The topic for this month’s Bible study was submitted by a Messenger subscriber who asks: “Is a small church an unsuccessful church?”
While this isn’t a “catch phrase” or an “almost correct” Bible quotation that has been addressed in prior “Say what?” columns, questions about church decline are frequently asked at all levels of our denomination, from local congregations to Annual Conference, to the pages of Messenger. In an era where membership decline, pastoral shortages, and challenging finances are an increasing reality, questions of “success” are often asked, even if they might not be the correct question. Should more people be joining our churches? And if they’re not, why not?
These questions are more complex than one article can handle. We can, however, identify some places to begin the conversation.
Reflections from the end of ministry
The letter of 2 Timothy likely contains Paul’s last recorded words in the New Testament. In this letter, it’s easy to sense that Paul understands his life and ministry are nearing an end. Stuck in a Roman prison, he is lonely, weary, and cold. But even in these difficult circumstances, this letter is filled with advice Timothy needs to serve the church of Ephesus. Near the end of the letter Paul makes a particularly intriguing comment. He writes, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (4:7). How could Paul claim that he’d fulfilled the task God gave to him when there were still millions of people who had not yet heard the gospel? Because he had spent years planting churches and calling pastors to lead them. At the end of his life, Paul could hand his mantle of leadership to people like Timothy with a clean conscience, knowing that ministry would continue through the local church.
If we are serious about wrestling with whether our church is “successful” or not, we must begin by reaffirming that the local congregation is the primary vehicle for the making disciples. But the affluence of our age works against this effort in at least two ways. First, there are many demands on our time that pull us away from regular worship. It wasn’t too long ago that regular church attendance meant attending 45 Sundays per year. Some sources say that, today, regular attendance is just under two Sundays per month. That’s quite a difference.
Second, easy communication makes it possible to supplement (or substitute) regular church participation with resources from megachurches, celebrity pastors, and parachurch organizations. We can pick and choose from many options to find a style and a theology we find most comfortable. But however good these resources are, they can never take the place of long-term, face-to-face relationships in congregational mission and ministry.
Congregational life isn’t always easy, and it’s rarely flashy. But it is the primary means for making disciples. Perhaps discussions of congregational “success” ought to begin here.
A case study from Revelation
But is “success” really our goal?
Jesus’ words to the church in Philadelphia (Revelation 3:7-13) give us another perspective on this topic. Things were not easy for Christians in this city. It’s probable that these Christians were Jewish converts who had been barred from their local synagogue after their profession of faith in Jesus. It is also likely that their newfound faith led to broken family relationships.
However great these struggles had been for the church in Philadelphia, Jesus seems quite pleased with their faithfulness. His message affirms them for having “kept my word of patient endurance” (v. 10). They are encouraged to “hold fast to what you have” (v. 11), with a promise of being protected from difficulties that are coming.
We would be hard pressed to say that the church in Philadelphia was “successful,” at least by standards of our day. Following Jesus made their life more difficult, not less. But in spite of the difficulties that faithfulness brought, they held fast to one another and to their faith. Can the same be said of us?
Consider again the question submitted for this article: “Is a small church an unsuccessful church?” When seen through the values that our culture finds important, we might be tempted to say “no.” It certainly can seem that way when we compare ourselves to the new church down the road that has several full-time staff members, multiple services, and a youth ministry larger than our entire congregation.
But is bigger really better? What if we reframe the question and look for ways to measure faithfulness? We might then ask ourselves, “Can a small church be a faithful church?” If we consider the church of Philadelphia in Revelation 3, the answer is clearly yes. Life was difficult for them, yet they were commended for their commitment to Jesus’ word, not their size.
How might we apply this to our own congregations? In addition to the questions asked along the way, consider these thoughts:
- Many of our questions of success and faithfulness stem from our increasing inability to fund a full-time pastoral program. How has pursuit of this goal helped or hindered our congregation’s mission? What are some other ways we might evaluate our faithfulness?
- Does your congregation look like your neighborhood? How has this changed over the last 50 years?
- Which is likely to bring more people to the church: a prayer meeting or an ice cream social?
In our consumer age, people will often evaluate a congregation based on its ability to “meet our needs.” But Jesus doesn’t offer us more of what we already have; he offers us something we don’t have—another way of living. Not everyone who walks through our doors wants this. Pursuing Jesus with our whole hearts might not enable us to be as “successful” as we hope. But it is the way to be faithful. And faithfulness is something that can be achieved by churches of all sizes.
For further reading
I am indebted to the reader who submitted this question for pointing me to Karl Vaters’ blog Pivot. Many of his blog entries will be of interest to those seeking to understand how a church can be faithful in our day. Of particular relevance to this article is a blog entry found in the January 23, 2019, issue of Christianity Today, “5 Myth-Shattering Reasons We Have To Change Our Thinking About Church Size.”
Tim Harvey is pastor of Oak Grove Church of the Brethren in Roanoke, Va. He was moderator of the 2012 Annual Conference.