Why “Preach Like the Room Is Full!” Is Terrible Advice

empty seats“Even if only three people show up to church, preach like the room is full!”

That’s some of the worst advice I’ve ever received in ministry. And I’m not the only one who’s received it. Many of you have heard it too. Some of you may have repeated it.

If so, stop.

It’s not a good idea. In fact, it’s a very bad idea.

The only time we should preach like the room is full is when the room is actually full.

Let me explain.

If what people mean by “preach like the room is full” is that a smaller crowd should get the same quality of ministry that you’d give to a larger crowd, then I am in full agreement. Everyone should always get our best.

But if that’s what we mean, that’s what we need to say. “Give a small crowd the same quality experience as you would give a large crowd.”

The problem with saying “preach like the room is full” is that there are too many pastors taking that saying literally – and it’s hurting their church, not helping it.

Preaching to 10 people as if there are 300 in the room is not the best way to give those 10 people a quality church experience. It’s just awkward.

Here’s an example.

 

Well, This Is Awkward…

Many years ago, my young family and I visited a church. When we walked in, we doubled the size of the congregation. That’s fine. We knew the church was small.

But the pastor was apparently a firm believer in conducting every service like the room was full, so that’s what he did.

When he preached, he spoke over our heads (literally and figuratively), including regularly looking up into a completely empty balcony as though it was full. He even concluded the service with a Billy-Graham-style “every head bowed, every eye closed” altar call.

Then he turned and walked out where he had come in. We never saw him again.

Since then, I’ve been through my share of tough services, so I have some sympathy for the likelihood that the pastor was probably feeling frustrated and even humiliated by the sad state of affairs that his church was in. I’ve wanted to sneak out the side door at the end of a service, too.

But that doesn’t change the fact that the pastor missed out on what could have been a great opportunity. One that might have lifted his own spirits in the process.

That pastor had no idea who we were. Instead of being a visiting pastor’s family from another town, we might have just moved to that town, looking for a church home. As far as he knew he had a chance, in that one service, to double the size of his congregation. Including starting a brand-new children’s ministries department with our three kids.

He could have taken advantage of smallness instead of ignoring it. 

It makes me wonder how many of us, as Small Church pastors, do the same thing and miss similar opportunities.

 

A Missed Opportunity

“So what should he have done?” some people may ask. “Put in a lesser-quality effort because the crowd was small?”

Of course not.

The problem that pastor had was one of perception. (I know I’m making an assumption, but here I go anyway). He thought bigger was better. So that translated into acting like the room was full when it wasn’t, because “acting bigger” was his way of offering us a quality experience.

But quality in a room of 10 people isn’t the same as quality in a room of 300 – or 3,000.

This pastor had the chance to adapt to the situation and minister to the people who were there in a way that could have really blessed us that day. Instead, he

  • Spoke to a room, not to the individuals in the room
  • Took no concern for the obvious awkwardness in the room
  • Didn’t take advantage of the positive aspects of a smaller group
  • Made no attempt at basic human contact

 

A Better Way to Do It 

I had a similar situation happen to me recently. I was speaking at a pastors’ conference. Over 50 Small Church pastors had signed up for the two-day session I was teaching. Because of several factors, including an abrupt change in the weather, only four pastors showed up.

I’m not going to say I wasn’t discouraged. I was. So were the event organizers.

But that didn’t stop me from giving those pastors the best I had.

Instead of speaking as though there were 50 people in the room, I scrapped my PowerPoint presentation, came off the stage and re-arranged the chairs so we were all sitting around a table.

Over the next 10-12 hours, we spent some time getting to know each other and turned what felt like a disadvantage into an advantage.

If the expected 50 pastors had shown up, they’d have gotten my standard conference talk – which I hope they would have benefited from.

But the four pastors in that room for those two days got more than that. Sure, I gave them all the information the 50 would have received. But because there were fewer of us in the room, we had lots of time for feedback and conversation. We were able to tailor the information to the specific situations each pastor was facing in their church and their community. When it was over, we all exchanged emails and addresses so we could get in touch later to keep those conversations going.

 

How Jesus Preached When the Room Wasn’t Full

When Jesus spoke to crowds, he offered them a crowd-style teaching. Like the Sermon on the Mount. But when it was just him and the 12 apostles, he spoke differently. He explained parables to them in a way he couldn’t with the crowd. He asked and answered questions. He treated Peter differently than John, and John differently than Nathaniel.

You can’t do that in a crowd. But you can when the group is small.

 

What to Do Instead

The next time you’re ministering to a small crowd, don’t act like it’s a big crowd. Tailor the experience to be the best for that size of a group.

Yes, put your best foot forward. But realize that what’s best for a group of ten is very different than what’s best for a group of 2,000 – or 200.

Chat with everyone – especially the newbies. Don’t just talk to them, talk with them.

Re-arrange the seating to be size-appropriate – maybe in a circle or around a table.

Turn the sermon into a conversation – like Jesus did.

The way big churches do church isn’t any better than the way Small Churches do church – it’s just better for their size! Let’s do what’s best for our size, too.

 

So what do you think? Do you have other ideas about how to give a small group a quality experience that suits their size?

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(Empty Seats photo from Brian Rosengrant • Flickr • Creative Commons license)

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16 thoughts on “Why “Preach Like the Room Is Full!” Is Terrible Advice”

  1. Great article. My first church grew by a third when my family and I attended (family of four with 8 others in attendance). And I loved it! It was a great experience to preach to the people (rather than at them). The smaller venues allow the occasional question and answer dynamic that really works. It also helps that you know the people you are speaking to. My present work had about 25-35 on average the first year. I know what it is like to preach in a larger venue and the dynamics are different. In any venue, eye contact is very important. You can’t have eye contact is you preach as if 300 are in the room when 30 are present. You have to look at the people as you communicate so you get some feedback (are they listening, smiling, frowning, sleeping….).

  2. Great article! My husband does this by coming down off the stage and using a mobile pulpit, so he’s closer and does’t use a mic. You hear a lot of laughter in our services..responding to an illustration he uses or the funny way our people look at Scripture ( ask one of our sheep about the “Mandrake Incident” that she labeled…too funny). Sometimes people have even raised their hand to ask a question,.altho that doesn’t happen often in a morning service, it happens a lot during evening get togethers when we have them.
    “I’m not going to say I wasn’t discouraged. I was. So were the event organizers.”
    I know the feeling. I have it EVERY time we have an event, no matter what it is. But imagine having that feeling EVERY Sunday. Once in a while it more easy to handle. Every Sunday, it wears you out, trying to stay positive and live in faith. It’s necessary…but very exhausting.

    1. I do the same at my church, Cindy. Get closer and more personal when the crowd is smaller. You’re right that the small crowd week after week, year after year, can be discouraging. Staying faithful is the key.

  3. Thanks so much for this.

    The church I attend has between 70 and 90 people, but over the holidays, that number drops closer to 20 or 30. One of the most meaningful services we’ve had in a while was communion over the holidays. Usually we pass the elements in the pews, but since there were so few of us, the pastor invited us all to the altar in the front. We shared prayer requests and prayed for each person, and then we shared the elements around the table. It’s something we wouldn’t have been able to do with the full congregation, and it made me grateful for what could have been discouraging.

  4. Old ranch country joke:
    One Sunday, a cowboy went to church. When he entered, he saw that he and the preacher were the only ones present. The preacher asked the cowboy if he wanted him to go ahead and preach.The cowboy said, “I`m not too smart, but if I went to feed my cattle and only one showed up, I`d feed him.”So the minister began his sermon.One hour passed, then two hours, then two-and-a-half hours. The preacher finally finished and came down to ask the cowboy how he had liked the sermon.The cowboy answered slowly, “Well, I`m not very smart, but if I went to feed my cattle and only one showed up, I sure wouldn`t feed him all the hay.”

  5. I like walking while I preach. In the church I’m in now, it would simply be intimidating to people because we’re small, and I’m close to the congregation. So I’m on a stool and make sure I make eye contact with everyone…not just the interested ones.

  6. Great article. It’s so easy to forget that it’s about people.36 years after college one lesson has stuck with me. When Samuel first meet Saul he instructed him to do whatever your circumstances require (1 Samuel 10:7). Love how you handled the church conference circumstance!!

  7. I know this is a couple weeks after you first posted this excellent blog. But I could not get it out of my mind. This morning I took the opportunity to practise this idea. It is a typical Canadian winter Sunday, which means people chose to stay home rather than brave the ellenments. We were also saying farewell to a family with a fellowship following the service. I had a choice to. With the small numbers who showed up I made the executive decision and moved everyone downstairs to our fellowship hall. It was already set up for our fellowship time, so I simply asked people to bring thier bibles and hymn books ( yes hymn books) and we had a very informal time of worship. Some of the seniors felt a little uncomfortable not being ‘in church’ but over all people enjoyed the very relaxed time of worship and fellowship. I placed the communion elements on t he table in the middle of the room and invited people to come as they felt to take the emblems. All while we were worshipping. All in all a great time. I am already planning another service in a month for our annual meeting.

  8. I ran across your blog a few days ago and I love this post.

    I’ve always thought it best to capitalize on the advantage of whatever size group you happen to have. Smaller groups allow for more q/a and interaction that you can’t do with a bigger crowd. It’s important to take advantage of it.

  9. Your article is spot on and so appropriate to pastors of small congregations. A week ago my wife and I were to visit a little rural congregation as part of our work in encouraging pastors. While in route, still an hour away, the pastor called and asked if I could preach. He and his wife were too ill to leave the house. We met with fewer than 20 people. Most of them were 50 or older, but there were also three grade school age boys. Everyone sat in the back rows of a sanctuary built to accommodate 150 or more. While I was waiting to speak I made half a dozen paper airplanesI which I used to illustrate my “conversation” on being “Intentional Bearers of the Gospel in the Spirit of the Great Commission.” Everyone, including the boys, got involved. We flew “Gospeling Airplanes,” talked about valuing people, shared what that might look like in their culture, and laid the basis for a plan. We left a group of folks who know they can share Jesus with their neighbors. We also left three boys who not only got to fly paper airplanes in church, but know Jesus can use them too. Three points and a poem from the pulpit, would have never accomplished what happened there that morning…

  10. Karl,
    Love your blog and the information you share, and in this case I agree when it comes to the personal interaction before and after the service, but the preaching style I think must be decided based on the circumstance, for example I pastor 2 small churches with an average low attendance, however we also have a weekly radio program and website with our messages which is very popular, so even when only 10 show I must preach as if the church is full because these messages will be heard by many later, also those that attend seem to be thankful that I don’t act as though there are so few in attendance, so perhaps making a blanket statement such as ” it’s a very bad idea” might be curbed a little, now in the downtime before and after I take the time to visit with each and every person, but when it comes to the message I pretty much let the Spirit guide.
    Thanks again for your insights and standing up for the small church

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