Every Sunday, I pass a megachurch so large that they need traffic cops to direct cars into their parking lot. It’s easy for small churchgoers to feel envious. “If only we had their facility, their staff, their budget,” we might say.
But, small churches, take heart! You are perfectly positioned to connect with people the megachurch will never reach. Here are five ways small churches can have a big mission impact:
The Slower Pace of Life
The small church offers a pace of life that is a welcome respite for those who are burnt out from the pace of life or just not interested in the big programs of a large congregation. I was talking with a small church pastor recently who shared that two young families had started attending the primarily older congregation. Curious, he asked them what had drawn them to this particular congregation. “Our children just feel at home here,” they replied. Their children are on the autism spectrum. Noisy, frenetic, large groups are overwhelming for them. But the small church is a perfect fit for them to explore faith in a setting where they are loved, valued, and their unique gifts can be drawn out and shared with the community.
Countless people in our culture today are exhausted from relentless activity and the 24/7 pace of life. The small church can be a place of deep community rather than more activities to stuff into the calendar.
Underutilized Facilities Can Be a Blessing to a Need in the Community
Often, small churches have facilities that are not used every day of the week. While large churches are usually bustling with church activities with church people, your small church facility could be leveraged to bless an organization or effort in your community that connects with people beyond your congregation.
A church with whom I worked years ago realized that the local Big Brothers/Big Sisters program in their township was in need of an additional location to run their summer camp if they were going to be able to serve the growing waitlist of children. This small church looked around at their beautiful property in the heart of the township and realized that it could be a safe environment for children in their community to grow and flourish through the summer. So, they drew up a partnership agreement, and that summer their lawn was filled with the laughter of children.
In my own setting, we’ve seen a small rural church begin to burst with life as it began transitioning into a community center, where art classes, music classes, community meetings, symphony concerts, and the local food pantry can take place. People who would never have walked into a church service are finding hospitality and connection when the facility began to be repurposed as a community hub.
What could happen if your small church began to see your facility not merely as a responsibility to be maintained or a Sunday morning location to gather, but as a resource that can both bless your local community and connect you with it?
Leaner Ordained Staff Invites More Lay-Led Mentoring and Discipling
Many smaller churches lament that they don’t have the leadership that larger congregations do. Some can only afford part-time pastors or pulpit supply. This is often framed as a hindrance to growth. But what if it is an opportunity to “de-professionalize” discipleship? Ordained clergy often become the go-to for all teaching and instruction, which can promote a learned helplessness in the body of Christ.
The small church with limited pastoral leadership has the opportunity to catalyze everyday Christians to explore Scripture and practice the life of discipleship. No longer waiting for a religious “professional” to convene conversations around faith, everyday disciples learn to give voice to their wonderings, their insights, and their stories as they explore Scripture together in the community.
In a world that is increasingly skeptical of institutions and religious authorities, it is faith-filled laypeople who may have the best opportunity to be ambassadors for Christ in their communities.
And those who have become practiced at exploring faith with their church friends can leverage those experiences to explore faith with those outside the walls of their church.
Just recently, I heard the story of how a couple of people from a small congregation were convening marginalized young people from their local high school and local college for a safe place for connection and storytelling. There was no pastor and no outreach committee, just two women who have discovered the life of Christ through their small church and have found that they don’t need a fancy curriculum or an ordained clergy person to embody the gospel in the everyday places and spaces of their lives.
Honing the Gifts of All Believers
I have a friend in a large local church. He is an accomplished musician who serves as a Worship Leader. They have a commitment to excellence, and only other well-trained and gifted musicians find their way to the stage. The preparation for the worship event, with all the accompanying media, video montages, and lighting, would rival any concert tour.
Now think of how many American Idol contestants talk about first discovering their voice in their small church. They found their love for singing in the pews, and then were given opportunities to share their emerging gift with others. A polished worship band is not a bad thing. But most small churches would call their worship experience anything but polished.
Where small churches thrive, however, is in embracing authenticity. In our relatively small congregation, we frequently have little worship gaffes and tell people, “If you came here looking for the perfect church, you are going to be sorely disappointed. We are imperfect. But we’re family.” The middle school band student is not going to give a flawless performance, but he is going to learn that he can integrate his fledgling skills into the worship of God’s people.
Perhaps authenticity, a sense of humor about ourselves, and the shared gifts of regular people honoring God are the sweet spot for those in our communities who have plenty of YouTube for entertainment but are longing for real community.
Involvement in the Community
One of my neighbors joined a large church, and once she got involved, I didn’t see her for years. There were so many volunteer opportunities inside the church that she was no longer connecting with the neighbors.
Many Christians in larger churches get so swept up in the relentless schedule of church activities that they have no margin to volunteer in organizations or needs in the broader community.
Again, this is not an indictment of the large church. But small churches may find that their congregations are better able to step into the nooks and crannies of the neighborhood, volunteering in their communities in ways that connect them to the heartbeat of the community. One small church decided that they were going to release their mission committee and become known as the most dependable volunteers in town. And that’s exactly what they did. Nobody knew what missions their little congregation had been doing before. But over time, everybody knew their congregation as the best volunteers in their organizations. What an incredible witness to the humble, servant heart of Jesus!
I was walking through town recently with one small church congregation member who has gotten involved in a handful of local community organizations, and almost everyone we ran into wanted to stop and talk to her. Through her participation in local initiatives, she has built relationship and trust with the whole community. How might God do something amazing with that?
Small Church, Big Impact
Small churches have unique opportunities for mission impact in this postmodern culture. As I write this article, my young adult daughter is writing a letter. Yes, with all the technology available to her at her fingertips, there is something visceral about the old style, analog, letter writing that has captured her imagination.
I wonder if there are others out there who aren’t looking for instant connection, they are looking for real connection. I have a hunch that small congregations will be able to reach a whole swath of people that would be captivated by a Jesus who can be discovered through increased proximity, meaningful community, and everyday disciples.
So, don’t despair about what your church doesn’t have.
Leverage what you do have as partners in God’s mission, and see what God can do through small mustard seeds like you.