The small church is different, with restrictions on numbers of available people, money, abilities and so on, so it’s just as well we know a big God with deep pockets. However, our small church wishes that there had been a ‘how to’ manual for smaller churches when we were originally planted.
This Toolbox is designed to be just that. It is a manual that provides a Scriptural basis for the fundamentals of church life, such as worship, discipleship, fellowship and mission. There is a chapter on each of these topics with illustrations from small Baptist churches in the UK to identify with and take heart from. Plus a practical selection of tools to work through and be the basis for an action plan.
We find many small churches in the New Testament being planted by Paul as he travelled around Asia Minor. As people became Christians, small groups met in homes:
The churches in the province of Asia send you greetings. Aquila and Priscilla greet you warmly in the Lord, and so does the church that meets at their house. (1 Corinthians 16v19 NIV)
Give my greetings to the brothers at Laodicea, and to Nympha and the church in her house. (Colossians 4v15 NIV)
The average home would not have accommodated more than roughly 20 people, though maybe Lydia’s house in Thyatira was larger as she was a business woman of substance. Jesus’ promise shows us that it is not about numbers, but His presence:
“… where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.” (Matthew 18v20 NIV)
To quote Abraham Lincoln, “God must have loved small churches because he made so many of them.”
A high percentage of Christians across the UK experience this valid expression of God’s Kingdom every Sunday in congregations of 40 people or fewer. Out of about 2000 Baptist churches, approximately half of them are made up of churches with 40 or fewer members, distributed across each of the local Associations.
There are high numbers of small churches across the Christian denominations in the UK. The Church of England reported the adult average weekly attendance was less than 40 adults in approximately 47% of the 16,000 Parish churches in 2005. The United Reformed and Methodist traditions also have many churches with 40 people or fewer.
There are various reasons why churches are small. Some are set in small rural communities while others have found a special mission among minority groups in large cities. Some are recent church plants or fresh expressions of church that have yet to grow or where growth is offset by people moving away. One has to be honest and recognise that some smaller churches, perhaps through lack of vision or fear of change, sadly are ready to die, or perhaps are in need of a re-birth. Yet others used to have many members but for various reasons numbers have declined. Going to church is no longer seen as important in our society, although the hunger for spirituality has increased over recent years. Sadly, many people now dismiss the church as one possible place to find the peace that eludes them.
There are also factors within a church, which could keep the numbers low. A high percentage of Christian young people leave home to attend university and higher education colleges, which removes the energy and dynamic input of the late teens and early twenties and many do not return home to work or live after education. Where several generations used to belong to the local church, jobs or high property prices now take away the sons and daughters of members, leaving an older and smaller congregation and fewer people to whom to pass the baton. Demographically the population is ageing so as church attendance reflects society in general, church membership will have aged and will continue to do so.
Many organisations, not just the churches have been affected by society’s ambivalent attitude to commitment. Jobs, homes, relationships, clubs and voluntary organisations and churches are affected by this and they all find it difficult to fill essential posts and to inspire the necessary enthusiasm for the work. Added to this, people work hard for long hours or are on a shift pattern of work and at the end of a busy day, a church related meeting might be the last thing on their mind and Sunday may be the only day in the week left to relax. The breakdown of family life with children spending alternate weekends with Mum or Dad adds to the difficulty of establishing a pattern to the week.
All these factors and more need to be taken into account by churches and a way of working that fits each situation needs to be found.
In response to a Baptist Union questionnaire, 125 small churches across the UK when asked ‘What were the positives about being associated with a small church?’ the following scored highly:
v Friendly atmosphere
v Everyone knows everyone
v Prayer needs can be shared quickly with people likely to understand them
v Pastoral support can be offered swiftly
v Opportunities for the willing to get involved
v Decisions can be made quickly and informally
(The lowest score in this section went to ‘Able to grasp mission opportunities quickly’).
When asked ‘What were the negatives about being a small church?’ the following were noted:
v Demands of legislation: Disability Discrimination Act / Child Protection
v Too few people to do things
v Restricted quality of music ministry
v Shortage of money
v Unsatisfactory building
Smaller churches need special people to lead them. Ideally they should be a ‘people person’ who can inspire and persuade, rather than direct. Ministers of small churches are full-time, part-time or spare-time. Some have full time jobs or are bi-vocational, which helps the bills, those of the church and the pastor, to be paid. Leadership is a complex and often thankless task, so a chapter in this manual is dedicated to those issues with helpful hints on how to survive.
Sound familiar? Sad to say, this mistake is being made all over the UK resulting in tired and ineffective people. One of the Devil’s tactics is to wear us out so we can’t be involved in God’s business. God needs strong, alert soldiers on the front line. Every small church is an expression of Christ in a specific location, usually with a specific task.
The message that a small church is not the same thing as a scaled down large church (even if some actually had been much larger at some point in their history) must be heard loud and clear. There is an assumption that a church of, say, 70-100 members is a typical sized church and that a church of 30 or 40 members should therefore be regarded as an emaciated version of this ‘normal’ model. The complaint is heard “we can’t do as much as a larger church, or as much as we used to”. While this may be true, it is emphatically not the point. Small churches are no more designed to do all that large churches do any more than the family saloon car is designed to do the work of a bus. However, this mindset is deeply entrenched and needs to be challenged. If leaders and members of small churches could genuinely feel that their church with 40 members or less has integrity and a dynamic of its own rather than being a pale imitation of a large church, that could be immensely liberating. Along with this message goes the need to say to small churches: ‘Play to your strengths’
There are often factors present that cause hope to fade in a small church, such as low numbers of committed people, months without visitors, or no new converts or baptisms (the sowers need to realise they may not see the harvest). Some congregations are getting older and lacking energy and others are small, having once been large and fondly remember the ‘good old days’. Being prepared to think radically is often required and solutions can be found to produce growth instead of decline.
The task of teaching and nurturing children and young people in their faith in a small church is a difficult one. Most of the teaching aids are aimed at large classes of children of a similar age, with a fun collection of illustrative games, which often need teams of 3 or more children! The task of the small church teacher is therefore magnified, as they have to prepare a lesson while adapting everything to their particular group, often with large age gaps. The parameters of the ‘Safe to Grow’ policy also present a challenge for a small church where the numbers are limited. There is a chapter that deals with such issues and offers some practical suggestions. It is important to include the children and young people in the life of the church and encourage their faith. They are not just the church of tomorrow, they are an important part of the church of today!
Large or old buildings owned by small churches can be both a blessing and a curse, especially listed buildings where change can be restricted. However, many churches have thought imaginatively about their buildings and now use them for community use or hire the space to outside companies. Ideas for this are included in a later chapter and help with funding can be found in chapter 9.
To support smaller churches in their work, Small Church Networks are emerging in the UK to locally address issues that arise and to provide resources and general help. Contact your geographical area team for details of your local network.
Information is good. However, for the church of the living God, direction for a specific group of people, in a specific place at a specific point in time, can only come from the Father himself. The church needs to follow the instructions in 2 Chronicles 7v14:
‘If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and forgive their sin and will heal their land.’ (2 Chronicles 7v14 NIV)
We need to make prayer a top priority, as communication with God is vital. We need to be a listening, humble people. We need direction and encouragement from the King of Kings so we need to constantly seek His face. We are called to be holy and turn our back on our ‘wicked ways’. We need to live lives worthy of the name ‘Christian’.
 Research and Statistics Department, Church House, London.