By Jerran Jackson
Small churches operate differently from big churches. The church of Christ on earth may be essentially, intentionally, and constitutionally one, but church families don’t all have the same traits. Small congregations (less than 250 in worship) have unique traits they can use to contribute significantly to Christ’s church on earth.
As of 2010, about 90 percent of churches in the United States had memberships of 300 or less. This means the impact of small churches is huge. If you’re in a small congregation, here are some ways you can use the distinctive qualities of your church to make a difference.
The small church is relationship driven. In a small church, you get to know almost everyone. Ministry gets done through relationships. And everyone recognizes a guest. You can use this trait to serve Christ.
For example, your small church is a familiar place; it’s a place you belong. It’s like family for you. You can help newcomers fit into your family. When Chuck and Jana Vohland came to a small church one Sunday, people from all over the auditorium got up to welcome them. Wendell Thackery and Kenny Peters invited Chuck and Jana to sit with them in “the goat pen” at the back. People made it a point to visit with the Vohlands, and now they feel at home.
You can use the family atmosphere of your small church to help people feel like they belong. This does not happen automatically, however. A small church can feel cold and cliquish unless members consciously reach beyond their normal circle of friends. This means you greet guests and introduce them to others. You ask people you barely know what has been happening in their lives. Relationships are central to the small church, but only if we make them that way.
Small churches excel at finding value in people. Fairview (Indiana) Christian Church has baptized several inmates from the county jail. The congregation has welcomed some of these inmates into the life of the church after their release. They’ve provided a home and a network of friends who help them rebuild their lives.
New Castle (Indiana) Church of Christ helped Sam, a single father with limited education, find work, feel needed, and receive encouragement as he raised his children. A small church near the group home where one of our mentally challenged members lived involved him in every church picnic, special program, and outing. The whole church cared about him. Relating to individuals is what small churches do best, so use this trait to bless people with the love of Christ.
Church leaders in mega-churches have tremendous hearts for people. But simple logistics make them less accessible than leaders in small churches. In small communities, young adults and new Christians rub elbows with the elders, Bible study leaders, and ministers from their church throughout the week. This may take place at the volunteer fire department chili supper, at the grocery store, at the high school football game, or at the factory. These close relationships in small churches provide living examples for growing disciples. They also allow church leaders to speak directly to the needs and challenges of growing Christians’ lives, because the leaders know their church members well. Small churches relating well can intentionally live out Proverbs 27:23: “Be sure you know the condition of your flocks, give careful attention to your herds.”
Helping One Another
Your little church has stories to tell—stories about important events and people in the life of the congregation. The people of Mount Olive (North Carolina) Church of Christ tell Glenn Blake’s story. Glenn was only 38 when he was diagnosed with a rare, aggressive sino-nasal cancer. His doctors told him to set his affairs in order and prepare to die. The news hit Mount Olive hard. What could they do? They prayed, and they asked others to pray. Teams were organized, envelopes and stamps were purchased, letters were printed, and the congregation folded, stuffed, addressed, sealed, and stamped more than 2,000 prayer-request letters. That was 14 years ago, and Glenn Blake, who has been cancer-free for 13 years, can tell you that praying makes a difference.
Our stories communicate a message about how God’s grace works through our church. When Salt Creek (Indiana) Church of Christ organized in 1832, one of the charter families came from the free black settlement nearby. This story of the church’s multi-cultural beginnings sends a message to members and to the community that all are welcome in God’s family.
Telling Your Stories
Stories carry the church’s heritage and point the way forward. New Point (Indiana) Christian Church tells the story of converging with rakes, weed trimmers, mowers, and chain saws on the yard of aged members. Some men began trimming trees and felling the ones that had to go. A mother and her young children began painting the plank fence. Others began the daunting task of weeding. Several women gathered a huge pile of debris while others catered lunch for the group. By afternoon the appearance of the home had changed dramatically. And with it, a new sense of pride emerged in the owners. Their pride was not in the lush lawn, but in the love of God’s family.
Your church’s stories celebrate the core values that continue to guide your congregation—but only if they are told. You can make time for congregational storytelling at church gatherings, dinners, parties, or workdays. Let people share their memories. Pull out artifacts or pictures from the past and let younger generations hear about the joys and challenges of the church’s history. This will encourage everyone.
Responding to Needs
The average member age of Palmer (Nebraska) Church of Christ was above 60. Nevertheless, when some grandchildren and a few boys from an elder’s neighborhood began attending, the church responded. Lila Schwarz began a children’s Bible study class. Gene Gress let one of the boys help him pass out bulletins and sit in the back with him. Every Sunday, Jerry Quandt or Mike Bates presented a children’s sermon that always ended with something sweet to eat. The whole congregation poured love and prayers into those young lives, and their faith bloomed.
Small churches have a reputation for not wanting to change. The Rose Hill (Kansas) Christian Church saw an increasing number of widows and single-mother families in their congregation. Men in the congregation responded by offering free auto checks for women in the church. The church provided childcare. The men topped off the fluids, changed the oil, checked tire pressure, examined windshield wipers, and even washed the windows. Women who didn’t attend the church came and were taken care of as well.
Showing Christ’s Love
The West End Church of Christ in Nashville, Tennessee saw needs in their community and responded. They prepare sack lunches every day for the homeless. They started a pre-school program for about 80 students. West End opens their church building for community meetings and they provide a free meal every Wednesday night for college students and visitors from the community. Large churches can respond to community needs, but so can small congregations. And often small churches can respond more quickly, because fewer people have to be consulted and because everyone is on a first-name basis.
The small church can even respond to individual needs. When one of our deacons was diagnosed with incurable leukemia, he asked if we would start a study group for people in crisis. A group of about 20 people began to study Philip Yancey’s Where Is God When It Hurts? Ray passed away recently, but he, his wife, and several others have spoken sincerely about how significant the study group was for them.
The small church has unique traits. These traits allow the small church to become a place to belong. The small church can be a home where people can find grounding. Your small church is a family where many can find forgiveness. People in small churches get to live alongside solid examples of Christianity. And they find their church provides ready opportunities to serve and grow.
Jerran Jackson ministers with Clarksburg Christian Church, a small congregation in south-central Indiana.
“Small Church, Big Impact” by Shawn McMullen
In the Shadow of the Steeple: The Vital Role of the Smaller Church in a Mega-Church World
by Gene Williams
(Beacon Hill Press, 2005)
Leading the Small Church: How to Develop a Transformational Ministry
by Glenn Daman
(Kregel Publications, 2006)
Leading Through Change: Shepherding the Town & Country Church in a New Era
by Barney Wells, Marty Giese, and Ron Klassen
Shepherding the Small Church: A Leadership Guide for the Majority of Today’s Churches
by Glenn Daman
(Kregel Academic & Professional, 2002)
Energizing Children’s Ministry in the Smaller Church
by Rick Chromey
(Standard Publishing, 2008)
Unleashing the Potential of the Smaller Church
by Shawn McMullen
(Standard Publishing, 2006)
Releasing the Power of the Smaller Church
by Shawn McMullen
(Standard Publishing, 2007)
Find out more at www.standardpub.com.