The littlest birds sing the prettiest songs
Encouragement for small churches
We tend to only hear about larger churches and pastors of larger churches. But we should not despise small churches. Actually they can be beautiful.
A beautiful church
There are two dominant pictures of the church in the NT. These are the picture of a church as a family, and a local church as the body of Christ. When it comes to the practical workings of churches in ways that please the Lord, these pictures are at the forefront. When churches are like a family and act like a coordinated body with every member involved for the good of all, this is beautiful in God’s sight. This is how he intended churches to be.
- A family
The members of a church are exhorted to have ‘a sincere love for your brothers and sisters’ (1 Peter 1:22) and to ‘be sympathetic and love as brothers and sisters’ (1 Peter 3:8). Loving as brothers and sisters is one of the marks that we have truly passed from death to life (1 John 3:14). And out of this matrix of family love within the church a whole raft of beautiful ‘one another’ commands emerge in the NT. We are to forgive each other, honour each other, encourage each other and much more.1
Further, the leaders of a church are designated ‘elders’, indicating they are mature members of the family, who having brought up their own earthly families well, will have a wise and fatherly care for the church family.2 The truth is that such a family attitude is very natural in a small church and far more difficult to maintain in a large church.
In Scripture we find that the initial large congregation in Jerusalem soon failed to treat each other as close family. It was as the number of disciples increased, that certain widows were ‘overlooked in the daily distribution of food’ (Acts 6:1).
- A body
Because of the need for greater organization and the difficulties of communication with many more people, larger churches tend to go down the route of becoming professionalized. The church employs not simply a pastor but a whole staff of various kinds. There are assistants, secretaries, women’s workers, children’s and family workers, etc. Fairly soon church becomes something of a ‘spectator sport’ for ordinary church members as the professionals get on with the job.
But in the NT, church is participatory for everyone. ‘Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ, we who are many form one body and each member belongs to all the others. We have different gifts according to the grace given us’ (Romans 12:4-6). Everyone has a positive part to play. The NT churches were full of amateurs, not professionals. Even the apostles were not professional religious leaders, generally speaking. Only the apostle Paul could have been said to have ‘been to Bible college’ (Acts 22:3). But all of them had been with Jesus (Acts 4:13).
Again, it is simply structurally easier for a smaller church than a larger one to be participatory in the way the NT directs. When all the brothers and sisters support and help one another like different parts of the same body this is beautiful in God’s sight.
This does not mean that every small church is a beautiful church. Some of them can be terribly ugly for other reasons. But it does mean that, other things being equal, small churches are less likely to distort the NT patterns which God wants to see in his churches
While larger churches tend to function like businesses and to be professionalized and often quite ‘political’ in the way their leaders function, a smaller church can more readily be a family in which everyone is wanted, needed and known by everyone else. And this is sweet in God’s estimate.
Time for people
A couple of practical things immediately spring to mind in considering the beauty of small churches.
Small churches tend to have more time for people. A pastor of a smaller church has time to visit everyone and to pay attention to them. He can be a good shepherd who knows his sheep (John 10:3,4, 27). In larger churches pastors are often quite distant figures, difficult even to get to speak to sometimes.
But with time for people in mind, there are many stories I have come across of smaller churches becoming places of healing for broken Christians. They have found that they really mattered to the church and the pastor. This tangible expression of the love of God proved balm to their souls.
Again, sadly my experience is that when people have to move on from large churches, perhaps to go to college or with a move of job, they are easily forgotten. But such people are greatly missed by a smaller church and very often people keep in touch and help them through the challenges of a move. This is beautiful.
As in ornithology, the littlest birds sing the prettiest songs.
How big is too big?
But how big should a church get? There is, of course, no number laid down explicitly in Scripture. However, if your church does grow, under God’s blessing, should you just let it grow ad infinitum? (‘The chance would be a fine thing,’ you might say!) I want to suggest that once a church begins to find it difficult to operate as a true family where every member has a part to play, it is time to think about whether to branch out and plant another church.
A fairly common and telling sign that a church needs to consider its future is once this kind of conversation begins to occur on a Sunday. Question: ‘Hello, nice to see you. Is this your first time here?’ Answer, ‘No. I’ve been coming regularly for the last 6 months.’ With the best will in the world, that doesn’t sound very much the way the NT intended a church to be.
Not long ago I was walking with someone and ‘by chance’ we bumped into another man who went to the same church. I was surprised to find myself being asked, ‘Would you introduce me to your friend?’ They had been in the same largish church for around 6 years and, though they had seen each other at a distance, had never had a conversation. A church needs a team spirit across its membership. But this cannot be there when people have never even spoken to one another.
The Dunbar number
Social skills are very important in maintaining the cohesion, unity and purpose of a church. These do depend on the ability to recognize and understand other people. According to research the natural upper limit to the number of people we can easily relate to in a group as human beings is around 150. This is known as Dunbar’s number.
Here is a quote from New Scientist: ‘Historically, it was the average size of English villages. It is also the ideal size for church parishes, and is the size of the basic military unit, the company. Although an individual’s social network may include many more people, 150 contacts marks the cognitive limit on those with whom we can maintain a stable social relationship involving trust and obligation with—move beyond 150 and people are mere acquaintances.’3
Scattered for the gospel
Maybe we should be aiming for our congregations to grow to around 150 people and avoid the lure of trying to become much bigger than that.
We do find large congregations in Scripture. But in the OT, the gatherings of all Israel were only for special occasions, while weekly religious life revolved around households and village and town synagogues. In the NT we find that the 3000 converted on the Day of Pentecost, which soon multiplied to 5000, ran into problems, and they were soon scattered by persecution to carry the gospel into all the world (Acts 8:4; Acts 11:19).
1 Ephesians 4.32; Philippians 2.3; 1 Thessalonians 4.18
2 1 Timothy 3.4,5