Our sanctuary seats about 8,000 people… and we come close to filling it twice on Sunday.
We recently bought an NBA arena to hold the 40,000 plus that attend every weekend.
We baptized over a thousand new believers this year.
We had 1,200 kids at Vacation Bible School this summer.
According to Outreach magazine, the 100 largest churches in America have a combined average attendance of over one million people each weekend.
If any of these sound familiar then you might attend one of the thousands of mega churches in the United States. These large churches dominate the Christian scene- their pastors preach at large conferences, their ministries are written about in papers both religious and secular, they are the focus of magazine articles and books, their strategies are turned into best sellers….
As Paul Harvey would say, “and now for the rest of the story”….
The Hartford Institute says that the median church in America has about 75 attenders on an any given weekend. About 60-65% of the churches in the US have less than 100 in attendance. The majority of churches are single staff member churches, with only a senior pastor as ministerial staff working with volunteers. Most annual church budgets hover around the $100,00 mark, about the same figure as a weekly offering at the average mega church. And multiple articles tell us that the large churches keep getting larger and the small church keeps getting smaller.
The numbers, the sheer size of the mega churches, can make the “average” church pastor and congregation seem small, ineffective and sometimes, if they let it, insignificant. But there is loads of good news for the smaller church, and that is what I want to focus on in this article. Now, this is not an article bashing the large church or complaining about the mega church or bemoaning the fact that members are leaving the small church to go to the larger churches. Let’s set the record straight, large is not bad, small is not good, we so badly need to get over the jealousy and pride and get on with doing Kingdom work and ministry.
The most common issues or problems that the smaller church runs into are:
- limited number of workers for ministry
- inadequate budget for ministry or additional staff
- inability to keep up facilities to current or modern appearances
- lack of children or youth to attract younger families
- discouragement among the congregation
There are a lot of issues and problems facing the smaller church today, and this is meant to be the first in a series of articles that is meant to help and encourage small church leaders and members. The last point of the above list is where I would like to begin, because from what I have seen of the smaller church, discouragement is one of the largest issues facing the smaller church.
I have always liked the children’s story The Little Engine that Could. It’s a story about a train that is stranded and needs an engine to pull it over the mountain. The little blue engine takes on the task and this little single engine train has to work hard to make it over a mountain. While the train is heavy and the mountain is steep, the little engine makes it over the top by repeating the phrase “I think I can, I think I can”. It makes for a cute and encouraging children’s story.
Unfortunately, many churches today are repeating the opposite phrase when it comes to reaching the community and experiencing growth- ”I don’t think we can, I don’t think we can”. Have talked to a couple of churches recently and this mantra, while not explicitly stated, comes through in our conversations.
“We just haven’t been able to reach people here in this area”. “It’s hard to reach people here”. “If only we had (people, space, workers, etc) we could grow”. You could probably fill in your own phrase that you have heard, or said, at different times from frustrated pastors or discouraged church members.
The focus often times shifts to the larger churches in the area. “We can’t compete with what they do”. ”We can’t offer all the ministries they do”. ”They do their style of worship, our people won’t accept it”. All of these thing are probably true for the smaller church, they probably can’t offer the full buffet menu of specialty ministries and programs of the mega church in their area. Indeed they probably can’t compete with the quality of ministries, facilities and leadership of the larger church.
But that is no excuse to excuse yourself from ministry or to sit in a pity party about what you can’t do and they can.
As a confession, this is where I get very frustrated with the smaller church sometimes. It seems when we talk about growth or reaching the community, we are quick with an excuse, a reason why we don’t penetrate the darkness of our communities, when in reality, the small church has access to every resource they need. Sometimes what is required first is an attitude adjustment to be more like The Little Engine That Could.
Rather than looking at all that is not, all that you don’t have… turn 180° and see what it is that you do have.
1) God expects us to believe for great things…
At one time, your church was birthed with a vision, a purpose from the Lord to expand His Kingdom, penetrate the darkness of your community and make disciples of all nations. Now over the years, people change, facilities may change, numbers of people and sizes of budgets may get smaller, even locations may change, but the basic purpose of the church does not.
You are meant to see all these things accomplished- see the community blessed by God’s presence in you, watch lives change as people embrace Jesus as their Savior, minister to the ‘least of these’. If your vision has been diminished to something less than this, maybe your vision is now to try to survive, to hold onto your past, to keep the doors open and the heat on… then you need to hear God’s call to you all over again because God never called the church to merely survive, but to thrive under His guidance and with His power.
In the Book of Numbers the people were about to experience a great blessing from God, their own land, their own inheritance of a land flowing with milk and honey. Think of it as your church incorporating new believers from your community and seeing God pour out blessings one upon another, seeing that God-given vision fulfilled. But the people rejected the possibility that God could work, could overcome the people of the land, and refused to move forward. Listen to how the people reacted to encouragement to believe God could fulfill the vision of a new land…
Numbers 14 7 and they spoke to all the congregation of the children of Israel, saying: “The land we passed through to spy out is an exceedingly good land. 8 If the Lord delights in us, then He will bring us into this land and give it to us, ‘a land which flows with milk and honey.’ 9 Only do not rebel against the Lord, nor fear the people of the land, for they are our bread; their protection has departed from them, and the Lord is with us. Do not fear them.” 10 And all the congregation said to stone them with stones.
Now God responds to the disbelief of the people…
Numbers 14 10 And all the congregation said to stone them with stones. Now the glory of the Lord appeared in the tabernacle of meeting before all the children of Israel. 11 Then the Lord said to Moses: “How long will these people reject Me? And how long will they not believe Me, with all the signs which I have performed among them? 12 I will strike them with the pestilence and disinherit them, and I will make of you a nation greater and mightier than they.”
Because the people refused to believe that God could, that God would be on their side, God was insulted and grieved at their questioning of His character. Hear that and let that sink in. When we say, “we can’t”, “it can’t happen”, “we could never do that”, “we’re just a small church”…. we aren’t saying anything about us other than we lack faith, but we are making a large statement about the God we serve- we are saying God is not strong enough, powerful enough, loving enough, to make it happen. God does not like that, not one bit. God expects us to believe Him, believe that He is all that He says He is and is willing to work to accomplish the vision He places in us.
The Little Engine that Could only had one advantage- He believed. He wasn’t the biggest engine, the strongest engine, the latest model, but he believed. You may not be the biggest church, have the latest technology, the most workers, but you can believe. If we take God out of the equation, then we can only expect things as big as we are, and that leaves the smaller church believing very little. Take a fresh look at who God is and expand your vision to include the “God-factor”.
2) God is at work to accomplish His work…
Hear Jesus’ words…
John 5 17 But Jesus answered them, “My Father has been working until now, and I have been working.”
The smaller church often looks at their numbers and says that we are few. They look at the same people working three or four positions, and says we don’t have enough. We feel like our position is to work for God, and because we don’t have all the people we feel like we need to accomplish the work, we have failed or fallen short in pleasing God.
No matter the size of the church, we don’t work for God, but with God. It takes on a whole different feel when we see ourselves as God’s fellow workers, rather than those trying to finish an assigned task for God. We don’t dig the ditch for God, God has a shovel right along side us digging away. We don’t teach a class for God, the Holy Spirit is right there teaching the hearts of people right along with you giving you words to say and open hearts to receive and wisdom for them to understand. We don’t witness for God, God is there revealing Himself to the lost.
John 15 26 ”But when the Helper comes, whom I shall send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father, He will testify of Me. 27 And you also will bear witness, because you have been with Me from the beginning.
I love this passage. Look at it again, who is the first witness? Who is the first to testify of Jesus’ life, death, burial and resurrection? It is not us. It says that “you also” will bear witness– the Spirit is the primary worker, we are the “also”. To work with God means that no matter the church size, God is the primary worker and we need to believe that He is working, and we also have to get busy working alongside Him.
No matter what the task is at hand for the smaller church, we are not working alone and we are not working as a smaller church, but as co-workers with a big God.
The Little Engine that Could did what other trains did not do. Unless we have a vision for God working alongside us, we will give up and give over to discouragement that says we few in this little church cannot. Yet if we see God at work in our community, if we can catch the vision that God is seeking out the lost, comforting the grieving, healing the hurting… and this is already happening around you, it opens us up to believe that no matter how many we are, we are laboring with the one who can do all things. God is working, He is doing His part. Do we believe it? Can we see it? What will we do about it?
3) Faith without works, kills the smaller church…
I have rarely run into a church that does not claim it wants to grow. Most churches know the rhetoric, we want to reach people for Christ. Yet, and painfully so, few are doing the hard work to reach people.
Believing that God can work, is one part of the equation. God wants us to believe and will work in us. Jesus said on several occasions that He worked in accordance with the faith of the people…
Matthew 9 28 And when He had come into the house, the blind men came to Him. And Jesus said to them, “Do you believe that I am able to do this?” They said to Him, “Yes, Lord.” 29 Then He touched their eyes, saying, “According to your faith let it be to you.”
Matthew 15 28 Then Jesus answered and said to her, “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be to you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed from that very hour.
Faith pleases God (Heb 11:6), but it is faith that leads to action that truly changes things. Unfortunately we have often confused rhetoric with faith. Rhetoric, knowing the right phrases to say and the right words to use, is not faith. Saying that you want to reach people is rhetoric, actually sharing Christ with the lost is faith. Saying that you believe your church can make a difference is rhetoric, taking your Saturday morning to feed the hungry is faith. We could go on and on, because we all have heard the rhetoric, it sounds good around the church, it makes us feel better because we are saying the right things and we feel like we believe the right things. This is particularly true in churches where very little is happening.
Filling the smaller church with rhetoric and the right words has also made them complacent and ineffective. It seems that we have emphasized that right beliefs are more important than right actions. As long as we believe the right things, and can say the right things in church, than we are alright with God… right?. James tells us a different story…
James 2 15 If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? 17 Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. 18 But someone will say, “You have faith, and I have works.” Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by myworks. 19 You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe–and tremble! 20 But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead?
What kills most smaller churches is a lack of doing. “We are old”. “We’ve tried things in the past”. And so we excuse ourselves from doing and fall back on the fact that we believe the right things. Yet if we don’t do, our faith is dead. It is why many smaller churches are referred to as dying churches. There is a lack of doing, a lack of actual ministry. Read the Great Commission again, “Go and make disciples…”, notice it has no asterisk attached. There is no disclaimer about the size of your church or budget or location. The Christian faith is a doing faith, a working faith, a faith that requires ministry and giving and sharing and praying and touching… and it dies when it is left on the bookshelves and in the pews and in the words of people.
The Little Engine that Could didn’t make it up the mountain because it said the right things. It encouraged itself with the right words “I think I can, I think I can”, but it accompanied its’ words with work, hard work. Work that caused sweat and used up energy and caused strain. The smaller church cannot die for a lack of trying, for a lack of doing ministry. Maybe you can’t do everything the mega church can, but so what. At this point God has not called you to do all those things, but it should not stop you from doing work, the hard work that you can do. Size does not stop you from witnessing to the lost. Size does not stop you from working in your community. Size does not stop you from working with God to comfort the hurting or feeding the hungry.
I like what Steve Sjogren says in his book Conspiracy of Kindness, that too many churches are stuck on Ready, Aim… but never Fire. We talk a good talk, talk about what we should do, but never do it. In the words of Nike, “Just Do It”. Get to the work at hand.
The smaller church often says it cannot get enough workers… lets close this article with this thought.
How many of you in the smaller church does it take to make a difference? One, two, three? Taking into consideration that God is already working, that we can believe that God wants to do great things…. start with you. If no one will go with you, don’t worry, God is with you. If no one else will help, God will help. If you are waiting for consensus, if you are waiting for everyone to believe like you do, if you are waiting until everyone gets up to work beside you… you will watch the smaller church die a slow, agonizing death. There are thousands of smaller churches that God is wanting to work through… to be the engine to the Little Church that Could, to climb that mountain of reaching into the darkness and growing the Kingdom of God, to climb the mountain out of the valley of ineffectiveness to the peak of joy in serving with God, to climb the mountain out of discouragement and disillusionment, and to the heights of seeing God do great things in your midst.
God bless the smaller church….