The Secret Small Churches Know Best

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Pastor, Pepperell, Massachusetts

Most Christian churches in America are small. In 2012, the National Congregations Study found that the median Sunday morning attendance for churches in the United States was 75 people. The study also found that 43% of American churches had fewer than 50 regular participants, 67% had fewer than 100 regular participants, and 87% had fewer than 250.

Many of these small churches are located in small places. Sociologist Robert Wuthnow notes in his book Small-Town America that “there are more churches per capita in less populated areas than there are in more heavily populated places.” A recent Barna study found that in my own region of New England, 40% of churchgoing Christians live in small towns or rural areas (though, of course, some may commute to urban or suburban churches).

Small Churches in Small Places

Small churches in small places face certain realities. With 45 regular Sunday morning attenders (or 85, or 145), there will be few things outwardly impressive about your gathering. Your meeting place will likely be humble — perhaps not always well-heated or air-conditioned. You probably won’t enjoy the sound of professional-level musicians, see visually appealing graphic design, or hear preaching that generates thousands of views online the following week. The natural pleasure and encouragement of welcoming new visitors on Sunday morning may not be an experience you enjoy very often. With many in your congregation aging, your church will have lots of accumulated wisdom, but may struggle with health, energy, and a willingness to venture into new things.

“Most Christian churches in America are small.”

Beyond these realities, there will be an ever-present awareness of fragility. You will know that if even a few of the regular attenders move out of town, tire of coming, become offended, opt for a more exciting church, get sick, or die, your church could suffer. Even if a few people stop giving, or if a few get laid off, your church likely won’t meet its budget and your pastor will need to find a part-time job. It will always feel possible that the church doors could close for good sooner or later.

Minnows in a Small Pond

Faced with these realities, you will find there are some things you can work to improve. As a church, you may patiently, prayerfully grow toward God-glorifying excellence in your facilities, your music, your pulpit ministry, your small groups, and much else. But you will eventually reach a point where you recognize that, no matter what you do, you will always be a small church in a small place. Even if God brings revival, and you double from 45 to 90 people, you will still be a small church in a small place. At the point of this realization, you will have a very important choice to make.

Some small churches and their pastors will become dissatisfied with who they are. This may manifest itself in a restless striving to implement the latest program from some big church in some big place. It may result in a pastor applying the latest terminology he has heard (in the city) to his own small context, in manifestly absurd ways (like a small-town pastor exhorting his church to “love their city”).

“Without Christ’s sustaining grace, no church will last, or have any lasting impact.”

Or it may settle into a long, slow simmer of discontentment and restlessness and endless tinkering and yearning for something more and better. I once participated in a gathering of fellow small-town and rural pastors. We were a bunch of no-names, but passionate lovers of Jesus and of people. We met in a wealthy suburban mega-church that had a worship band good enough to sell out concerts, a sound board as big as a dining room table, and huge hi-tech projection screens. I’ve wondered since then whether this was a parable of the contemporary American church: a group of small-place, small-church pastors, lifted out of our own contexts and set down, wide-eyed, in an enormously impressive facility that bore little resemblance to what most of us knew, quietly yearning for the resources, personnel, and excellence of a bigger place.

God Tends Bruised Reeds

We have another, better way to respond to our small church’s manifest weakness and fragility. Yes, prayerfully improve what we can. Yes, plead with God for conversions. And then receive — as a gift from God — the manifest weakness of our small church in our small place.

Every church, big or little, urban or rural, is utterly dependent upon its Head. Without Christ’s sustaining grace, no church will last, or have any lasting impact. Every church must receive and reckon with this knowledge. But the particular gift God gives to small churches in small places is that their weakness is so very evident.

Your weakness cannot hide behind an excellent band, or a beautiful new building, or the excitement generated by packing 1,000+ people into a big room. It can’t hide behind a large budget surplus, or big cash reserves. And if your small, unimpressive church is plopped down in the middle of an equally small, unimpressive town, you will also be denied the pleasures of what E.B. White once called (in his 1949 essay “Here Is New York”) “the excitement of participation” — the sense of belonging to something “unique, cosmopolitan, mighty, and unparalleled.” As a small church in a small place, you won’t have access to the illusion of greatness through proximity. Your church’s weakness will be evident to you and to all – and this is God’s gift.

“Improve what you can. Plead with God for conversions. And then receive the weakness of your small church as a gift.”

In his book The Bruised Reed, the Puritan pastor Richard Sibbes reflects at length on the nature of weakness. He writes,

As a mother is tenderest to the . . . weakest child, so does Christ most mercifully incline to the weakest. Likewise, he puts an instinct into the weakest things to rely upon something stronger than themselves for support. The vine stays itself upon the elm, and the weakest creatures often have the strongest shelters. The consciousness of the church’s weakness makes her willing to lean on her beloved, and to hide herself under his wing.

Will you receive the manifest weakness and fragility of your church as a gift from God? Will it make your little congregation willing to lean on Christ, and hide yourself “under his wing?” Your church (and every church, everywhere) will eternally impact people, not by showing them how big and impressive you are, but by showing them the greatness of the God who says, “I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god” (Isaiah 44:6).

(@stephenwitmer1) is the pastor of Pepperell Christian Fellowship in Pepperell, Massachusetts, and teaches New Testament at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He helps to lead Small Town Summits, which partners with The Gospel Coalition New England to serve rural churches and pastors. He and his wife, Emma, have three children.