Loving and Leading the Glorious Small Church

Rejoicing in the days of small things (Zechariah 4:10)

One wet Monday morning in April, a fellow small-church pastor friend from a neighboring state dropped this soul-stirring text message: “It’s fun to be a noncelebrity pastor with you.”

My friend knows the high privilege of serving in forgotten Midwest churches and communities. (You know, those communities no one has heard of; after a while you just name the closest big city so that people quit asking, “Where’s that?”)

Together, we are the unknowns and (often) overlooked as conference speakers. Together, we wonder if it is our inadequacy that keeps our churches small. Together, we ache when our longtime church friends head over to the nearby megachurch with “better” programs and preaching. Together, we pray for times of refreshing.

Admittedly, there are days we want bigger churches in fancier cities. (How could I not? I’m a millennial who likes Starbucks® as much as the next guy.) Sometimes we think we deserve bigger churches.

Other times, we feel the weight of this warning to an aspiring pastor, delivered by the 19th-century Scottish preacher John Brown:

“I know the vanity of your heart, and that you will feel mortified that your congregation is very small, in comparison with those of your brethren around you; but assure yourself on the word of an old man, that when you come to give an account of them to the Lord Christ at His judgment seat, you will think you have had enough.”1

It’s easy to forget what Warren Wiersbe has taught for years: That in the eyes of God there are no small churches, nor are there big preachers.

In fact, God’s judgment on King David for taking a census (2 Samuel 24) should serve as a warning to any pastor who looks for success in the number of butts, bucks or buildings.2 Consider also the paradox of pastors encouraging their people to “make it your ambition to lead a quiet life” (1 Thessalonians 4:11) while personally seeking a platform or a promotion, a brand or a book deal?3

Do the prophetic words of Jeremiah strike anyone as timely for the 21st century: “Should you then seek great things for yourself? Do not seek them” (Jeremiah 45:5).

Not for the faint of heart

My life as a small-church pastor produces all manner of rich blessings. For example, I’m known and yet loved. Quite frankly, they put up with me sometimes. These are the people who brought me hope when my father passed away. These friends rebuke me when I act inappropriately. I have no fans, only a church family.

Author Matt Proctor, pastor of Cornerstone Church in Marion, Iowa.

Still, that intimacy is the same reason small-church ministry isn’t for the faint of heart. As writes my noncelebrity pastor friend, “But of course this intimate knowledge also brings sorrow. At any given time, if I stop and think about all the suffering our little congregation is going through, it can literally bring me to tears.”4

Furthermore, in small churches, we’re all small fish in a small pond. The music is not the best in town. The building is not the best in town. The programs are not the best in town. The preaching is not the best in town.

But if you slow down to look and listen, you’ll see sacrificial souls around every corner: women who have taught Sunday school for decades; teenagers joining the worship team and serving the younger kids; senior saints ministering to the more senior saints; men who frame walls, change light bulbs and meet for accountability.

No one has “the big role” at the church because we don’t have time. Each member has two to 10 jobs, from teaching Sunday school to taking out the trash to praying for folks in the hospital. No big fish but many heroes.

“The least of you will become a thousand”

Finally, I really believe small churches change the world.

Arthur EFC, in a rural community of 206 people, has sent out several missionaries, pastors, chaplains and even EFCA national office staff members.5 Bethany EFC (a multiethnic church with 50-60 members in West Orange, New Jersey) proclaims the gospel in word and deed to 300-400 at risk-teenagers each year through its community-supported after-school ministry.6 And many know of the faithful labors of Pastor Joel Andrus in rural Iowa: Over many decades, Joel planted/replanted a handful of churches, some that grew larger than the original church and some that continued the tradition of planting churches.7

Arthur (Iowa) EFC, which began in 1885 with 12 charter members. Photo at top: Faith EFC in Metamora, Illinois, which launched in 1969.

Not to mention more famous individuals, such as Charles Spurgeon, who came to trust Christ through a layman’s preaching at a small church. Truly, “the least of you will become a thousand, the smallest a mighty nation. I am the LORD; in its time I will do this swiftly” (Isaiah 60:22).

And personally, I owe my spiritual nurturing to a woman who led a Fellowship of Christian Athlete’s ministry for a group of only 12 kids.

The small-church pastor’s mantra must be this: If I speak to a crowd of two but have love, I am a joyous instrument in the hand of God. If I clean the building, serve in the nursery and hand out bulletins on Sunday morning, all with love, I am everything I need to be. If I give all I possess and surrender my body to my flock without a thank you, a nice car or a denominational position, but I have love, I gain everything.

So write pastors Ron Klassen and John Koessler in No Little Places: The Untapped Potential of the Small-Town Church:

“Your picture will probably never grace the cover of a national magazine. You may never be invited to address your denominational conference. Few may hear or care about the struggles you have faced as you serve Christ in your small town. Do not let that discourage you. There is One who notices. He will bless your efforts and reward your faithfulness.”

Don’t get me wrong; God is at work in megachurches and urban congregations. But the Messiah was born in the backwoods of Bethlehem and, still today, small places are changing the world.

1 John Brown, in a letter of paternal counsel written to one of his pupils newly ordained over a small congregation, cited by Alexander Grossart in The Complete Works of Richard Sibbes, Vol. 1, Ed. Alexander Grossart (1862-1864; reprint, Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1979), p. 294. First heard in “False Conversions: The suicide of the church,” by Mark Dever, published in The Gospel Coalition
2 Of course, not all measuring is sinful. See “What We Count, We Celebrate.” But are you viewing size as your standard of success?
3 See these ideas brought home in Parts 1 and 2 of Zack Eswine’s The Imperfect Pastor: Discovering joy in our limitations through a daily apprenticeship with Jesus.
4 Pastor Dan Leman from Faith EFC in Metamora, Illinois, is one of my heroes.
5 Pastor Glen Lozier reports that in 2015, Arthur EFC’s AWANA ministry had more children participating than the whole population of Arthur.
6 Check out the Bethany Center for Champions. Pastor Zach Guyton reports that they just sent 75 community kids to their district’s EFCA summer camp.
7 Joel Andrus preached the Word faithfully from 1968 to 2006 at Martensdale Community Church (in a community with a population of 465). In his own words, “it was the Word that drew people from neighboring communities.” In time, it seemed best to send these people back out to establish gospel-preaching churches in their own communities. Though invited to serve other churches during his pastoral tenure, Joel always felt he had plenty of work left to do in Martensdale.

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