In a Culture Drawn to ‘Big’, Should the Church Really Be Celebrating ‘Small’?

232052_semi-truck_2We live today in a culture of ‘Big’.  Big box stores, Multiplex Cinemas, massive subdivisions, and across North America in the last two decades, something else big-the megachurch.  Because these churches are big they can offer the very best music, audio-visual presentations, great sound systems and specialized teaching skills.  They are among the fastest growing churches today.  However, many of these churches stress that ‘the bigger we get, the smaller we need to become’.  Many of them have discovered that to disciple people effectively (or even get to know them) small groups are essential.  They’re absolutely right, of course.  And we wish them the absolute best in that endeavor.

But what does any of this mean to the thousands of small churches?  Are there things that happen in ‘small’ that can’t happen (despite the very best intentions) in ‘big?

Story One

Last week three little girls, ages 5, 9 and 10 dropped by our church, while on their way home from school.  They asked if the littlest one, Milly, could use the washroom.  Afterwards, Amanda, 9, and the clear ringleader, asked if we had any papers that told when church happened.  She said she once went to a Catholic school and had decided it was time for her and her sister to come to church.  She wanted to know if I could show her around so she knew where to take her little sister when it came time for the kids’ program (which she had read about on the paper).  When I showed then the sanctuary, Milly exclaimed, “Look at the pretty pictures!”   Amanda knowingly replied, “Milly, those are stained glass windows”. 

Amanda informed me that she and Milly would only be here every second week because they were at her dad’s every other weekend.  She wanted to know if it was okay for their mom to drop them off since ‘She doesn’t really go to church.’  Kerry, age 10, announced that she might be able to bring her mom along this Sunday.  Then the three waved goodbye and continued on their way home.

I was left a little dumbstruck by the whole encounter, but I know one thing for sure: God is up to something in the lives of these 3 little girls: He is doing a new ‘small’ thing.  And so I found myself asking a question about ‘small’:  What if there hadn’t been a church in their neighbourhood?

Story Two

About ten months ago I sat and listened to three couples with toddlers talk about their lives, and explain why they found it so hard to honour a vow they made at their first child’s baptism, when they had promised that child would be “nurtured in the faith and life of the Christian community’.  They spoke of both partners commuting long hours to work in the city. They spoke of dropping their kids off early each day at daycare and the guilt they felt doing that.  And they spoke about how neither leaving their toddlers in the nursery or keeping them with them in worship worked.  It wasn’t that they didn’t want to nurture their kids spiritually.  They just couldn’t figure out a way in to do that.  Maybe when their kids were old enough for Sunday School.  Maybe someday.

That conversation gave rise to another ‘small’.  It’s called ‘Messy Church’, and it happens once a month on Saturday mornings.  It’s a time for parents and little kids, mainly ages 2 to 6, to learn and worship together.  Messy Church has met eight times now.  Attendance has ranged between 21 and 38.  Almost all of the families who attend were very peripherally attached to the faith community.  A few families have now brought friends and their kids.  Several grandparents have started bringing their grand kids, whose parents don’t have a church connection.  Through songs, games, crafts, stories and DVD clips, we’re reaching children and adults we wouldn’t have reached otherwise.

And so this week I found myself asking another question about ‘small’:  if we hadn’t known the initial couples well enough to realize they weren’t at church, how would we ever have connected with them and their kids in a more substantive way?

Story Three

Out of the blue a man called and asked to talk with a pastor.  The man told me his marriage was in serious trouble.  He and his wife were new in town and had chosen us because we had the same name as the church they were married in (Christ Church …. go figure!).  When I met with them two nights later it became clear that their marriage problems were very much related to deep pain in both of their pasts.  They were both the children of alcoholics and had witnessed and experienced serious dysfunction in their families.

Somewhat to my surprise, I found myself inviting them to consider taking part in a program we were starting the very next night called The Twelve Steps:  A Spiritual Journey.  Five weeks into the program (being attended by nine people), they tell me that for the first time they are talking together about the pain in their past, and about spiritual issues.  Last week the women’s sub-group of six all went to a movie together.  The husband has decided to take holiday time on several Tuesdays so that his afternoon shift won’t interfere with him doing the program.  Last Sunday they came to church for the first time.  The husband told one of the Twelve Step leaders that he felt the sermon was ‘just for him’.

And so yet again I found myself asking a question about ‘small’.  If the only ‘way in’ to hear the gospel is through a large group worship event followed by the bold step of voluntarily joining a small group, how many people who seriously need to hear good news about the transforming power of God are missing out?

seedlingThe Fresh Expressions movement, sweeping through much of England and now taking off in Canada, tells us ‘small is beautiful’.  In its skateboard churches, bakery churches, café churches, and Goth Eucharists they are reaching small groups of people no traditional church (big or small) can reach.  I believe small neighbourhood churches can confidently say, along with Fresh Expressions, “Yes, small can be beautiful.”  So let’s celebrate ‘small’, by keeping an eye on the big things God wants to do there.


  1. Ed Leidel
    March 10, 2009

    Small Church: Great Church
    check my website:

    The future of small church is particularly hopeful for the next generation for the following reasons…

    1. The “flattening” of the economic and technological world means that there will be an equalizing of wealth and information in the years ahead. That means that North America is going to experience a downsizing in all areas of life. Small congregations will become the lifeblood of the Church along with other emerging congregational configurations. Small churches will survive and flourish because they are practical and feasible to operate and maintain.

    2. There is a movement in organization away from hierarchical (top down) community toward organic (team culture) community. The New Science talks about the efficiency of fractals, or the smallest recognizble unit of an organism. Small membership communities are like fractals. Fractals can deal with change with speed and efficiency. Top down organizations have more difficulty adopting to change.

    Small Churches work the best
    in an ever changing culture because…

    1. They are owned and operated by the people. They are faith based co-ops.

    2. Everyone has a role. They are places where the ministry of the baptized is most realizable.

    3. Small congregations form “real” people. It’s almost impossible to be phony in a small church. Nurture and accountability is
    everyone’s ministry.

    4. Small churches actually adapt to change “better” than any other size community. That is because everyone is involved in the decision making process, so the change when made is owned by all. And , as small churches have fewer people, there are fewer votes to count.

    5. Small churches grow faster than large churches. Research done by the Natural Church Development people show that 20 small churches of 50 members will add (in total) 16 time more people in a year then one large church of 1000 members.

    6. Small churches are inherently relational. People outcome is always valued over program outcome. Small churches feed our great yearning for intimacy and community (family).

    7. Worship is more important in small churches then in any other size configuration. Worship is a homecoming event. You are missed when not present; and you are truly involved when present.

  2. Glenn Gibson
    March 13, 2009

    I agree with the challenge made to the “bigger is better” fallacy, but caution against the opposite mistake of “smaller is better” with the some time accompanying danger of missional complacency. The truth is that there are effective larger congregations (just like there are highly missional smaller parishes)! But a closer examination that large missional churches is that they are really just conglomerates of several smaller congregations who are networked in such a way that they can also provide experiences of large group worship. Larger churches must avoid the mistake of thinking that the big corporate encounter is the sum and total of Christian community. Small congregations need to continually stoke their good news passion for those within their reach. To do big church means mastering smallness. To do small church means maintaining a larger vision for others.

  3. Jon
    March 13, 2009

    I have realized in leading Youth services at our church the children enjoy being a part of the large group but they also desire that intimate time of a small group. I agree with the premise of this article that it is absolutely essential especially when it comes to youth to get small if we intend to reach these children at a personal level just like Christ reaches us at a personal level.

  4. Ed Leidel
    March 14, 2009

    The point is that no one size is better then any other. Each has its own strengths and weakness. The challenge is that our North American culture tends to declare that smallness is simply a steping stone to bigness; and that remaining small is a difficientcy. We are learning (again) that that is just not true in today’s changing world. See .

  5. Judy Paulsen
    March 18, 2009

    I used to think that ‘big’ or ‘small’, when it comes to churches, was not the issue, but lately I’ve been questioning this. The more I talk to pastors of big churches, the more I hear them lament about several things: (1) ‘consumerist’ tendancies of their people in terms of ‘being fed’ and being on the receiving end of ‘only the most excellent and professional ministry’, (2) the lack of connectedness with their neighbourhoods, stemming from a congregation that commutes to get there, (3) the difficulty in getting people to commit to small groups (or significant leadership roles), and (4) the constant search among Christians for the ‘latest, best, and coolest’ new church …. in other words a lack of authentic relationships that keep people grounded somewhere.

    I now think there are very significant problems with the large church model. The structure of large churches makes it especially tough for them to fulfill their primary calling of cultivating a counter-cultural community (not just a group of individuals) that points to and joins in God’s mission in the world.

    I’m not saying it can’t be done …. but I am saying I don’t see it being done very effectively so far. This, of course, in no way lets small churches off the hook. Their structure and size is only an advantage if they are healthy.


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