Small churches are just the right size for building caring relationships and equipping each other for the adventure of being God’s people. My friend Norman Kraus, a theologian and teacher who served in Japan, tells me about the Japanese preference for small churches. When a church reaches the size of about 20 people they think it’s time to divide and start another church. We Americans, on the other hand, think we need to close our doors if we’re that small. But this was the normal size of churches during the first centuries when size was limited by how many people fit into a typical house.
“Repeatedly throughout scripture, God affirms the few, the small, and the insignificant who live by grace, faithfulness, and courage. With few exceptions, biblical faithfulness does not come from or result in large numbers. God is more likely to count by ones and fives than by hundreds and thousands. Christ promised to be present whenever two or three come together in his name. . . The tiny mustard seed, the pearl of great price, the leaven in the loaf, the single lamp, the lost sheep and coin, the sparrows, and the numbered hairs on a person’s head, are all powerful signs and symbols that small can be theologically mighty or, and least big enough” (David Ray, The Indispensable Guide for Smaller Churches, 55).
Small churches are mighty if we believe we are. A familiar complaint of a small church with an inferiority complex is that we’re too small to pay a full-time pastor or to offer the programs provided by large churches. We think we’re too small to have a good Christian education program or a viable youth group. God is calling us to recognize our unique gifts and to structure our congregational life outside such boxes. Churches of more than 150 people are too big and impersonal to be the kind of church the apostle Paul was envisioning when he wrote his pastoral letters.
Large churches can work at ways to create smaller, more intimate spaces for fellowship but they’re at a clear disadvantage. People get tired of the show and get frustrated by sitting in the pews and feeling like spectators. Studies show that people in small churches attend worship services more frequently, volunteer more of their time, give more, and are more engaged in their community. That’s because, as Paul writes in Ephesians 4: 25, “We’re members of one another.” When we’re too big for that, we’ve grown too large.
We live in a society that thinks bigger is better but we’re increasingly exasperated by our over-sized, impersonal structures that quickly become oppressive. We feel it in the bureaucracy we encounter when we try to get service for something we bought at a big-box store. We feel it in our bloated political system dominated by perversely rich corporate sponsors. Granted, supersizing it can sometimes create a beneficial economy of scale but the last thing you and I need in this environment is a supersized church.
“At their best and most faithful, what does a smaller church offer the bigger, high-tech world? Smaller churches offer high touch. They offer a place of belonging to those who feel like refugees. They offer community to those who feel isolated or estranged. They offer an opportunity to make a difference to those who feel superfluous. In a world full of sickness, they offer healing and wholeness. In a world imploding in its own complexity, they offer a simple place where people feel like they’ve arrived where they ought to be. They are a God-given response to this world’s greatest needs” (David Ray, The Indispensable Guide for Smaller Churches, 61).