I’ve mostly pastored large churches in suburban neighborhoods. However, my last church plant was in an urban area and the congregation remained under 300 people during my tenure. Frankly, that church was the most fun to pastor.
In both earlier plants, we grew very quickly so I never experienced the life of a pastor in a smaller congregation. As I’ve become aware of the 90 million Americans living in small towns and rural areas, I’m thinking about all the fun I’ve missed.
Not for a New York minute do I regret the larger churches I’ve pastored—each was unique, and the people were blessings from God. But I’m re-thinking how we approach church planting in ways that go beyond the suburbs into urban, small town and rural areas.
If you pastor a smaller congregation you may believe that your efforts are less significant than those of your peers in larger settings. If that’s you, you should count your blessings. The big boys are copying you at this very moment.
Larger churches, including megachurches, imitate small churches all the time.
The most obvious imitation is the area of community. We used to call our home groups “MiniChurches” in an effort to gather the easy relationships that are so natural to a smaller congregation.
We got into this after moving our church to a larger facility and one that met with the approval of the Christian community. Prior to this we’d been blown off as a “hippy church.” They even re-christened us as “Hope Chapel.” But once we landed in prime ocean-view real estate we were a magnet for middle-class church shoppers. Attendance doubled in a week but quickly shrank in what had become a gathering of 50 percent strangers.
Once we planted MiniChurches within the church, healthy relationships formed with little effort and zero programming. We soon learned that MiniChurch leaders were truly pastoring their small flocks. We added the title, identified them as biblical elders and began handing off everything from baptisms to weddings. Our church grew stronger in proportion to these efforts. The more we focused on becoming small within our larger context the more we grew overall. In short, copying smaller churches became a growth tool.
Smaller churches are often better at disciplemaking than larger congregations, but this is a little different than the fellowship factor. This advantage comes through relationships and even the proverbial grapevine, but it is not limited to fellowship. It’s simply easier for leadership to identify potential in a smaller setting and then disciple people into greater fruitfulness. I remember the countless hours we spent in big churches discussing who should disciple whom and wondering if we were really covering all the bases. We built a strong structure for making disciples that did its best to approximate the relational aspect of disciplemaking in smaller churches.
There are other blessings inherent in small churches that bigger churches can’t imitate, but do struggle to implement. One of these is greater ministry focus. When you’re small you can only do so much, which limits your focus with great advantage. It’s not too hard to get a smaller congregation moving in a single direction. Leading a big church can be like herding cats – possible but very difficult.
Engagement Within the Church Family
And, smaller churches breed engagement. When we planted Hope Chapel Honolulu one lady brought food to the movie theater as snacks for the congregation on that first Sunday. The next week, three people jumped into the party. The staff provided coffee, but that was all. Within weeks more than a dozen families were supplying goodies. To my knowledge, no one in a staff leadership role ever asked anyone to do this. These folks simply saw a need and filled it.
Community engagement in a small church operating in a small community is the motherload here. Small town people know each other better than people in larger communities. Add the relational aspect of a small church and you have a formula for everyone being in everyone else’s business – in a positive way. If you happen to serve in a smaller community, your church probably has several avenues into the hearts and needs of your town that those of us in larger places strive to duplicate.
Think saturation. If you’re in a small community, it’s pretty easy to knock every door or bring support to every public school. You don’t need to be a large frog in your small pond to make a lot of noise. I just spoke to a friend who decided to switch strategies in light of this. His goal had been to draw people from surrounding towns to his church—effectively creating a freeway church in a semi-rural environment. He’s decided to abandon that hack in favor of saturating his town of 7,000 people with the gospel. He’s building a small group network with an eye for turning some groups into microchurches that might even outgrow the mother church. He’s looking at one church for every 300 people as a viable ratio.
So, whatever you think of the smaller-than-you-wished-for place you’ve been called to serve, it is never too small to make a big difference. Remember, you have opportunities that your larger-church cousins are coveting at this very moment.
This blog post is available with more content as a podcast at The Ralph Moore Podcast.