Small Is Big

A church that acts its size


“Small is big.” It sounds like something Jesus would have said: “die to live,” “be humble to be exalted,” “the least is the greatest,” and “first is last.” Who knows? Jesus could have actually said it, but what I am referring to is how small churches are making a big impact for the Kingdom of God.

I have been pastoring a small church I planted more than 12 years ago in San Diego, California. For the first seven years, one of our primary goals was to grow big, like every church is supposed to, right? During those seven years, I read practically every church-growth book, attended many church-growth conferences and seminars, and applied many of the church-growth strategies—to no avail. We remained small.

As a pastor I was frustrated with the failure to see our attendance increase. It brought me to the point of questioning whether my “season” of ministry was over. Should I throw in the towel and call it quits? Instead, I took an overdue short vacation coupled with a long time in the prayer closet. God revealed to me that I was trying to make the church something it wasn’t—big. I also realized that we were not alone.

In his book The Grasshopper Myth, small-church pastor Karl Vaters introduced a provocative idea—that all healthy living things reach their optimal size at maturity and then grow in different ways. Vaters asserts that 93 percent of American churches are considered small and that more than half of Christians worldwide attend a small church. According to the 2013 Annual Report of The Christian and Missionary Alliance, 46 percent of all reporting churches have fewer than 100 members—that’s almost half of all Alliance churches in the United States alone!

If you’re a pastor, you know that when any two pastors meet for the first time, one of the first questions asked is inevitably, “How big is your church?” Church leaders are obsessed with numbers because numbers are measurable—which could be considered a shallow way of assessing true ministry success.

The small church, led by Bob DeSagun, meets in the living room of one of its members. Small churches are more common, and more important, than you might think.

There are many other things—almost all of them intangible—that are better indications of ministry success. In our small church, lives are being transformed and people are growing in their faith in Jesus. God is doing some big things, things that are hard to measure but worth so much more than attendance numbers.

After those seven years of struggling to become a big church and those long periods in the prayer closet, I came to realize that it was time we started acting our size. In his book, Vaters stated, “This drive for greater numbers and larger churches has probably resulted in more pastoral burnout than [in] healthy, growing churches.” Vaters also explained how each church has its own mission and shouldn’t try to duplicate that of another church. I realized that trying to imitate a big church just burned out both the leadership team and the people. Pastor Tim Keller from Redeemer Presbyterian in New York City asserted in an article how ineffective and detrimental it is for small-church pastors to function in a manner of a larger church and vice versa, for both roles are different and functionally distinctive. I learned the unique contextual role God has me play as a small-church pastor and to trust Him that we had everything we needed for ministry. We didn’t need a building, we didn’t need talented people or leaders, we didn’t even need more money; all we needed was Jesus—because we trusted that He would provide us with everything required to do exactly what He wanted us to do.

We realized God wanted us to use our unique strengths as a small church to reach people for Jesus. One of our greatest assets is our relationships, so our aim was to be a Christ-centered missional family, as put forward by Alliance President John Stumbo. Our focus in ministry praxis was on being—and operating as—a family. In his book The Strategically Small Church, Brandon O’Brien stated that “[d]espite the difficulties, learning to understand the church as family will be profoundly rewarding. In fact, I am convinced that if the small church had no other inherent value, no other particular strength, this one thing would make it a strategic tool for the future of the Christian faith.”

Instead of a sermon, we had open discussion forums on how we can love God and others. Our Sunday morning meetings were more like family gatherings; we met either in someone’s home or at the local beach park and brought lunch to facilitate extended fellowship and discipleship. Our focus on family not only enhanced our relationships with each other but also kicked into gear our missional relationships with those outside of the church to reach them with the gospel.

The ministry that happens in our small church is very much like that in any other church. We continue to see people come to follow Jesus; grow in their faith, cultivate relationships, and serve others in love; initiate spiritual conversations to share the gospel; experience transformation toward Christ-likeness; walk in obedience as a reflection for their growing love for God, as well as struggle with doubt and temptation but find victory in Christ. As Mother Teresa said, “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.”

As a pastor, I now can lead with great confidence and faith in Christ, knowing we are simply being who and what He has called us to be—and nothing else. No more competing, no more comparing, no more coveting, no more imitating, but instead just simply being. It was a liberating experience. I found a renewed joy and excitement for ministry.

In 1 Corinthians 12, the apostle Paul used the body as an analogy to illustrate the composition of the Church—the Body of Christ. He talked about parts of the body that were distinctively different, having unique functions, yet all working together. I believe that this principle of the many unique, diverse, and distinctively different parts of the body not only depicts church members but also local churches themselves in that each is a unique, diverse, and distinctively different model, or “expression,” of the Body of Christ. This is evident in all the different kinds of Christian churches that are out there—whether we sort by denomination, ethnicity, structure, or even size.

I would like to think that when the Holy Spirit inspired the apostle Paul to write, “. . . and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor . . .” (1 Cor. 12:23, ESV), He had the small church in mind. I’m not advocating that small churches are better than big churches or vice versa; I’m arguing that the Body of Christ has as many expressions as it has functions and that there is not one model of church or ministry that is considered the best. In Models of the Church, Avery Cardinal Dulles wrote: “We must recognize that our own favorite paradigms, however excellent, do not solve all questions. Much harm is done by imperialistically seeking to impose some one model as the definitive one.”

God and His mission are too big to be confined. He is trying to reach all kinds of people; therefore, it will take all kinds of churches working together as His Body to do that work.

11 responses to Small Is Big

  1. It is heartening that the author is content in Jesus to have a small church. The article doesn’t really explain what it means for an organism to reach its optimal size and then grow more. Also, a sermon is a chance for the pastor to guide the church through scripture. Whether 20 minutes or 40, it is a chance to anchor the gospel into the church

  2. I find this article refreshing. Though it doesn’t speak directly to Christ & culture I think there is an indirect reference to it.

    American culture in general values “big” and “bigger.” I’ve wondered at times if efforts to turn small churches into mega churches is more an an American cultural feature than a Biblical one. Not that big is bad. Just that small is not bad either?

    Indeed, if we take the most vibrant churches of the first century or even in the early history of the CMA we’ll find lots of “musterd seed churches.” These are small, vibrant fellowships, little washer women, all committed to global evangelism; hence the Alliance of Christians (not mega churches) and missionaries.

    This article is a welcome revisiting not to ancient history but to a newness of church planting in a Post Christian America

  3. I thought this article was great, with the exception that the author gave to much credit to “thinkers”, and not any credit to the Word of God. When I state this I mean… The model of the Fellowship of Believers, the Church was first instituted in the Bible, in Acts yo be exact. The Church fellowship was never meant to be big. The Believer’s met and fellowshipped “from house to house”. A house full was enough. Somehow, in the last 2000 years we’ve managed to change from what was being instituted. Finally, in this we are getting back to the roots of the Church, where the settings are small, relationships are being built, and the Church is responsible for grooming disciples. Jesus didn’t have it wrong… 12 disciples was more than enough for the fellowship. There are church buildings all over this land, that host thousands of “church goers”, but how many of them are Disciples of Jesus Christ?! I don’t know, but I can bet that less than 5% of all the church goers are being discipled. MO. Let’s get back to the model of the first century Church… they had it right, AND the power of God was present! ~my thoughts

  4. Such an inspiring article. Growth is not “always” measured by numbers in attendance buy by the Growth of the attendees! Thanks for sharing this with us!

  5. I appreciate your article.My first pastorate I was bi-vocational in a church plant. I will long remember the words of the wife of our district supertendent Dr. T.G. Mangham It was from Zec. “despise not the day of small beginnings ‘ ‘..

  6. I surely appreciated your article.I planted my first church as a bi-vocational pastor and will never forget the words of the wife ofD.S.Mrs. T>G> Mangham The words ” despise not the day of small beginnings”

  7. It is disappointing that ALLIANCE LIFE would print this article which is so out of line with the whole flow of biblical teaching on growth.

  8. Thank you for publishing this article. Our church was one of the 46% of C&MA churches with fewer than 100 members. God was telling us the things in the article – He had our church to meet a specific need, people were growing in their faith, numbers didn’t matter…, but I think we lost focus of what God was saying and started listening to the world. We closed our doors. The day we cleaned our the building was like a funeral. We are still in contact with the other families and pastors previously associated with that church, and God is still using each of us, but we lost something when our small church closed. May this article minister to the people in the “small” churches.

  9. For those of you who would like more information on the small church, I have written a book entitled “Don’t Supersize It! 10 Healthy Perspectives for the Small Church” (available on Amazon). I am currently finishing up a book entitled “Two Talents Leadership: A Strategic Small Church Leadership Approach” (which should be available on Amazon by the end of July) for pastors and leaders of small churches. I am also available for speaking engagements. I pray that these materials/resources will encourage and inspire those who attend, serve, and/or pastor small churches.

  10. This article really helped me alot. We have been in ministry for 10 years, and we have been struggling financially, low attendance and no building and have been meeting for the past two years in a porch. Its freezing in winter and very humid and hot in the summer and fall, but over all we know that God has called us into this ministry and he will provide everything we need. We have been seeing spiritual growth and this is what makes us continue on. Seeing new converts and others arising to serve. Praise God for he is faithful.

  11. Before getting my Alliance Life magazine in the mail, I literally spent the whole day reading up on the explosion of house churches around the world, and how God is multiplying these by the hundreds and thousands. I truly believe the timing of your article this evening is from the Lord. Your perfectly sized church is ready for God to multiply through empowered lay leaders and new home meetings. It’s what He’s doing all over the globe! Check it out!

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