A Word About Small Churches
by Rick Shrader
There is no more satisfying statement to the New Testament believer than John’s on the Isle of Patmos, “I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day” (Rev. 1:10). That says everything to us. John was a believer who possessed the Holy Spirit, who, though no one else cared what he did that day, made special effort to prepare himself for worship on the day commonly recognized by believers as the day of Christ’s resurrection, or the Lord’s Day. The circumstances of his confinement on Patmos had been of God’s providence. He was there “for the word of God, and for the testimony of Jesus Christ” (1:9). But circumstances, whether difficult or easy, do not detract from the believer’s primary focus, that of worshiping God through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. And this John was determined to do!
Would I be far off if I surmised that most Christians today, faced with the same circumstances as John, would not have “been in the Spirit on the Lord’s day?” It would have been bad enough knowing that no one else was going to be at church except you, but add to that the fact that there would be no coffee and donuts (in itself enough to stop many Baptists); no tailor made class time to be led through an easy five-step lesson; no praise team to give a mini-concert in the main service; no power point presentation; not much of anything except you, your Bible, and the Lord. And I am inclined to believe that John had attended many services already on Patmos with no other added attraction than that. John’s Lord’s Day service, however, was more profitable than any before because the Lord Himself was there in person and John fell at His feet as dead in reverent worship.
It has been an observation of mine for some time now that if we reduced church services to the irreducible minimum of what a service could be, few would be interested in it at all. If we were forced by circumstance to experience Jesus’ hypothetical, “Where two or three are gathered together in my name” (Matt. 18:20), I’m not sure that many would still attend even though they believed the related promise, “there am I in the midst of them.” Would we be truly warmed and filled in a church service with two or three people singing a simple song, having a time of prayer, and someone bringing a lesson from God’s Word? I’m not saying that we should only create such a format, I’m saying that if we are true worshipers of Jesus Christ, we should be satisfied if that’s all we have. Sure we would like to have some more things going on, but do we attend for those “things” or for the pure worship of the Lord?
Not long ago I read an article from a man who makes it his ministry to revitalize “dead” churches. What is usually meant by “dead” is that there is little else going on there besides simple (pure) worship. If the church once had 200 and now it only has 50 attendees; if the church building once looked new but now it looks run down; if there were more visitors in the past than now come; if the average age has gone from 35 to 55; and if the pastor still preaches 45 minutes without any electronic help in what amounts to a long lecture, then that church is a “dead” church. Evidently, in this definition, fewer can’t worship as well as more; older aren’t as valuable as younger; up-to-date trumps out-of-date; and visual experience is always better than audio experience. This is why many of our rural churches are looked down upon and why few young ministers would consider pastoring in such a setting. It is also why many so-called revitalizing ministries make grand assumptions as to what the church needs with little thought of mere worship.
Recently I had a wonderful lunch with two young brothers, Dan and Ben, who are both seminary graduates and are both now pastoring small rural churches in Iowa and loving it. They didn’t grow up there, but God led them both to their respective churches and they have grown to love the people and are working hard in both shepherding and evangelizing. I thought to myself, “how many young people would even consider such ministries?” I can imagine it at my age (61) because I have come to a place where I no longer care about the bells and whistles of larger ministries, but for these young men to be satisfied with Jesus simply being “in the midst” was truly refreshing.
Jesus commissioned John to write to seven churches in Asia which were probably very similar to our rural churches. At least they weren’t mega churches by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, the Jerusalem church, due to its unique history and geography, seems to be the only really large church in the New Testament. Yet these Asian churches were important to Christ and became the examples (positive and negative) for all churches in the coming church age. Here are a few observations about these churches.
Size was not important
We cannot know the exact size of these churches but we do know that John places no emphasis on it. Wm. Ramsay, in one book, describes the cities as “spots here and there, showing only as dots on a map, small islets in the great sea of stagnant, unruffled, immovable Orientalism.”1 In all of the Lord’s admonitions to these seven churches, nowhere does He speak of their success or failure due to the size of the church. He does, however, encourage faithfulness regardless of the amount of opposition. “and unto the rest in Thyatira, as many as have not this doctrine” (2:24); “Thou hast a few names even in Sardis which have not defiled their garments” (3:4).
Maybe it is just our human nature to measure success by size. I remember being very happy when my home church was listed as one of the ten largest Sunday Schools in America by Elmer Towns! But we were more like Vance Havner said, “The church has moved from the catacombs to the Coliseum in its emphasis on size.”2 Yet still today the first question a pastor is asked is, “how large is your church?” Jesus never asked that question. The Bema may inquire “how” but not “how much?”
Notoriety was not important
Laodicea was perhaps the richest and therefore most well-known city, but this surely wasn’t an asset to the church of Laodicea. Smyrna and Philadelphia are the only two churches which receive no rebuke, and to Smyrna Jesus says, “I know thy works, and tribulation, and poverty (but thou are rich)” (2:9). They were rich in spirituality, though poor in earthly goods. To Philadelphia He said, “For thou hast a little strength, and hast kept my word, and not denied my name” (3:8). Notoriety with the Lord has to do with faithfulness, not with worldly popularity.
Paul reminded the Corinthian church that, “we dare not make ourselves of the number, or compare ourselves with some that commend themselves: but they, measuring themselves by themselves, and comparing themselves among themselves, are not wise” (2 Cor. 10:12). Paul told Timothy that some think that “gain is godliness” (1 Tim. 6:5), or literally, “godliness is a means to gain.” If the pastoral ministry becomes only a road to success, then we have our reward.
Busyness was a side issue
Too many times we associate busyness with ministry or worship. We get so intent on making sure that everyone has a place of “service” that no one is going to church! In fact, I think we have forgotten how to just go to church. It ought to grieve us that it takes so many helpers to put the average church service together. The number one intention of every church attendee ought to be—to be in church!
To every church in Asia Jesus said, “I know thy works.” Yet five out of those seven times He also says something like, “nevertheless I have somewhat against thee” (2:4), or “But I have a few things against thee” (2:14). A.W. Tozer wrote, “Our meetings are characterized by cordiality, humor, affability, zeal and high animal spirits; but hardly anywhere do we find gatherings marked by the overshadowing presence of God.”3
Purity was important
For some reason we tend to think that purity, holiness, or righteousness are enemies of a “revitalized” church. But the fact is, “vital” means “life” and there is no life for the church without holy life. For the true worshiper of Jesus Christ, no amount of people, activity, or possessions can take the place of a pure walk with God. And this pure walk ought to be manifest in church as well as anywhere else.
Nothing stands out in these seven letters more than the Lord’s scathing rebuke for the intermingling of ungodliness within the church. Pergamos had within it the doctrine of Balaam and of the Nicolaitans, “which thing I hate” says the Lord (2:15). Thyatira had allowed a prophetess He calls “Jezebel” to seduce God’s people yet Jesus is the One Who “searches the reins and hearts” (2:23). Laodicea needed to buy white raiment (purity) “that the shame of thy nakedness do not appear” (3:18). It seems the lack of separation from the moral evils of the world began early in church history.
The Word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ were central
Not only was John on the isle of Patmos for this reason (1:2, 9), the churches are either commended or reprimanded for the same reason. Philadelphia was a good church with an open door from the Lord, “for thou has a little strength, and hast kept my word, and hast not denied my name” (3:8). To them He also said, “Because thou hast kept the word of my patience, I also will keep thee from the hour of temptation, which shall come upon all the world, to try them that dwell upon the earth” (3:10). The promise of rapture is to those who know and hold the Word of God.
What could be more central to local church worship than these two things? It was all John had on Patmos and those in prison at Smyrna had little else except the expectation of a martyr’s death (2:10). Could we come to church week after week just to sing a hymn about Jesus Christ and to hear a message from the Word of God? Would our kids come for the same reason? Would the youth group be as large? Or would we just have a few older saints who would be seen as a “dead” church?
A fortress mentality was commended
It is interesting how we have twisted such wording today and made it a bad thing. We seem to think that a church cannot “hold the fort” and also keep the faith; that we cannot be a “holy huddle” and also a city set on a hill. I think such thinking reveals its own narrowness. If our churches cannot be strongholds of safety for believers, and shelters in which we can hide from the world, then we certainly cannot be Biblical churches.
To the church in Philadelphia Jesus said, “Behold, I come quickly: hold that fast which thou hast, that no man take thy crown” (3:11). To the church at Thyatira (at least to the “rest in Thyatira”) Jesus said, “But that which ye have already hold fast till I come” (2:25). We still have P.P Bliss’ song in our song books, “Hold The Fort” and it is in the same section as Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” both in the Christian Warfare section.
And So . . . .
I have been in John Bunyan’s church building in Bedford, England. I have seen the roll sheets of services in his day: Twenty five, maybe thirty names. Yet no man was ever so glad to meet with those few precious saints as the man who had been in jail for his faith. He once wrote, “When a company of saints are gathered together in the name of Christ to perform any spiritual exercise, and their souls be edified, warmed and made glad therein, it is because this water, this river of water of life, has in some of the streams thereof, run into that assembly.”4
I have seen similar roll sheets for William Carey’s church and even John Newton’s. I doubt that any of those attendees believed their churches were in need of revitalization! And indeed, they were not.
Notes: 1. Wm. M. Ramsay, The Letters to the Seven Churches (New York: Hodder & Stoughton, nd) 134-135. 2. Vance Havner, Hearts Afire (Old Tappan: Fleming H. Revell, nd) 113. 3. A.W. Tozer, Worship and Entertainment (Camp Hill, Penn: Christian Pub, 1997) 30. 4. John Bunyan, The Water of Life , 60.