“What is the point of that small church? They are basically just one family. Are they even getting spiritually fed? They should probably just merge with another church so they can actually be a church.”
Depending on your church background, you may have been on the receiving end of those comments growing up, or perhaps, the one saying them. I stand in both worlds as I was raised in a smaller church and then transitioned to a larger church after marriage. When I started attending a different sized church, I initially felt aloof and disconnected because I came with a preconceived notion of what church should look like. Large churches certainly have their advantages, but did God intend for me to miss out on the intimate, small-church atmosphere I grew up with my entire life? If I had persisted in my skepticism of what church was supposed to look like, I would have remained in the dark about what the Church was intended to be.
A smaller, local church undoubtedly faces challenges that can be daunting at times. Typically, just a few main leaders will be in charge of the key ministry roles and this can lead to a lack of departmental structure, fewer personalized programs for certain age-groups or needs-based ministries. Burnout is a real thing in smaller churches as there may be limited resources for the “rotation” system. For instance, those who lead worship on Sundays may have to organize the family camps while also having to preach at Saturday night cottage meetings. While that responsibility is empowering and certainly develops strong and bold leaders, the process can be a tough road and deeply isolating at times.
What smaller churches do not lack, however, is gospel-centered ministry. Growing up, I experienced powerful teaching of God’s Word, authentic prayer and concern for fellow members. There was always sacrificial giving and strong, consistent participation as each member felt ownership and accountability to strengthen the church. I heard honest and often visceral testimonies requesting prayer for sudden medical diagnoses, job loss, and mental health struggles. Further, a church with fewer members may be more inclined to be externally focused with city-wide church initiatives, inter-church monthly services, small groups, family camps and youth events. Evenings spent in a member’s basement (we have those up north) for cottage meetings with my “small” church allowed me to understand and experience the corporate move of the Holy Spirit consistently and with tremendous fervency.
Now for my present reality–the large church. Generally speaking, this is a church that has weathered many storms and yet has continued to grow in number and unity throughout the years. The fundamental advantage of this sized church is having a larger pool of members from which to select leaders and manpower for program implementation. In a larger church, a young-couples ministry or development of twelve-grade Sunday School would be possible because there are enough children to fill each grade level. Larger churches can also cultivate talent among teachers, preachers, singers and leaders. Though, this may be a weakness, as there are talented people who may go unnoticed because the spotlight is on a few who may have the courage to show their skill. Furthermore, churchgoers may feel more comfortable attending a larger church as they are more comfortable slipping into the background but obviously, this can be detrimental to those who easily slip into the shadows without a single person noticing or reaching out.
Nonetheless, as we shelter in our homes while COVID-19 rages, large and small churches alike share a commonality with the Church-global in their longing for community and corporate worship. House church and megachurch alike are now forced to worship virtually and reckon with the realities of social distancing. Stripped of its spotlights, drum-sets, projectors and podiums, what fundamentally makes church, the Church? In other words, what are the essential functions of the church as explicitly stated in Scripture and practiced “everywhere, always, and by all”? Dr. Michael J. Svigel defines three premier works of an authentic local church in Retro-Christianity: exaltation, edification, and evangelism.
- Evangelism – An obvious work of a true church but arguably the most neglected. We see this key function of the church firmly established in the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19), which is a call to make disciples of all nations. Small or large, churches must equip members to share their faith and the hope within them (1 Peter 3:15).
- Edification – This is the building up of believers. We do this by preaching, praying, reading Scripture, teaching, and simply by gathering on a weekly basis. The local church must rely on clear and sound Biblical teaching at its very core to be considered a healthy church.
- Exaltation – Lastly, local churches offer praise and worship to God. This is often done through corporate worship through song, but as Svigel argues, this is evidenced by a lifestyle of worship. Serving others and meeting the needs of the poor and destitute is as much a form of exaltation as any physical act of worship performed on a Sunday morning.
In this very moment, I would give anything to be squished in the pews with the air conditioning that may or may not be working, reading the Psalms responsively with Pastor, tearfully belting out “Way Maker”, listening to the message while hearing “amen” and “stothram” in whispers, shouts and clapping and most importantly, sitting weekly in solemn remembrance with 600 others at the Lord’s Table. When we begin judging a local church by membership size, we miss what God intended for His bride, the Church. The value of a local church body does not lie in numbers but in the way that it edifies, exalts, and evangelizes. In this time, as we are unsure when we will get to sit in those pews again, let us be overwhelmed with gratitude for what Scripture says not even “the gates of Hell will prevail against” (Matt 16:18).