For the past thirty years or so, the focus of most literature on local church ministry has been church growth. Whether they offer advice on how to develop a winning vision statement, attract and retain visitors, multiply your small groups, or manage a building campaign, the dominant voices in the most popular ministry literature promise to help you increase attendance in your services and programs. These materials suggest that the small church is somehow deficient, ill-equipped by definition to be stewards of God’s great Gospel of grace and redemption. If a small church wants to be better, it has to be bigger.
Frankly, I disagree. I believe that small churches—which, by the way, make up the majority of churches—are uniquely equipped for ministry success in the twenty-first century. In the following paragraphs, I offer five strengths that I believe are inherent in small congregations. These qualities are not limited to small churches only; they can be found in larger churches, too. But smaller churches can better leverage these characteristics for ministry success.
“Authenticity” has become an important American value. Authors James Gilmore and Joseph Pine claim in their best-selling book, Authenticity, that instead of searching for high-quality goods and services, “people increasingly make purchase decisions based on how real or fake they perceive various offerings.” This consumer value has influenced what people look for in a church. Almost intuitively, church leaders recognize that their church needs to be perceived as authentic if they want people to visit and come back. Spend a few minutes looking at church websites online, and you’ll find “About” pages describing churches as having “authentic worship,” “authentic community,” and “authentic service.”
These instincts seem to be accurate. A poll at the Web site ChurchMarketingSucks.com reveals that the number one reason people return to churches after an initial visit is because they deem the church “authentic.” The next most popular reason is the pastor’s preaching. The church’s programs only pulled five percent of the vote.
What this means for churches is that authenticity is a consistent factor in a person’s choice to join a worshiping community. In his book, Lost and Found: The Younger Unchurched and the Churches that Reach Them, Ed Stetzer writes, “One hundred percent of churches [we] interviewed, deemed effective at reaching young people by our criteria, hold authenticity as one of their highest values or have a commitment to being authentic.”
At this risk of oversimplifying this complex issue, I offer two statements to get us thinking about what authenticity means for the local church, and why smaller churches are at an advantage for putting it to work.
First, be yourself. My first pastorate was in a tiny country church many miles from the nearest street light. Our music was off-key; my preaching was fair to middling at best. But college students showed up in droves, because they appreciated the unpretentious, “authentic” community we fostered. If we had tried to “glam up” the worship service, we would have turned these students away. As Mike Sares, pastor of Scum of the Earth church, says, “The more glitzy something is, the less people trust it.” The more glitzy, “professional” worship services at larger churches can turn off some worshipers who are looking for a more authentic worship experience.
Second, make sure your behavior lines up with your stated convictions. Large churches can struggle with this not because they are less faithful, but simply because their size can be a liability. Churches of all sizes will claim to be a family, but the larger the church, the more likely it is to be run like a business—the worship and programming becomes professionalized, and congregants become less directly involved in the church’s ministry. Small churches, on the other hand, more often truly function as a family—with all the blessings and challenges that includes.
Lean and Focused
One reason larger churches can attract attendees from across a region is because they have the resources to offer a little something for everyone. According to the Hartford Institute for Religious Research, megachurches provide “many ways by which people [can] craft their unique, customized spiritual experience to meet their needs.” Smaller churches often don’t have the financial resources or the volunteer pool to run a broad schedule of church programs. Not to worry.
Instead of running a multitude of generic programs, a better use of resources and energy in the small church is to zero in on one or two programs that focus on the unique needs of your local context. A smaller congregation can benefit from learning to value depth over volume. They can channel their limited resources into a smaller number of programs and potentially do these fewer things with greater depth and effectiveness.
Eleven years ago, Edgewater Baptist Church in Chicago felt called to reach out to its community by meeting a neighborhood need. There were plenty of needs. The neighborhood houses a large gay community, is the American home of a large population of Bosnian refugees, and faces the challenges of homelessness. Given the church’s size—around 130 members—its leadership realized it needed to focus on only one of these issues. There were already a couple of gay outreach programs in the area and a Bosnian church plant in the neighborhood, but one important need that wasn’t being addressed was a lack of childcare for less affluent neighbors. The children of working parents had nowhere to go after school until the end of the work day.
So Edgewater Baptist started Safeplace, an afterschool program and summer day camp that provides space and time for kids to work on homework, play games, and learn about abstinence, nutrition, and other practical health and safety issues. The church’s decision to subsidize tuition demanded that it streamline its programming, but Safeplace is now Edgewater Baptist’s single major ministry.