It’s Time for Small Churches to Become Great Churches

greatness 200cWhere are all the great Small Churches?

Would you know one if you saw one?

They exist. There’s no doubt about that. There are great Small Churches in every country, serving every ethnic group and virtually every language. They worship in every imaginable style of music, and they meet in every type of building – including no building at all.

But let’s face it, while most of us may know of several good Small Churches, most people don’t know a lot of great ones. Some can’t think of one.

Many people don’t even realize that a church can be both small and great. That has to change. But there’s only one way to change it. We need a lot more great Small Churches.

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We Can Do This

No more excuses. It’s time for Small Churches to become great churches. 

Good isn’t good enough any more. And it will be less acceptable with every passing year.

If that sounds intimidating, it doesn’t need to. Your Small Church has everything it needs to achieve greatness right now. You don’t need to wait for permission, or even inspiration. We already have the Great Commandment and the Great Commission.

Here are five principles any Small Church can use to achieve greatness.


1. Know that Small Churches Can Be Great

Perhaps the biggest impediment to an explosion of great Small Churches is Small Church pastors who don’t know their church can be both small and great.

Greatness is not about achieving epic numerical growth – it’s not about numerical growth at all. Some of the most rewarding and kingdom-growing worship and ministry experiences I’ve ever had have been in very small groups, including very Small Churches.

That can be your church. You don’t need one more person, one more dollar or one more square foot of building to start being a great church. Your Small Church can be great. You need to know it, believe it and act like it’s true. Because it is.


2. Great Small Churches Don’t Look Like Great Megachurches

People don’t come to a Small Church expecting a scaled-down version of a megachurch experience. They come to a Small Church for a great Small Church experience.

Yes, there are principles that all great churches hold in common. But a great Small Church is not a miniaturized version of a great megachurch.

A great Small Church won’t have a smoothly-paved, well-lit parking lot with parking lot attendants and professional signage leading families to hi-tech, age-segmented children’s ministries.

Mom and Dad aren’t going to be handed a cup of finely roasted cappuccino from a smiling barista in the church lobby, before being led into a thoroughly post-modern worship space with form-fitting seats.

The worship team won’t be playing original songs from their best-selling CD to tightly choreographed lights and video. The pastor won’t be preaching a thoroughly researched, edited and focus-group tested message, backed by perfectly timed, custom-made graphics and video clips.

There are a lot of great megachurches that have all that cool stuff. But that’s not what makes them great. And if you, as a Small Church pastor, try to duplicate that on your Small Church budget, you will fail.

Yes, I said it. Fail. I know that sounds like lack of faith to some people, but it’s not. Because failing at those things isn’t even the worst of it. The saddest part is that the time and expense you’ll waste trying to be something you’re not great at, will be taken from the things you can be great at.

Yes, keep the place clean and uncluttered. Strip off the 1980s wallpaper and slap a fresh coat of paint on the walls. Make sure the worship team and the pastor are well prepared. But put your main efforts into people, not programs. Friendliness, not facilities.

Give people the space and time to meet with Jesus.

Then do something Small Church pastors can do that megachurch pastors can’t do – hang out in the lobby after the service. Build relationships. Pray with and for people. Tell dumb jokes. Laugh and cry together. Let people know how much they’re loved. Be a church family.

That won’t lead you to greatness. That is greatness.


3. Discover What Your Church Can Be Great At

Every church is good at something. Most are good at several somethings. Any church can become great at the things they’re already good at.

Years ago, our church discovered we were good at a couple things: 1) Training and sending people into ministry, and 2) Re-churching the de-churched. So we decided to work hard at becoming great at them.

1. To train people better, we offer very thorough, note-filled, bible-based sermons, an internship program, music classes, hands-on experience and a lot of one-on-one mentoring & counseling. Then, as soon as people get great at doing ministry with and for us, another pastor calls up and offers to pay them to do that ministry in their church. We lose some of our best people just as our investment in them starts to pay off. And that’s OK with us. We miss them when they go, but we’re usually training someone else right behind them.

2. Knowing that we have a gift for reaching people who have fallen away from faith, we foster an atmosphere where people can ask the tough, doubt-filled questions they’ve carried for years. I acknowledge when the bible says weird things. We let them explore faith, doubt and the bible at their own pace. That takes longer than picking what some church-growth advocates call “ripe fruit”, but that’s OK. They’re worth the wait.

What we’re great at won’t be what your church is great at. You may not even know what you’re good at yet, let alone great. So do what we did. Start doing the basic bible stuff. Experiment. See what works and what doesn’t. We have 10 failures to every success. So we toss the failures and keep the successes.


4. Refuse to Settle for Anything Less than Great

This may sound like the same kind of pressure we feel at some church growth seminars, so before you grab pitchforks and torches let me tell you what I don’t mean.

I don’t mean that we should never do anything at a less-than-perfect level. As we touched on in the previous point, there are times in everyone’s life and ministry when you have to do things you’re not good at or comfortable with because they have to get done.

The key word here is “settle”. Do what you need to do. Including doing some things at a less-than-great level when needed. But never, Never, NEVER settle for “I guess that’s as good as we’ll ever get.”

Settling is like sin. We allow people to be members of our church who are struggling with their sin as long as they’re not settled in their sin. A person who struggles with fornication, but recognizes it as sin and is doing everything they can to fight it can be a church member (but not a leader yet). But someone who unrepentantly gossips will be denied membership. (Yes, I’ve actually refused membership to gossips.)

The first person’s sin may be greater in some people’s eyes than the second person’s sin – even though it’s not. But the size of the sin is secondary to the person’s acceptance of it.

The same goes for churches of any size. Any church that feels like they’ve “arrived” at their peak, then settles in, is not just settling, I believe they’re sinning.

Never settle. Always be content with how God made you, but always strive for more of that. That may be the very definition of greatness.


5. Keep Doing What Your Church Is Great At

Great things take time.

In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell famously talks about the 10,000 hour rule. He cites very convincing evidence that no one ever becomes great at anything without putting 10,000 hours into it.

At 40 hours a week, that’s five years worth of full-time work. And in my experience, five years working well at what a church is good at is a bare minimum requirement for true greatness.

The hours alone won’t do it. Talent, gifting, circumstance and God’s will factor into that equation, too. But there’s no substitute for keeping at it. Day by day, week by week, year by year.

This is another reason to keep yourself from being diverted from what you and your church are called to be great at. Every hour you spend not doing what you’re great at, keeps you one hour away from reaching your 10,000 hours.


You and your church are great at something – or you can be. Stop trying to be like the megachurch you visited or read about. Don’t try to cut-and-paste anyone else’s template, including mine, onto your church.

Be you. And be great at it.


So what do you think? What does a great Small Church look like to you?

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12 thoughts on “It’s Time for Small Churches to Become Great Churches”

  1. Sorry… There is no such thing as a Great Small Church. If its a GREAT church it will 1) Reach People, 2) Disciple People and 3) Empower People to do both 1 & 2.
    A great church will grow because that is the goal of the Church. If it doesn’t keep the people it is reaching and discipling then how can you call it great? Hard time with the “settle for mediocre” attitude if too many leaders in the church.

    1. Kris, I agree that a great church will “1) Reach People, 2) Disciple People and 3) Empower People to do both 1 & 2.” And I, like you, have no time for churches that “settle for mediocre”, no matter how big or small they are.

      But I disagree that a Small Church can’t be a great church. I’ve been in many of them and I pastor one of them. There are great Small Churches all over the world that reach their communities, disciple and send believers, worship joyfully and have all the other hallmarks of a great church. You don’t have to be big to do that, and you don’t always get big by doing that. Growth happens in a lot of different ways than butts in the seats.

      Here are links to some of my posts that tell you a little more about this than I can fit in this comment section: (No Timid Little Churches)

    2. Kris, I disagree. The problem is we have twisted our metrics to become something that is A-biblical. Big churches have the recources to do big things. That doesn’t necessarily equate to GREAT. The opposite is also true. Granted many smaller churches get away with mediocrity. However, there are some fabulous small churches too. I’ve known several small and very small churches that have or are in the process of planting other churhes. It doesn’t get much greater than that.

  2. I am a local lay servant in my church. We are definitely not a megachurch. We are I would consider one of the small churches. Our congregation is family not just a congregation. I agree with so much of this article. Thanks for bringing into the light so others may be a family and not just a congregation.

  3. Just a question (and you may have answered it elsewhere on the website) – what “metrics” are you using to define small? 1-150, 50-200? The “mean” for an Episcopal Church is about 80 faithful members. That’s small to me but that might be big to other people and really unnoticeable to another set of people. What do you think?

    1. Hi Jim. Great question. The mean of 80 attenders isn’t just for Episcopal churches. That number is true across most denominations.

      Here’s how I address the question “what is small?” in The Grasshopper Myth (pages 35-36).

      Numerically, the boundaries between churches of each size are fairly fluid, but here’s what I mean by the following:
      ▪ House Church: Less than 25 (and meeting in a house)
      ▪ Small Church: 25 – 350 (or under 25 meeting in a church building)
      ▪ Big Church: 350 – 2,000
      ▪ Megachurch: Over 2,000

      Within some categories, church size distinctions could be broken down even further. For instance, there are clearly two distinct levels of Small Churches. A typical Small Church is 25 – 200, while churches from 200 – 350 might be called midsize.

      But, as with everything in the church, numbers aren’t always the best way to make these distinctions. At various size levels, churches actually take on a new personality. This shift means that churches of 200 – 350 in weekend attendance, while still considered small, have a personality and management type that is very different from those at 25 – 200.

      These shifts in church personality may actually be a more accurate way of defining each size.
      ▪ House Church – Run as a single family unit. Everyone participates in everything.
      ▪ Small Church – Strong pastoral control. Ministries are mostly offered by age categories.
      ▪ Midsize Church – Some staff is hired and ministries are available based on interests and needs.
      ▪ Big Church – More program-oriented. Pastoral ministry is done by staff pastors and in small groups. A very high quality is expected in all programs and ministries.
      ▪ Megachurch – Operates much like a group of Small Churches meeting niche needs. They gather under a common name and Lead Pastor for weekend services. Most attenders do not see the Lead Pastor outside of the preaching time. The Lead Pastor is a leader of leaders, pastoring the church staff.

      I hope this helps answer your question, Jim. Thanks for asking it.

  4. An interesting, thought-provoking article.

    Your description of the Small Church as having strong pastoral control struck me as different from what I’ve experienced and from the prevailing definitions of congregational size. Smaller-membership congregations, house-churches as well as those meeting in a church or other facility, both tend to be family-style. The latter and the latter is often referred to as a “Mom and Pop Church’ because a lay matriarch and/or patriarch exerts such strong influence, even control. This can be especially true if two or more small-membership congregations band together to share pastoral services, or in smaller membership congregations where pastoral tenure tends toward a revolving door of one first-call seminary grad after another.

    That said, sustainable pastoral leadership models in and for small-membership congregations are a challenge.

    If small membership congregations are longing for and even insisting on the full-time, ordained, seminary prepared pastoral ministry model, they can quickly find themselves either priced out of the clergy market or committing virtually all their financial giving to pastoral staff support. In the long-run, that’s usually not sustainable.

    On the other hand, it’s said that 10 tithing lay-member households can support a pastor at the average income of the congregation, presuming that the pastor’s household also tithes. Depending on the size of those households, it means that the small-membership congregation will outgrow most house-church settings long before they can even think about a full-time pastoral model. They’ll likely need to look at a different pastoral leadership model, both to start with and into the long term. Where a tent-making ministry is possible, i.e. employment or business opportunities for the pastor to be partially or almost totally self supporting, this can be a good, sustainable solution.

    Please understand, I am not advocating that every congregation needs a full-time pastor in order to “be” a congregation. The earliest witness of Christ’s church and the growth of today’s church outside the Northern, Western Hemisphere, tells us that. What I am suggesting is that the small church leadership model and the blend of clergy and lay leadership needs close, critical attention. I am thinking that what’s being called these days “the New Monasticism” will be a laboratory for this exploration.

    I’ll be following this site with great interest. God’s blessings on your exploration.

    1. Thanks for the thoughtful comment. I’m glad you found the site and are liking what you read.

      You’re right about the “mom-and-pop” feel of many smaller churches. That is especially true when the congregation is 1) smaller than 50 people 2) rural, and/or 3) has had a lot of pastoral turnover. I don’t address those issues a lot, because this website is primarily aimed at pastors, so I direct most of my writing to churches with more pastoral, than lay leadership. That may adjust as time goes on.

      I also agree that the “full-time, ordained, seminary prepared pastoral ministry model” is not an affordable option for many congregations – especially those under 50. Bivocational pastorates and lay-led churches are far more frequent than most people realize, but they don’t get nearly enough help on how to do those models well.

      I look forward to further insights from you.

  5. Pingback: “Sit Back, Relax and Enjoy the Service” May Be Killing Your Church | EYES WIDE OPEN

  6. I’m very. much blessed and encouraged my church is small as per for now but what I’ve learned is enough for me to change it thanks and may then lord continue to guide you

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