By Ed Stetzer
Many American Christians have this idea that if a church is big, it must be better, but that’s not necessarily the case. Our obsession with “bigness” can be a reflection of American values, instead of biblical ones.
While we often pull our cultural values into our measuring grid for success, size is not necessarily the best measurement for church health.
That doesn’t mean, however, that smaller is better. We should not idealize a church that does not grow and reproduce. Healthy churches should do those things. But some churches find themselves in situations where health will look different.
For example, if your church is a small, rural town with little demographic growth, you may not experience exponential numerical growth. The church should still be faithful to share the gospel and disciple believers, but with those circumstances converts may not come in droves.
Health is the goal, not size.
Church leaders should always remember a certain size is not the goal—being healthy is. We should value healthy churches of all sizes and avoid the ministerial envy that can creep in when we begin comparing churches strictly by budgets, buildings, and bodies.
To develop our book Transformational Church and the Transformational Church Assessment Tool (TCAT), Thom Rainer and I researched what set apart the top 10 percent of churches. The study revealed characteristics that serve as a better barometer of health than just counting the number of people at a service and the dollars in the offering plate.
Churches wanting a complete picture of their health in each of these areas and specific ways in which they can improve should consider using the online assessment tool available at TCAT.Lifeway.com. But here are three questions small churches can ask themselves to determine if their size may be an indicator of poor health.
Is my church staying small even when the community around us is lost and growing?
There is no excuse for a church in this situation. If there are people in your neighborhood, some of them will be unchurched or dechurched. Even more to the point, 584 unreached and unengaged people groups are estimated to be living in North America right now.
Some Christians want to give a spiritual-sounding excuse for their lack of outreach, so they say God is in charge of the growth. While that’s true—the actual growth is God’s business—we are called to water and plant (1 Corinthians 3:6). Don’t blame God’s will for a lack of growth, if you aren’t being faithful to water and plant.
Is my church staying small because we refuse to engage the culture around us?
The healthiest churches display a missionary mentality, seeking to understand the community in which God has placed them, as well as embracing the mission God has given them to reach those in their community. Others have sought to build walls around themselves as protection from the world.
These churches refuse to acknowledge the deeper root of the world’s problems, sin, resides in their own hearts (Romans 5:12). They also ignore Jesus’ calling to be a Kingdom witness in a dark and broken world (Matthew 5:16). How can we do that if we do not engage those around us?
Is my church staying small because we love our fellowship more than the lost?
This can be true of churches regardless of size, but it is especially a temptation for smaller churches. Our natural tendency is always going to be an internal focus. It’s easy and generally comfortable. Reaching those outside our church doors is often hard and uncomfortable work.
We should seek to cultivate intimate fellowship and care for one another in the church. However, we must be intentional about reaching those around us with the good news of Jesus.
Striking a healthy balance means moving church members from customers to co-laborers by developing intentional strategies to train and launch people in missional living.
Small churches still are and always have been the norm. Despite the rise of the megachurch, the typical church has less than 100 in attendance. Many of them are living on mission in their contexts, fulfilling God’s purpose.
Small, healthy churches are just as valuable to God’s kingdom as large, healthy ones. We have many reasons to affirm these churches without romanticizing or idealizing them.
We all should recognize how God uses ordinary, normal churches to subvert the ways of this world. Faithfulness and fruitfulness are more biblical ways to measure church health than size.
Ed is the executive director of the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center and the former executive director of Lifeway Research.