Magazines 2018 Jul - Aug The beautiful gift of small churches

The beautiful gift of small churches

11 July 2018 By Ron Johnston

When I was a young student at Bible college, I was told if I did the right things, my church would grow. I bought into that idea completely.

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When I was a young student at Bible college, I was told if I did the right things, my church would grow. I bought into that idea completely. When I graduated I tried to put these principles into practice. I even had the audacity to tell the people in my church there was no reason why we couldn’t become a church of thousands.

I didn’t get my megachurch. In fact, attendance at my church of approximately a hundred people shrank. A large church opened a short distance down the road and people left our small church to go there instead. In the end I was fired. Leadership blamed me for the lack of growth and hoped another pastor might be more successful. All my dreams came crashing down.

For the past 50 or more years, church growth experts have emphasized numerical growth. The church that grows numerically is seen as a success. The church that plateaus or, heaven forbid, loses people is deemed a failure.

This is changing. And that is very good news. Over the past few years, there has been a shift from an emphasis on numerical growth to the biblical mandate to make disciples and deepen the walk of the disciples already present. At the heart of the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19, 20) Jesus challenges His followers to be disciples who in turn make more disciples.

It’s important we understand the difference between success and impact, as Randy Pope of Perimeter Church in Atlanta points out in his book INsourcing (Zondervan, 2013). He suggests people’s concept of success is often measured by externals such as building size, membership rolls and budgets. But it’s very possible a church can be considered successful on the basis of these externals and yet not be healthy.

Pope goes on to explain impact is better measured by the changes in people’s lives. Impact occurs when a person is brought into a deeper relationship with God, and then out of that relationship shares his or her life with others.

This shift from success to impact is especially relevant to the small church, and there are thousands of small churches in Canada. (A small church is understood to be fewer than 150 attendees on Sunday morning, and the average size of a congregation in Canada is about 75.)

Despite all the pressure that would have us believe otherwise, the worth of a small church is not determined by the number of people attending on a Sunday morning, but by that church’s relationship with Jesus Christ. A small church may not actually be called by God to become large, but it is definitely called to have an impact on those people with whom it has contact.

Over the last few years, in many different settings, I have asked people to identify the primary strength of their small church. Without exception, everyone who has answered that question has responded with an answer that has something to do with relationships. Impact happens best in the midst of those relationships. In fact, the small church’s greatest strength – relationships – is an essential ingredient in making an impact.

Impact through intergenerational small churches

On any given Sunday there are people worshipping in approximately 8,000 small evangelical churches across the country. These churches are usually very intergenerational, a strength born of necessity. In most cases the adults worship together with the teenagers and children. The adults know the names of those who are younger and to which family they belong. There is something beautiful about a senior and a teenager talking after the Sunday morning service because they know each other and genuinely care about each other.

These young people graduate from high school and often move away for further education. In the long run they will be the future leaders of the Church in Canada. What an advantage for them and for all those they will work with to be starting with a deep, personal experience of intergenerational faith relationships instead of having been grouped with same-age peers for most of their formative years.

I grew up in a small church in Northern Ontario. I preached my first sermon in that church. I planned my first youth rally. I was loved and encouraged by the people there. I received my introduction to biblical truth there. Whatever I may have accomplished since leaving there, that little church had a profound impact on my life.

Small churches have and will continue to grow the leaders of tomorrow – and in doing so will impact the Church in Canada way out of proportion to their size.

Impact on community

Pinewoods Chapel, a small church in Angus, Ont., decided to commit to having an impact on their town. Today members of the church are involved in the schools, the Chamber of Commerce, the Santa Claus Parade and a number of other community efforts. Through those involvements they have developed relationships with many of the people in the town. All this impact began with the decision to develop an outward mindset that would take seriously the call to be disciples who are making disciples.

The transformation was not without its problems. Some people left the church. Others stayed, but had to develop a whole new way of thinking. Today that church has had a profound impact both on individuals and the town as a whole.

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Impact on the people who attend

People don’t just attend a church. They are sent there for a purpose. They are a trust God has given to the small church, so whether their stay is long or short, they are growing deeper in their walk with Jesus.

Relationships of many kinds are crucial to this spiritual growth. One of the first relationships God used to help me grow was with my Sunday school teacher when I was in my last years of public school. He was, at best, an average teacher. He wasn’t a very good organizer. In fact, I’m not sure he had any of the qualities experts would tell us a good teacher should have. But he had an amazing ability to love people. I learned lessons from him that have been with me for more than 50 years.

That all happened within the context of relationships within a small church. Such spiritual mentors are crucial to all of us regardless of the size of our church, and we’d all do well to be intentional about not letting anyone miss out on being mentored (especially in a big church) or being pushed into a badly matched mentoring relationship (especially in a small one). I suspect the former happens more often.

In most small churches an emphasis on numbers is probably a formula for failure. There are thousands of small churches that will never become large. But I believe with all my heart a church does not have to become large to have an impact. I am often asked what I see as the future for small churches in Canada. My reply is I am incredibly encouraged because I believe 8,000 small churches can have an impact beyond anything that up until now we haven’t even imagined.

Ron Johnston is the director of Small Church Connections, an organization committed to serving small churches across Canada.