Every year from Advent to Christmas, Christians tell a story of small things. We often begin with Zechariah and Elizabeth and Gabriel. God is doing something new and the action begins when the struggle of an insignificant, old couple is taken up and used within God’s big salvation drama. God sends Gabriel to Zechariah in the temple and then to a small town in Galilee. Gabriel goes to appear to a young woman who may or may not be of the tribe of David. We do not know much about Mary, but we do know that she is of no or very low social standing. She is small in many ways, yet it is through her tiny ear that the great God is inaugurating his everlasting kingdom. And all of this is prologue to the manger where the Mighty One will be made small.
Year after year, we retell this story. We help our children produce it in pageants. We host live nativities and decorate our houses with smaller, more predictable versions. At each step along the journey, we are invited to wonder at the mystery of Christmas that God is with us. Year after year, twist after turn, the call of the Lord is to enter the story and ponder it in our hearts. And yet, all too often, we miss one key detail: that the God of the Bible loves to use what is small. The Lord of creation chooses to use Zechariah, Elizabeth, Mary and the manger. In freedom and infinite power God uses what is small to do something huge.
The fact of the matter is that we tend to miss the medium even when we get the message. We hear the good news that God is with us, but we don’t see the small things that make the way. As a result, we tend to overlook the apparently insignificant as we respond to the God of the gospel. We undervalue the little. We lose the thread and fail to look for what the Incarnate One is doing in the tiny. The mistake in reading and retelling then replicates itself in living.
One of the many consequences is ecclesial: we miss the call to love the small. We miss the opportunity to share the Lord’s delight in the little. We fail to see the great power of God using small people and small churches. The result is that small churches struggle because they are overlooked and undervalued. This tragic tendency has far-reaching effects in the life of small churches. The pastors that lead small churches and the people that fill them can feel irrelevant. Sessions that guide them function with a mentality of scarcity, fear, and futility. What could be lifted up and appreciated is dismissed from the outside. Inversely, what could be celebrated and enjoyed from within is settled for. In the end, too many small churches believe the lie that they are secondary and are only fit for small missions and downgraded hopes. Both within and without the small church, we fail to live into the story we tell of God working in and with and through small things to change all things.
As a pastor of a small church, I have seen this from the inside out. I have diagnosed the tendency in myself. I have seen the consequences play out among my neighbors. I have felt the insecurity and sensed the anxiety. I have watched as sessions and members are crippled by our culture’s tendency to equate big with beautiful and associate large numbers in the pews with divine favor. At the same time and from the same place, I have also seen the glory of God revealed in the lowly, the little and the left behind. I have seen God’s power made perfect in the microscopic. I have had the joy of watching small churches bless God’s big world in surprising ways. I have experienced the delight of the few being sent out in missions near and far that bear real fruit and make faithful disciples.
In view of all that, I want to ask the question: Does size matter? Are small churches simply failing, dying and doomed, or are they critical to the health of Christ’s body? Are small churches soon to be archaeological sites for discovering how we used to do church, or are they sites of the Spirit’s ongoing work?
To begin to answer those questions, or any theological question, the best and brightest among us tell us to turn to Jesus.1 In this matter as well as others it makes gospel sense to look to the Logos who is the center of all reality and the standard of all truth.
When we turn, look, and learn moving from the manger to his mission, we often find the Savior in a crowd. Using Luke as an example again, we find that Jesus comes back from the Jordan in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spreads. The word goes out and crowds gather in. First, a crowd forms at the synagogue at Capernaum. Then a crowd gathers at Peter’s house. At the lake, when Jesus teaches, a crowd presses in to hear God’s word. In fact, the crowd is so large and the masses so eager that Jesus gets into a boat to create space for teaching and hearing. Although many are present as well as eager Jesus only appoints twelve apostles. Still the picture in Luke is of a teacher travelling with a small group of disciples with just a few women who support them all. Here, as in the rest of scripture, there is a narrowing down from the many to the few to reach all. In other words, the way to the all is through the small.2
Jesus shows us a way of being God’s people that starts small. He also teaches about a way that esteems the small. In Luke 13, Jesus tells his disciples that the kingdom of God comes through the small. The seed that might be overlooked and the yeast that might be underestimated are the means of kingdom abundance and effectiveness. In another key moment in this kingdom mission, Jesus takes a child and tells his ‘eager to be great’ disciples that they must become small like a child. They must come to value the little, or they will never get in on kingdom life.
What can, should, and must we say about the way of the Lord? That Jesus who made himself small in the manger continues to use the small in his mission. He becomes small, starts small, and calls us to love and strive to be like those who are small. At the least, we can, should, and must say that with this King, small is never a problem and just might be his kingdom preference.
Good News for Lots of Ears
God loves to use the small. Jesus starts small and delights to take hold of and transform what is small. In God’s economy, the Spirit can use whatever we offer, no matter how small. That very truth is good news for small churches, and there are lots of them.
The median church size in America is 75 participants.3 This means that there are about 150,000 churches in America with 75 or fewer regular worshipers. Now, it is true that a majority of American Christians attend churches with more than 100. Nevertheless, one in six people attending worship each week with fewer than 100 other people. So while the media might focus on megachurches, and seminary students aspire to staff them, the on-the-ground fact is that small is not just gospel good, but small is abundant. There are many small churches in our midst. There are many small churches that are just hanging on and others that are just starting. There are many small churches that are stable and still others that are stuck. There are many small churches that are underappreciated and under-staffed. So it makes sense to ask: What are the unique opportunities and challenges facing our small churches?
I have been a small church pastor for eleven years. I started at a big church on a large pastoral staff but then found myself called to a congregation with 129 members on the roles. Eleven years later, we have 75 members with an average of 115 in worship. I love our small church and delight in the way that God uses each of our wildly different members in surprising grace. Through my calling, experience, and my reading of scripture, I am convinced that small churches provide the unique opportunity to build deep relationships, foster life-on-life growth, model intergenerational giving and receiving, and maintain mission focus.
Opportunities to Explore
In what remains, I want to touch on each of these possible strengths before considering some perennial temptations and troubles.
Small churches have the opportunity to be places where deep relationships develop and mature. For this to happen, we have to value the small and the slow and the personal within the larger mission of our Lord. To state the obvious, Christians are a part of something grand, cosmic and universal. As John writes, “God so loved the world.” The one true God makes all things and reconciles all things and will make all things new. The one work of God from creation to consummation is colossal. At the same time, the way of the triune God is always personal. Everything of God comes from the Father through the Son by the power of the Spirit. To the very depths of his being, God is personal: Begetting and being begotten, giving and receiving and returning, choosing and loving and sending and empowering are all person to person to person.
Small churches have a unique opportunity to reflect the character and way of our God in a world that is ruthlessly bureaucratic, technological and impersonal. In contrast, small church gatherings are unavoidable face-to-face events. No one is up on the stage beyond the crowd, above and aloof. The other side of that coin is that nobody can hide in the dark of the amphitheater if you meet in a small sanctuary. No one that is old or new can slide in and out and remain a number when you are small. In small churches, people have names, even when they have ordained roles or ordered tasks. The treasurer and the clerk of the session are never known as a mere function. In a small church what you do and how you do it are always personal. The more we connect this way of being God’s people with God’s way of being and the scope of God’s mission, the more we provide a space for deep and slow growth through relationships that can change all things.
Small churches have a unique opportunity for life-on-life growth. Small churches can rejoice in the fact that people are called together to grow together. Here again, small churches have an opportunity to reflect the way of the Lord. Remember that when Jesus called disciples, he called them to himself, to follow him and learn his way. We see this most clearly when we note that Jesus poured his life out into Peter, James and John. Jesus shared the gospel with these three as he shared his life with them so that they could grow with him. He took them up the mountain and into glory. He brought them into the darkness of Gethsemane when he battled the powers of evil. Over and over, Jesus called these three to himself, carried them along, and came for them when they wandered back into their old ways of life.
Jesus lived life-on-life with his disciples, and small churches have that same opportunity for growing together. Small gatherings allow people to be people with people who have complex lives and complicated days. Small churches can foster growth by sharing life in worship and mission as well as the small details and activities of everyday life. This gathering and going into the word and the world together does not happen automatically, but can happen when we share more and more of life together.4
For pastors, leaders and members this means meeting people where they are and moving through life with them from worship into the world and back. Within this Spirit-driven, Jesus-focused, child of the Father-existence, growth happens as we go deeper together. We grow together within the life of God, life on life. There are limits to how many people we share this kind of life with and grow with. These limits are sometimes called the Dunbar number. We can know five people intimately, fifteen people deeply and up to 150 well. Small churches provide the kind of life within these limits without anyone being left outside the circle of knowing and growing. This kind of life-on-life growth does not require small groups or large programs beyond worship when 100 or less are gathered in Jesus’ name.
Small churches have a unique opportunity for intergenerational blessing. In this way, small churches can become beacons of light in an age of darkness and division. We live in a moment of great divides. There are political divides, economic divides, cultural divides and social divides. Our temptation is to love those like us and shame those who are different. This often happens across generational lines. When churches are affinity groups that cater to preferences tied to experience, nothing in our common life brings together young and old, middle age and millenial. But in small churches, people are typically people before they are an age cohort. The youth might tend to flock together, but rarely is a there a large group of independent and isolated 20 somethings in a gathering of 77 people. As a result, small churches have the opportunity to be places where wisdom is passed down, and energy is shared up. Small churches can create the kind of communities where people of different generations sing, study, and sacrifice together and, along the way, discover that our stories, salvation, and strengths are better together.
Small churches have the opportunity to stay focused and have a big impact through clearly defined missions. Big churches often have big buildings and big budgets and the amazing opportunity to meet the needs of many people. Small churches rarely have all those gifts that can tempt us to think that we should be all things to all people. Small churches that remain personal and provide people space to grow together throughout all of life also have opportunities to do a few things well. Small churches can move from worship to service directly without the need to create programs or processes or provide large sums of money. Small churches can love their neighbors and be the hands and feet of Jesus, even if they only touch a few people. This kind of mission clarity and immediacy is something the church to be able to care for the hurting world that is right next door.
Small churches have amazing potential in God’s mission to make all things new. At the same time, small churches can have big problems. There is the possibility that one or two people or a single family can control, limit, or ruin a small church. In a small church, things are always personal, and this reality cuts both ways. In a small church, people also know each other, which can include their past as well as their family tendencies and tragedies. As a result, growth together can require more vulnerability and forgiveness. In addition, growing into something new is hard if we have never done it that way before and the way we have always done was passed on by Uncle Floyd and Grandma Julie. Intergenerational sin and stubbornness are as real as intergenerational fellowship. Lastly, mission drift knows no limits. Churches of any size can lose focus of their mission or or even their ability to recognize that they have a part to play in God’s mission.
On top of these problems, there is a ubiquitous lack of money. Many small churches struggle to pay the bills. It is expensive to own a building and keep up the grounds. It costs a significant amount of money to be a part of a denomination, especially if they require ordained staff to contribute to a pension plan and pay health care cost for an ever-aging clergy population. But here the problem is more often than not with generosity and not with God’s provision. One in five Christians in America literally gives nothing to no one at any time. Of Presbyterians who attend church––big or small––at least twice a month, 34% give nothing. The average American Christian gives 2.9 percent while the median amount is .62 of a percent.5 Small churches, like big churches, often have big problems with stewardship and generosity. However, in a small church the impact of greed is direct, immediate, and personal. One of those consequences is the problem of calling and keeping clergy. In a world of bigger is better, there is a temptation for pastors to want to move up and move on. Ministerial careerism has real effects on small churches that can become test sites for personal ambition and temporary stops along the way up. The long term effect of this on churches can be diminished expectations and the reduced hope of just filling the pulpit as you just barely survive.
Back to the Gospel
The answer to all these problems is the reformation’s recurring answer: return to the gospel. Nothing transforms stingy hearts like the gospel of a generous God who gives his Son in life and death for his people. Nothing opens our pocketbooks like the openness to the Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead. Nothing brings us back to a faithful appreciation of the small, mundane, particular and beautiful like hearing the gospel. Knowing this, we need to read the story more carefully noting the small details within the great drama so that we can live more fully and faithfully. In sum, nothing sets us free to be the church-large or small-like hearing the story of how the triune God works in all things for the good of those who love him. Preaching, praying, living and sharing the gospel with a church community are no small tasks, but they are things to which we are called. Part of that call includes a return to the basic gospel truth that God loves to use what is small, including the small church.
The Reverend Thomas (“Tee”) Gatewood III, Ph.D. (University of St. Andrews), is pastor of the Arbor Dale Presbyterian Church, Banner Elk, North Carolina.
1 Most decisively and thoroughly discussed in Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, IV/1, trans. G.W. Bromiley (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1956), 16ff.
2 Lesslie Newbigin most clearly articulates that the narrowing down and choosing of a few is always in service of the many. See The Gospel in a Pluralist Culture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), 80–88.
3 Mark Chaves, Shawna L. Anderson, and Alison Eagle, Durham, NC, Duke University, Department of Sociology: National Congregations Study, 2014. Cumulative data file and codebook. www.http://www.thearda.com/Archive/Files/Descriptions/NCSII I
4 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (New York: Harper & Row, 1954). Life Together is the classic vision statement for this kind of shared life.
5 Christian Smith, Passing the Plate: Why American Christians Don’t Give Away More Money (New York: Oxford Unversity Press, 2008).