“God must love poor people; He made so many of them”
Anonymous, but attributed to many sources
Grownups had a saying when I was a child: “Don’t get too big for your britches!” It meant, “Don’t get too high an opinion of yourself” or “Don’t be proud and arrogant” or “Don’t pretend to be something you’re not.”
The saying was overused and misused, of course, and had the effect of damaging the self-esteem of a lot of people from “my generation.”
But there was a legitimate use of this often-harmful put-down: There are things we shouldn’t try to do. Those who can’t carry a tune in a bucket shouldn’t enter singing contests. Guys who are 5’5” shouldn’t enter slam-dunk contests. Those who can’t back trailers (like me) shouldn’t become semi-truck drivers. You get the point.
A wonderful truth is that there’s no reason why small churches should try to function like larger churches. I’ll never put it as well as Karl Vaters did in his great book, The Grasshopper Myth: Big Churches, Small Churches and the Small Thinking that Divides Us.
Every small church leader should read this book. Here’s a synopsis: Large churches can be great; small churches can be great; a church’s greatness has nothing to do with its size. All churches should be focused on making disciples of Jesus, of course, but some very effective churches choose to remain, or are chosen by God to remain, small.
The old saying asserts that God loves poor people and the proof is in the fact that He made so many of them. God must also love small churches; the evidence is the fact that He made so many of them. In spite of the mega-church movement, 90% of churches are still under 200 in weekend worship attendance. This is not a tragedy or a disgrace; it’s just fine.
Vaters argues that small church leaders should embrace the size of their churches and make the most of their smaller congregation’s strengths. To do that we must stand against the cultural value (and that is exactly what it is – a cultural value – not a Biblical value) of “bigness” and stop apologizing for the size of our small churches.
I’m going to go one step further and say that you can kill your small church by trying to make it “act like” a big church. I know. I tried it. I followed the counsel of a church growth guru who said that if you want your small church to grow large, structure it to function like a large church and it will magically grow into a church of that size. Ironically, in the congregation I led, if we had capitalized on our small-church strengths, we may very well have become a larger church.
If you’re interested in such a strange pursuit, here’s how you can kill your small church:
(1) Don’t welcome your guests. Some large churches intentionally offer anonymity instead of warmth. If they do seek to be truly welcoming, they find that to be an awkward and challenging pursuit. But small churches can easily get exceptionally good at welcoming guests, and without a complicated program. What really doesn’t work is trying to succeed as an unfriendly, unwelcoming, small church.
(2) Don’t give shepherding care. People love large churches for their Sunday morning professionalism. People love small churches for their warm welcome (above) and their personal caregiving. Small churches that try to act like large churches and have no plan for caregiving leave everyone disappointed.
(3) Don’t emphasize family relationships. Large churches seldom feel like “family.” Small churches find it to be a “cinch” to function like families. The challenge, of course, is to not function as dysfunctional But the solution isn’t rejecting the family concept; the solution is to become vibrantly healthy church families. In a world in which biological families are dispersed, despised and disappearing, offering family membership to disconnected people is a big, big thing.
(4) Don’t allow beginners to serve. I learned this from Karl Vaters: Big churches offer – and they must offer – professional quality “performances” on Sunday morning. But church attendees don’t expect the same level of skill from smaller congregations and that gives us the opportunity to let everyone serve.
That doesn’t mean that we allow Aunt Bertha to torment our ear drums with her screeching, but it does mean that there are more opportunities for more people to use their God-given gifts. Vaters would add that while doing our best is a Biblical value, excellence is not.
(5) Don’t have an accessible pastor. Pastors can be too accessible, of course. Stanley Hauerwas famously said that some pastors are “a quivering mass of availability.” I’m a big advocate for shared pastoral care, shared decision-making and shared teaching among a team of leaders. I’m also an advocate for a high level of self-discipline, self-management and self-leadership among pastors. But having said that, it is to everyone’s advantage in the small church to have an emotionally accessible, knowable, loveable, hands-on pastor.
(6) Don’t allow input into decision-making. People don’t expect to have input into decisions in larger churches. In fact, I think we can safely say that the larger the church, the more likely it is to be “run” like a business, with little input from the rank and file, and that’s probably okay. And while I personally believe that a little congregationalism (democracy) goes a long way – like Tabasco sauce, kimchi or cranberries – a limited degree of congregational input is expected, important and essential in the smaller church.