Comments on God Delighting in Small (New England) Churches

From Paul Buckley in Methuen, MA (check out his excellent, Christ-exalting blog)–

“I pastor a Sovereign Grace Ministries Church in New England, King of Grace Church. Thanks for your encouraging post! Pastoring in New England has been a wonderful adventure of learning to glory in Christ and the precious folks he does give us and not in our relative church size. It is one thing to say I am pastoring for God’s glory, it is another to be tested with small success yet still labor. There are many here as Josh said who have labored faithfully for years (far beyond mine). They are my heroes.

I trust their faithful prayers and labors will indeed be answered in time with new converts, new church plants and a region full of disciples who will surpass them in zeal, knowledge and faithfulness. We intend to labor for Christ and His glory regardless of outcome yet we continue to ask for a greater harvest.”

From Mike Freeman in Ohio (formerly of Maine)–

“Having grown up in a Maine small church, I agree with Owen. Additionally, I have labored as a lay youth leader for the past six years at at a church in southwest Ohio. I can say with certainty that the folks in Maine, by and large, “get it.” In Ohio, the bible belt, many people go to church because that’s what you are supposed to do- even fundamental evangelical churches. In Maine, most people don’t go to church; the ones that do come actually seem to want to be there.”

Are there other pastors out there who want to comment on the original blog I wrote? I would love more testimony on what it is like to pastor a small church and how you handle it.

To my knowledge, this subject is not often talked about. Small churches are something of the elephant in the room in many evangelical circles. We all know they’re there (in large numbers), but as our environment is suffused with notions of success and grandiosity, we don’t want to talk about them much or really even acknowledge they’re around. We’d much rather talk about the “success stories” than the churches who are, in their quest for faithfulness, achieving a certain numerical mediocrity.

This (extended) blog is no attempt to demonize large churches. Far, far from it. I give thanks to God for large churches that are faithful to the gospel. God often uses them in special ways. God blesses many, many people through them. For Bethlehem and Covenant Life and other churches of similar size and gospel focus, I am thankful to God. But we must not think that these churches alone are faithful and glorifying to God. If our definition of God’s glory is measured along metric lines, we are surely off. If faithfulness must in some way equal numerical prosperity, we are certainly wrong. The very message of the Bible is that God takes pleasure in the few. God, unlike men, does not need recognizable size and prosperity–in terms of His followers–to be delighted. The message of the Bible is that God loves His people. He loves the few. He loves the remnant. He delights in the faithful, self-sacrificial lives of His people. It is not massive size that He searches the earth for. He searches it for faithfulness.

The Bible is rife with stories that support this basic idea. Try it out–test this theme out. Read through your Bible, and see how often God delights in a people who are small in number but great in devotion. See how little emphasis there is on the mere size of things. Tiny Israel, puny David, Gideon’s 300, the faithful remnant, the mustard seed, the scattered disciples, the overmatched apostles, the slain martyrs–this is just a tiny selection of biblical matters that show with clarity the joy God takes in the few. In so many of these things, in fact, it is God’s explicit design for His numbers to be small.

When a church is small, then, we must not rush to feel bad for it, or wonder what has gone wrong, or contrive many ways to fix it. Perhaps change is needed. But it may well be that God is delighting in the small size of the congregation, taking joy in their gathered worship, smiling as they evangelize and celebrate His supper and struggle to fill an oversized room. Knowing God’s character from the Bible, wouldn’t it be just like Him to do so?

  • Pastor Michael

    In praise of smaller churches:

    You can know everyone.

    If you work at it, you can know everyone well.

    If you work at it and God permits, you can know how well everyone knows everyone else.

    If you permit it, everyone can know you well.

    If you miss the mark you lead fewer astray.

    The 75 adults and children I pastor are enough to keep me plenty busy—I frankly don’t know how pastors of larger churches do it.

    Related to the topic, Dan Phillips over at Pyromaniacs posted an excellent series, “The Hardest Aspect of Pastoral Ministry”, Part 1;
    Part 2; Part 3; on the fact that pastors have no way to measure the effectiveness of their efforts.

    Thanks, Owen, for the thoughtful posts.

  • Al

    One aspect about small churches that I am facing at the moment is that it may get even smaller. We have a guy who is fudging on a moral issue. The leadership of the church as talked with him, but he is going to do what he thinks is right, and if we have to take his name off of the church membership than that’s the way it will have to be because he is not changing. Now I know this next aspect is true for larger churches as well, but the family appears to be siding with the individual. We haven’t reach this point yet, but if he is removed from membership will the family go with him?

    I must schedule time with the family, and we are moving in this week. This is our first night in Princeton. Already this week is busy.

    And I would agree with Michael. We will get to know everyone and they us.

    Al

  • BC

    Owen,

    If you’ve not seen it, have a look at this. It’s a recent article from the Boston Globe on declining congregations in churches (mostly main line) in New England.

    BC

    http://www.boston.com/news/local/articles/2008/06/15/heres_the_church_but_where_are_the_people/


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