Why Small Churches Tend to Stay Small (Part 1)

(This is part 1 of a two-part article, the first 5 of 10 reasons on why small churches usually do not grow. Click here for part 2)

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).

There are not “ten reasons” why small churches tend to remain small. They do tend to stay that way, you’ve probably noticed. But there must be hundreds of reasons for this, and no two churches are alike.

This is 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 crewcut 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 congregaton 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 they 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 rst 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.

5 thoughts on “Why Small Churches Tend to Stay Small (Part 1)

  1. As one who attended one of those small churches south of New Orleans, I can attest to a couple of things. 1) Many of those churches; more than likely were pastored by seminary students and yes were probably platforms for “preachers” trying out their “stuff”. I worked in the oil patch and attended a church pastored by a college friend whose minister of music and singles/children minister were also college friends. I will say one thing about all of these young men; they had a vision for the church and the community and under their ministry, the church grew. Yet, they all knew that they would be moving onward after graduation to other locales. That brings me to number 2) the vision for that church. It takes a man led of God and who is submitted to God to birth a vision and then bring up the church in that vision. Many have a vision for ministry, but lack the wherewithal to bring that vision to fruition. It is not so much about numbers when referring to growth, but it is about expanding beyond one’s level of comfort to reach the lost for Jesus. When the laity (I don’t care for that word) catch the vision it should be hard to hold them back. To me the pastor/shepherd/teacher has the directive from God to inspire those of us in the fold to want to move that vision forward.

    Man, I look forward to your posts each day. It tis like fresh manna when I need it most.

  2. Joe,

    Isn’t there a fine line between numbers three and four? Could you help describe the difference? In number three there are leaders, so why shouldn’t they be trusted and followed? Why are the leaders in number three bad and in number four good?

  3. Bro. Joe,

    I feel qualified to make a comment on the comment from Randel Trull, posted January 27, 2010 to the article “Why Small Churches Tend to Stay Small” (Part 1)

    I agree, there is a fine line between #3 & #4.

    The difference from my experience is that very often, the very leader that steps up and takes that leadership role in the church of making very hard decisions . . . does it well, and after a while, people stop asking and just expect him to make those difficult decisions for the church. Then, after 20, 30, 40 years of doing this, they stop waiting to be asked and just make decisions.

    New people come in and suddenly you’ve got people asking why that old guy is running the church.

    Still an outstanding leader, that has been nearly forced into this position over the years does not see it as running the church. That results in forced terminations, resignations and members in the front door and right on out the back door.

    This is not bad people, just lack of dialog and being called to remember, we came here to worship and honor God . . . let’s pray about this and see where we can all meet in the center for the Kingdom. Sides in the church are a problem. No matter what is causing sides to be taken, it must be resolved.

    My daddy used to say, if there’s a problem and you can’t seem to find what is causing the problem; it just might be yourself.

    Keep up the great work Bro. Joe . . .

    Gary Mitchell

  4. Joe where did your research come from with the stats on churches? I like your info I would like to seek the research.

  5. Even though I agree with some of your comments about small churches, I have to point out that your concept of the “pastor” system is totally foreign to the Bible. The Bible points out that pastors are men (2 or more) within a congregation who serve as leaders. It is possible that a preacher could be a pastor, but it is not a given. Your comments about pastors needing to be in a church for some time to become effective is exactly right. These pastors are men who have been in the church in that place for years. They are choosen for their godliness and leadership abilities. This can hardly be known about a “young graduate of a Bible college.” Even though he might have a knowledge of the Bible and great speaking abilities, this doesn’t qualify him to take the leadership of Christians who are older and wiser in the business of the church than he is. Under the correct Biblical system, preachers may come and go, but the leadership of the church is not effected. There are so many things wrong with this “preacher/pastor” system I cannot go into them in this short comment.

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