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3 Dangerous Mentalities of Small Churches

What makes a small church become unhealthy and toxic? I'd like to propose three dangerous mentalities that cause small churches to die and what they can do to focus on the mission of the Church.

Jun 22, 2023
3 Dangerous Mentalities of Small Churches

I have a lot of experience in and with small churches through my own pastoral ministry as well as denominational cooperation. I have seen healthy small churches 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, 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 the number of attendees, 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, let's 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.

3 Dangerous Mentalities of Small Churches

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 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.

1. 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.

2. 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 loses 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. 

3. 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 underfoot 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.

Smaller churches are no less hindered from doing what God has called his people to do than larger churches. Having more people does not make it easier. Get that. More people do not make it easier. Just have a conversation with pastors of larger churches, and you will find that leading God's people into mission isn't easy for anyone. In fact, larger numbers often make things more complicated. However, clarifying what the church is all about and what it will give itself to does make things simpler, if not easier.

Three Principles for Healthy Churches

Every church is called by Jesus to make disciples (Mt. 28:18-20). This is the charge. This is the church's responsibility and privilege. But how does a church, and a small church in particular, carry out this mission?  Before we consider the particulars, let's think about it on the level of principles.

Because the church's mission is to make disciples, I tend to emphasize three needs: to reach out, dig deep, and raise up. Unless we give ourselves to these principles, we may find ourselves confused or overwhelmed with what we want to do and what we actually can do. 

1. Reaching Out

If the church does not have an outward orientation, it will suffer spiritual stagnancy and grow cold. There is more than excitement when the church reaches out into the world in word and deed, there is an energy, a power (Acts 1:8) the entire body experiences as it is faithful to make Christ known among the people to whom they have been sent.

We have all seen and perhaps been a part of, the "holy huddle" that has lost sight of the people perishing in their sins. They see without seeing. But this kind of spiritual blindness doesn't come upon a church suddenly. It is the gradual decay of a heart for outsiders that stems from a lost sense of the greatness of the good news they themselves need.

Churches die when they stop reaching out because apart from that orientation, disciples cannot be made. Churches stop reaching out when they are no longer gripped by their own need for grace and its free offer to others.

2. Digging Deep

It is possible to have a strong outward orientation that seeks the salvation of the lost but neglects to carry on the work of discipleship by "teaching them to observe all that [Jesus] commanded." The goal the church has for people is not only to enter the kingdom of heaven but to become like the King of the Kingdom. The end is not to have converts but to have converts who may be brought to the place where they are "mature in Christ." (Col. 1:28, 29)

Digging deep is pressing on into maturity (Heb 6:1) through the pastoral instruction of God's word for doctrine and devotion and the disciplining of one another through example, service, and exhortation in the community.

There is no conflict between reaching out and digging deep. In fact, without both, a church of any size is sure to be sickly and will eventually die.

3. Raising Up

Carrying out the mission Jesus gave the church requires that we not only have, but are continuing to raise up, leaders in the church to shepherd the flock, serve as an example, and set the pace for the rest of the church. If making disciples means bringing brothers and sisters to maturity in Christ, that means helping them to discover not only their gifts, but also their calling. And beyond discovery, we are responsible for developing and deploying them to do what God has called them to do.

At the very least, this means we must find ways to raise up and equip leaders to serve within our own church and also to be sent out to plant new churches or serve elsewhere outside of our own congregation.

Raising up leaders will never be a burden to a local church unless it feels the need to reach the lost and disciple the found. Until the church knows this work is too much to be carried out by a few developing leaders will not be seen as critical.

All of this: reaching out, digging deep, and raising up, leads me to place high value on four things that even small churches can excel in: 1) corporate worship that is deeply theological, radically Christ-centered, and intensely experiential, 2) community in the church where brothers and sisters know one another well enough to live out the example and the imperatives seen in the New Testament, and 3) leadership development that is willing to send away a church's best to bless others, and 4) service through the church to the community in works of mercy.

Photo credit:©GettyImages/dbvirago

Content compiled from Joe Thorn's Blog posts on Small Churches.


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