Show Notes

Should small, rural churches aim for excellence, authenticity, or both? Many well-known, usually large churches, are known to strive for “excellence” in their production of weekend worship. This can leave small churches, with fewer means, feeling like they have to keep up.

Brandon O’Brien offers an alternative for small churches to aim instead to represent themselves and their faith authentically. This episode is perfect for rural church leaders seeking to create meaningful worship gatherings within their means and manpower.

Brandon J. O’Brien is the senior director for content development and distribution at Redeemer City to City. He is the author or co-author of several books, including The Strategically Small Church and Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes. He lives with his wife and two kids in Chicago.

Fresh Expressions is a worldwide movement of everyday missionaries who want to see churches thrive in the places we live, eat, work and play by leveraging the creativity and endurance of the inherited church. To learn a simple five-phase process for starting a new expression of church go to freshexpressions.com/howtostart.

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Interview Summary

“Ministry is not about growing big but about going deep into the community you have,” Brandon J. O’Brien shares in a thought-provoking discussion on the essence of small church ministry. This blog post delves into the enlightening perspectives shared by O’Brien, a seasoned ministry practitioner and author, shedding light on the distinctive opportunities small churches hold in impacting their congregations and communities uniquely.

Brandon J. O’Brien, currently working with Redeemer City to City, has a rich background in ministry, having served in various capacities from solo pastor in rural churches to roles in urban church planting. His experiences have cultivated a deep interest in the local church’s dynamics, influencing his views on ministry’s contextual nature.

The Nature of Small Church Ministry

O’Brien emphasizes that small church ministry is not a scaled-down version of large church operations but a distinct model with its own set of challenges and opportunities. He discusses how rural and urban ministries differ in context and needs, suggesting that the effectiveness of ministry should be contextually driven rather than size-driven. O’Brien’s experiences across different church settings have shown him that the local church’s impact is profoundly tied to its understanding and engagement with the local community’s specific realities.

“I’m always very interested in the realities of local church ministry and how they change from place to place.”

Strategic Smallness

Brandon O’Brien unpacks the idea of ‘strategically small,’ where small churches recognize and harness the inherent benefits of their size. He contrasts this with the negative perception often associated with smallness, advocating instead for a strategic embrace of the unique capabilities small churches possess. This approach allows for more intimate relationships, flexible and responsive ministry practices, and a stronger sense of community that larger churches may struggle to replicate.

“Small size does have its advantages… there are things small churches can do more easily because they are small.”

Community Impact and Evaluation

O’Brien challenges the traditional metrics of church success, such as attendance numbers, in favor of evaluating a church’s impact on its community. He argues for a nuanced understanding of success in ministry, taking into account the demographic and social changes within rural areas. O’Brien suggests that effective ministry should reflect the church’s ability to adapt to and address the evolving needs of its surrounding community, thus redefining success from a numerical to a transformational impact perspective.

“Judging the effectiveness of a church in terms of its growth in numbers…is ridiculous if the area is shrinking.”

Authenticity in Ministry

The conversation shifts to authenticity in ministry, where O’Brien advocates for small churches to prioritize genuine engagement over superficial excellence. He criticizes the pursuit of excellence when it leads to inauthentic representations of the church, urging leaders to focus on serving their communities in ways that are true to their identity and capabilities. O’Brien highlights the importance of small churches embodying their values and culture, thereby fostering a sense of belonging and authenticity that resonates with the local community.

“Authenticity is about honoring the context…we should make our best contribution, not necessarily conform to external standards of excellence.”

Brandon J. O’Brien’s insights reveal the profound impact small churches can have when they embrace their size and context as strengths, focusing on deep, authentic engagement with their community. His reflections encourage church leaders to reconsider success metrics and cherish the relational depth and personal touch unique to small church settings.

Reflection Questions:

  1. How does your church measure success, and could these metrics be more community-focused?
  2. In what ways can your church better utilize its unique size and context for ministry?
  3. How can church leaders foster a sense of authenticity and community within a small church setting?
  4. In what ways can your church become more attuned to the local context and community needs?
  5. What steps can be taken to ensure that the unique advantages of small churches are fully realized and celebrated?

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Jeanette Staats
About the Author

Jeanette Staats

Jeanette has over 20 years of diverse experience in collegiate ministry, specializing in general oversight, staff coaching and development, children's ministry, and discipleship. She holds a B.A. in English with an emphasis in Professional Writing from Virginia Tech and a Graduate Certificate in Theological Studies from the John Leland Center for Theological Studies. She also serves on the board for The Ecclesia Network. Jeanette is an avid Hokie fan and rarely misses an opportunity to watch a collegiate sporting event.