After reading the story in Genesis 15 where God tells Abraham to look up at the night sky, and promises that his future family will outnumber the stars, a teacher gave this assignment: “Tonight I want you to go out to your back yards and try to count the stars; tomorrow we will compare how many we found!”
Most of the six-year-olds were excited as they gathered the next morning. The numbers spilled out quickly: “498!” “671!” (“Wow!”) “592!”
And then: “3!”
“Only 3, Josh?! Are you sure?”
“Yeah,” replied Josh, with a wag of his head. “We have a really small back yard.”
Churches with Really Small Back Yards
Some of our churches appear to be almost eternally expansive. And some of our congregations seem to have really small back yards. But churches, like families and countries, legitimately come in all sizes.
While our cultural addictions tend toward “Bigger is better,” there is much to appreciate about Small Is Beautiful, as British economist E. F. Schumacher expressed in his highly influential collection of essays.
Small churches can provides gifts for leaders that rarely come in larger congregational packages:
British anthropologist Robin Dunbar’s research asserted that we can maintain stable, meaningful relationships with about 150 people. Some further findings have pushed this number as high as 290. But all of these studies affirm that the small church is of optimal size for building a natural network of meaningful social relationships.
Large churches and organizations may tout their “personal touch” to members and customers, but as the size of an organization increases, this care contact is more and more focused and limited in scope as it is programmed through specialized branches or ministry departments. Small churches can function with direct, comprehensive care expressions that take into account the global needs of individuals through immediate contact, not parsing it into professional segments.
While all us, whether individually or in large organizational groups, mess and pollute our environment, it is generally easier to control and minimize negative disruptions when numbers are limited and direct interventions are personal and immediate. Bigger organizations may be more efficient overall, but they start the process of creation care from a far greater initial environmental impact.
The winds that break oaks leave blades of grass undamaged. While the oak casts a greater shadow and shelters more birds, the slender stems of tinier plants bend and adapt far better. Small churches can change schedules quickly, respond more immediately to traumatic disruptions and adapt priorities at the drop of a hat. While there are many times when the sturdy organizational stability of great mass and size is beneficial, quick flexibility is also a wonderful gift that usually comes in small packages.
While large congregations allow ministry staff to thrive in the specialized segments of primary giftings, there is much to be said for solo-pastor broad interpersonal investments. No one can be all things to all people, but good pastoral experience in a setting where multiple talents are nurtured and relationships of multiple dimensions are intertwined. Many highly focused lead pastors of large ministries only gained the richness of their expansive skills through growing them in the soil of small churches.
The explosion of electronic technology has made it possible for every church to produce concert-like events week by week. Yet enhanced sounds and recorded tracks feel foreign in intimate gatherings. What matters more is hearing individual voices and the direct connection between hearts and mouths in song and testimony and prayer. Also, in a room containing thousands, most are intimidated against speaking up, while in small church gatherings, even children have a public voice.
As organizational size grows, so does its structural complexity. Like small towns where citizens can meet and greet mayors using first names, small congregations provide members with direct and immediate access to most dimensions of leadership activities. In dysfunctional families and churches this can be toxic; but where spiritual health is good, the light touch of leadership can be very invigorating.
As our world population soars, social institutions of all sizes are necessary to shape life on planet earth. Big organizations efficiently process crowds. But small churches often beautifully touch and change and nurture lives.