Celebrating small churches

FRONTLINES: What small and healthy looks like

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Photo Illustration: Getty Images

I pastor a small church that’s in the process of revitalization. While there is much to say about church renewal, a major part of my learning recently has been on the subject of small churches and how my church can be healthy without ever becoming a “large” church.

Let me clarify two things right away: I am very thankful for big churches. I learned a ton working at Mountain View Church, Fresno, California, while in seminary. Big churches can reach people and accomplish things that smaller churches cannot. Second, healthy churches grow. No church should stay small out of laziness or stubbornness, failing to love the people God called them to.

That said, small churches can be healthy, and healthy churches can be small. This better be true, since half of U.S. churches are under 65 people. But what does small and healthy look like?

For starters, small churches are great at caring for people. We can’t avoid people, so it’s either love them or reject them. Healthy small churches are rockstars of “love per capita.”

This also means there are no cracks to fall through. We may not have a ministry for “your type” (kids, youth, singles, married, etc.) but we make up for it by ministering to you. When a kid shows up, everyone’s on kids’ ministry. When somebody loses a loved one, everyone’s part of grief support. We minister personally to personal needs, not broad categories.

Another advantage is our agility. Sure, we can be stubborn and traditional, but when we do need to change, we can. At our annual meeting, three-quarters of the church showed up, and we fit around three tables. We can implement major changes immediately because everyone who’s affected is part of the decision.

Speaking of streamlining: my church used to be much bigger 50 years ago. When I came, we still had some structures from the big-church days, with a bulky leadership team and lots of designated positions. We even had a Nominating Committee to find qualified people for those positions — as if any of our 20 people had been overlooked! So, I raised the question: Do we try poorly to be a big church or be excellent at being a small church? We chose the latter and restructured our entire leadership to simply consist of those willing and trusted to lead.

We celebrated being a small church as part of an outreach event back in October. We called it Small Church Sunday, inspired by Small Business Saturday. It was just a normal church service but focused on inviting people to join us. We printed flyers for those we’d been meaning to invite for months, we had a pancake lunch afterward, and our sermon series in Matthew “happened” to line up with Jesus calling the disciples to follow him. Our church, which had averaged 17 people at the time, had 50 people show up — triple our average! Sure, most of those haven’t been back, but just as importantly, the long timers gained confidence inviting people to our tiny group.

I believe small churches are an essential part of the kingdom of God, and I hope more small churches realize their potential. If you’d like to join us and celebrate Small Church Sunday, we picked the third Sunday of October — and you’re welcome to copy the logo!

Alex Janzen is the lead pastor at Community Bible Church in Mountain Lake, Minn. He is a graduate of Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary in Fresno, Calif., and Tabor College in Hillsboro, Kan.

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