The Small Church in Today’s Culture
by Rick Shrader
This isn’t an easy time for small churches. In today’s culture, small often means inadequate, unsuccessful, non-visionary, and unexciting. By today’s cultural standards those descriptions may be right. Our culture sees bigness and excitement as marks of success. By God’s standards, however, any size church may be successful or unsuccessful and may seem boring or exciting.
I grew up in the large fundamental Baptist churches of the 50s and 60s. My home church had around 8,000 in attendance with 100 buses running every Sunday. I liked the church and was drawn into it in my teenage years by a loving youth group (they didn’t even have a youth pastor in the early days) and by an abundance of activities. I later served as youth pastor there in the mid 70s. By then the attendance was half of what it had been in the 60s and churches of other stripes were becoming large with newer and more innovative methods than we were using. When I visited the church again in the mid 80s it was just an average church struggling to keep around a thousand people in attendance.
The church I attended during my Bible College days (1968-1972) had an attendance of 2000 and more with a live, weekly television broadcast. It was not until I went to seminary that I experienced small church life. During those three years of schooling in Minneapolis I served in a church of about 50 people on the west side of St. Paul. It was a new experience for me but I was in ministry and enjoyed it.
I could easily make a list of good things and not so good things about that little church. I could also make a long list of good things and not so good things about the larger churches I had known. I have found that most fundamental Baptist churches will be somewhere in between those extremes in attendance. I have also found that small churches will be limited in some areas where larger churches are not, and that large churches will be limited in some areas where smaller churches are not. Most of us, however, will live and serve the Lord in smaller churches. These churches receive many criticisms that I have found to be somewhat unfair, and also, the many good things about small churches are often overlooked.
Criticisms of the small church
I have heard dozens of criticisms of small churches in the last thirty to forty years. I must admit I have heard many criticisms of the larger churches also. Having experienced (and worked in) both, however, my heart is with the smaller churches. Though some of the criticisms of large churches are unfair also, I want to use this space responding to the criticisms of the small churches.
The small church can’t offer enough.
I think this is perhaps the most valid complaint about small churches. This is just the way it is. If the small church is a new church and just getting started, it may be in a rented facility with limited space, limited manpower and limited funds. A large family with small children has a need for nursery, classes, a youth group, or junior church. A small church, especially a new church, may not be able to provide all of those.
However, when we think this way we are thinking as moderns, not necessarily as New Testament believers. Charles Ryrie wrote, “Indeed, one receives the impression from the New Testament that the Lord preferred to have many smaller congregations rather than one large group in any given place. And there seemed to be no lack of power that stemmed from lack of bigness.”1 Our desire to have more things offered for our family stems more from our convenience-based society than from what we read in the New Testament. After all, there are those who argue for doing away with children’s ministries all together but I think that is an over-reaction. We ought rather to be willing to put up with these inconveniences and make up the difference in our own family time if our convictions tell us we need to be in such a church. When people are looking for a school for their kids, they are happy that the ratio of teacher to student is small and that their child will receive more one-on-one attention from the teacher.
The small church is boring.
This argument may hold weight with our entertainment-based culture today but I doubt that it holds much weight with God. By today’s standards reading is boring, conversation is boring, listening is boring, and certainly preaching is boring. But this is mostly the fault of the one who is bored, not the one who seems boring. C.S. Lewis, as a young atheist, described his attitude toward church as, “Oriental imagery and style largely repelled me; and for the rest, Christianity was mainly associated for me with ugly architecture, ugly music, and bad poetry.”2 But after his conversion Lewis described Christianity as “delightfully humdrum.”3
Being bored is not a sin. Eutychus (Acts 20:9) was certainly bored enough to fall asleep in church but I doubt it was the preaching of the apostle Paul that was at fault. This is not to say that we should purposely be boring or not strive to interest our hearers. But most things that are worth learning start out to be boring and gain in interest as one gets more familiar and skilled. G.K. Chesterton once quipped that Christianity has not been tried and found wanting, it has been found difficult and left untried.4 Where the Spirit and the Word are central, the believer should not be bored.
The small church is afraid of change.
This charge has been a charge against traditional churches and a defense of contemporary Christianity all my life. It usually means that Christians who resist the newer fads are fearful of losing power, or influence, or some such thing. But small churches may have decided not to change things out of conviction, while larger churches may have changed something out of mere pragmatism. To say that those who have not changed a particular thing were afraid to, however, is judging beyond what one really knows. Change for change’s sake is not a virtue either.
The greatest change a person makes is to leave the world and come to Christ. When that happens old things are truly passed away and all things become new (2 Cor. 5:17). I have found that older people are saying that they went through this change long ago when they were converted. They do not understand why a younger generation does not change in the same way. To them (the older saints), it is the younger generation that is afraid to change, afraid to leave the old life behind and be changed into the image of Christ. Profession of faith without a changed life is at epidemic proportions today.
The small church doesn’t care for the lost.
The argument from this perspective is that if the small church really cared about people getting saved it would change its methods in order to attract more people to hear the gospel. This goes hand-in-hand with the belief that methodology is always morally neutral and can, rather should, be changed if a better method comes along. Small churches are more often conservative churches that usually retain things on purpose: hymn singing, choirs, song books, expository messages, invitations, and so on. I would argue that it is not our methods that draw people but the Spirit of God Who is pleased or displeased with our methods.
To be “relevant” is to be what God would want us to be in our place and time in history. That is, our relevancy is to God, not to the world. That is why McCune says, “Ultimately the Gospel is relevant to the true needs of men and for us to try to debase the good coinage of the Gospel by vitiating it so that we can make it more attractive to men is to lose the Gospel and make it irrelevant.”5 Myron Houghton says, “Traditional Bible-believing fundamentalists believe that what a church ought to be and how it should function must not be determined by unchurched people or by the prevailing culture.”6 Therefore, the church that really cares about the lost will be careful to please the Spirit of God in all things in order to be as effective as possible in preaching the gospel.
Advantages of the small church
Having experienced both the small and the large churches, I believe there are many great advantages that the small church has because of its smallness. This is not to say that larger churches cannot have the same, but that it is easier and more natural for the small churches to offer these things.
The small church is vitally connected with our Baptist history.
It has not been the norm for Baptists, who usually have been of the separatist persuasion, to be the large church in town. It would be hard to argue that the churches of the New Testament were very large (especially by today’s standards), the early Jerusalem church notwithstanding. Of course, Baptists have produced some of the most dynamic preachers in history and those men attracted large crowds, but they seem to be the exception not the rule.
When we travel to England we visit Spurgeon’s Tabernacle but we soon realize that most other Baptist churches in English history were quite smaller. In the museums of John Bunyan (in Bedford) and William Carey (in Moulton) one may look at the rolls of the business meetings and see twenty or thirty names. Yet what greater things could be accomplished for Christ than what these two men alone did? It is not the size of the church which makes a man but the depth of his conviction.
The small church creates a good reality.
Not that reality amounts to largeness or smallness, but I mean this in the sense that our current culture is filled with artificial reality. The television program, the video game, the commercial, the online “socializing,” all do more to separate us from reality than to create it. Carl Trueman, in describing his search for reality, said he “saw the old opium of the people, religion, appropriating the new opium of the people, bland commercialized pop culture.”7 Arthur Hunt, describing how our culture is turning from a word-based society to an image-based society wrote, “Postmodernism is a turning from rationality, and at the same time an embracing of spectacle.”8
Having been in both, I believe the large church lends itself more toward the spectacle than the small church, sometimes very overtly. The small congregation is forced to present a more “real” atmosphere simply because it cannot put on the spectacle. The congregants must be the special music, live with the lack of professionalism, use their imagination, make more effort to speak to people. In other words, they are forced to be what they ought to be.
The small church is family oriented.
This has been an age-old observation of families looking for churches. They want to be involved with other people and have their children involved, and, as with their search for a school, they want more one-on-one attention paid to their children. The large church may have the advantage of providing more activities and programs, but the small church has the advantage of providing personal contact, concern, and participation.
In addition the small church offers the opportunity for children to learn what body life is all about. Tozer wrote, “The church is called the household of God, and it is the ideal place to rear young Christians.”9 I have watched my two-year-old grandson stand among adults in the church lobby and wave good-by to the older folks as they leave. He seems to think that is what you are supposed to do in church. There is no better place on earth for children than in a church where everyone is in close contact and Christian fellowship.
The small church provides personal pastoral care.
When I was a youth pastor in a large church with well over one hundred in the youth group, those teens seldom had interaction with their pastor. For all practical purposes I was their pastor but that is not how it should be. To grow, however, this arrangement was important. This problem of the “CEO” pastor vs. the “Shepherding” pastor has come to the fore in recent years. For a generation now we have been told that the reason the small church doesn’t grow is because of its inherently poor administrative model.10 But though a more business-like model may cause growth, the question remains, which is the New Testament model?
If the pastor is instructed in the Scripture to personally care for the people of the flock as God’s undershepherd, then he must do that regardless of its positive or negative effects on growth. This is not a head-in-the-sand mentality. This is a personal stewardship issue. As a pastor I must pastor the flock, which means caring for those who have placed their membership here. A “hub and spoke” model may not be the best for growth but it is the best for the people who have placed their accountability under my accountability (Heb. 13:17).
The small church honors senior saints.
Honoring our elders is a Biblical imperative that easily becomes forgotten in our youth-oriented age. Whether we desire it or not, our seniors tend to get lost in the large church or relegated to the senior saints group, or even to an early service where few others will attend. But “honoring” elders is not just something on a to-do list, it means letting them give direction, have an important voice, be prominent, give advice. This may be one of the greatest challenges to our age. Samuel Rima wrote, “These older parishioners frequently become nothing more than irritating roadblocks to the great church we want to build, and subconsciously we may label them ‘traditionalists’ or ‘complainers,’ who threaten to block our dream.”11
But Zacharias is right when he says, “The older you get, the more it takes to fill your heart with wonder, and only God is big enough to do that.”12 In the small church one is almost forced to rub shoulders with these older saints, hear their prayers, shake their hands, be patient with their physical challenges, and appreciate their wisdom. Paul knew that though the outward person is perishing, the inward person is being renewed daily (2 Cor. 4:16). The closer one gets to this inward man, the closer one gets to Christian character first hand.
The small church is well-suited to reaching the average person.
The average man on the street and the average family living the average life have much in common with the life of the small church. I think people can have unjust complaints about the large as well as the small church when it comes to friendliness or boldness in witnessing, but I think there can be no doubt that the plain atmosphere of the small church is more like the atmosphere of the normal family and that form is the form we really look for in this world of extravagant imitation and conformity.
We should remember also that the world is full of average people who need Christ. We sometimes become myopic about the fashionable, avant-garde, culturally astute persons and direct our entire efforts at reaching them while ignoring the very ones who may be closest to accepting the message and life of the church. The local fellowship of believers is divinely designed to do just that.
The Puritan John Flavel said, “Carnal men rejoice carnally, and spiritual men should rejoice spiritually.”13. All churches, large and small, should be striving to worship God in Spirit and in truth. I believe that the small church today is much like the average church of the New Testament and well equipped to do just that. We should not be discouraged at our small size but rather encouraged at our fitness to be the pillar and ground of the truth.
1. Charles Ryrie, Balancing the Christian Life (Chicago: Moody Press, 1994), p. 20.
2. C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy (New York: HBJ, 1955), p. 172.
3. C.S. Lewis, Christian Reflections (Grand Rapids: WM. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1994), p. 20.
4. G.K. Chesterton, What’s Wrong With the World (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1994), p. 37.
5. Rolland McCune, Promise Unfulfilled (Greenville: Ambassador International, 2004), p. 310.
6. Ernest Pickering and Myron Houghton, Biblical Separation (Schaumburg: RBP, 2008), p. 177.
7. Carl Trueman, Reformation: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow, Kindle version, 1528.
8. Arthur W. Hunt, III, The Vanishing Word (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2003), p. 188.
9. A.W. Tozer, Born After Midnight ( 113.
10. In 1993 Leith Anderson wrote the first four entries in Vital Church Issues, (one of Kregel’s Vital Issues Series, 1998, by editor Roy Zuck), in which he criticized the “hub and spoke” model of small churches as opposed to the “delegation” model (p. 36) of the larger churches.
11. Samuel Rima, Rethinking The Successful Church (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2002), p. 16.
12. Ravi Zacharias, Can Man Live Without God? (Dallas: Word Publishers, 1994), p. 89.
13. John Flavel, in Mayo Hazeltine, Ed., Orations from Homer to McKinley, vol. IV (New York: P.F. Collier & Son, 1902), p. 1599.