When We Treat Small Churches Like a Problem, We Get More Problem Churches

dominosChurch leaders are always wringing their hands about the problem of Small Churches.

I heard it again recently. A church leader complained that 90% of the churches in their group had less than 200 in attendance, then introduced a plan for getting those numbers up.

(Never mind that the “90% under 200” figure is shockingly consistent across all church groups – which should make us wonder if God is up to something with that.)

I watched as many of the pastors in the room tried to hide their “here we go again” faces. Unsuccessfully. Then I left the room wondering about what happens when we do that to Small Church pastors.

As I was pondering the implications, this question hit me over the head like a hammer.

If Small Churches weren’t seen as a problem, would they stop being a problem?

Think about it. When we treat people like they’re problems, they become problems. When we treat them like they’re a blessing, they often become the blessing we see.

Churches are the same.

Most of us know this instinctively about our children, our church members and our friends. But we often forget this about our churches and our ministry in them.


A Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

Small Churches have been treated like a problem for at least the last 40 years. It’s assumed that, if we’re small, there’s something wrong with us. Books and blogs are dedicated to fixing us. And the solution to fixing us is always the same – get those numbers up!

What if we changed that strategy? What if, instead of treating every Small Church like they’re a problem that needs to be fixed, we started treating churches the way most of us have learned to treat people?

What if we discovered and nurtured what’s great about Small Churches instead of pointing out what’s wrong with them?

Telling Small Churches they’re a problem has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Yes, there are a lot of unhealthy Small Churches in the world (unhealthy big ones, too), but I don’t think they get better when we act like we’re embarrassed by them. They get worse. Here’s how.


When Small Churches are Told They’re a Problem…

Being constantly told that your church isn’t measuring up, leads to a downward spiral. I’ve seen it too many times to count.

When a Small Church see itself as a problem to be fixed…

So what’s the alternative? How about taking a lesson from the Apostle Paul’s body analogy in 1 Corinthians 12. Let’s stop acting like the hand that tells the foot “I don’t need you.” No, that’s not what we intend when we prescribe fixes for otherwise healthy Small Churches, but that is how it comes across.

The result of that approach is that Small Churches start thinking that way about themselves, too. Soon, the foot starts saying “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body.”

Let’s stop treating Small Churches like a problem to be fixed and start treating them like the valuable members of the body that they are.

Feet don’t need to become hands, and ears don’t need to become eyes in order to make a valuable contribution to the body. In the same way, Small Churches don’t need to become big churches. They just need to be healthy members of a healthy body.

When that happens, a lot of good things can follow. Here are just a few.


When Small Churches are Told They’re a Blessing…

  • They start looking for ways to become better Small Churches
  • We start creating better resources for Small Churches
  • Small Churches can commit their limited time, money and energy more wisely
  • They get healthier
  • Small Church pastors feel encouraged and become better, healthier pastors
  • There will be more healthy Small Churches for people who worship and do ministry best in a small context
  • The growth that does happen will be more organic and less forced
  • Churches that don’t grow numerically will still contribute to the growth of God’s kingdom


So what do you think? What other benefits are there from treating Small Churches as valued members of the body instead of a problem to be fixed?

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(Dominos photo from Barry Skeates • Flickr • Creative Commons license)

12 thoughts on “When We Treat Small Churches Like a Problem, We Get More Problem Churches”

  1. There is a lot of truth in what you are saying. Too many times small churches and their pastors get treated like the red headed step child, we are allowed in, but not really cared about.
    As a pastor of a small church there are so many times you feel like you have failed because your numbers are not getting bigger. All you hear at district and other meetings is that small groups are the way to growth. Really! They we should be a mega church by now.
    It also gets really frustrating when other pastors, or writers of articles say their church of 150 or 200 is small. No , that is not small. Try 16 to 24 week after week, then tell me what small is.

    1. I feel your frustration, Kendall. It’s amazing how “small groups” are supposed to be the answer, even when the church itself is a small group.

      But let’s be careful about swinging the pendulum to the other side by saying someone can’t speak to Small Church issues if their church is a certain size. My church runs 200. In my very populated area, that is considered small. And I’ve spent a lot of time in the 50 range, too. Jim Powell pastors a church of more than 1,000, but he offers a lot of help for smaller churches through his 95Network.

      As long as the info is helpful, I don’t care how big or small the writer’s church is.

  2. Rev. Renee E. Leslie

    TotallY agree and……thank you! As a children’s pastor, I’m tired of attending conferences, etc that only seem to know how to address the large church….making assumptions about budgets, volunteers, staffing and space. Sometimes I can take what I’ve learned and whittle it down to fit and sometimes….oh well! Small churches have God’s people in them too and God values them as well. This is not an excuse for small churches to neglect making disciples or getting out into their communities to share the love of Christ

    1. Hi Renee. Thankfully, this is beginning to change for children’s ministries.

      I’m going to be one of the speakers at the International Network of Children’s Ministry conferences in January and February. They’re dedicating an entire day of their pre-conference to helping small churches. If you live near Chattanooga, Tennessee or Ontario, California, it would be a great event to go to. Here’s a link to tell you more about it.


  3. I totally agree with both of you. My husband pastors a “small” church, but those who attend have HUGE hearts. We may not have numbers but we have people who want to reach out into the community and make a difference. Sometimes I see the pain in my husbands eyes when there is only 7 in Sunday school but something will happen and we will once again be reminded it’s not in the numbers it is in making a impact in your community.

  4. 30 is a big day for us 37 topped the charts in the 7 months I’ve been the pastor at our church. 150-200 is midsize where we are and nothing small about that. God knows what each church needs, what each church can handle. I believe there are reasons there is not the growth some long for. I can say, we are a wonderful and friendly church, but currently we are ill-equipping to disciple new believers. The congregation prides themselves on “friendly” and “family” both niceties but the spiritual maturity level lacks. Health is better than numbers and getting healthy, spiritually is essential.

  5. David C. Lannan

    Sometimes it is easier to minister in a small church because you can focus on discipleship more easily. There are often less programs, less budgetary concerns (yes bills need to be paid, still), and yes, less people. But less is more can be a good thing … I would rather have a small church with active members using their spiritual gifts and God-given talents for His plans and purposes than a large church filled with people only wanted to be part of the biggest church in town (numbers, programs and money) and who have no desire to serve – or only a selfish desire to serve (if I can’t do this, then I am laving). In a smaller church you are often more able to help others see and use their gifts, to discipleship and equip the congregation – and train other leaders. I am not saying big churches cannot do this, but they often have more headaches because of their size.

    1. Good word, David. Big and small are both important to the kingdom, but you’re absolutely right that growth has challenges we often aren’t aware of. Too often, people think bigger churches have it all together or that smaller churches must be doing something wrong. Every stereotype about size needs to be challenged.

  6. We belonged to a SMALL CHURCH for years. Several pastors were brought in to “fix us”. Every summer at least 90% of our group worked at the denomination’s summer camping programs. When we were closed because we were”too small”, not only did we loose those summer workers, but several families. They were so disappointed in the district that they grew bitter. It took years for some of them to even consider becoming active in other churches outside of the denomination.

    1. I’m so sorry to hear about that, CH. I wish I could say that your situation is rare, but that’s one of the things we’re working hard to change with this blog and The Grasshopper Myth. It’s not easy, but it’s working in some places. There are some denominational leaders who are starting to think differently about the valuable role of smaller churches. Let’s keep praying and working that there will be more.

  7. I find it encouraging that it is unlikely that any of the churches in NT times exceeded a hundred & the only “mega church” was the Church at large. Most people believe that discipleship is more effective in small groups (small church) so does this mean smaller churches have the potential to disciple better? I know there are large churches that do it well, but they do so through small fellowship groups. Where I minister in the west of Ireland there only are small churches (unless one is Catholic) & there are many towns & villages without any evangelical church. For me growth is more about a spreading Church made up of maturing ‘small’ fellowships. I would love to see lots of small churches springing up throughout the west of Ireland. It is so needeed. Churches of 30, 50, 100, 200 depending on the size of the towns & villages they’re in. This would leave a greater legacy for furture generations to build upon than one large fellowship. Thanks for your encouraging blog. It’s helped me see more clearly that small churches, far from being a problem, are in fact key to seeing the gospel of grace spreading in the west of Ireland.

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