The Uncommon Impact of ‘Common-Sized Churches’

4 Proven Insights for Thriving in a Small Church

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Shawn McMullen 06/02/2011

 What are you running these days?

It’s the question church leaders hear—and dread—usually at conferences or seminars, anywhere Type A personalities have gathered to talk about ministry and their churches. Unfortunately, in our American church culture, the measurement of how good you are as a person and as a pastor seems to rely on your answer to the question—that one telling number we define ourselves by.

I still remember a pastor who had brought me in to lead an an evangelistic meeting for the small church he led. While I was there, I spent several days as a guest in the pastor’s home. In the late afternoons, he and I would sit on the family’s front porch and invariably people strolling by would stop to talk, often expressing their appreciation to the pastor for his counsel or encouragement. One morning, we walked into a nearby diner for breakfast and this personable preacher stopped at every table (I’m not exaggerating!) to talk and laugh with someone he knew.

This man and his family were making a profound impact on the people in their small community. But when the days’ meetings were over and we sat on that same porch in the quiet of the evening, the preacher’s gregarious voice grew soft and subdued as he talked about the discouragement he felt in his ministry. Many of his seminary classmates had gone on to serve much larger congregations. By comparison, he felt as if he’d failed. I sensed a similar feeling of inferiority among some members of his congregation.

For lack of a better phrase, this pastor and his church suffered from low ministry self-esteem. In their thinking, because they weren’t big, they weren’t successful—or effective—or healthy.

And he’s not alone. I often hear among friends from Bible college and fellow ministers, “I just don’t feel like I’ve accomplished anything.” We’ve come to think the phrase “small church” inherently means defective or insufficient.

But as a pastor of a small church in Milan, Ind., I know this to be untrue. I know we’ll never be a huge church. Milan has a population of 1,800, and that’s not going to change much. One day, I came to the conclusion that it’s OK. God is happy with us. He is pleased that this small church in this small community is being the salt and the light, all numbers—attendees, resources, programs, acres—aside. And when that occurred to me, I knew other small church leaders needed to hear this.

According to Barna Group research, the average church in America has only 89 attendees. That doesn’t sound like much, but I’ve seen how 89 people, including my preacher friend and his family, can change the spiritual landscape around them. They loved the people in their church and community, and in return, the church and community loved them. Good things were happening in that Midwestern church and community.

All small churches are unique; so developing a one-size-fits-all solution to thriving is nearly impossible. In his book, Effective Small Churches in the Twenty-First Century (Abingdon, 2003), Carl Dudley writes that the effectiveness of a small church does not lie in numbers—although yes, they can sometimes be important—but rather in the human relationships of those who attend.

“The challenge is always dependent upon people’s commitment,” he says.

And here’s the good news: Many smaller churches across America are committed and they are thriving. They’re in the center of God’s will, making a difference in people’s lives. They may not be receiving a flood of new residents into their communities. They may not be welcoming scores of new visitors to their services. But for these congregations, it’s not about attendance. It’s about making good use of what they have. It’s about taking their hill—their community, no matter how small—for Christ.

In my years as a pastor of a small church, experience has taught me specific principles for thriving in a small church:

Pray, pray and pray again. Prayer is the most crucial—and easiest—step. It’s biblical, affordable and doable for any church. At my church, we have special prayer sessions during which we come together and just pray for our church, our ministry and outreach to the community. We ask God to bring us the people that will help us do that. We ask Him to help us with our own unity and spirit and also for wisdom on what we should focus on.

The size of your prayer group is irrelevant. Just make sure you meet regularly to ask great things of God and expect great things from Him. As pastors, we cannot underestimate the power of prayer to change lives—and churches.

Find a niche. Rather than tackling a number of projects that may deplete your resources and strain your budget, look for one thing your church can do well, and do it. Does your community lack a vibrant Christian youth group? Find parents and single adults in your church who are passionate about helping kids and get behind them to develop the most dynamic youth group in town. If no one in your community is reaching out to people with special needs and their families, assume that responsibility.

Often, small churches can reach a segment of the community that would otherwise go untouched. Kathy, a member at my church, worked in a home for men with special needs. One day, she invited Orla, a resident, to come with her to church. A couple in our congregation then volunteered to begin a Sunday school class for Orla, and today five men from the group home worship with us regularly. We’re the only church in town to provide such a ministry.

As one niche ministry takes off, don’t be afraid to start another. But keep your focus and concentrate on doing a few things well.

Use your volunteers. Every church, regardless of size, has gifted people in its midst. Identifying someone’s gifts and challenging him to use his abilities for kingdom purposes takes time and work, but the results are worth the effort. In The Indispensable Guide for Smaller Churches, author David R. Ray lists 30 unique characteristics of smaller churches, one being ”Laypeople are more important than the pastor.” If work is to get done in many smaller churches, he says, it all depends on volunteers.

Pay attention to what the people in your church say about their professions, hobbies, recreation and other interests. Then use that information to help you identify their gifts and strengths. Help them get plugged into ministries that match their gifts and passions and give them the tools they need to do their work well. Encourage and honor them often—from the pulpit, in front of others in the church, in personal conversation, and in your church publications. Smaller churches may not be in the position to hire additional staff members, but they can use their volunteers to great advantage.

Celebrate your victories. Effective smaller churches celebrate every victory they achieve. If you want to elevate the excitement, enthusiasm and sense of purpose in your church, acknowledge your accomplishments. Did you end the year in the black? Celebrate. Did you decide to support a new missionary? Celebrate. Did someone come to Christ? You get the idea.

Some smaller churches assume they have little to celebrate. I believe that’s a matter of your perspective. Anything done for God is a big thing—and it should be celebrated. Celebrations generate enthusiasm. It has been said, “People love to go to church where people love to go to church.”

Since 1999, Shawn McMullen has served as pastor of Church of Christ in Milan, Ind. He is the author of Unleashing the Potential of the Smaller Church (Standard, 2006) and Releasing the Power of the Smaller Church (Standard, 2007). FROM THE BEST OF OUTREACH: This article appeared in the July/August 2006 issue of Outreach magazine. Each issue of Outreach features ideas, innovations and resources to help you reach your community and change the world. Check out our current subscription offer »

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