Why It’s Good to Pastor a Small Church Jeff Johnson

February 8, 2017

It’s good to pastor a small church.

Now, if your church isn’t small, I’m not saying it should be.  If your church is small, I’m not saying you should try to keep it that way.  And I’m not speaking against megachurches, multi-campus churches, the church growth movement, church marketing, or church building campaigns.  I’m not saying big is bad.

Instead, I’m saying that if you happen to pastor a small[1] church now — or if God one day gives you the opportunity to do so — count your blessings.

I’m the pastor of a small Baptist church in rural Orangeburg County in South Carolina.  We have about 100 people who show up for worship each Sunday morning.  Although the fields around us are “white unto harvest” from a spiritual perspective, demographically we have more fields than people.  Our town’s official population is just north of 300.  We’re nearly 45 minutes from the closest Wal-Mart.  Many of our members have to commute an hour or more (one way) to get to work.  So, while there are folks around us who need Jesus, we aren’t expecting a population boom that will skyrocket our attendance.  We’re going to be a small church for the foreseeable future.  And I’m ok with that.  Here are some reasons why.

In a small church, you can get to know almost everyone.  That kind of intimacy helps me pastor and preach.  I have a better understanding of the needs in my congregation.  I know who has cancer.  I know whose teenage kids are rebelling.  I know who struggles with grief, with anxiety, and with anger.  True, in bigger churches the senior pastor knows some of these things, and there are other staff members or group leaders who address the rest.  But there is a kind of comprehensive, church-wide sympathy and discernment that is more readily available to the small church pastor.  It helps me tailor programs, events, and sermons to the needs of the church.  Also, being able to see the faces of the audience, and knowing their life situations, helps as I preach in real time.  For example, as I’m making a point about suicide, I might see Sandra cross her arms and scrunch up her face.  I know Sandra lost a daughter to suicide a few years ago.  I may have confused or upset her, so maybe I should spend another minute or two explaining that point.  I couldn’t make that on-the-spot read of an audience member if I were preaching to thousands invisible beyond the stage lights or to off-campus congregants watching a video stream.

Small churches have an advantage in identifying, welcoming, and assimilating visitors.  Recently, while on vacation, my oldest son and I visited a big church.  This church had a sprawling, modern auditorium and multiple service times.  They had parking lot attendants, a coffee shop, a bookstore, and a small army of greeters.  Yet none of the people in those ministries attempted to identify whether we were guests.  None of them spoke to us on a personal level.  Most of the folks who sat nearby ignored us.  Only one gentleman, noticing that we looked unfamiliar, introduced himself.

I’m not trying to criticize this church.  When a large group is filtering into a building at the same time, it’s hard to stop and chat with everyone.  The people we sat near may have been visitors themselves, wondering why my son and I didn’t speak to them on the church’s behalf.  With such a big congregation it can be hard to know who the newcomers are.  To be sure, some people like the kind of anonymity that allows them to visit a church a few times without being singled out as a guest.  But from a church’s perspective, we should want to know who is new and what their needs may be.

In my church it’s impossible not to notice visitors.  I don’t point them out from the pulpit or ask them to stand and identify themselves, but I do make the effort to find them before or after the service so I can meet them personally.  Many of our members do the same.  Of course there are large churches that are expert at identifying and reaching out to visitors, and sadly there are small churches that ignore the strangers in their midst.  Still, I believe small churches have an advantage in this area:  We are better positioned to keep folks from slipping through the cracks, if we are willing to do it.

Small churches can be more flexible.  Last Christmas our children’s ministry performed a musical on a Sunday evening.  Just a couple weeks before the scheduled performance, one of the kids discovered she had an unavoidable conflict that would keep her from making it to our musical on time.  The director brought it to my attention, and I suggested that we simply move the start time back one hour.  Because the number of participants was small, we were able to communicate and coordinate this change without upsetting other plans.  Everyone agreed to work it out so this girl and her family members didn’t have to miss the event.  We couldn’t have done this with a much larger production for a much larger audience.  I’m not suggesting that small churches should be sloppy, unprofessional, or unprepared.  And not everything can be changed the way this event was.  However, there are times you can use the flexibility of smaller numbers to your advantage.

As a small church pastor, you can invest more of yourself into the lives of members.  This is similar to my earlier point about knowing your members, but here I’m talking about the impact you can make on them.  I believe I am more than just “the preacher” to our church.  When someone in the church dies, I do the funeral.  When someone gets married, I officiate the ceremony.  When someone is troubled, I do the counseling.  Performing these ministries allows me to invest in my members on a personal level in a way that will make them more receptive to my preaching and teaching.  Those life moments are the things they will remember more than any single sermon or lesson.  I grow to consider the congregation as friends and family, and they see me and my wife and children the same way.  In no way am I suggesting that the pastor should do it all himself.  There is a definite need to delegate responsibilities and to equip church members to do ministry themselves.  Nor am I saying that pastors or staff members in larger churches should not or cannot make these kinds of personal investments.  However, I think one of the greatest joys of being a small church pastor is that while the breadth of my ministry may not be as expansive as that of a megachurch pastor, I have the chance to “go deep” with the ones God has placed under my watch.

These are just a few of the positives of leading a small church.  I could discuss many more, I’m sure.  Regardless of the size ministry God has given to you, take time to examine and appreciate the benefits of this season in your life.  What are the particular joys and blessings of where you are and what you do?  Thank God for them, and never take them for granted.

NOTES

[1] By “small” I’m thinking of churches with an average attendance of 150 or less for Sunday morning worship.  Of course, some of the benefits I mention might also apply to pastors of churches bigger than that.

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