This week a friend reached out to me to see if I had any advice for small churches. He informed me that he was taking a new pastoral call to a very tiny congregation and wondered if I had any words of encouragement.
At the outset, I had to admit that I don’t consider myself any kind of expert on small church leadership, replants, or revitalization projects. There are many persons who are such experts, but I am not among them.
That said, I do have a few words of exhortation that I could share. Foremost among them are some thoughts from Calvin when it seemed that the Reformation might fail. He wrote,
“If at any time, then we are troubled at the small number of those who believe, let us, on the other hand, call to mind, that none comprehend the mysteries of God save those to whom it is given.” (Calvin, Institutes, 1.7.5).
Thinking through the duties and responsibilities of a pastor – no matter what size his congregation – I offer these points of advice for any looking for a seasonable word of encouragement.
- First, I object to the idea of a “small church” in the first place. There is no such thing. Christ is Lord of His entire domain, and the whole world is His Kingdom. The souls of our people are unbelievably precious, and the Word of God is invincible and mighty to save. I don’t like the idea that a church can be categorized by such numerical abstractions as size. The work of the pastor is of eternal significance, and no annual statistical report can diminish that.
- Second, prepare to preach the Word of God with the same diligence that you would if you were to speak before 10,000 as you would if your congregation was only 100, or even 10. The audience does not diminish either our duty or the power of the Word. If you would prepare for the pulpit differently if you were giving the opening session at the General Assembly before thousands than you would on any given Lord’s Day, something is wrong.
- Next, observe this rule: “Never Compare/Never Despair.” Whenever you look at other churches that appear to be “successful” in the eyes of man, glean what you can from their wise practices, but implement them without jealousy or envy. If you can learn something practicable from them, good. But do not become jealous of another man’s flock or pasture. When looking at other congregations, see what you can rightly learn from them as a humble observer, but do not long to hop the fence or grow green from envy.
- Love your church collectively and individually. Love them as one. Love them each. Love them for all their idiosyncracies and oddities. Do not become the critic of your congregation, perpetually disappointed in her appearance or performance. To become a harsh critic of the local church is to be like a gross man who is constantly attacking his wife. I very often hear pastors apologize for or attack their congregation because of its apparent vitality. A good shepherd defends the flock but does not attack his own sheep.
- Finally, think Biblically about numbers. Remember David was chastised for taking the census. Elijah was encouraged to remember the 7,000 when he thought he was alone. Gideon’s army was purposefully reduced in size to show that the work was of God’s grace and not his strength. Peter’s Pentecostal sermon saved 3,000, but only to show that it was the Holy Spirit working, not his own skill, leadership, or wisdom.