Small is Beautiful
What are the challenges and benefits of leading a smaller church?
In 1973, E. F. Schumacher’s ‘Small is Beautiful’ was revolutionary.
It was a book encouraging appropriate technology in the Third World, challenging the notion that the First World should impose its technology (think expensive tractors) on farmers abroad.
It’s a concept that may ring true with you.
The average FIEC church is around 70 members, and one-third of our 630 churches are less than 40 people on a Sunday. Perhaps you lead a smaller church and feel like a Third World farmer, being taught inappropriate things about teams and leadership by larger church neighbours.
So, in this post, I want to take a good look at the ‘small is beautiful’ principle. And I want to try and do it objectively.
Too often the discussion isn’t balanced. If the writer is from a small church background, then there is too much negativity about larger churches. Larger is criticised as smug, non-relational, pragmatically driven, aloof and superior.
On the other hand, leaders of large churches may have little experience of the problem smaller churches face, and may easily dismiss them as failing. Let's put all this to one side and recognise that small presents both ‘plusses’, and ‘minuses’.
Negatives of a smaller church
Let’s start with the minuses before we focus on the rich plusses.
1. A threatened identity
In a small church, one family of five can easily be 25% of the total group. Moving with work, or changing family circumstances (normal in a larger church) may feel catastrophic for a small fellowship.
Insecure leaders may find themselves guided by the goal of keeping the group going by doing (or not doing) whatever it is necessary.
Furthermore, change may be resisted if some in the group don't like it. In older small congregations this may take the form of an unwillingness to make gospel driven changes. In newer congregations there may be an unwillingness to grow as it threatens the identity of the group.
Sometimes, highly defined values, doctrines, and commitments have to be owned by all the members. New people may threaten to dilute them. There is a danger here that the church becomes controlling, even if they sound as if they are enabling Christians to be more authentic, truly radical, or faithfully Biblical.
2. Overworked people
Small numbers mean a lot of hard work falls upon the shoulders of a few. Even if meetings are low-key and held in a home where everyone is relaxed, someone still has to host, provide food and drink, and commit to oodles of time spent with needy people.
This may be embraced wholeheartedly, but over the years and decades, this can be very demanding.
If done well it can lead to growth, but the very success of the warm hospitable welcome can lead to overload for the few providing most of the care. Many small churches meet in a building. Whether hired or owned it involves a lot of routine, even relentless, hard work. It becomes onerous – exacerbated by the growing administrative burden placed on charities by the government.
Small churches often take on youth and children’s work or help people in the community. All good things, but it means tiredness, even exhaustion, set in. The church may just settle down into existing, but not thriving.
For many small groups progress can feel slow. The best of efforts seem to result in so little. Many smaller churches feel isolated, neglected and forgotten.
It is tempting to think that the larger church cousins must be doing something dodgy, or be compromising if they are seeing growth. Perhaps small churches can have a tendency to be superior, ‘At least we are being faithful.’
4. Financial hardship
The final ‘minus’ I want to mention is how hard it is for small groups to finance their own leadership.
Now, paying for a leader is not the defining feature of a New Testament Church! But study after study has found that the quality of leadership is one of the determinative factors of a church going forward. The Lord Jesus devoted a considerable amount of his time to training the Twelve. Leadership matters. But it can be a pressure point in a small church.
So, four negatives, but ignoring them does not mean they will go away. Rather, as we realise that groups face threats coming from their size, we will be able to overcome them, by God’s grace. And then we will cherish the huge positives of our size.
Positives of a smaller church
What, then makes small beautiful? Let’s look at some of the massive positives of a smaller church.
1. Relational closeness
It can be relatively simple to hide in a large church, once you know the ropes of how to behave.
But in a small church it is very difficult to hide. A small church gives a disciple a greater chance to be transparent, vulnerable and authentic. These matter a lot, especially today. Expressing these regularly can lead to an exquisite closeness of brotherly and sisterly love. Look at the reaction of the Ephesian elders after Paul talked to them so strongly. They wept, not with relief, because they wouldn't see him again.
When life is shared together, when spiritual battles have been fought, when trials have been weathered, temptations overcome, and fears faced together, there is an emotional attachment to one another which those in large churches rarely experience. The ‘one anothering’ of the New Testament can be regularly, deeply and enjoyably experienced.
Most larger churches seek to replicate this in their small group structures. Yet it can feel a bit artificial in reality. For in larger churches others will pick up the pieces. In a small church, nobody else will.
Many in small churches warmly appreciate the depth of fellowship where they all feel vulnerability (nearly) all the time.
2. Decision making
A deep commitment to one another, a deep love for each other, and an understanding of each other's pressures, problems, stresses and hopes, means decisions feel much less bureaucratic, and more genuinely discussed than in larger churches.
It doesn’t mean this is more ‘right’ or ‘Biblical’. But they may well feel more authentic, less politicised, and more founded on good listening and genuine interaction. So, when the whole church gathers, all members have an opportunity to be involved in ways that larger churches can hardly imagine.
There is a lack of unnecessary organisational clutter. Don't get me wrong, good organisation is still needed, but in a small church it is so much less prominent or necessary. It leaves time for so much more. There is a massive benefit to our spiritual life when we live in a less distracted way – see 1 Corinthians 7 and Paul's advice to singles if you doubt this.
3. Leadership models
Many small churches feel their weakest here. But maybe they have an opportunity to rediscover a key New Testament emphasis. That is, the elders of the churches are basically leaders of the houses. Fathers were to instruct the children in the ways of the Lord (Eph 6:4, Col 3:21). If they apply themselves to that then most, given other things being equal, could qualify as elders in New Testament terms.
Now I don't want to play down the qualifications either, but there is something quite lovely to see a group of 35, where four heads of houses become the elders, and lead the church forward. Many who would otherwise learn leadership in a small church, get to lead relatively little in a larger church.
If you are in a small church, pray that the Lord will give you ‘heads of households’ if you need them right now.
If you are the pastor of a small church, reflect on what the Lord is teaching you through all the experiences that you have. Many a pastor in a large church is shielded from some of the challenges of life by his colleagues. He may be less ‘rounded’ than you, and can’t minister in ways to needy people as well as you can.
4. Intercessory prayer
In a larger church there may be so many people, and so many new people, that though all may get prayed for, it can feel perfunctory.
If you are in a small church, may I encourage you to really consistently and steadfastly persevere in praying for one another’s lost loved ones (Rom 9:1-3, 10:1)? Prayer is an expression of total dependence upon God. As Dads, we know our children mean it when they keep coming to us with the same requests. How much more our heavenly Father loves to hear our trust in him.
Passionate prayer, especially for conversions, knits us closely together. The joy of a sinner repenting is felt on earth very deeply in a small church, as well as amongst the angels of God in heaven (Luke 15). If you are in a small church, keep praying outward-looking ‘kingdom’ prayers.
5. Digging into the Bible
However large or small your church is, when you gather in the Lord's name you join with countless thousands around God's throne (see Hebrews 12:22-24). You are never ‘just a small church’ when you gather!
Amongst many other positives may I encourage you in a small church to keep digging into God’s rich word? Sometimes in larger churches, leaders just have to keep going over a relatively small number of key things. This is partly because the numbers of new people, and new converts, need to be reminded of foundational truths, or key values of the church.
A small church can drill down deeper. Good teaching can bring a knowledge of, and commitment to, biblical truth and values that make a larger church sometimes feel superficial.
Maybe in your small church you need to remind yourself of some of these positives again. Perhaps you need to do some work on strengthening these positives, as well as overcoming some of the weaknesses.
As with all the positives of church life, none should ever make us superior. But it is part of God’s grace in us that we can genuinely thank him for these lovely realities that can be experienced in small churches.