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“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?

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Troy Heald

commented on Feb 13, 2015

Ministering in Northern Maine weather can have a big impact on attendance. Some mornings, our normal 80-100 crowd can dwindle to 30 or less. We don't have our same worship service, we move the service to our smaller chapel/fellowship hall and amend our service structure. It becomes much less formal/structured. In the evenings we can vary from an average of 30 or so to less than 10 (again, impacted by weather if we haven't cancelled the service.) We will do just what you suggested, pull tables together, sit around and talk about the lesson of the evening. Quite often these smaller sessions are very rewarding and great relationship building times.

Karl Vaters

commented on Feb 13, 2015

That's great, Troy! I'm sure the people appreciate that you're tailoring the service for them and the size of the crowd.

Dr. Jay Hines

commented on Feb 13, 2015

Hello, Troy: Weather can be our worst enemy and one of the greatest excuses used by people who are struggling spiritually and looking for a means to cancel-out their church attendance. Years ago, I was teaching an adult Bible class and God was greatly helping us. We had an atrocious snow storm, very unusual for New Jersey. On Sunday morning, when I arrived to teach the adult class, to my surprise, the snow plow operator had pushed all the snow from the parking lot in front of the door to the small auditorium I used for teaching the class. The snow was piled up six feet, totally covering the door. Everyone decided for me, or so they thought, that class was canceled. Let me point out that it was all of the non-class members who decided but my class of studious adults, delighted by our study in the Gospel of John, quickly shifted to another room in a different building and despite the snow storm and piled snow, we adjusted and went right on and what a blessed time with God's Word we had. I too could have used the snow as an excuse and nobody would have said anything contrary but my class and I honored God and His Word and he blessed us in return. Thank you for your article.

Lawrence Webb

commented on Feb 13, 2015

I grew up in cotton and cattle country out in West Texas, where I heard this story (you may have heard it, too). An old cowpoke showed up at church one Sunday and was the only one there beside the preacher. The preacher suggested they just not have service, but the cowboy said, "If I take a load of feed out to the pasture and only one old steer shows us, I'm not gonna send him away without feeding him." With that encouragement, the preacher hauled off and did a full-fledged service and sermon. When he was through, the cowboy said, "Like I said preacher, I wouldn't have let that one cow go hungry, but I dern sure wouldn't have dumped the whole load on 'im either."

Dr. Jay Hines

commented on Feb 13, 2015

Hello, Lawrence. I have been in the church for 40 years and surprisingly, I have not heard that story. It is a wonderful story, though, and it made me laugh. It bears a lot of truth, too, especially in relation to our topic. Thanks for sharing. Dr. Jay

Patrice Marker-Zahler

commented on Feb 13, 2015

Lawrence, that was well put. You have got to know who your target audience is and talk to them.

Dr. Jay Hines

commented on Feb 13, 2015

Great article with splendid advice. I joined the pastoral staff of a Baptist Church in NJ with decent Sunday morning attendance. I hadn't attended their Wednesday evening prayer meeting yet and was scheduled to do a presentation on Church evangelism for Wednesday evening. When I got to the church, I expected to open the door to the sanctuary and find it full, or at least half-full being a weekday evening. To my surprise, there sat all of six people and within seconds, they advised me that this was the usual attendance for Wednesday evening. Realizing that my sanctuary-size presentation on evangelism would be too much, I brought a music stand down in front of the pews where the six people were sitting along with a chair. After prayer, I then announced that we were going to indeed study evangelism but we were going to do it "interactively" which meant conversation, questions, answers and plenty of it. I was able to make my points but they were made in the course of conversation with this small group who left, expressing gratification over the lesson and even greater gratification with our sense of spiritual intimacy which was brought on by the ease of presentation, the discussion format, and since we were such a small group, gathering in the front of the church to hold hands as a circle when we joined together in prayer. Like most other preachers, I too enjoy large crowds and a sea of faces that fill the church. But some of the most fruitful times of ministering that I have had are with groups of people numbering less than 10 people. If we took stock from the gospel, I believe that the majority of Jesus' teaching was to groups of about 12, his disciples. Some of those brilliant passages from the 14th through 17th chapter of John's Gospel weren't spun-off under the heat of evangelistic fervor before packed synagogues or in the open air where thousands had gathered to hear Christ preach. No, they were spoken to a handful of earnest disciples who would be so impressed with the greatness of Christ's words that they would share them with the rest of the world. Thank you for your wonderful article and insights. Dr. Jay Hines, The American Gospel Hour and Zion Missionary Baptist Church.

Richard Scotland

commented on Feb 13, 2015

Good point. My experience of this was being a guest preacher where with my family present we just reached 9 people. I was told to expect 50 or so but circumstances... It takes some courage and faith for a preacher to change their style at minutes notice, but done prayerfully, there is no doubt that the service can be just as vital and worshipful.

Mike Ingo

commented on Feb 13, 2015

Excellent article! Thank you for clearing that up! I have been guilty of giving that advice a couple of times as we have an outreach street ministry. Thank God the minster over that outreach follows your advice, he has had a lot of souls converted in only a 4 or 5 person sitting.

Michael Shipman

commented on Feb 13, 2015

I bring in the seminar speakers for a track that I am responsible for at a Christian Ministries Convention. Because there is invariably someone who ends up not able to show up, for some reason or another, I have a seminar of mine ready, just in case. In the first session one morning, I had to go to the classroom and let the people know that the speaker listed wasn't able to be there, and encouraged them to go to one of the other many seminars offered...but...I said that I also had a seminar topic- "How to Deal with Failure in Ministry" that I would be willing to lead. ONE lady took me up on it...so I spent the next hour in chairs facing one another, not 3 feet away, teaching the seminar that I had given prior at a national event this day to ONE PERSON. She thanked me immensely at the conclusion, and we both went away blessed!

Rev. Phyllis Pottorff-Albrecht, United Brethren Communi

commented on Feb 13, 2015

When the Apostle Paul arrived in Philippi, after having a vision that someone was begging him to bring the Gospel message there, Paul COULD have been disappointed when he arrived at the riverbank on the Sabbath, and discovered only a handful of devout women had assembled there for prayer. Paul could have decided to wait until he had a more prestigious audience before sharing his Gospel message. Instead, Paul shared his Gospel message, the Lord opened the heart of Lydia, and the first church in Europe began in Lydia's home. It is too bad that so many seminaries emphasize the mega-church model in their teaching - because many modern pastors fail to appreciate how much can be accomplished by a handful of devout believers. The United Brethren Community Fellowship is based strictly upon house churches. We do not acquire nor do we need to maintain church property. We keep the congregations of our house churches small - only five families - or 25 individuals - can make up the congregation of a house church. The five families within the congregation take turns, hosting the average weekly service. Five congregations of five families each, make up a Fellowship. Because we keep our numbers small and the five families within the congregations take turns hosting the weekly meetings, we have never had any problems with unhappy neighbors, complaining that the host of any congregation is creating a parking problem for the neighbors. Many of our members are former members of mega-churches, and are relieved that they are not constantly being asked to contribute to the cost of building and/or maintaining a large structure. United Brethren Community Fellowship ministers are always speaking to only a small group, so none of us would have a problem speaking as if the room was full - our rooms are all mostly full most of the time. And, in addition, whenever there is someone in the congregation who is dealing with some difficulty - everyone in the congregation can know that immediately, and take appropriate steps to make sure that everyone in the congregation continues to share in the worship, prayer, Bible study and fellowship, even during a prolonged illness. In addition, congregations do not find it necessary to meet at 11 am on Sunday morning. A congregation can be made up of people who are required by their employers to work on Sunday - so they can meet at any time during the week which is more convenient for members of the congregation. The Book of Acts records that the early Disciples often went to the temple every day in order to worship. The Book of Acts also records that many of the early Disciples often met together on both the Jewish sabbath AND on the first day of the week. Perhaps one of the reasons why the New Testament disciples were able to accomplish such miraculous strides forward is because they were not fenced in by the mega-church model which dominates the modern church. Perhaps pastors who find themselves disappointed whenever they find themselves delivering a message to a small gathering should begin making it a habit to re-read Acts 16 whenever they are preparing a message.

Bill Snow

commented on Feb 14, 2015

Thank you brother for a great article and good reminder......connect with the people.

Karl Moore

commented on Feb 15, 2015

My approach to a smaller church once upon a time was to indeed admonish the church, which had a large amount of musical ability, to form a choir. This was before worship teams were all that. Since it was a smaller church they were concerned about whom they would sing. My answer was twofold, 1. We sing to and for God as our worship and not to entertain people; 2., If they did sing as if the church were full they would be prepared for when it would be full. It worked. But, remember, the whole concept is not just to be like a big church, but, to give God all of and the best of our worship to our great God.

Greg Moller

commented on Feb 22, 2015

Good article Pastor Karl, I pastor a small church. At best we' had 26 in congregation, but the usual numbers or 5 or 6. This gives me the chance to sort of "get in up and close" with the members. My wife usually makes some sort of crock pot dish that all the members can eat, for after the service and we all get to know each other on a deeper personal level. I agree 100 on what your saying in the article. Thank you again and God Bless you...Greg

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