Big and Impersonal, Or Small and Pathetic: Are Those My Only Church Options?

sighBig churches have a reputation for being overly programmed and impersonal. Small Churches have a reputation for being backwards and lazy.

I’ve always fought against those characterizations, believing them to be unfair caricatures. But a recent conversation made me realize that those stereotypes have their foundations in some sad realities.

I was talking with a faithful Christian and regular church attender when he started bending my ear about how hard it was to find a church in the city where he and his family had moved to about a year ago.

“I hate to say it.” he answered me. “but I haven’t found a new church home since we moved here.”

I was surprised. He wasn’t the kind of person to let his faith or church attendance lag.

“Why?”, I asked with genuine concern.

“Well, I go to church almost every Sunday, but finding a church we want to commit to has been harder than I excpected. They’re either really big and impersonal, or small and kinda pathetic. I’m beginning to think those are my only options. I plan to try a few more that people have recommended to me, but I’m not hopeful. If we have to choose, we’ll pick one of the big, impersonal ones. It’s not what we want, but at least it won’t be pathetic.” 

Since he used the word pathetic twice, I asked him what he meant by it. He then gave me a short, spine-chilling tour through the minefield of Small Churches he’d visited. Dumpy buildings, smelly facilities, stale singing, boring preaching, legalistic preaching, uneducated preaching, uninspired preaching, unbiblical preaching, out-of-context preaching… I started sensing a theme.

I gave him a couple ideas about how to broaden his search grid to find other church options, but since that conversation I haven’t been able to get him or his predicament out of my mind.

Big and impersonal.

Or small and pathetic.

He’s not a picky or judgmental person at all, so it makes me wonder how many other people are looking for a church and wondering if those are their only two options.


Two More Possibilities

Thankfully, while there may be a lot of churches which fit those two categories, those aren’t the only church options available. Churches can also be small and impersonal, or big and pathetic. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.)

Obviously there are at least two other church options:

  • Big and friendly
  • Small and healthy

My friend wanted a church for himself and his family that was small and healthy. I know there are a lot of great, small churches in every city. The sad thing is how hard it is for him to find that simple combination. And I know he’s not alone in that search.

Why are good Christians having a harder time finding good churches?


A Simple Plea to My Fellow Pastors

First, to the big church guys. You have great programs, huge attendance and a spectacularly skilled staff. But people need more than that. They need to feel like they matter. That they’re more than a number. I know most of you work really hard at small groups. But the reality is, a lot of people who attend your churches are like my friend – they attend by default because you have a baseline of excellence. But they’d be more excited and intentional if you could find a way to turn up the personal touch.

And now for my Small Church compatriots. My friends. My peers. I love you. But this is gonna sting.

Small and pathetic are not synonyms! Stop giving people the impression that they are!

If you pastor a pathetic Small Church, I have one message for you.

Stop being pathetic!

Small is not an excuse to stink. Literally or figuratively.

What people are asking from us isn’t unreasonable. My friend doesn’t expect a Small Church to have all the programs and highly-polished expertise of our big church counterparts. In fact, he doesn’t want that. But it’s not too much of him to expect a clean facility, friendly people and competent, grace-filled preaching.

On the other hand, if you, like me, pastor one of the many Small Churches that is not pathetic, we need to realize that there are a lot of good people looking for us. But being small makes us hard to find, so we need to work harder at letting people know we exist.

I know there are great Small Churches in my friend’s city. But neither of us has been able to find you.

The good news is, it’s easier and cheaper to become visible today than it’s ever been.

Start by getting a website. A good website. They don’t cost much. And a Facebook page. They don’t cost anything. Then – and I can’t stress this enough – keep them current! Give the people who are looking for you a fighting chance to find you.


Small Is Not an Excuse

An excellent Small Church looks a lot different than an excellent big church. Don’t try to be like the big guys. Just be great at doing the small stuff.

There are a lot of people like my faithful, hard-working friend and his family who are looking for your church – or for the church that you can be. There are even more people who don’t know Jesus who would be open to attending your church and hearing more about Jesus, but they need to be invited. Then they need a positive, uplifting, non-pathetic experience.

We need to stop using our size as an excuse to be lazy. For many of us, it starts by opening our eyes to correct the problems that everyone but us can see.

Believers need an intimate, friendly place to worship and serve. Unbelievers need to hear about Jesus. Your church can play a pivotal role in meeting each of those needs.

They want to attend our churches. But they need to know we’re here and they need us to be a healthy, friendly, vibrant place when they do show up.

With Jesus’ help, we can do it.


This post prompted some strong feedback, so I wrote a follow-up to it
Click here to read, “OK… So, Yesterday’s Post Hit a Nerve Or Two”


So what do you think? Are there some adjustments you need to make so your church is small and healthy?

We want to hear from you. Yes, you!
Enter your comment right below this post and get in on the conversation.

(Relax photo from Sarah Reid • Flickr • Creative Commons license)

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6 thoughts on “Big and Impersonal, Or Small and Pathetic: Are Those My Only Church Options?”

  1. This gives us a lot to think about.
    But can I put in a voice for those who may from the outside appear “small, pathetic and lazy?” Now the preaching and teaching aside…there’s no rhyme or reason for shabby preaching…nor should we “cater to our culture” and preach what their ‘itching ears’ want to hear – just to bring in the crowds. And I’m sure that’s not what you or your friend are striving after.
    But let’s look at some of the other things – from a really small church’s perspective. These are not excuses, they are REAL obstacles. And if someone can find a solution WITHIN THE PERAMETERS of what a super small church has to work with…well, that’d be something worth writing a book about!
    Let’s take “dumpy buildings”. Now of course there are things that can be done – which everyone can do – no matter what their size. Trash pickup for instance. Doesn’t cost money, doesn’t take a staff. But let’s look at some things that may seem ‘obvious’ to some, but there may be really legit reasons why a small church isn’t “up to par.” I’ll use my own church as an example.
    When your friend would drive up to our church he would find a half gravel/half grass parking lot. Not paved, no parking spaces not even fully gravel filled. Why? Gravel and black top cost money – we have none to spare. Mortgage comes first. So where the gravel has grown thin, the grass has moved in. Not ideal – kinda shabby looking – we know. But no money.
    He’d also see the grass needs cut. Why? My husband is a tri-vocational pastor – which means he works THREE jobs. No time for cutting grass. Now, a lady in our church was using her tithe money to pay to have our grass cut. GREAT! (and I mean it) BUT – that means depending on someone else to get it done – and I’m not sure if this happens elsewhere – but sometimes people aren’t as dependable as you’d like – so THIS particular weekend, the grass was NOT cut. We have only three men in our church and no youth. One of those men is my husband. The others work. So there you are.
    The building would be fairly clean – but we rely on volunteers for that too. They do a good job. But not professional – what’s the adage? “Beggars can’t be choosers” – and most of your super small churches with no money fall into the ‘beggar’ category more than we would like to.
    He would find that only half of the buildings A/C works. We know it doesn’t work, but we can’t call the repairman to fix it because last time it conked out on us it cost over $300 – and we just don’t have it right now. So WE WORK WITH WHAT WE HAVE.
    The faucet in the women’s restroom – one of the knobs is missing. Why isn’t it fixed? Once again, money. You mean you don’t have the money to buy a faucet? I don’t. The church doesn’t either. Seriously? Yes. We are saving every penny – just for other important things. Some things just need to be put aside – even faucets. People scoff at this – and I can understand….most have no idea what it is to be in real need – they’re so used to just getting something they need if they need it. I used to live like that – growing up. But this is a whole other reality.

    He would attend a great adult Sunday School class with a qualified and GIFTED teacher. His children would also attend Sunday School – but they’d probably be the only children next to the pastor’s kids – and the pastor would be teaching one of the classes – we only have two classes. Why just two? We only have three children attending the classes (now, we’ve had up to 20 in times past, but not now) – in super small churches the tide never stays the same, sometimes you’re maxed out and then other times you have just a few. So now we have three children and two classes. Getting people to volunteer to teach a class is really a trick – which is why the pastor is teaching one. Believe it or not, teaching isn’t everyone’s cup of tea…or their gift… We always say, ‘don’t put people in a spot just to fill the spot – let them use their gifts.’ Well out of a church of 20 you may have 3 or 4 people with a gift to teach – and two of those four may be the pastor and his wife!
    The church service he would find friendly. The people are welcoming – but wary. Don’t be too friendly or get too attached – because most of the time the visitors don’t come back, so they’ve learned not to get their hopes up.
    The song service would be a little different. This super small church has NO musicians. The pastor’s wife leads the music, because no one else will. (We had a doozy of a time trying to find someone willing to fill in while we were on our vacation…the adult Sunday School teacher can play a flute, dulcimer and sing – but her voice isn’t as strong as it used to be and it’s hard for her to lead..but she did it, because no one else wanted to ‘get up front’) Worship would be by CDs…not because anyone is lazy, but because no one can play! While the pastor’s wife can sing (albeit along with something else – can’t really sing just to music off hand and can’t sing harmony – but that’s just not my thing) It’s certainly NOT the way we’d like to have it – BUT WE HAVE TO WORK WITH WHAT WE HAVE.
    The preaching would be mostly expository in nature and applicable to real life. Your friend better have his Bible because he’ll be using it. His kids may go to children’s church – where they’ll be taught about the Word and about the church, have a snack and some play time. But again – they’d be few in number.
    It would be GREAT to have musicians, a music leader, children’s church pastor, youth leader…but you see, in really small churches where not even the pastor is paid, there is no money for hiring staff – and there’s lots of folks who don’t want to go and minister for free. (I’ve asked)
    After the service, your friend would have his hands shaken and his kids would’ve found new friends. Altho if they were teens, they’d be by themselves. We just don’t have any teens – no youth pastor. The people he’d meet would want him to return, very much so…but they figure, sometimes WORKINGWITH WHAT YOU HAVE – just isn’t enough for some folks…and we’ll never have more than what we have unless people come and give of themselves and their resources. Catch 22.
    What might be the impression? There may be a fine line between being lazy and seeing a church just working with what they have. And if what they have is limited, then that’s what you’re going to see.

    My dream?
    To have a husband who could be paid to minister – so that his secondary employment wouldn’t have to be his main means of support. He could spend more time at the church doing what needs to be done.
    To have a staff – a real staff of people CALLED to minister and not just ‘fill in a gap.’ A music leader who could play our piano that never gets turned on. Someone who could set the mood during worship times and sense the Spirit’s moving to ‘just keep playing’ when worship is going that direction.
    To have someone who loves kids and teens – work with our kids – build up our ministry. Our people are willing to help – but not to lead, we need LEADERS. My kids need someone BESIDES mom and dad to teach them about the Lord! There are ALL KINDS of possibilities to build up a ministry around our church – the potential is THERE – but the workers are few.
    I’d LOVE to have a paved parking lot and professionally done landscaping.
    I’d love to have our youth building fitted up to be a ministry center: equipped with working kitchen, bathrooms, youth center and more. It’s a HUGE facility that’s just sitting there – barely used because there’s no money to fix the roof, or get it into shape – so it just sits there.
    I’d love to have MEN in the church – who could volunteer to cut the grass and fix things that need fixed, so it doesn’t all fall on to my husband.

    Some small churches who are ‘pathetic’ know that they are but they’re simply working with what they have – and until that changes what else is to be done?

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  3. I had many of the same thoughts as Cindy. I also think that your friend may well be focusing on the wrong things and using the wrong yardstick. His comments sounds very much like consumerism rather than a servant mentality. While there is no doubt that we are called to do our best and being small is not an excuse for being lazy, I have found that one of the benefits of being a small church is that it calls on a much higher level of involvement among its people to serve and thereby to grow. In our congregation the 80/20 rule has been inverted. The vast majority of our people are involved in serving, the per capita giving is higher than the large churches in our denomination, we have a much higher rate of baptism per member and more people going into ministry. Our last mission trip saw 20% of our congregation go on mission to an African country. I have no way of measuring this but I would be surprised if our folks are not also more involved in each other’s lives in prayer, service and fellowship.
    From the outside a visitor such as your friend might never see this – he might notice that the grass needs trimming (because our volunteers work schedule means that he can only do it on Saturday, and it rained this Saturday; the bathroom has been cleaned by a 17 year old youth (and looks like it) but we are training him and an older man spends time with him; he might also hear the crying of a baby because a cry room or nursery worker is not something we have been able to achieve …. yet.
    And in each of these, he would either see a place that his money, time, prayer and service could pay off greatly or he could label us as “pathetic” and move on to the large church down the road that will need his service less (unless he is very competent) use his money on less pressing needs, and allow him to hide from others – especially people he doesn’t like or understand. There a beautifully orchestrated service will sooth him and he can join the throngs of people who exchange messy, personal and imperfect service and fellowship for aesthetics and professionally hired Christians who do it for them.
    In short, encourage your friend to look for and find a place that he is most useful to The Lord and to people (rather than one that is useful to him), and to roll up his sleeves and get to work. He will find that the joy received far surpasses aesthetics and professionalism. And he is likely to find himself in a small church – maybe even one with a stinky bathroom

  4. When I’ve gone church-shopping, of course dumpy buildings aren’t impressive. But I was only looking for friendly, fruitful people. ‘Cause I can be part of the solution to the dumpy-building problem.

    But a group of joyless Christians, who thoughtlessly put up with fruitless leaders? Ran into far too many of these churches. Small and big; it has nothing to do with size. It’s just that when you’re large, you have enough money to pay for the shiny veneer.

  5. maybe your friend needs to look outside the city. Rural churches can have a better shot than urban or suburban churches at the smaller, healthy, well cared for, adequately staffed, vibrant niche. Less mobility means there are some long rooted, deeply committed, experienced leaders. Rural churches can draw sometimes draw on several larger towns/cities in an area, providing the diversity that helps nourish vitality.
    There’s an unexamined prejudice that says a good church is more likely to be urban/suburban than rural. That prejudice is captured in the phrase “little country church”. In our denomination, our ‘little country church’ has the third highest attendance in our judicatory.

    1. I hear what you’re saying about the prejudice against rural churches. I know, because I work with a lot of them. But this post was about small churches in cities because my friend lives in a city. Going to a rural church isn’t an option in this situation..

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