In Praise of Small Churches

Church size is an oddly big deal.  Having just returned from the Shepherds’ Conference,small church I can’t tell you how often I was asked how big “my” church is. While everyone who asked me this at Shepherds’ Conference was well intentioned (they are eager to see our little church plant grow numerically, as am I), it seems to often be informed by that most American of assumptions that bigger is better. A couple of weeks ago a 2nd generation mega-church pastor bashed small churches sinfully and vociferously in a sermon that went viral (in fairness this pastor posted a 160 character sort of apology on twitter) and in response many have issued defenses of small churches, some better than others. While I whole heartedly appreciate the work done there, I want to take a different tact, I don’t want to write in defense of small churches, I want to write in praise of small churches.

I have a little bit of perspective on the matter, you see in all of my Christian life, I have only been a member of three churches. As a new believer, hungry for the Word of God, after a few fits and starts I settled into a medium sized church that fluctuated in size from a high of 400 people to a low of 150, and tended to average around 250. In this church I was discipled, I served, I was baptized and I was eventually sent out to seminary. While I was in seminary I was a member of a very large church where the weekly attendance was north of 8,000. In this church I was discipled, I served, I grew, I was ordained to the ministry, and from this church I was sent out to plant Piedmont Bible Church. For the past four years I have not only been the pastor of, but more importantly a member of PBC whose weekly attendance I would optimistically estimate at 60 (if the weather is good, no one worked an overnight shift on Saturday and I count the kids).

In my Christian life, I have been a plugged in, active, devoted, serving member of a medium, a large and a small church. While it is my prayer that one day PBC would grow into a medium sized church, I completely understand, and am comforted by the knowledge that God is absolutely sovereign over the size of every local church and while I recognize there are some things that large churches are uniquely equipped to do, let me be blunt, I believe small churches are vastly superior to large churches.

I am not just a small church pastor reacting to something outrageous being said about small churches, I believe this to be absolutely, unequivocally true for a number of reasons.

Opportunity for Growth

growthThe purpose of the pastor of any church is to equip the saints to do the work of the ministry (Ephesians 4:1-12). That is of course absolutely true regardless of the size of the church, but in a small church the saints absolutely have to do the work of the ministry. When I was in a large church, virtually every Bible study was taught by a seminary student or an intern, professional web developers maintained the website, staff audio producers edited the sermons for the website, and the custodial staff kept the church grounds spic and span. In our little church Bible studies are taught by an IT engineer, a contractor, a housewife (the women’s bible study), and yes a seminary student; our website has been maintained by a nurse, the church is cleaned by a team of lay women and men (and we have openings if you are looking for a church to serve), our sermon recordings are edited by a cyber security specialist and our chief audio engineer is a recently baptized 13 year old boy. In other words, the work of the ministry that is reserved for professionals at large churches is done by the people of the church in small churches. This is important! One of the reasons that God saves is so that you might do the good works that God prepared beforehand for you (Ephesians 2:10).  While no church is perfect, there is far less of an opportunity and temptation to be a mere spectator rather than a servant of the church in a small church.

This also helps me deflate a common misunderstanding of church service. There is a natural, but entirely wrong tendency to create a dichotomy between truly “spiritual” and merely “physical” service. However, any service rendered to God with a right heart is equally pleasing to the Lord (Romans 12:1); cleaning a toilet with a right heart is no less an act of worship, and no less precious in the sight of the Lord, than when I preach the Word from the pulpit.  Because of the small size of our church, not only can I constantly reinforce this truth through encouragement and recognition from the pulpit, but the entire body sees how the “merely physical” service of the many is absolutely essential for undistracted worship on the Lord’s day.  If you want to grow in worship through service, there is no better place than a small church.

Diversity

I’m not speaking of mere racial and ethnic diversity, although that is valuable, and in my experience small churches tend to be far more diverse in that way than larger churches. (Even though our church is in a place where sadly racial segregation was the law of the land several decades ago, a typical Sunday at PBC sees people from a wide variety of backgrounds, including African, Japanese, German, Caribbean as well as Jewish, African, Asian, and white Americans, worshipping and fellowshipping together.) I am speaking of a diversity of backgrounds, personalities and ages.  In large churches often the demographic divisions in the body are reinforced through formal affinity ministries (jr high, high school, fellowship of Christian athletes, homeschool, career groups etc.) or through the human tendency to form cliques.  But in small churches those divisions are broken down.  In our small church I often observe people interacting across these lines of age and experience to encourage one another and spur one other to greater godliness. There is a free flow of intergenerational wisdom on parenting, career, educational and family situations and circumstances. Fellowship flows across those bounds too. To be frank it is easy to love others who are just like you, and in a large church there is ample opportunity to limit your fellowship to others just like you, but in a small church you will learn that you can love everyone easily, even those in a far different stage of life, because you all have the most important thing, faith in Christ, in common. (If you come to PBC, you might even see an according to Hoyle African princess exchanging nerf dart fire with a ruddy cheeked young boy out of Christian love and affection.)

Shepherding

I will not mince words; small churches are better at shepherding than large churches.  shepherdEven when I was in a medium sized church, a constant topic of discussion among the leadership was how to provide pastoral care to everyone and how to keep anyone from slipping through the cracks. Even though the church I was a member of did an excellent job of providing pastoral care, it required an enormous amount of thought, experimentation and system development.  Almost as much effort was required to make sure pastoral care was uniformly provided as was expended on actual shepherding. This is not an issue in a small church.

When I stand in the pulpit, I know who has an unbelieving spouse, who is struggling financially, who is having trouble with a rebellious child, who is out of work, who struggles with chronic illness, who struggles with assurance, what marriages have leadership/submission issues etc. and I am better able to shepherd from the pulpit.

And when someone contacts the church, they don’t get an intern, the pastor of the day, the receptionist or an automated menu, they get me, their pastor who loves them and prays for them. In other words, in a small church your chief under-shepherd is accessible.

What’s more at every elder’s meeting a thorough review of the spiritual needs of the flock is a regular agenda item.  In a small church people are the priority, and that leads to better shepherding.

Focus

Small churches don’t have a lot of bells and whistles. To put it another way, there arefocus not a lot of distractions in a small church. The early church devoted itself to the Apostle’s teaching, to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer (Acts 2:42), and like most faithful small churches that is what we focus on at PBC. Every small church pastor I know understands that the one thing a small church can do as well and often better than a large church is teach, and that is what they do, they devote themselves to the apostolic teaching, the gospel.

This gospel focus naturally leads to sweet fellowship. A typical Sunday at PBC finds almost all of the church still in the building a full hour after the worship service has ended.  And that spirit of fellowship extends outside of the walls of the building. I often hear of members of the church who went to museums, baseball games, or other events together.  I often hear of church members spending time together to encourage and serve on another. One of the sweetest times of fellowship I have ever experienced was when a church member moved about a year ago. Every single member of the church showed up to help on the appointed day (take a minute and let that sink in; every single member of the church showed up to help!) and not only did many hands make for light (and quick) work but it afforded an opportunity for the whole body to fellowship outside of “church” and grow in love for one another.  Of course we then broke bread (or at least $5 hot and ready pizzas) together.

Trust me, a small church is a praying church. Because of the intimate nature of the fellowship of a small church, prayer requests are well known, as are the needs of one another. And in a small church the people pray fervently for one another. I have been blessed to have always been in very good churches, but I have never been in a church that prays like PBC. I have heard the testimony many other small church pastors that “their” churches are praying churches too.

I could go on and on and on, but I won’t. While God does His work through churches of all sizes (and it is important to never confuse the size of a congregation with the size of the actual local church; in many mega-churches the goats vastly outnumber the sheep) I am firmly convinced that He does His best work in and through small churches.  I would even venture to speculate that His favorite kind of church is the small church, after all He has made a lot more of them.

So if you aren’t part of a local body, you need to be and I would commend small churches to you. Please don’t be so selfish and short sighted that you would only consider churches so large they have to separate jr. high students from high school students from adults from senior saints. Try a biblically sound small church, you will grow, you will pray, and you will fellowship like never before. Small churches don’t need defended, they need praised. And they may need you too.

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John Chester

About John Chester

John serves the saints of Piedmont Bible Church, a Grace Advance church plant in Haymarket Virginia, as their shepherd, a position he has held since 2012 and hopes to serve in the rest of his life. Prior to being called to ministry John worked as a lacrosse coach, a pizza maker, a writer, a marketing executive, and just about everything in between. John is a graduate of The Master’s Seminary and The Grace Advance Academy. He hails from The City of Champions, Pittsburgh Pennsylvania, and is unbelievably blessed to be married to his wife Cassandra.