I’m a church planter. We’re six months old as of this writing and by God’s grace we have been a self-sustaining church since our first service last Easter. We had 75 adults and 25 kids two weeks ago. Then we had 59 adults and 18 kids last Sunday. And that’s our average fluctuation in attendance. And I feel completely encouraged. I feel utterly content, even though we don't have a drummer.
Now, clearly, those numbers tell you that no one is begging me to share my secrets of success at church conferences around the country. (Eric Metexas hasn’t asked me to endorse any of his books.)
However, before I explain what has led to this serenity now, let me paint the landscape before us, especially if you’re a church planter or part of a small church.
Marketing vs. Mission
At the 2015 Gospel Coalition Conference, author and pastor Timothy Keller said, “In the past we have known… that great preaching and great music and great youth ministry are all ways of gathering a crowd and you can grow your church a lot faster by focusing on those things.” He went on to say that we have looked to marketing rather than evangelism to grow our churches.
This is why at church conferences in America the speakers are always from the largest churches, because numbers indicate success. This conference emphasis has created inferiority complexes in many (if not most) small churches. That is often why most church planters and church attenders dream of growing large. It’s validation that you matter as a church. We all want to be part of a great work that God will do… someday. Someday… not now obviously, because we’re just small and insignificant. But God will use us someday.
This mentality fosters discontentment, especially when everyone wants to know how that church plant down the street exploded to 700 people in just two years. “What’s in the water over there, guys?” Chuckle, chuckle. “Share your secrets with us.” (I bet they have a drummer.)
The Someday Church
If you’re like me, human, then most likely your thinking has been along the lines of, “Someday our church will be…” and then you dream about those future days of what God will do at your church. Have you ever thought that way? That someday God will make your church a significant church?
Personally, I believe the glory days of your church are right here and right now.
The Methods of the Mission
There is little debate among churches that believe the gospel that the mission Jesus has given the church is to make disciples. And yet, the church planter is often busy worrying about how to keep visitors and if the time of greeting one another during the service is a turn off and why do we have three bass players but can’t find one drummer, etc. Not that such things aren’t important, but this is the marketing mentality that has captured our concern.
Great Commission Churches Should be the Norm
So, in theory, we’re here to bring people from darkness to light. But many emails I receive from leadership experts and many ads for best-selling books and many conferences seem to give the impression that the church is preoccupied with something other than the Great Commission. We seem more interested in the Great Platform, attracting and keeping an audience. Sure, it’s just practical, but our pragmatism has left a wake that buries many church planters. There isn’t time for mission drift in such a milieu, because the emphasis is wrong from the launch.
“Don’t you want to grow your church? How do we reach the masses?” Frankly, questions like that overwhelm me. I’m hoping our church reaches six people this year. Have you noticed that evangelism is hard work?
I’ve become a kind of Christian Dr. Strangelove - how I learned to stop worrying and love our small church. We are a small group that gathers to focus on the Great Commission. We want to grow in our understanding of the gospel and grow in our faith in the gospel so that we might share the gospel. We are completely focused on Great Commission goals.
The Grand Vision of Small Goals
Our immediate goals are to win 32 people to Christ in the next five years and plant our first church within our first five years.
Why 32 people? And in five years? That’s not really a grand vision is it? There’s no inspirational book in those numbers.
Well, I beg to differ.
How Statistics Changed My Life
It was a rare blog (and we need so many more of them, which is the reason for this one) that offered some much needed insight into church size and effectiveness. One of the studies reported, “The stats tell us that ten smaller churches of 100 people will accomplish much more than one church of 1000.”
The study went on to say that our soil as a smaller church is actually more fertile for planting another church. What’s even more incredible is what the studies say about our potential for reaching people for Christ. “Churches in the smallest size category (under 100 in attendance) had won an average of 32 new people over the past five years; churches with 100-200 in worship also won 32; churches between 200-300 average 39 new individuals; churches between 300-400 won 25. So a ‘small’ church wins just as many people for Christ as a ‘large’ one, and what’s more, two churches with 200 in worship on Sunday will win twice as many new people as one church with 400 in attendance.”
To me, that’s even more motivation to plant another church. I always thought we had to grow larger than 60 to 70 people before we could start talking about planting another church. Not anymore. Hats off to the statisticians.
The Effective Small Church
Ultimately, God will determine how large we grow. The point is that we don’t have to wait until we’re a large church to be an effective church. We can be an effective church now. We don’t have to dream about the glory days of the future because we are in the midst of our glory days right now.
Christian Schwarz did a study that “found that the average growth rate in smaller churches was 13% (over five years), whereas in larger churches it was a mere 3%.” God is using smaller churches right now as much as He is using larger churches. But this isn’t the prevailing mindset in broad evangelicalism because it’s not an attractive marketing pitch. Small means small sales. Big means big sales. Big sells better. Is that too crass a way of putting it? Maybe. But is there no truth to it?
Look at these stats: “A small church in the NCD sample with an average attendance of fifty-one typically converted thirty-two persons in five years; megachurches in the NCD sample averaged 2,856 in attendance but converted only 112 new persons in five years.”
This is conversion growth we’re talking about. This is Great Commission growth. That should encourage you if you’re the pastor of a small church. That should excite you! That should foster divine contentment, rather than feelings of insignificance.
It’s not that the Lord doesn’t use large churches, but He uses small churches just as mightily. That should increase our faith. But all the studies can do is propel us back to the Word of God where He Himself tells us that “by the power that is working within us” He is “able to do far beyond all that we ask or think.”
Far beyond all that we ask or think.
How to be Content with Your Church Now
All that to say, this leads me to feel content with our small church right now. This doesn’t mean I don’t feel an urgency in reaching people with the gospel or that I don’t long for a deeper sense of God’s presence during our services. It just means I don’t sit around and dream about the day when… you know, that day in the future when we’ll really matter as a church. We matter this Sunday.
We are a significant church right now because the gospel is always significant. The significance of the gospel doesn’t increase or decrease based upon church size.
In closing, let me switch to preacher mode. If bigger is better then Jesus would have been born in a large palace rather than a small manger. If bigger is better then there should have been 1,200 in the upper room rather than 120. Bigger is better is a cultural myth that the church should stop buying into. Your small church matters as much to the Lord right now as the largest and most influential church in the country. And He can use you to have as great an impact upon the world as you look to Him and His power to advance the gospel for the sake of Jesus. “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord of hosts.”
Now I’m just waiting for someone to hold a conference called “The Effective Small Church.”
I think it’s the wave of the future.
So, be content, my friend. We’re on the cutting edge of the small church movement.