By Pastor Bruce K. Oyen
This post is a defense of small churches. This might seem like an odd theme to Americans, because to us bigger is better. This is proven by the fact that we go to fast food restaurants, and what do we get? Bigger burgers, bigger fries, bigger drinks, and bigger desserts, the end result of which is bigger bellies. Not only are our foods and bellies bigger. So are our houses. Nearly every time I have seen a TV report on house foreclosures, the houses are big ones. So big, in fact, that the owners are weighed down by big monthly payments that are too big for them to make when things go bad. Another indication of American emphasis on bigness are the super-sized shopping malls found across the land.
With the bigness of the things just mentioned, it is no wonder that we think churches should be big, too. So, what churches do we read about in news magazines and see on TV news reports? The big churches. They are considered by many to be the successful churches. And in terms of size, they are successful.
But what is a big church? In a way, that question is hard to answer because it has everything to do with one’s point of comparison. For example, if one attends a church with 10,000 attendees, a church with 5,000 attendees might be considered small. If one attends a church with 5,000 attendees, a church of 2,500 might be considered small. And the comparisons can go down and down and down. To me, a church with 200 (two hundred) attendees would be big.
However, the fact of the matter is this: while the mega-churches get all the attention, Christians who have looked to the Word of God, the Bible, for God’s perspective on this matter have learned for themselves that God does not put a great deal of emphasis on big churches.
Sure, the New Testament tells us that the church at Jerusalem was big, though the term is not used to describe its size. The book of Acts, chapter 2, tells us that 3,000 persons became Christians and were then baptized. But the way such facts about church growth are recorded in the New Testament does not give us the impression that bigness was a big deal to those first century Christians. Bigness was not a big deal to them, because it was not a big deal to the Lord Jesus Christ, whom they served.
Those of us who have read the Bible many times have seen a completely different emphasis in it on this matter. The first-century Christians wanted to win as many persons to faith in Jesus Christ as they could, because they knew the Lord had died to save the whole world (so we read in verses such as 1 Timothy 2:6), and they knew he wants all persons to come to repentance (so we read in verses such as 2 Peter 3:9). Acts, chapters 2, 8, and 18 make us conclude there was a lot of enthusiasm when one or many persons became Christians. But, even so, we do not find an emphasis that big churches were better than small ones. I have not found one statement in the New Testament in which a church was told it was too small. Some churches were reprimanded for being sinful, selfish, and sleepy, but not for being small.
The apostles knew that what counted with the Lord was the attempts of the Christians to reach others with the Gospel. That is why Paul commended, for example, the churches at Rome and Thessalonica for their evangelistic zeal (so we read in Romans 1:8 and in 1 Thessalonians 1:7, 8). They knew that it was their job to plant the seed of the Gospel in the hearts of non-Christians, water it afterward, and then leave the result to the Lord (so we read in 1 Corinthians 3:6, 7).
The apostles would have rejoiced at any church’s numerical growth, so long as it was the result of true evangelistic effort, and so long as the new converts to Jesus Christ were given opportunity to become strong Christians through being taught the Word of God. Acts 2:42 illustrates the emphasis that the apostles of Jesus put on making disciples of new converts. It says, “And they continued steadfastly in the apostles doctrine (teaching) and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers.” The same emphasis is seen in Acts 18, in which we read about the founding of the church in the city of Corinth. Verse 18 informs us that the church got started by the preaching of the Gospel to those in need of it. And verse 11 tells us the apostle Paul then “continued there a year and six months, teaching the Word of God among them.” No doubt, this was done to establish the new Christians in the faith. Verse 18 could well mean Paul stayed in Corinth even longer than 1 1/2 years to make disciples of the new Christians.
Now, here is the point I have been working toward: it is very possible to have a numerically successful church, but it be one that fails to do what the apostles of Jesus Christ did with their converts, which was to ground them in Biblical truth, and to teach them to pursue Christ-likeness in their daily lives.
Therefore, we must conclude that smaller churches that do what the apostles of Jesus did with new Christians are doing a better job than many big churches. So, bigger is not always better. Sometimes, smaller is better.
Praise the Lord, if he blesses a church with a big or very big congregation. But don’t let a small one seem insignificant. After all, small churches are not insignificant to the Lord.