Churchthink Podcast

Episode 6: The Case for Small Churches

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Christian author, speaker, and podcast co-host Skye Jethani recently published an article entitled “The Case Against Sermon-centric Sundays.” Among other arguments he makes, he mentions that our current church model does little to foster community and alleviate loneliness in society, since services largely consist of hundreds of people sitting silently while listening to the sermon, singing a few songs, and then leaving (not to come back for a whole week).

In 12 years of being a Christian, I’ve never heard anyone question the traditional church model. While I don’t agree with everything in Skye’s article, it’s still been a game-changer for me. I haven’t been able to think about much else the past two weeks. Do we need to rethink the way we do church? If we reshaped church, could we actually start helping people out of loneliness? Why isn’t anyone else talking about this?

His article led me to listen to Richard Jacobson’s The Unchurching Podcast, which advocates for house churches instead of institutional churches. Again, while I don’t agree with everything Jacobson says (especially his insistence that the pastor role should be done away with), I am intrigued by the house church model.

Now, I’m not throwing everything out and switching to house churches. It seems to me that there are pros and cons to house churches and institutional churches. But one thing I think we can take away from Skye Jethani’s article and the house church model is that, when it comes to church, small is better.

Large churches and mega-churches might have some benefits (for instance, they can provide a large space for the surrounding community to use, or they might be able to work on large missions projects that small churches couldn’t), but I have to wonder if the pros of small churches outweigh the pros of large churches, especially if large churches are becoming the norm and the goal of pastors is to grow until they can afford a big building. Constructing a close-knit community should be a top priority for all pastors, because discipleship, mission, and relationships are most effective inside of this kind of community. Establishing this kind of community becomes harder the larger a church grows.

I’ve basically attended four churches since becoming a Christian. Two have been large churches (over 1,000 people per weekend) and two have been small churches (under 250 people per weekend). In the case of the first big church, I tried various small groups, volunteer activities, and I even interned there. My feeling of connectedness went up at some points, but the vast majority of my time there (several years) I didn’t feel connected no matter what I tried. In the case of the second big church (my current church), it took two years of trying small groups and various activities before my wife and I found a group we really felt connected to. If we hadn’t found our current group, we’d probably be at a different church. However, in the case of the two small churches, I found community immediately—and when I say “immediately” I mean within a month.

Churches should focus more on fostering community than on producing a show that will supposedly attract people. Community is personal; attractive shows are impersonal. Attractive shows focus on making the consumer happy; community focuses on personal relationships and gently encourages people to use their gifts and talents for others’ benefit. Shows tend to isolate and compound loneliness; community breaks the chains of isolation and loneliness.

Our focus is misguided. Pastors and church leaders shouldn’t be focused on growing until they bust out of their current building’s seams or on creating a great show. Instead, let’s focus on building community. Make close-knit community a bigger priority than growth. That way, when growth gets in the way of the community’s closeness, the church can go plant a new church (with whom they can maintain a close relationship and still do things together).

I’ll be honest: I’ve struggled with loneliness to one degree or another most of my life. The times I haven’t struggled with it are the times I’ve been closely involved with a small community of people who met together frequently. In those times, I’ve felt effective in the cause of the gospel because I frequently participated in outreach activities and discipleship activities with my community.

Some may be thinking, “That’s the reason for small groups in a big church.” Small groups can foster this kind of community, even in a big church, although it seems to me that extroverts have an easier time engaging in big church settings than introverts (no matter if it’s small groups or Sunday service). However, small churches, by nature, make finding close-knit community easier. In a small church, even on Sundays we walk into the community. There’s much more accountability for attendees to become a part of the community and contribute, since everyone sees our face and the relationships naturally built from talking to people in the small community suck us into community activities. And if we really don’t want to be a part, then we can leave (as opposed to just coming on Sundays and doing nothing else). Small churches are more likely to foster participation instead of isolated consumerism.

In big churches, we often (especially for introverts) have to go find the community. Many people in the Sunday service don’t know each other, so we’re not likely to find community just by talking to one or two people. We have to put in the effort to try a small group, and if that group doesn’t work out (which can take weeks or months to realize), we have to try another. And during all this time we feel disconnected and perhaps lonely. For people who are already struggling with loneliness, this can be an extremely discouraging process, prompting them, potentially, to give up. Furthermore, it’s much easier to simply be a casual, non-participating member in a big church. That’s more people not giving time for missions, discipleship, and other Kingdom activities.

Christianity is most effective in community. Community, by definition, becomes harder the larger it is. That’s why Jesus ran around with a small group of disciples. If our churches stay small and focus on community, they will be more effective churches, which will positively impact the surrounding culture. And one of the best results of this would be more and more close-knit communities, which would reduce the growing problem of loneliness.

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