The advantages of smaller churches
If you are a believer who is looking for a church home, I think you should give serious and prayerful consideration to joining and becoming active in a smaller church in your community before you start setting your sights on one of the “mega-churches” in your area. (Of course, any church you might consider joining – whether large or small or somewhere in between – should be a faithful, biblical church where the Word of God is faithfully preached and the leadership seeks to order all things according to Scripture.) Under ordinary circumstances I think being involved in a smaller church will tend to benefit you and your family more in terms of spiritual growth and maturity than involvement in a larger church would tend to do. I also think that, under ordinary circumstances, smaller churches tend to conform better to the Bible’s vision of the life of the church than do larger churches (especially “mega” or “super-churches”).
Now, let me “lay my cards on the table.” I am the pastor of a small church. Lake OPC is a smaller, newer church currently meeting in a rented facility. Unlike larger, more long-standing and settled churches in the area, we admittedly lack some of the “bells and whistles” that the area’s “super-churches” may have to offer you in terms of a beautiful and comfortable “state-of-the-art” church building, exciting programs, events, etc. Furthermore, most Orthodox Presbyterian congregations tend to be smaller churches (I think the size of your typical OP church is around 50 members). So it may appear that this article is somewhat self-serving, or that I have an “agenda” in writing it. But while I will admit I have a definite “bias” toward smaller churches, and while I also admit I have an “agenda” in challenging believers to consider affiliating with smaller churches (including Lake OPC, if you live in the Cleveland area!), at the same time I want to make a few things clear. First of all, I’m not saying that “smallness” is inherently virtuous in itself. I’m not saying that just because a church is smaller, it is therefore necessarily better or more faithful to the Word than the bigger church down the street. There are smaller churches that deserve to be small because they are unfaithful to the Word and/or unloving, spiritually abusive, etc. Likewise, there are bigger churches that are faithfully serving the Lord and are being used by God to bless many people. Nor am I condemning those believers who have chosen to affiliate in responsible, active membership with a bigger church which is faithful to the Word, or trying to get them to leave their current church for a smaller church. All I am trying to argue in this article is that there are some very definite advantages that come from being involved in a smaller church, and I am trying to encourage Christians who are currently “between churches” to consider becoming part of a smaller church. I will try to explain below what I think some of these advantages are.
Some advantages of smaller churches:
1. Smaller churches which are faithful to the Word offer more opportunities for personal, one-on-one pastoral care and spiritual nurture.
Scripture commands the spiritual leaders of the church (i.e., Ministers and Elders) to “shepherd” God’s people (see, for example, First Peter 5:1-4). In biblical times a faithful shepherd would know his sheep by name and give careful, personal attention to the individual needs of the sheep in his flock. If a sheep fell over, the shepherd would pick it up. If a sheep wandered from the flock, the shepherd himself would go looking for the lost sheep. If a sheep was injured, the shepherd would personally apply healing salve to the sheep’s wounds. Likewise when it comes to spiritual shepherding in the church, Christ’s “undershepherds” (pastors and elders) are called upon to know their “sheep” (the members of their congregation) personally. In fact, Scripture indicates that we who are spiritual shepherds in the church will give an account to God on Judgment Day for how we have shepherded Christ’s sheep (see Hebrews 13:17).
As I hope the reader will see, God’s Word presents a “pastoral” (or “shepherd-sheep”) model for ministry in the church. But, quite frankly, it is simply impossible for pastors in larger churches (especially in “megachurches”) to satisfactorily fulfill this biblical, pastoral model of ministry, for it is impossible for pastors in larger churches to know all their sheep in any kind of meaningful or personal way. In many larger churches today it is possible to be a member for many years without ever meeting the senior pastor in person. Furthermore, many larger churches today have simply abandoned the biblical “pastoral” model of ministry in favor of a managerial business model of church leadership (with the senior pastor in effect being the local church’s CEO, and the other members of the pastoral staff being under his managerial authority). In such a large church environment it can be very difficult for God’s people to get the kind of spiritual shepherding and pastoral attention they need as they make their pilgrimage through this life to glory. It is the God-given calling of pastors and elders to personally lead and guide the “sheep” entrusted to their care on that narrow road that leads to life eternal. Many bigger churches (and especially the “super-churches,” “hip” and “with it” though they may be) either cannot or do not offer this kind of biblical spiritual care and nurture that Scripture requires. But a smaller church which is faithful to the Word and which follows a pastoral model of spiritual leadership can offer you and your family many more opportunities for such spiritual nurture and pastoral care. (You will even be able to get to know your pastor and elders, and if they are faithful they will eagerly make themselves accessible to you and your family!)
2. Your involvement in a smaller church will tend to be much more noticed and appreciated than your involvement in a bigger church.
If you attend a “super-church,” your presence and involvement (or lack thereof) in church will probably not be noticed (unless you happen to be in a significant leadership position). Larger churches are often constantly losing members, but will tend to replace them as soon as they lose them. Members and regular attendees in such larger churches can easily get lost in the crowd, drowning in the sea of a sanctuary filled with the faces of (mostly) strangers. So, unless you are part of a mass movement coming into or going out of the church, your presence or absence will probably not be noticed. But when you attend and involve yourself in a smaller, struggling church, you have a great opportunity to bring encouragement and blessing to a group of brothers and sisters in Christ who will appreciate your presence and involvement, and who do not need to remain strangers to you. If you are looking to be anonymous, unnoticed, and very likely unappreciated, then go ahead and find a super-church to attend. But if you are looking for a way to be a real blessing and encouragement to a group of brothers and sisters in Christ who could probably use your encouragement, why not consider becoming active in a smaller local church that is faithful to the Word?
3. Smaller churches tend to offer more of a “family feel” and sense of community than larger churches.
I am aware of the fact that many larger churches try to create this sense of community through the use of “small groups” that meet during the week in the homes of various members. This is a commendable thing. But at the same time the problem with the practice of “small groups” is that they can become, in effect, smaller congregations within the mega-congregation. Thus members of these small groups can develop a sense of community in which they identify primarily with the small group they are involved in, rather than with the congregation where they hold their membership. But this is not a problem in a smaller church which is faithful to the Word and to the shepherding model of spiritual leadership. Christ’s church is indeed the “family of God,” and we who are in Christ are all spiritual brothers and sisters. But it is difficult to feel this family bond when you are sitting in a large auditorium with mostly strangers. Not so in a smaller church where you can actually get to know a good portion of your brothers and sisters in Christ on a personal level.
4. Being involved in a smaller church can provide you with greater opportunities to put your discipleship into practice.
Being a disciple of Jesus Christ involves such things as self-denial, a willingness to die to yourself in order to serve others, taking up your cross daily, etc. When you involve yourself in a larger church which offers multiple “high octane” programs and events designed to cater to the desires of the American religious consumer, you put yourself in a comfortable environment that will make it more difficult for you to grow spiritually, for spiritual growth means (among other things) learning how to deny yourself and to count others better than yourself. It involves learning to get along with brothers and sisters who may be very different from you. For example, let’s say you prefer a “contemporary worship style” to the more “traditional” worship style. Your local super-church offers a number of different services on Sunday with different “worship styles” (there is a “traditional” service at one time and a “contemporary” service at another time). But the super-church doesn’t really need new members, since it is already quite large, financially stable and very popular in the community. But there is a smaller church down the road that could really use some encouragement. It is faithful to the Word, but it’s worship “style” is more “traditional.” You may not prefer the worship style of this smaller church, but may I suggest that you may be able to serve the Lord better and grow more spiritually if you choose to affiliate with this smaller church? Isn’t the self-denial of foregoing the contemporary worship and putting up with the traditional worship of this smaller church worth it in terms of how you will be stretched and grown spiritually, and isn’t it also worth it when you consider the encouragement your involvement will bring to this small church?
If you are in between churches, let me encourage you to give prayerful and thoughtful consideration to checking out some smaller churches in your community. Consider being a blessing and an encouragement to a smaller church in your community that needs faithful, committed members! And as you are a blessing to others, I think you will find yourself being blessed in the long run.