There are no small churches

October 24th, 2018

While in college and seminary, I pastored several small churches. And after graduating from seminary, I was appointed to serve another one. Like other small-church pastors, I was tempted to buy into the “bigger is better” view, but I am writing today to say that one of the best things that ever happened to me in pastoral ministry was serving small congregations.

In doing so, I learned there is no such thing as a “small” church. Every church is beyond our capacity to serve it. From day one we are in over our head, which enables us to define being successful in ministry as radically relying on grace. As Solomon wrote, “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain” (Psalm 127:1).

There are no small churches because people are in them, and the needs of people are as real in little congregations as in bigger ones. In the small churches I served, people were poised to grow. They were ready to move from membership to discipleship. In these churches people got sick, they died, they had discouraging marriages, they had wayward children, they had aging parents to look after, they had stressful work settings, etc. Potential blessings and painful problems were present in small churches. People needed good shepherds there as much as anywhere else.

I also learned the perception that most churches are larger ones is an illusion. It was true decades ago, and it is still true. The last time I saw a statistic, I found that even in today’s “megachurch” environment, 50% of congregations in the United States have less than 75 members.

But perhaps most of all, small churches are places to learn what Henri Nouwen once wrote to a friend who was discouraged because of a small response to her ministry, “In the area of spirituality, statistics do not count. Two or three people who hear you well, may be able to do miracles.” [1] Having pastored small churches, I understand the truth and significance of Nouwen’s words.

When I responded to a new call to move from pastoring churches to pastoring seminarians, I found myself wondering if I could do better if I had served larger congregations. But I am happy to tell you that the Holy Spirit quickly squelched my skewed thinking. Some of the things I have written about above became precious memories to share with students, most of whom would graduate from seminary and be appointed to small churches as I was — and some of whom would mostly serve small churches throughout their years of service.

In the end, it was my pastoring small churches which gave me my most important lesson to share with my students — a lesson I share with you today: there are no small churches, but only “small” pastors who view them as such. It’s an “ouch!” realization, but one that will save your ministerial soul.

[1] Henri J.M. Nouwen, ‘Love, Henri: Letters on the Spiritual Life’ (Convergent, 2016), 310.


Steve Harper is the author of For the Sake of the Bride and Five Marks of a Methodist. He blogs at Oboedire.

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