10 Reasons Why Small Churches Stay Small

First, an explanation or two, then a definition.

I know more about getting smaller churches to grow than larger ones. I pastored three of them, and only the first of the three did not grow. I was fresh out of college, untrained, inexperienced, and clueless about what I was doing. The next two grew well, and even though I remained at each only some three years, one almost doubled, and the other nearly tripled in attendance and ministries.

By using the word “grow,” I do not mean numbers for numbers’ sake. I do not subscribe to the fallacy that bigness is good, and small churches are failures. What I mean by “grow” is reaching people with the gospel of Jesus Christ. If you reach them and start new churches, your local church may not expand numerically, but it is most definitely “growing.” If you are located in a town that is losing population and your church manages to stay the same size, you’re probably “growing” (i.e., reaching new people for the Lord).

These are simply my observations as to why stagnant, ungrowing churches tend to stay that way. I send it forth hoping to plant some seed in the imagination of a pastor or other leader who will be used of the Lord to do great things in a small church.

I have frequently quoted Francis Schaeffer who said, “There are no small churches and no big preachers.” I like that. But it’s not entirely true. We’ve seen churches made up of just a few people and stymied by lack of vision and a devotion to the status quo. And here and there, we may encounter a preacher with the world on his heart and the wisdom of the ages on his lips; that, for my money, is a “big preacher.”

But this is not about being such a preacher. We’re concerned with not being one of those churches.

The “ten reasons” that follow are not necessarily in the order of importance or prevalence. This is the way they occurred to me, and the order seems right.

1. Wanting to stay small.

“We like our church just the way it is now.” While that attitude usually goes unspoken–it might not even be recognized by its carriers–it’s widespread in many churches. The proof of it is seen in how the leaders and congregation reject new ideas and freeze out new people.

The process of rejecting newcomers is a subtle one, never as overt as snubbing them. They will be greeted and chatted with and handed a printed bulletin. But they will be excluded as clearly as if they were–as I was once–the only man in a roomful of sorority women at a state university. (I was an invited guest, about to bring a message to them. They couldn’t have been nicer, but alas, they did not invite me to join!)

“Bob’s class is meeting this week over at Tom and Edna’s. Come and bring a covered dish.” “The youth will have a fellowship tonight at Eddie Joe’s. We’re serving pizza and you don’t want to miss it.”

Unless you know who Bob, Tom, Edna, and Eddie Joe are and where they live, you’re out of luck.

Pastors who want to include newcomers and first-timers in things should use full names from the pulpit. “I’ll ask Bob Evans to come to the pulpit and lead us in prayer.” This allows newcomers to learn who people are.

“For those who need directions to Eddie Joe Finham’s house for the youth fellowship, he’s the guy with the crew cut wearing the purple shirt. Raise your hand, Eddie Joe. He has printed directions to give you.”

No one can promise that if a church wants to grow it will. However, I can guarantee you that if it doesn’t, it won’t.

2. A quick turnover of pastors.

A retired pastor who had served his last church some 30 years was supplying for a small congregation south of New Orleans. That week he told me of a discovery he made. “On Sunday afternoon, no one invited me to their home, so I had several hours to kill before the evening service. In the church office, I was reading their history and discovered that in their nearly 50 years of existence, they’ve had 22 pastors.”

He was aghast.

“Think of that,” he said. “If they had around 6 months between pastors, that means the average tenure was less than two years.”

He was quiet a moment, then said, “They didn’t have pastors. They had preachers.”

It takes at least a couple of years to become the real deal for a church, a pastor in more than name only, one who has earned the right to lead the congregation. With larger churches, the time period is more like six years.

Again, no one will promise you that keeping a pastor a long time guarantees the church will grow. But I can assure you that having a succession of short-term pastors will prevent it from growing as surely as you took a vote from the congregation to reject all expansion.

3. Domination by a few strong members.

The process by which a man (it’s almost always a man) becomes a church boss is subtle and rarely, if ever, the result of a hostile takeover.

The pastor of a small church leaves for another town. The pastorless congregation looks within its membership for leaders to rise up and “take care of things” until a new pastor arrives. There will be pulpit supplies to line up, a search committee to form and train and send forth, and a hundred details to see to for the operation of the church. So two or three faithful and mature members (we assume) are chosen. They do their job well.

If the next pastor leaves after an unusually short tenure for whatever reasons, the congregation resorts to the fallback position: they enlist the services of those same two or three mature–and now experienced–leaders.

That’s how it happens that one of them or possibly all three began to look upon themselves as the church itself. They make important decisions for the body, and everything works out. When the new pastor arrives, they let him know that anything he needs to know, he should call on them. He quickly sees that they have set themselves up as the board of directors, a layer of authority between the hired man (the preacher) and the congregation.

The bosses explain that they are protecting the congregation. “We don’t like to upset them with matters like this.” “These things are better off handled by just a few.”

The longer this situation continues this way, the more entrenched these men become in their dictatorship. Pity the young idealistic pastor who walks into that church unsuspecting that they lie in wait for him, to–ahem–“give direction to his ministry.” Or, as one said to me, “We thought you would like to have some help in pastoring this church.”

In almost every instance, such self-appointed church bosses exist to frustrate the pastor’s initiatives, block his bold ventures, and control his tendencies to want the church to act on (gasp!) something he calls faith!

Result: the church stays small. No normal church family coming into the community would want to join such a church.

The remedy: the congregation must see that key lay positions in the church rotate, that no one stays chairman of deacons for thirty years or church treasurer for a generation. Members of the congregation must stand up in business meetings and ask questions: “Why was this done?” “Who made the decision that our church would do that?” “Why was the congregation not informed on this?”

The one thing church bosses cannot stand is the light of day shown on their activities. Even though they convince themselves what they are doing is in the interests of the congregation, they don’t want others to know about it. “They wouldn’t understand.”

Oh, we understand all too well. (Read about Diotrephes in the little Epistle of III John. He “loves to have the pre-eminence.”)

4. Not trusting the leaders.

A phenomenon which I’ve seen in small churches and never in a large one occurs at the monthly business meetings, which incidentally, is also a custom a lot of growing churches have found they could do without. (They choose excellent leadership for the deacons, finance committee, and other key groups, and ask them to keep the congregation on course.)

In the small-and-determined-to-stay-small church, the treasurer passes out the monthly financial statement, which accounts for every penny spent this month. The discussion centers on why 35 cents was spent for call forwarding and 2 dollars for paper for the office.

The director of the vacation Bible school, the Sunday school director, the children’s choir leader, and of course, the pastor—all are frustrated that the congregation doesn’t trust them with 20 bucks, let alone 200, for some task.

The small-and-determined-to-stay-small church is far more concerned about the dollars and cents in the offering plate than in the lost souls in the community.

“I want to know what that revival cost the church,” said a disgruntled deacon in the monthly meeting. The pastor rose and cited a figure.

“And what did the church get out of it?” the plaintiff said. “Only one person saved, and a child at that. Poor stewardship of our resources, if you ask me.”

With that, another deacon walks to the front and takes something out of his pocket. He writes in his checkbook, tears out the check, and hands it to the treasurer.

“Gentlemen,” he says, “that one child that was reached is my son. And he’s worth every penny of it.”

The tiny-and-deadset-on-remaining-tiny church would never step out on faith and do something so bold as to have an aggressive evangelism campaign to reach the lost and unchurched of their community. And if they did, unless their mindset changes, they would then harass their leaders into the grave demanding an accounting of every dime spent.

When the pastor search committee announced plans for the candidate to spend the following weekend at their church, a member stood to raise a question. “That’s not long enough for us to get to know him. How do you expect us to be able to vote on him if we only have a weekend with him?”

Another member stood. “May I respond to Mr. Alan? We can’t get to know him well enough in a weekend to make this kind of decision. That’s why we have elected good leaders for this search committee. Let’s trust them.”

Elect good leaders and trust them to do their work. It’s a faithproof system for growing a church.

5. Inferiority complex.

I was a seminary student when called to my second pastorate. Determined to figure out how to grow that church–they had been stuck at 40 in attendance for years–I read everything I could find in the seminary library. Fortunately, they had quite a few books on pastoring the small church.

What I discovered was something I was beginning to notice in my people. Small churches often are stymied by inferiority complexes. “We can’t do anything because we’re small. We don’t have lots of money like the big churches in town.”

So they set small goals and ask little from their members.

One day, I was visiting in the First Baptist Church of a nearby community. In no way was it what we would call large, but it was three or four times the size of mine. The pastor and I were chatting about some program or other. He said to me, “My people won’t attempt anything like that. They say, ‘We’re not large like the First Baptist Church of New Orleans.'”

That’s when it hit me: feelings of inferiority can be found in all size churches.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the members of FBC-New Orleans were excusing themselves for their inaction by saying, “We’re not Bellevue in Memphis or the FBC of Dallas.”

I don’t know who the members of Bellevue or FBC-Dallas look at with envy. But I’ll bet it’s some church bigger than them somewhere.

The remedy is to put one’s eyes on Jesus Christ. “Lord, what do you want us to do?” That’s the best prayer one can ever pray, and it has nothing whatever to do with what another church is doing.

In that seminary pastorate, I encouraged our people to set the goal high for our annual Christmas offering for foreign missions. One day, a member told me she was chatting with a neighbor who belonged to my friend’s First Baptist Church in the next community, who asked her about the size of our mission offering goal.

When she told her, the neighbor sniffed, “Why, ours is double that!”

Thankfully, my member said nothing. She could have responded, “It should be triple since your church is three times the size of ours.” But she didn’t, and I was pleased.

Peter said, “Lord, what about John here? What do you want him to do?” Our Lord said–and thus set a wonderful pattern for all of us for the rest of time–“What is that to you? You follow me!”

Want your church to reach people and expand and grow? Get your eyes off what others are doing. Most of them, to tell the truth, are declining at a rate so fast it can hardly be measured. You do not want to take your cues from them.

Ask the Lord, “What would you have us to do?” Then do it.

6. No plan.

The typical, stagnant small church is small in ways other than numbers. They tend to be small in vision, in programs, in outreach, and in just about everything else.

Perhaps worst of all, they have small plans. Or no plans at all.

The church with no plan–that is, no specific direction for what they are trying to do and become–will content itself with plodding along, going through the motions of “all churches everywhere.” They have Sunday School and worship services and a few committees. Once in a while, they will schedule a fellowship dinner or a revival. But ask the leadership, “What is your vision for this church?” and you will receive blank stares for an answer.

Here are two biblical instances of church leaders who knew what they were doing.

In Acts 6, when the church was disrupted by complaints from the Greek widows of being neglected in the distribution of food in favor of the Hebrew widows, the disciples called the congregation together. They said, “It is not right for us to neglect….(how they would fill in this blank reveals their plan)…in order to wait on tables.” And then, as they commissioned the seven men chosen, the disciples said, “We will turn this responsibility over to them and give our attention to….(fill in the blank).”

In the first instance, the disciples saw their plan as “the word of God” and in the second as “prayer and the ministry of the word.”

How do you see your ministry, pastor? What is your church’s focus?

Earlier, when Peter and John were threatened by the religious authorities who warned them to stop preaching Jesus, they returned to the congregation to let them know of this development. Immediately, everyone dropped to their knees and began praying. Notice the heart of their prayer, what they requested: “Now Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to…..(what? how they finished this is how we know their plan, their chief focus).”

“…to speak your word with great boldness.” (Acts 4:29)

When the Holy Spirit filled that room, the disciples “were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.” (v. 31) Clearly, that means they spoke it into the community, the world around them, and not just to one another.

When I asked a number of leaders for their take on why so many small churches do not grow, several said, “They need to focus on the two or three things they do best. Not try to be everything to everyone.”

Some churches need to focus on children’s ministry, others on youth or young adults, young families, or even the oldsters. (Tell me why it is when a church is filled with seniors, we look upon it as failing. It’s as though white-haired people of our society don’t need to be reached for the Lord.)

Some will focus on teaching, others on ministry in the community, some on jail and prison ministries, and some on music or women’s or men’s work.

One note of explanation: this is not to say that the church should shut down everything else to do one or two things. Rather, they will want to keep doing the basics, but throw their energies and resources, their promotions and prayers and plans, into enlarging and honing two or three ministries they feel the Lord has uniquely called them into.

7. Bad health.

It’s no surprise to anyone who has spent time in more than a few churches to learn that some are unhealthy. And by that, we do not mean just because they are small, they are sick. You can be small and healthy; behold the hummingbird.

An unhealthy church is known more by what it does than by a list of characteristics and attributes. A church that runs its preachers off every year or two is unhealthy. A church that is constantly bickering is unhealthy. A church that cannot make a simple decision like choose the color of the carpet, adopt the next year’s budget, or accept changes in an order of worship may be unhealthy.

So, what is a healthy church and how do we get from here to there?

Entire libraries could be filled with books written on the healthy church, and consultants abound, ready to assist congregations toward that purpose. But here it is in shorthand….

Romans 12 is God’s blueprint for a healthy church. It divides into three parts: verses 1-2 call for each individual to make a personal commitment to Christ (“present your bodies as a living sacrifice”), verses 3-8 call for each one to find his/her place of service where they can use their spiritual gifts, and vs. 9 through the end of the chapter describes the relationships within a healthy, loving fellowship of believers.

Show me a congregation where everyone is committed to Jesus Christ, each one is using the God-given spiritual gifts in the Lord’s service, and the fellowship is sweet and active–and I’ll show you a healthy church.

8. Lousy fellowship.

This overlaps with the last point, but it deserves a spot by itself.

For my money, the best thing a church has to offer individuals and families in the community–other than the saving gospel itself–is a place they will be loved and welcomed and made part of an active, healthy family. It’s what we mean by “fellowship.”

There are ways to tell if the fellowship in your church is unhealthy. Here is a brief rundown.

First, regarding the visitors to your church, your the fellowship is unhealthy if:

a. Visitors are basically ignored.
b. In some places in the church, visitors are even resented.
c. No one follows up on visitors to let them know they are wanted and give information on the church.
d. There’s no attempt to get people to visit your church in the first place.

Second, regarding the worship services of the church, the fellowship is probably unhealthy if:

a. Everything is orderly, but it’s the same order you’ve used since forever.
b. The singing is lifeless and any departure from the norm is verboten. A new hymn or chorus, a different kind of musical instrument, a testimony here, an interview there, a short drama or video–no, sir. Not in our church.
c. There’s no laughter, nothing spontaneous.
d. The invitation time is tacked on, lifeless, and without any response, ever.
e. The prayers are filled with platitudes and stale.

When the Old Testament prophets called on God’s people to “break up the fallow ground”–Hosea 10:12 and Jeremiah 4:3–they wanted to see evidence of brokenness, a willingness to change, a desire to bear new fruit.

Fallow ground is soil that has laid unproductive for several seasons. The hard crust requires a deep turning plow to open it up and even then, the soil may require more preparatory work before it is productive.

A church with poor fellowship or essentially none is not failing to have enough socials and dinners. The church is failing in the most basic of areas of disciples: a failure to love.

Jesus said, “By this shall all men know you are my disciples, that you love one another” (John 13:35).

My observation from my own heart and nearly a half-century of ministry is that the disciple who is close to Christ loves the brethren. So a congregation that is unloving toward one another may be said to be far removed from the Lord and in a backslidden state. It’s a simple deduction.

“Draw near to the Lord and He will draw near to you!” (James 4:8)

9. A state of neglect permeates the church.

Not always, but often, a dying church shows signs of its weakening condition by the disrepair of its buildings and the neglect of its appearance. The interior walls haven’t been painted in years and bear the collective fingerprints of a generation of children. The carpet is threadbare, the piano’s keys stick, the pulpit chairs need reupholstering, and the outside sign is so ugly it would be an improvement if someone knocked it down.

I received a vivid lesson on neglect early in my ministry when we received word that a high school student had taken his own life.

Although the family were members of another denomination, our youth minister and I called at their home to express our sympathy and offer our services. Along the way, my colleague filled me in on the family’s situation. The dad was said to be having an affair, he and his wife bickered constantly, they were heavily in debt, the children were without supervision, and the brilliant son who had taken his life was rudderless.

As we parked and walked up the sidewalk, we were struck by the disarray of the yard. The grass was knee-high and clutter was everywhere.

Inside, the father calmly brushed aside our condolences. “The way I look at these things,” he said, “is that they all have a way of working out for the best.” I was stunned. I thought, “Sir, your child is dead. Tell me how that is going to work out for the best.”

We left sadder than when we arrived.

Dying churches do not tend to their business. They let problems fester and divisions go unaddressed. Listen closely and you will hear a leader speak those infamous words: “These things have a way of working themselves out.”

And so they do nothing, and the church drifts on toward the grave. No one gets saved, no one joins, people drift away, the community becomes less and less aware of the existence of that little church, and the remaining members complain that people just don’t love the Lord the way they used to.

10. No prayer.

It’s tempting to make a little joke here and say, “Such churches do not have a prayer,” but they could if they chose to.

When King Saul was bemoaning the woes that had descended upon him as a result of his rebellion against God, one of his chief complaints was that God no longer heard his prayer. “He inquired of the Lord, but the Lord did not answer….” (I Samuel 28:6)

Luke tells us, “Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up.” (Luke 18:1)

Pray or quit. Those seem to be the alternatives.

Want to give your congregation a little test, pastor? Next Sunday, call for your people to meet you at the altar for a time of prayer. Do not beg them or cajole them. Just announce it, then walk there yourself, kneel and begin praying. See if anyone joins you. Notice who comes and pay close attention to who does not.

It won’t tell you everything you’d like to know about your church, but it will say a lot.

A friend on Facebook requested prayer for his new ministry. When I asked what he was doing, he responded privately that in addition to pastoring his church, he is working for the state convention in his region. He said, “Almost all our churches in this part of the state are dying. We have buildings that were constructed for hundreds now running 15 or 20.”

The plan, he said, is to get things in place to re-evangelize those regions as these oldline churches die off.

I hope they don’t wait until those churches actually close their doors. A lifeless church can take a long time to give up the ghost.

The best approach would be for that stagnant, dying congregation to awaken and get dead serious about becoming vibrant again. This would mean taking the unprecedented step of doing anything it takes to re-establish their witness and presence in the community.

In almost every case I know personally, that is not going to happen. The leaders would rather see their church disappear from the earth than to do anything new and different.

That is as sad a sentence as I’ve written in a long time.

That’s why the only approach most of us have ever seen work is to bring in church planters from outside and start afresh.

The leadership of the dying churches will resent it. “Why are you spending money on starting new churches when we already have churches here? You could invest a fraction of that to help bring our church back, if you were thinking straight.”

Stay the course, church planters. Not only will you do a good work in your own new congregation, but you might just build a fire under that old bunch. Their resentment may awaken them to fan the flames of the dying embers of their own faith.

The pastors who arrive to begin new congregations will use innovative methods, almost always leave the suits and ties in the closet, set up guitars and drums and install screens and projectors, and come up with names for their churches that seem unchurchlike: Sojourn, Mosaic, Praiseworthy, Koinoia, Maranatha, Celebration, Vintage, and River.

God bless ’em.

But know this, church planter. A generation or two from now, if Koinonia and Sojourn and River and Celebration have not changed their methods and have become set in their ways, they too will be left behind as the ever-creating Holy Spirit seeks those who want to be new wineskins for the new things He is always up to.

Now, let us pray.

“Father, we do like our routines and ruts. Forgive us for limiting you by asking you to adapt to us instead of the other way around. Lord, in the words of the old hymn and the older Psalm, ‘Wilt thou not revive us again that thy people may rejoice in Thee? We ask this for Jesus sake. Amen.” (Psalm 85:6)




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