What Small Churches Can Do

I have a lot of experience in and with small churches through my own pastoral ministry as well as denominational cooperation. I have seen small churches that are healthy and some that are toxic. I have seen some die, and some grow dramatically in number. There are all kinds, and I would never assume all churches considered "small" by their own leadership or by outsiders are the same. But I do want to encourage some of Christ's smaller churches who are struggling. 

Before I begin with the first post in this series, allow me to clarify what I mean by "small."

I understand that the largest percentage of churches in America are under 100 in attendance. While a church of 100 is "normative" in comparison to other congregations, it should be noted that most Christians are found in larger churches. This means that churches of 100 or so people are not "normative" when compared to the majority of other Christians' experience. I share this only to explain what I mean by "small" churches. A church of 120 feels small to most Christians, and in my assessment is still relatively small by virtue of the number of attenders, members, and leaders it has. Therefore "small" here is not meant to be a derogatory term, but a descriptor. Small churches can be dynamic and healthy. I am comfortable putting my church in the category of Christ's "smaller churches." So for now, lets forget about the actual number.  What I am writing this week is for the smaller churches that are in trouble. I write this as an insider, and as a lover of smaller congregations.

Three Dangerous Mentalities

As I have seen several churches in my area continue to dwindle in size I have watched the leadership of many of these churches settle into into one of three dangerous mentalities:elitism, defeatism, and survivalism. These are mentalities I know well as they have characterized my ministry at one time or another.

ELITISM

Just because you're small doesn't mean you aren't loud and proud. I would know as I have always been the shortest kid on the playground, as well as having led in "smaller" churches. In fact a sense of ecclesial pride often comes to characterize a smaller church in order to justify its smallness. One book all pastors should read is C. John Miller's Outgrowing the Ingrown Church. In it he explains how this elitism works. "What they do is build an attitude of superiority over others by elevating a positive feature in the church life or tradition and then comparing this feature with groups which lack this quality." (pg 30)

I have seen this among some smaller Reformed churches. It is easy to accuse the larger churches of having sold out, of not taking theology seriously, or not having real community, or good pastoral care. It's easy and unfair, but it protects the ego and allows us to feel good about our smallness for the wrong reasons.

DEFEATISM

Defeatism on the other hand is a giving-up of the leadership. It is the "can't-do" spirit that has come to believe the lie of the devil, "You are too small and too poor to have any real impact." Defeatism focuses on everything the small church can't do and looses sight of what it can do. This pessimism only happens when we take our eyes off of Jesus, the head of the church, and the mission he has given us. 

SURVIVALISM

Survivalism is a shift in ministry emphasis from seeking to be a living, thriving, progressing ministry to one of mere maintence. Survivalism works at keeping the church floating--bailing water, patching holes, but not sailing. The survivalist mentality is a fearful one that refuses to take risks and tends toward an "ingrown" emphasis. 

Of course the truth is much better than all of this. The small church is not limited in its fruitfulness by its size. It is only limited by the will of head of the church, Jesus Christ. A small church may be relatively small in number, but it wields the power of God through the ministry of the word which the Lord has been pleased to use to accomplish the impossible since the beginning. The Lord will use you to accomplish his work not because you are right, but because you are his. You will trample the devil under foot not because of your size, but because of your Savior. Many small churches can do far more than they believe, and part of the key is to stop focusing on its size.

In the upcoming posts I want to give specific words of encouragement to other small churches reminding us of all we can do, and may even do better as a consequence of being smaller than some larger congregations. Stay tuned.

Lean into the Means of Grace

To say that we are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone is the essence of the gospel. Our fundamental hope in life and death is that we are saved by God's grace and not by our efforts. And one of the wonders of God's grace is that it abounds to us through means. From our conversion to Christ to our ongoing transformation into his image God uses divinely appointed means to sanctify us.

My favorite confession of faith says it this way, 

“The grace of faith, whereby the elect are enabled to believe to the saving of their souls, is the work of the Spirit of Christ in their hearts, and is ordinarily wrought by the ministry of the Word; by which also, and by the administration of baptism and the Lord’s supper, prayer, and other means appointed of God, it is increased and strengthened.”
             — Second London Confession, 14.1

Our confidence in God's grace to save and sanctify us should never encourage the "let go and let God" mentality, as if the only thing left to do to grow in faith and godliness is to stop seeking it. We must seek it. Yes, we must seek it in Christ, but we seek him through the means he has given us. So we should rightly point to such means, promote them, and rejoice in them as God's gifts to us.

Sure, there is the danger of practicing spiritual disciplines as an end in themselves. But there is also a danger of neglecting the means of grace (foregoing spiritual growth and health as a result) for fear of misusing them.  

“Give all diligence in the use of the means of grace, if you desire a flourishing state of soul. They are the Divinely appointed channels of conveyance from the Fountain. They are the tributary streams from the Great Ocean. You cannot possibly maintain a healthy, vigorous state of the inner life, without them. You cannot neglect, with impunity, private prayer, meditation, and self-examination; or public ordinances—the ministry of the Word, the services of the sanctuary, the assemblies of the saints. A slight thrown upon these must entail a severe loss to your soul. Some professors can go from Sabbath to Sabbath, plunged in worldliness, or eager in the pursuit of gain, in total neglect of the prayer-meeting, or of the weekly Bible lecture—those needed rests and hallowed pauses in the way—as if there were no such appointments. These are among the things which weaken the hands, and discourage the heart...

But a more painful calamity even than this, is the dryness, deadness, and barrenness which this neglect brings into their own souls.”
             — Octavius Winslow, The Inner Life

Lean into the means of grace that you may lean on Jesus himself. You know the promise stands that if we seek we will find. But where will you look for Christ? How will you lay hold of him by faith if you neglect these gifts?  Open that Bible, hit your knees, gather with the saints, not to check duties off a list, but to cling to Jesus himself.

Joe Thorn is Lead Pastor of Redeemer Fellowship in St. Charles, IL and blogs at joethorn.net. His book, Note to Self: The Discipline of Preaching to Yourself, was released through Crossway/ReLit. You can follow him on Twitter @joethorn.

Converted to Christ and His Church

Evangelism is not only winning someone to Jesus by the grace of God in the preaching of the gospel. It is also winning them to the church by that same grace and gospel. The local church is increasingly being thought of as optional by professing believers. In fact when I say something like, "You can't do all that Christ calls you to do apart from the local church" I often get pushback online.

But read the words of the Apostles John.

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us—that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.
 (1 John 1:1-4, ESV)

Do you see it? John says we preach the gospel so others would have fellowship with us, and our fellowship is with the Father and his Son Jesus Christ. The Apostles preached the gospel not only to bring people individually to Jesus, but also collectively into his family gathered into local churches. I wonder how many of us would be comfortable saying what John says here. "I'm telling you about Jesus because I want you to be with us, and we are with Jesus." It sort of sounds like we believe our church is important. That to have know Jesus means you need to know his people. It sounds that way because it's true. 

Of course it's possible to be converted and not be a part of the local church. Possible.  And dangerous. You see, the goal--the mission of the church--is not to see converts, but to make disciples. Conversion is but a part of that process. The making of spiritually mature disciples who obey Jesus Christ can only fully happen inside the church. It is in the church where we discover and exercise our spiritual gifts; where we bear one another's burdens, exhort, encourage, and rebuke one another; where we share in one body, one Spirit, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one Father. 

Preach the gospel. Preach the hope of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection for sinners. Preach it with the aim of reconciling people to God and receiving them into the fellowship.  The local church (in all it's ministries and meetings) is "where it's at," not because it's cool, entertaining, or perfect, but because that it is where Christ stands with his people, fellowshipping with them, and leading them through this life into the life to come.

To-Do Tonight

The end of the night is often a quick fade into sleep without much preparation for it, or the next day. I often hit the bed and am out in about 2 minutes. But it is good to take ourselves before God as we retire for the evening in order to maintain communion with him even as we close our eyes to finish the evening. So, especially tonight as we are anticipating corporate worship tomorrow morning, take the time to prepare yourself for both sleeping and waking by doing the following.

Reflect on God's mercies to you today. 

Today you have lived and breathed by the sovereign decree of God. You have seen, heard, smelled, and tasted God's gifts to you. You have been given much, and have much to rejoice in. Marvel at his overflowing generosity and kindness to you, and take it with you to bed.

Consider and confess your sin to the Lord.

Just like yesterday, your blew it today. You have not escaped one portion of the day without your own corruption marring your best works or feeding your worst thoughts and actions. Recount your sins, and the ways sin has been at work. You should do this not to amass feelings of guilt, but to turn from sin and find safety and cleansing in Jesus Christ. Do this and re-discover the true sweetness of the gospel. 

Praise God for his abundant grace in Jesus Christ.

As you lay down to rest from a day of work and caring for others, remember that because Jesus Christ has done all the work necessary for your salvation you can truly and eternally rest in him. He has atoned for your sins, satisfied the Father's wrath, overcome death and evil. He has done it all through his righteous life, substitutionary death, and victorious resurrection from the grave. In Jesus you have every spiritual blessing imaginable--and more. Praise the Lord for all that you have in Jesus, for it is only because of him that you can sleep in peace tonight with the assurance of God's love. 

Ask God to prepare your heart for worship tomorrow.

Perhaps God will give you tomorrow. Another day to live, and breathe, and enjoy, and worship. If God will grant you such a gift, ask him to sanctify your heart, to prepare your mind, to guide you from the earliest moments of your waking, that you might make the most of your morning, corporate worship with the church, and the rest and conversations you will have throughout the remainder of the day.  Pray that you maintain communion with Jesus throughout, and that through such fellowship with Christ you would be a blessing to others.

About Joe Thorn

Joe is the founding and Lead Pastor of Redeemer Fellowship in St. Charles, IL, and the author of Note to Self: The Discipline of Preaching to Yourself (Crossway/ReLit). He was a contributor to The Story ESV Bible and The Mission of God Study Bible. Joe is a graduate of Moody Bible Inst.(BA) and The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (MDiv). He and his wife Jen have four children. Follow Joe on Twitter @JoeThorn.

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