How I Stopped Feeling Embarrassed by My Small Church

Last Chance to Run signI spent too many years feeling embarrassed by my church.

Sure, there was a time when the embarrassment was well earned. For a few years, we were unhealthy, dysfunctional and hurting.

But even after we got healthy, I stayed embarrassed. Not because it wasn’t a good church. Not because I didn’t love the people in it.

I was embarrassed because it was small.

When new people would show up on a Sunday, I’d say hello, then start offering excuses. “A lot of people are gone on summer vacation today,” or “our youth group is at a convention this weekend” or “hey, it’s Arbor Day – hard to compete with that.”

 

They Knew It Was Small and They Came Anyway

One of the ways I learned to be OK with – and now celebrate – the value of a healthy Small Church, was when I started seeing it through the eyes of people who visit Small Churches for the first time.

The front door of a Small Church is not the wardrobe to the magical land of Narnia. No one expects that a church which looked small from the outside will magically grow huge once they step inside.

They’re not anticipating world-class staging and lighting, featuring a band that just put out a best-selling worship CD. They don’t expect multiple levels of programs for every imaginable need and age segment. They won’t be disappointed if the sermon doesn’t include a Hollywood-quality video segment shot by the church’s visual arts team.

People who come to a Small Church aren’t expecting a big church experience. But they have a right to expect a really good Small Church experience. 

Yes, there will always be people who are surprised that a church of 50 doesn’t offer a more specific breakdown of age appropriate ministries. But they’re the exception, not the rule.

 

Let’s Do Small Church Really Well

So, my fellow Small Church pastors, today I have good news and bad news for all of us.

The Good News: They knew your church was small and they came anyway.

The Bad News: Many of them aren’t getting the healthy, friendly Small Church experience they came for. (Now that’s embarrassing).

Which leads to one more piece of

Good News: We can change the bad news.

There’s no need to be embarrassed by our Small Churches any more. We just need to do the Small Church stuff better.

 

Being Small Isn’t the Problem

There are many reasons some Small Churches are unhealthy. But being small isn’t one of them.

The main reason many Small Churches aren’t healthy is simple. They’re not acting like a healthy Small Church. Instead, they’ve been trying to act like a big church. And that’s not healthy. Because it’s not what they are.

So let’s lay aside the unreasonable burden of trying to be like the big church we admire and become a Small Church to admire.

Let’s turn up the volume on what people come to a Small Church for:

  • Family-style friendliness
  • Access to the pastor
  • Cross-generational worship
  • A chance to learn, grow and lead
  • Personalized, relationship-based discipleship
  • To know and be known

Big churches are great at doing what big churches do.

Small Churches are great at doing what Small Churches do.

If you’re trying to act like a big church instead of behaving like a healthy Small Church, you should feel embarrassed.

But if you are a healthy Small Church, stand tall. Even if you stay small.

 

So what do you think? Have you ever pre-judged a church because of its size? Maybe your own church?

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(Last Chance to Run photo from Nina Matthews Photography • Flickr • Creative Commons)

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28 thoughts on “How I Stopped Feeling Embarrassed by My Small Church”

  1. Hear! Hear! I agree whole-heartedly. What DOES bother me is the embarrassment my friends and colleagues feel and/or express when they talk about me and the small churches I serve. In their minds, that makes me a second-class minister, because for some reason I ‘can’t get’ a large church, and therefore I am ‘stuck’ serving small churches. Ha! If only they knew . . . !!

    1. Me too. Those looks of not-quite-pity are the worst. right?

      I almost addressed that in this post, but I already dealt with that issue in a passage of The Grasshopper Myth, which I excerpted for a post entitled “To My Friends Who Pastor Big Churches”. Here’s a portion of it:

      “To all my friends who pastor large and/or growing churches, I want to let you off the hook. The next time we talk about how our ministries are going, there’s no need to change the subject, cheer me up or look away awkwardly when I tell you our weekend worship attendance hasn’t grown again this year. I don’t feel bad about it, and neither should you.

      The fact that my church is small doesn’t mean I’ve failed to fulfill my potential. I am where I want to be, and I’m pretty sure it’s where God wants me, too.

      I’m happy for you and your church, and I hope you can be happy for me and mine – I certainly am.”

      http://newsmallchurch.com/to-my-friends-who-pastor-big-churches/

  2. Hear! Hear! I agree whole-heartedly. What DOES bother me is the embarrassment my friends and colleagues feel and/or express when they talk about me and the small churches I serve. In their minds, that makes me a second-class minister, because for some reason I ‘can’t get’ a large church, and therefore I am ‘stuck’ serving small churches. Ha! If only they knew . . . !!

    1. Me too. Those looks of not-quite-pity are the worst. right?

      I almost addressed that in this post, but I already dealt with that issue in a passage of The Grasshopper Myth, which I excerpted for a post entitled “To My Friends Who Pastor Big Churches”. Here’s a portion of it:

      “To all my friends who pastor large and/or growing churches, I want to let you off the hook. The next time we talk about how our ministries are going, there’s no need to change the subject, cheer me up or look away awkwardly when I tell you our weekend worship attendance hasn’t grown again this year. I don’t feel bad about it, and neither should you.

      The fact that my church is small doesn’t mean I’ve failed to fulfill my potential. I am where I want to be, and I’m pretty sure it’s where God wants me, too.

      I’m happy for you and your church, and I hope you can be happy for me and mine – I certainly am.”

      http://newsmallchurch.com/to-my-friends-who-pastor-big-churches/

    2. I feel you donnagbw1… when I go to conferences and the first thing people ask is “how many people do you have…” and my response is always the same… “More that Jesus started with!” but when my friends in ministry introduce me it is the “He pastor’s that small church on the 601 called The Rock” introduction.

  3. Nicely done. However, I’m missing the larger church. There are times when I am frustrated about all the opportunities we miss because of our size and accompanying lack of resources, primarily lack of time since our pastors all have full time jobs outside the congregation. But I appreciate the reminder of what we have thanks

  4. Nicely done. However, I’m missing the larger church. There are times when I am frustrated about all the opportunities we miss because of our size and accompanying lack of resources, primarily lack of time since our pastors all have full time jobs outside the congregation. But I appreciate the reminder of what we have thanks

    1. I hear you, Craig. Each size has its advantages and drawbacks. Lack of resources can remain a frustration even in an otherwise healthy Small Church. That’s why the body of Christ needs churches of all sizes.

  5. I left a large church and a year ago became part of a small church. I am so happy and honored to be there. That closeness is what my wife and I needed. Since I desire to pastor one day in the future and be intimate with my people, I needed to learn from a small church pastor. No shame about being here at all.

    1. Well, this is interesting. Two comments from two Craigs. One (see above) who’s missing the advantages of a larger church and one (you), who left a larger church for the advantages of a smaller one. I don’t think I could have shown why we need churches of all sizes better than these two “Craig comments” have.

      I think you’re very wise to place yourself in a healthy Small Church under a pastor you can learn from. Too many pastors-to-be get all their teaching from megachurch pastors. They get great advice that way, but only about half of it is applicable in a Small Church setting, which is where 95% of pastors will spend most or all of their ministry years.. And it can be hard to know which half is which.

      Plus, we learn more by doing than by watching. No better place to get doing ministry than a Small Church. Your church is blessed to have you.

  6. I left a large church and a year ago became part of a small church. I am so happy and honored to be there. That closeness is what my wife and I needed. Since I desire to pastor one day in the future and be intimate with my people, I needed to learn from a small church pastor. No shame about being here at all.

    1. Well, this is interesting. Two comments from two Craigs. One (see above) who’s missing the advantages of a larger church and one (you), who left a larger church for the advantages of a smaller one. I don’t think I could have shown why we need churches of all sizes better than these two “Craig comments” have.

      I think you’re very wise to place yourself in a healthy Small Church under a pastor you can learn from. Too many pastors-to-be get all their teaching from megachurch pastors. They get great advice that way, but only about half of it is applicable in a Small Church setting, which is where 95% of pastors will spend most or all of their ministry years.. And it can be hard to know which half is which.

      Plus, we learn more by doing than by watching. No better place to get doing ministry than a Small Church. Your church is blessed to have you.

  7. These posts have been an encouragement to me. I think this one is spot on. As a smaller church we need to see what we have to offer, and what we have to offer is valuable. Thanks for the reminder.

  8. It has taken me decades worth of bumps, bruises and scars to finally understand and lean into an important truth about serving Him: I already am what I need to be, I already have what I need to have, and I already am where He needs me most.

    Keep proclaiming this vital truth, Karl. Pastors who seek personal validation in their ministry will never arrive at the place of peace, joy and contentment because there’ll always be someone who’s further up the hill than you. If we can learn to find love, affirmation and self-worth in the fact that we are image-bearers who’ve been redeemed at an incalculable price we may just find what we hunger for.

    And in the process I suspect we’ll be far more effective as pastors, regardless the size of the flock we’re tending at the moment.

    Blessings.

  9. If all of us small church Pastors try to make our church like the big ones then when people who come to visit because we are small will not get what they came for. They come because we are small.

    1. Great point, Mike. People who come to a Small Church aren’t doing it because they don’t have other choices. Even in a small town, they can watch a megachurch on TV or online. But they get out of bed, get dressed and show up because they want what we (should) have to offer. Let’s make sure we offer it.

  10. I seriously dislike big churches! I want to know my whole church family and feel like everybody cares about everybody. Big churches are cold and impersonal and the pastors are just traffic cops who send you to various departments for counseling and prayer and have no idea who you are. The mega-churches need to split up into several smaller churches where people know and care about each other.

    1. Hi, Leona. I understand your appreciation for Small Churches. Obviously, I love them, too.

      But let’s be careful how we refer to our fellow believers. Churches of every size have their place. Megachurches may not suit your taste but it’s unfair to generalize them as cold and impersonal. I’ve been in plenty of great, healthy, friendly megachurches as well as great, healthy, friendly small ones.

    2. I’ve been a pastor of micro-churches and mega-churches. Warmth and friendliness isn’t a function of how many people are in the seats on Sunday. I’ve been in small churches that were diffident toward visitors, even cold. And I know that mega-churches can be quite warm and inviting. In each case the pastor has to put the right processes in place and train the congregation on the proper way to relate to one another and to guests.

      1. I agree completely, Bud. I’ve been In friendly and unfriendly churches of all sizes. But when people come to a Small Church rather than a big one, it’s not because they have high expectations for technical expertise and programming, it’s for more relational issues. Small Churches aren’t necessarily more friendly, but it is more important for them to get personal matters, like friendliness, right. It’s never automatic, no matter what size the church is.

  11. I was chatting to a guy who pastors a church of about 400 or so recently, and he expressed a sentiment I’ve heard before. That big churches can become successful only by being smaller – what he means by that is that they grow big, but prioritise smallness in their house group system. So the underlying success of a Big church (in the UK at least) seems to be underpinned at least in part by smallness.

    1. That’s true everywhere, Julian. Not just in the UK. Most pastors of big churches realize they have to work harder on small groups the bigger they get. The smallness is where connections happen and they’re vital for a church of any size.

  12. Well said brother… I do however a question… (if you have already answered this in previous post or in your book “just got and started reading” then I apologize) but what do you say to the people that come and judge you for being small and what do you say to the members that feel embarrassed because of it? I think I know the answer and that is when we finally get past the “small is inept” mentality then the members won’t need consoling… but living in the Bible belt, I have discovered that the people in NC are very well trained in how to play church… They jump from church to church as a norm and immediately upon entering a new small church, start the “well at the last church I was at…” comparison which when translated means this, “I am telling you everything that is wrong with the last church so you don’t do it here and everything that is right with the last church so you do it here…” I have to say, it gets old dealing with the church comparing hoppers…

    1. Roger,

      Small church pastors would probably make their lives easier if they “held” people with a loose hand, learned to be comfortable inviting them to visit elsewhere, and becoming more confident of their worth in Christ.

      In another sense, these people are part of our “mission field.” When people come from another church I figure they left for a reason and found us for a reason. Part of that is the fact that they haven’t been discipled properly. So funnel them into your discipleship process and hope that they become “carriers” when they move on.

    2. Great question, Roger. Sorry my reply took so long, Just got back from a short vacation.

      The answer to your question has multiple layers, but I think it all starts with the attitude of the pastor. We have to get out of the consumer-oriented mindset ourselves before we can expect others to adjust their thinking. I talked about how to do that in my post “Sit Back, Relax and Enjoy the Service” May Be Killing Your Church

      Here in California, we probably deal with the church-hopper mentality as much as anywhere on earth. Years ago, I had to change my expectations about church-hoppers by telling myself, “the ones who hop in will hop out, too.” So we don’t build our expectations or ministries on them. People who are led to Christ and discipled in the church will have more loyalty. And isn’t that what we’re supposed to be doing anyway?

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