Small Churches


Several days ago, I had the opportunity to speak to a class of ministry students at Harding University who are near the completion of their degrees. While my primary task was to speak to them about youth ministry, I was also supposed to give them some practical tips for doing ministry in a congregational setting.

I offered several tips, some of which were likely more helpful than others, but some of my advice was focused on the reality that Churches of Christ represent a fellowship of small churches.

Consider some of the following information from the 2015 edition of Churches of Christ in the United States, compiled by Carl H. Royster. Of 12,303 congregations of Churches of Christ in the United States:

  • 1,932, or 15.7%, are congregations of 0-24 people
  • 3,351, or 27.2%, are congregations of 25-49 people
  • 3,556, or 28.9%, are congregations of 50-99 people
  • 2,159, or 17.5%, are congregations of 100-199 people
  • Combined, this means that roughly 89% of congregations are less than 200 people in size

The congregation where I currently serve doesn’t seem overly large to me, but at 230, it is in the top ten percent of congregations in our fellowship by size.

Again, Churches of Christ represent a fellowship of small churches. With this reality in mind, I offered a couple of suggestions to the Harding students I talked to who were about to graduate and head into ministry roles in Churches of Christ.

First, it is important to develop a diversified skill set. If you want to work in a church of Christ, and what you really, really want to do is be an adult education minister and do only that, there just aren’t that many jobs like that out there. The reality is that in smaller churches (i.e., the vast majority of churches of Christ), you have to wear a lot of hats, and you need to have a diversified skill set to be able to do that.

In my current position (and remember, we are over 200 in size, so we are larger than 9/10 churches in our fellowship), in a given week I might find myself planning a youth retreat, writing adult Bible class lessons, designing our church website, preaching, and negotiating a new contract with our copier company—and that’s not an unusual week!

Out of necessity, you have to wear a lot of different hats. You might have a specialized skill or skills that you are really good at, and that’s great, but you need to develop general skills as well.

Second, it is important to develop humility about your role. I was speaking that day to Christian college-trained ministry students, which means that in many ways, they are the upper echelon, the elite. They have spent lots of money and countless hours receiving training in biblical languages, intensive Bible study, ministerial skills, etc. Simply put, there are things that they have been trained to do that a lot of people in the congregations where they serve won’t be able to do, and it’s important that they prioritize and do those things.

But at the same time, that doesn’t mean they are too good to do less glamorous, more menial things. I cannot begin to count the number of hours I have spent straightening up chairs, taking out the trash, or putting things away in storage closets while at work. I didn’t need an M.Div to do that work, but it was still a vital part of my job. A couple of years ago, we had a major problem with the sewage line at our church building. Toilets backed up, and foul water flooded the hallway. And our preaching minister got out the mop and went to work. Ultimately, ministers are servants, and they step up to serve where it is needed; they are not too good to do the “small” things.

I am sure there are many more ideas that could be added, and again, this is coming from a guy who isn’t really at a small church. But if these lessons are true for me, how much more they must apply to even smaller congregational contexts. There are some real blessings that come with working with small churches, but it requires a certain type of minister as well.

Judging by demographic realities, many of the ministry students I spoke to will find themselves (at least at some point) working in smaller congregations. I hope what I shared with them will prove to be helpful.

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.

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