bits from bob....

God's Purpose for Small Churches

by Robert J. Young
©, 2002, Robert J. Young
[permission is given to reprint with credit noted]
Note: Condensed from the keynote address delivered at Small Church Growth Workshop, Sunset School of Preaching, Lubbock, Texas.

I invite you on a brief journey into the world of the small church. You may not know such a world exists, but 85% of churches of Christ nationwide have fewer than 200 members. In fact, approximately 50% of our congregations have less than 75 in attendance at Sunday morning worship.

There are three kinds of small churches: small churches on their way to becoming large churches, small churches that were formerly larger churches, and small churches that will always be relatively small. While the second group certainly gives cause for concern, the small church is not a "problem" to be dealt with. God has a place and a purpose for the small church. Effective ministry in the small church cannot be informed by a large church model of ministry.

The Personality of the Small Church
Small churches are naturally different than large churches. Small churches are personal. As "folk societies," small churches are culture-carrying, that is, they get most of their identity from the past and carry that identity into the present. Behavior in the small church is habitual more than intentional. Unlike larger churches, small churches are pew-owned and pew-operated. Small churches resemble the "Mom and Pop" businesses of an era bygone. Small churches are seldom minister-centered, and define ministry by relationship rather than by function. Small churches ask "Who is a preacher?" rather than "What does a preacher do?" This personal, relational character results in an orientation toward nurturing over mission and purpose. Small churches are usually driven by human needs, seldom by programs.

Process in the Small Church
Process asks, "How do things get done?" David Ray gives the following illustration. A duck hunter mail ordered a fully trained retriever. When the dog arrived, the hunter found that the dog retrieved by walking across the water. Anxious to show off such an unusual dog, he picked up his friend, George, to demonstrate the dog's unique abilities. George said nothing during the repeated demonstrations until the exasperated hunter finally asked, "What do you think of my new dog?" George replied: "Can't swim, can he?" (David Ray, Small Churches Are the Right Size, xi)
Judged by the way things get done in larger churches, many small churches resemble that unorthodox retriever. They can't swim very well, but they nonetheless get the job done. No wonder one popular book's title simply affirms: "The Small Church is Different!" If small churches measure ministry by large churches, they will be disappointed and may conclude they are not very effective. But God has a different place for small churches than for large churches. Every church, regardless of size, needs to identify God's agenda for faithfulness, and employ its God-given strengths to faithfully fulfill that role.

Programs in the Small Church
Preachers often enter small church ministry with a Messiah mentality, thinking they will change everything that is wrong, fix everything broken, make functional everything dysfunctional. Such preachers usually impose their own private agendas on the church. Problems inevitably arise when those agendas are inconsistent with the congregational personality or nature. Churches, like individuals, have thousands of ways to protect their personalities.
Churches seldom hire preachers to do what they need done, but rather to do what they want done. Preachers and churches must be matched by want rather than need. Marriages matched by need are ridiculous: I married her because she really needed me. Preachers who are hired by need try out every Sunday.
Unfortunately, success in ministry is often defined by how many programs the preacher can give birth to. Especially in small churches, ministers must learn 'planned parenthood.' Preachers, do not give birth to more babies than you can nurture! Be ready to stay 5-10 years to bring those efforts to effective maturity. Giving birth to programs and then leaving the church to run them is abusive. Most of such programs will die when the preacher leaves, and the church will breathe a collective sigh of relief during the six months it takes to "catch your breath" until another preacher is hired. Successful families are not determined by the number of children born. Preachers in small churches must learn the difference between ascribed worth and attained worth. Success must never be dependent upon being in the right place with the right church in the right town.

Preachers in the Small Church
There are four things the small church wants to know about the preacher.

May God give us insight and strength to be sincere, caring, competent, and committed.

God is faithful. The task of any church must be faithfulness to God's agenda. God has a unique, healthy place for the small churches in the kingdom. God desires faithful ministry and service.

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Last updated June 1, 2004.