Why Unfriendly Big Churches Are Bad – But Unfriendly Small Churches Can Be Dangerous

Heart band-aidsPeople are only capable of having relationships with so many people. We don’t need studies to tell us that. We know it instinctively.

That’s why we all behave differently in a large crowd than we do in a small group.

When there are thousands of people in a room, we expect to be an audience, so we become one. Even the presence of a few hundred people causes us to slip into the role of passive observer instead of active participant. That’s not to say that a large crowd is bad, but the mere fact of its size causes us to act more passively, even in church. We put on our polite crowd smile and become an audience.

But it’s different in a smaller group. We expect people to say hello. We hope for connection. We want to be a part of the conversation.

Today’s post is not a slam on big churches. None of my posts will ever be that. Instead, it’s intended to serve as a caution to Small Churches.

Friendliness is not more likely in a Small Church. But it is more important. 

 

Why Friendliness Matters More In a Small Church

Because of crowd dynamics, people expect a degree of anonymity in a big church. So if they feel a little lonely, that’s OK. They put on their big crowd face and soldier on.

But in a Small Church, it’s very different. People come to a Small Church expecting (at least hoping) for connection. They often want it so badly that they feel frightened and exposed by the mere fact of driving into the parking lot.

Walking into a Small Church for the first time can be an act of great vulnerability. They know there won’t be anywhere to hide.

So when someone feels ignored in a big church, it’s pretty bad. But when someone feels ignored in a Small Church, it can be downright brutal, even scarring to their heart and their spirit.

Friendliness, warmth and connection are not automatic in any church. Big churches know this. Small Churches tend to forget it. And when we forget it we can hurt people deeply.

An unfriendly Small Church can be a dangerous thing.

Big churches are aware of crowd dynamics, so most of them work really hard at overcoming the pull towards anonymity. Many of them succeed and are very friendly. It may even be one of the reasons they became big.

Small Churches need to work just as hard at friendliness, warmth and connection as our large church counterparts do. Maybe even harder, because friendliness is more expected and needed when the crowd is smaller.

 

Don’t Assume Your Church Is Friendly – Help It Get There

A friendly church doesn’t just happen, no matter how big or small it is. Church leaders have to work at it, train people for it and be constantly vigilant about it.

Don’t assume your church is friendly just because the regulars have to be herded out the door so you can lock up and go home.

Make friendliness a priority. It may be one of the main reasons spiritual seekers visit your Small Church. And a lack of it may be the main reason they never come back.

Taking an honest look at your church’s friendliness quotient may be difficult and discouraging. Just a few weeks ago I was made painfully aware that our church isn’t doing as well at this as I thought we were. But we have to stop assuming. We need to know the truth.

No matter how friendly our church is – or how friendly we think it is – it can always be friendlier. So it’s essential that we do whatever is needed to become more welcoming. Because when we do, we can help change someone’s life.

Being welcoming and friendly is about for more than putting (or keeping) butts in church seats. Just as an unfriendly Small Church can cause great damage, a truly friendly Small Church can be an important first step towards mending people’s hearts, awakening their spirits and preparing their souls for eternity.

 

So what do you think? How intentional is your church about being warm and friendly?

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(Band-Aid Heart photo from danisabella • Flickr • Creative Commons)

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26 thoughts on “Why Unfriendly Big Churches Are Bad – But Unfriendly Small Churches Can Be Dangerous”

  1. Good word! I can recall many times hearing a parishioner talk about how friendly the church is, yet watch them avoid a newcomer like the plague! Man is it tough getting this point across sometimes!

    1. I know, right? Being friendly only with my friends isn’t enough. But, boy is it hard for a lot of us to look outside our comfort zone and bring others in to our friendship circle.

  2. Great article, Pastor.It’s actually amazing how well you explain the dynamics behind the symptoms.I can totally relate.

  3. Great article, Pastor.It’s actually amazing how well you explain the dynamics behind the symptoms.I can totally relate.

  4. Maybe you should define “friendly”.
    “Stand up and tell us your name,” is not friendly, its intimidating.
    “Turn around and greet three people,” is less intimidating, but still…
    Greeters at the front door, yes, but that’s expected and they should show more interest than just shoving a bulletin at you, and how often are the greeters so busy talking with each other that they actually block the entrance!
    Being a retired pastor, we have been looking for a church. Recently visited a nice small church, actually the people were friendly before the service and during the meet and greet time. Well,,,, Friendly to a point, to say welcome, but not to show an interest in who we were.
    Having pastored for years, I tried particularly to talk with visitors, this pastor, shoved his hand at me during meet and greet, said his first and last name real fast and vanished.
    After the service – zero, zip, nada, apparently we had turned invisible.
    “Friendly” in my book would to be that at least someone got a little bit acquainted. Maybe even if the circumstances were right, say something like: “A group of us (or my wife and I) are going out to lunch would you like to join us.”
    That nice little church which we visited twice and had thought maybe we would settle there, has no idea who we are or that we were there.

    1. I agree completely, Derrill. Especially on those first two points. It’s been so long since I’ve been in a church which does it that way that I didn’t consider that some churches might still do it. Yikes! Natural, relational greeting and friendliness is the answer. It’s weird that we’re able to do that in most other settings, but in church we get weird about it.

  5. I truly believe that just like every other part of my life (of worship), I continuously need to beat my body and make it my slave.It’s not easy being friendly in general, but it’s a choice I have to make regardless of where I am.We are visiting a small church now and the illumination of the Word is really powerful.Before it was lovely knowing that my Pastor knows my name, but now in an unfamiliar setting, I tell myself that I am there to ultimately serve my Father’s purpose. If people are friendly, then that is a bonus.

  6. Your article is right on target! Our congregation of just under 140 has come a long long way in the past year and we’re growing. We stopped giving our name, rank, and serial number. and started asking questions, like, “Do I know You? Do you have kids in school, Do you have any idea how nice it is to see you, what’s your good name? We stopped being a welcoming church and became an “inviting” church. “Sit with Me, join our group, come to lunch…” The key is to give people value, not a welcome. Our people have discovered the impact of, “You’re Incredible, we only have incredible friends, you’re the newest ones, and we’re glad you’re here.” Valuing people changes the entire dynamic. I try to get around to as many people as I can before and after worship just to love on them. I try to especially find the new folks but also the folks that have been there the last couple weeks. Our fellowship has recognized the difference that makes, and are following the example. It’s really fun to come to our church just for the fellowship. I often tell the congregation, “A smile costs so little and makes so many people happy you should lavish it on every one just for the joy of seeing how people respond to it!” Recognizing the value of people is making our small church successful.

  7. Thank you for your article. We have been in a small church for three years, but are looking at changing to a big church because my 10 year old daughter feels so unwelcome by the three other girls her age there. I am concerned about the ideas she is picking up about her self worth and her willingness to initiate and reach out to others. She is introverted, but has become more so over time. We several things about the small church we attend, but we desperately need church to be a safe place for our two children. We want church to be a place where they love and learn about Jesus, not feel rejected by other kids their age who have been there forever. After teaching SS and plugging in for three years, we just don’t know how to change the kindness factor of a couple sets of kids and their parents, and so we are looking at moving on to a place where our kids can feel the love of Christ in the Body of Christ.

    1. Kim, I’m so sorry to hear that your daughter is going through that. My family left a Small Church where I was pastoring for exactly the same reason. Thankfully, he led us to a church that loved us – which also happens to be small. We’ve been here 21 years and counting. I pray you’ll find a church – whatever size it is – where your daughter can feel loved and appreciated.

  8. I read recently that a pastor told the people who attended his church that if someone new sat in “their”pew that was to be an invitation for them to take them out to eat rather than say you can sit there today but don’t sit there again,

  9. Pingback: Big and Impersonal, Or Small and Pathetic: Are Those My Only Church Options? | New Small Church

  10. I’ve attended a smallish church for almost a year, I’m there because my kid is involved in the youth group. It’s extremely painful to attend and have almost Noone make any connection to you. No followup, no call, email or note from the pastor, ever, I’ve had 1 person invite us to a small group but no other connections or even attempts. I go and is difficult to control my emotions because I miss having a church FAMILY so much. My daughter is a junior; I can do this for a Little more than a year but it’s hard and much more hurtful than I ever imagined.

  11. We have great pulpit teaching but no fellowship. Our elders put so much effort in to formal service, Our fellowship is cold. We have had 31 years as married couple and more than 6 church experiences. Our current 9 yrs at this Frozen Chosen place has us panicking to face a picnic. We became masters at ending conversation with a laugh or a stone wall of silence. We are even better at avoiding conversation. ” how is it going” Fine ( silence). My favorite mindset “I never knew you, I never will, I really don’t need to”. If that’s my problem then other islands have the same mindset problem.

  12. This is a good article,I agree about small churches causing damage,hurting scaring seekers and regular attendees alike.

    People should never become parts of furniture,leaders should encourage friendliness to their members.

    It takes courage to ask the question but I have experienced a Church in Birmingham UK do just that,after daring to ask,”What impression does this Church give you? E.g. Are we…… .

    Andrew.

  13. Great article. We attend a small church and I have never been more lonely. We have gone for six years and still feel barely tolerated. I have to work weekend night shifts as a nurse and no one bothers to find out if I know about things like Secret Sisters or women’s Bible studies. My husband called the pastor to ask for counsel on an issue, the pastor’s response was “I’m not getting in the middle.” We expressed to our,pastor’s wife that it would be so nice if she ever checked with me (hasn’t happened once in six years) to find out if I’ve heard about women’s studies, etc. Her response was that no one is stopping me from showing up. Tonight, which was just a few days later, the pastor cornered my husband at the high school football game to inform him that if we find the church unwelcome its our fault.

    I am so hurt and devastated.

  14. I called a Baptist church to see if I could come to a service and when, and the old lady in the office sounded really blase. She just didn’t seem real thrilled at the idea of me, a total stranger, coming to the church. I could tell that she could’ve cred less whether I came or not. She basically said, “You can come.” It’s really bad when the cold vibes come through the phone at you. In fact, that’s the general attitude of most of the churches here in Waco. So I have no place to go. I just have myself…and my faith.

      1. Thanks for your article on small churches. We recently moved to a new town and found a church with a very friendly and knowledgeable pastor but the congregation is tough. My husband gets invited to all kinds of activities but I am pretty much ignored along with my two kids. I asked another homeschool family if we could get our kids together to play but her response was to seek out the homeschool group at the library instead. I guess it only hurts because I have been making the initive with the ladies but for some reason they don’t want to know me or my kids.?

  15. We moved from the West Coast to the East Coast for my husband’s new job, not knowing a soul and having to start out again from scratch (we’re in our 40’s). We have four children ages 7-26. I started looking for a Bible-based non denominational church and I found a small church not far from our home. My kids and I (my husband doesn’t attend church but that’s another story) started going two years ago and I also put my teens in the youth group. After about 8 months, they told me that they would still go if I wanted them to but they didn’t want to go anymore – the kids all knew each other, (grew up together and/or were related) and weren’t overjoyed to welcome anyone new into the group. During these 8 months, I tried to reach out and volunteer for various activities and trying to engage anyone in conversation other than hello and goodbye was like pulling teeth! Only ONE member of the congregation came up and spoke to me and asked me who I was, etc.. ONE person. I understood how my kids felt to be honest, I was practically invisible for an entire 8 months too!! The final straw for me was when I volunteered to help at the Food Bank (twice) and after emailing the coordinator and asking if anyone was carpooling from the church and received very cold responses as to why no one could, we stopped attending. That was it. No one cared if we were there anyway. Fast forward to December of 2015, my mom was visiting and she insisted we go back to church while she was here – so we did. I joined a bible study group and during the study I honestly felt like I was making some connections, but even today, if I see them in church or if I’m in the kitchen making meals for the kids I STILL get little to no response from them after I say hi! I did find out that most of the kids in Youth Group including the leader ARE related though….either through blood or marriage so that explains why my kids felt left out – they really were outsiders! What am I doing wrong though? I’ve been feeling so bad about this, feeling bad about myself like what in the heck is wrong with me and why do I repel these people? I understand that at our ages people are already established with friends and what the heck do they need a new person interfering, right? We are members now, but honestly I’m ready to stop going again. I’m getting really tired of trying to make connections when obviously NO ONE is interested. My stepfather was a lay pastor and my mother was heavily involved in the church too when I was young, I’ve taught Sunday School, worked in the nursery, I’m good with people – I love working with people, but this entire situation has damaged me to the point that my only human contacts are my husband and kids! I don’t even want to try to talk to anyone anymore. I went to this church looking for connections to our new community and I think I’ve done everything humanly possible to make that happen. Looks like it’s time to move on.

  16. Wow this is almost exactly what is happening to our family. We are new to the area and have volunteered to help but hear nothing back.I am most worried about my 2 kids though and wondering if we should just move on to protect them. My adult son was bullied in church and no longer attends. I don’t want my younger kids to go through the same thing except they are just ignored at this point not sure what’s worse.

    1. Before doing some research and finding blogs like this one, I had no idea this was a problem all over! Your son was bullied in a church??? Can I ask what denomination the church was and if I may ask, what precipitated him being bullied?? Did you talk to anyone at the church about it? Wow, it makes no sense, you go to church to find a quiet, peaceful place to worship and something like that happens to your son?? I would be livid. As far as my situation goes, I’ve decided to give it a bit more time, continue volunteering, continue Bible Study once a week, and we’ll see what happens. My goals have changed for obvious reasons, I no longer seek connections with people in my church, I’m there to worship, to strengthen my relationship with God and if I make a friend, great – if not, I’m not going to dwell on it anymore. I can’t dwell on it anymore – it was making me crazy! Good luck to you Nancy.

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