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“If a church stays small, they must be doing something wrong. It can’t possibly be healthy.”

This has been an underlying assumption of many in the church growth movement. (Although it’s usually more subtly stated than that.) But, as with any assumption, we must always ask one vital question.

Is it true?

I say no.

Certainly many churches that stay small are unhealthy. Thankfully, unhealthy churches tend not to grow.

But, as I’ve written in The Myth of Inevitable Congregational Growth, some healthy churches don’t experience the numerical growth we expect.

Some healthy churches don’t experience the numerical growth we expect.

So I’ve started compiling a list of the types of healthy small churches whose numbers will often stay static, even though they’re doing great kingdom work.

It’s not a definitive list. Just what I’ve discovered so far. And it's not universally true. Every one of these has exceptional cases of significant numerical growth.

Also, I am not offering these as an excuse for laziness or any other form of ill-health. Enthusiastic participation in the growth of the church through the Great Commandment and Great Commission is a non-optional essential for every congregation. But many types of churches do that without seeing their own numerical growth.

Here are 11 of them:

1. Planting Churches

Some churches contribute to the body of Christ by growing bigger. Some are like spiritual Johnny Appleseeds, planting other small churches all over the place.

2. Training Churches

Small churches are especially well-suited to be hands-on training centers. Including the church I pastor.

During the school year, up to one-third of our church attendance can be college students. Plus we have internships in both the school year and the summer months, during which students from all over the world get to interact with every aspect of the church body. Interning in a small church allows them to see the church as an integrated whole, not just in one narrow department.

3. Sending Churches

This usually goes in tandem with being a Training Church. We train them, then we send them.

In the church I pastor, for example, members are always leaving us for active ministry elsewhere. Last Sunday is a typical example, in which we said goodbye to three people. 1) A member of our worship team who has accepted a full-time position leading worship at another church, 2) an intern who is heading back home to Austria, and 3) a long-term member who will be training missions teams all over the world.

4. Retirement Community Churches

This is a valid and growing, but often overlooked segment of the church.

I have a friend who pastors a wonderful, healthy church in a retirement community. Every year, he performs funerals for 20 percent of his congregation. So he has to maintain 20 percent growth just to keep his attendance level. Which he does. In any other circumstance, 20 percent growth every year for over a decade would get you noticed. In his case, he has to fight completely unwarranted feelings of failure.

5. Niche Churches

I’m convinced this will be a growing segment of the church world in the coming decades. Especially in large population centers. Churches that serve a peculiar segment of the population – as in, people who would never attend either a traditional church or a modern contemporary one – are needed now, more than ever.

Churches that serve a peculiar segment of the population are needed now, more than ever.

Sometimes the niche is ethnic or language based. Sometimes it's a group that feels alienated from mainstream society. Often, these segments are so small that there will never be enough of them to build a big church. But they need to hear about Jesus in a way that meets their unique sensibilities and needs.

6. Counter-Cultural Churches

This often overlaps with Niche Churches, but not necessarily.

Big and megachurches usually grow large and fast because they use methods that tap into the ethos of a surrounding culture. This is an important part of contextualizing the Gospel message, adapting methods to fit the culture while maintaining a message that often remains counter to it.

But some churches are planted in cultures where the ground is very hard and rocky. Or they're called to be counter-cultural in their methods, not just their message. These churches don't tap into the culture, they swim in 180-degree opposition to it.

7. House Churches

House churches are a valid, but far-too-often overlooked expression of the body of Christ. And, like Niche Churches, they are likely to multiply in the coming decades.

8. Impoverished Churches

With some wonderful exceptions, most megachurch success stories happen where the populace has an income level well above average.

But there are many communities where the median income is low and dropping, usually along with a diminishing job market and population base. The faithful, prayerful, hardworking, wise and loving people who are called by God to live and minister in these communities – usually living at poverty levels themselves – should not be placed under unreasonable expectations of unlikely numerical growth.

9. Persecuted Churches

While we're writing about the inevitability of numerical growth, our books and blogs are being read by church leaders in regions of the world where the church is undergoing massive oppression. They want help, but some of our church growth messages are adding to their burden, not relieving it.

This is not a theory to me. I've sat with pastors in persecuted churches who have told me heartbreaking stories. Entitled church leaders from well-to-do countries have told them their churches would be bigger if they had more faith or adopted their church growth methods. But even a rudimentary look at their neighborhood would tell anyone with any sensitivity that those methods won't work here. And as to not having enough faith? All I could think, as I sat in their tiny homes and churches, was "if I had half your faith, I'd be a giant of a man."

10. Transitional Churches

Many churches exist in communities that are undergoing massive demographic shifts. Leading a church to health and growth is a huge challenge when the sands aren’t constantly shifting beneath your feet. But when they are, it’s that much harder.

I know pastors in communities where 20-25 percent of the population moves out every year, only to be replaced by a new group of people who are unlikely to stay longer than three to five years. Certainly these new people bring great opportunity, but it takes an enormous amount of work to maintain a church’s current size – let alone grow numerically – when you lose that many people every year.

11. Strategically Small Churches

Some churches are small intentionally. And they play a vital role in the Great Commission.

Yes, some churches are small intentionally. And they play a vital role in the Great Commission. I’ll explore some of what that means in my next post, How to Tell If Your Small Church Is Strategic Or Stuck.

Again – No Excuses

None of this should be taken as an excuse to settle for less or to stay stuck.

It's also not a a slam on big churches. Big churches are great. But they're not for everyone. We must always provide vibrant, healthy alternatives for people who prefer to worship, minister and be discipled in a smaller environment.

Healthy small churches are one essential element among many in fulfilling the Great Commission.

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Talk about it...

Gideon Bayo Agbebi

commented on Sep 2, 2015

Sometimes God gives you number of 'sheep' which your both natural and spiritual capacity can handle. God does not give responsibility beyond ones spiritual horizone.

Gregory Williams

commented on Sep 2, 2015

I do not believe every big church has been ordained of God, just every small church has not been ordained of God. I believe it is harder for a small church to grow in these days, because people seek more programs, than they seek God. The avg. christian most likely does not seek God for guidance where they should worship, they go where it is more popular and the church that has the most cars in the parking lot, but we have to be careful when we say a church is not growing, because if the people are not growing is the church really growing, and also when you have 10,000 -50,000 people in one congregation can you really be the Pastor of all them, just go back and look at what Moses father-inlaw told him, when he was trying to pastor all Israel, it is impossible, to me you are like an entertainer, you make special appearances, and most of the time the Pastor is out of town, In Acts they went from House To House.

Chris Hearn

commented on Sep 2, 2015

Thanks, Karl! I've read material about what a church is doing wrong, and that is why it is small. This is needed, but it is very refreshing to read an article about small churches which says that they are small because they are doing something right.

Dale C

commented on Sep 2, 2015

Karl, What would expect the membership number to be in a "small" church? I like what you've written about small and I like small for the reasons you've mentioned. If I were a pastor, I would be the Johnny Appleseed variety.

Stephen Perrine

commented on Sep 3, 2015

I love what Anne wrote. As a pastor of a small church located where the corn fields begin to meet urban sprawl, a stones throw from the interstate, I have come to see our church often as an oasis or way station for hungry, hurting people on the journey. As we embark on a building project to expand and retrofit our 130 facility, we are doing so not with the idea the we will become a megachurch but that we will be better equipped to help our fellow weary travelers as they make their way home.

Gordon Dorsey

commented on Sep 3, 2015


Keith B

commented on Sep 3, 2015

How about rural churches? Where there simply are not many people?

Anne Dannerolle

commented on Sep 10, 2015

I am from a small church in one of the most deprived cities in the UK. I want to add to this post though by saying that it is not just the low income that impacts the church and church growth, it is the utter hopelessness and desperation that many people come to us with. This week we have helped a migrant family in desperate need, a young mum recently bereaved, a disabled child. Regularly each week we work with people in crisis, people with drug and alcohol problems, health issues, domestic violence, homelessness, and poverty. Many in our congregation have difficulties, and that is not just talking about Sunday mornings. The community looks to us for pastoral care and support. We are open every day, supporting and caring for our local community. Yes it is tough. But I would not change my situation for the world, nor move somewhere more affluent. I see the face of Jesus in these people every day, and nothing can compare with that. I would love for the church to grow, but honestly, if God sent us a huge congregation of people in crisis, I honestly do not know how we would cope. My prayer though is that God would send us more workers, other Christians willing to shoulder the burden of loving and caring for the desperate and disenfranchised. I sense Jesus round every corner, in every face and in every situation. Hopefully we are a healthy small church, living out Isaiah 58 facing injustice and making the community liveable again.

Jb Bryant

commented on Jun 7, 2019

Country / rural churches should be added to this list. There are often miles and miles between neighbors, and land remains in the same families generation after generation with no population growth to speak of.

Jb Bryant

commented on Jun 7, 2019

It is my contention that every numerically growing church should be a planting church. I attended a church of 250 where the pastor passionately agreed with me. And then I watched that church grow to 300, 500, and the 800+. The pastor's agreement with me on growing and planting shifted as he began to enjoy the prestige and accolades and addictive influence that came with the numbers. The attendance grew, the collection and budget grew, the building grew, and the diameter of his head grew. Oh, how I longed to know again that (great com)mission-driven pastor I had know a few years before. They men looked alike, but their hearts were very different.

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