“Even if only three people show up to church, preach like the room is full!”
That’s some of the worst advice I’ve ever received in ministry. And I’m not the only one who’s received it. Many of you have heard it, too. Some of you may have repeated it.
If so, stop.
It’s not a good idea. In fact, it’s a very bad idea.
The only time we should preach like the room is full is when the room is actually full.
Let me explain.
If what people mean by “preach like the room is full” is that a smaller crowd should get the same quality of ministry that you’d give to a larger crowd, then I am in full agreement. Everyone should always get our best.
But if that’s what we mean, that’s what we need to say. “Give a small crowd the same quality experience as you would give a large crowd.”
The problem with saying “preach like the room is full” is that there are too many pastors taking that saying literally—and it’s hurting their church, not helping it.
Preaching to 10 people as if there are 300 in the room is not the best way to give those 10 people a quality church experience. It’s just awkward.
Here’s an example.
Well, This Is Awkward…
Many years ago, my young family and I visited a church. When we walked in, we doubled the size of the congregation. That’s fine. We knew the church was small.
But the pastor was apparently a firm believer in conducting every service like the room were full, so that’s what he did.
When he preached, he spoke over our heads (literally and figuratively), including regularly looking up into a completely empty balcony as though it was full. He even concluded the service with a Billy-Graham-style “every head bowed, every eye closed” altar call.
Then he turned and walked out where he had come in. We never saw him again.
Since then, I’ve been through my share of tough services, so I have some sympathy for the likelihood that the pastor was probably feeling frustrated and even humiliated by the sad state of affairs that his church was in. I’ve wanted to sneak out the side door at the end of a service, too.
But that doesn’t change the fact that the pastor missed out on what could have been a great opportunity. One that might have lifted his own spirits in the process.
That pastor had no idea who we were. Instead of being a visiting pastor’s family from another town, we might have just moved to that town, looking for a church home. As far as he knew he had a chance, in that one service, to double the size of his congregation. Including starting a brand-new children’s ministries department with our three kids.
He could have taken advantage of smallness instead of ignoring it.
It makes me wonder how many of us, as Small Church pastors, do the same thing and miss similar opportunities.
A Missed Opportunity
“So what should he have done?” some people may ask. “Put in a lesser-quality effort because the crowd was small?”
Of course not.
The problem that pastor had was one of perception. (I know I’m making an assumption, but here I go anyway.) He thought bigger was better. So that translated into acting like the room was full when it wasn’t, because “acting bigger” was his way of offering us a quality experience.
But quality in a room of 10 people isn’t the same as quality in a room of 300—or 3,000.
This pastor had the chance to adapt to the situation and minister to the people who were there in a way that could have really blessed us that day. Instead, he:
a. Spoke to a room, not to the individuals in the room
b. Took no concern for the obvious awkwardness in the room
c. Didn’t take advantage of the positive aspects of a smaller group
d. Made no attempt at basic human contact
A Better Way to Do It
I had a similar situation happen to me recently. I was speaking at a pastors’ conference. Over 50 Small Church pastors had signed up for the two-day session I was teaching. Because of several factors, including an abrupt change in the weather, only four pastors showed up.
I’m not going to say I wasn’t discouraged. I was. So were the event organizers.
But that didn’t stop me from giving those pastors the best I had.
Instead of speaking as though there were 50 people in the room, I scrapped my PowerPoint presentation, came off the stage and re-arranged the chairs so we were all sitting around a table.
Over the next 10-12 hours, we spent some time getting to know each other and turned what felt like a disadvantage into an advantage.
If the expected 50 pastors had shown up, they’d have gotten my standard conference talk—which I hope they would have benefited from.
But the four pastors in that room for those two days got more than that. Sure, I gave them all the information the 50 would have received. But because there were fewer of us in the room, we had lots of time for feedback and conversation. We were able to tailor the information to the specific situations each pastor was facing in their church and their community. When it was over, we all exchanged emails and addresses so we could get in touch later to keep those conversations going.
How Jesus Preached When the Room Wasn’t Full
When Jesus spoke to crowds, he offered them a crowd-style teaching. Like the Sermon on the Mount. But when it was just him and the 12 apostles, he spoke differently. He explained parables to them in a way he couldn’t with the crowd. He asked and answered questions. He treated Peter differently than John, and John differently than Nathaniel.
You can’t do that in a crowd. But you can when the group is small.
What to Do Instead
The next time you’re ministering to a small crowd, don’t act like it’s a big crowd. Tailor the experience to be the best for that size of a group.
Yes, put your best foot forward. But realize that what’s best for a group of ten is very different than what’s best for a group of 2,000—or 200.
Chat with everyone—especially the newbies. Don’t just talk to them, talk with them.
Re-arrange the seating to be size-appropriate—maybe in a circle or around a table.
Turn the sermon into a conversation—like Jesus did.
The way big churches do church isn’t any better than the way Small Churches do church—it’s just better for their size! Let’s do what’s best for our size, too.
So what do you think? Do you have other ideas about how to give a small group a quality experience that suits their size?