December 12, 2017

The Significance of Small Church Ministry

Don Johnson

I wonder how many readers of Proclaim & Defend attend small churches? By small, I would say any church of 200 or less. I base those numbers on a couple of sources I read recently. They have gotten my attention and stirred up some thinking about small church ministry. I’d like to spend some time here on P&D “thinking out loud” about small churches. I would invite our readers to comment with their observations as well. I’ll post a link for you to submit observations at the end of this article.

On a blog dedicated to thoughts about small church ministry, the author said, “Over 90% of the churches on earth are under 200 people. Over 80% are under 100.” Another site, Fast Facts about American Religion says:

The median church in the U.S. has 75 regular participants in worship on Sunday mornings … Notice that researchers measured the median church size — the point at which half the churches are smaller and half the churches are larger

The same site says the average attendance at U.S. churches is 186, according to one survey. The total number of churches in the U.S.A. is estimated at about 350,000. If these numbers are accurate, that would mean 150,000 churches of 75 or less, while a significant number of the larger 150,000 are none too big since:

while the United States has a large number of very small churches, most people attend larger churches. The National Congregations Study estimated that the smaller churches draw only 11 percent of those who attend worship. Meanwhile, 50 percent of churchgoers attended the largest 10% of congregations (350 regular participants and up).

Some Thoughts Concerning These Numbers

  • Most of the writing about church ministry seems to be focused on larger ministries. That is where the money is, after all. Small church pastors are not usually in the top ten (or even the top 100 or 1000) publishing books on church growth, leadership, ministry ideas, etc. Those with larger ministries have the resources to write and publish. Most small church pastors are highly occupied with surviving as small church pastors. The time to think and write isn’t available to them. (I don’t say that to complain, this is simply a reality of the situation.) Consequently small church pastors are often attempting “solutions” for growth that are geared more to large church ministries. Perhaps if we realized this, there would be less following of large church fads with frustrating results.
  • Some of the notions about church polity that are quite popular in the “preacher books” category don’t really work in the small church context. For example, “plurality of elders” — while I see the benefit of a team approach, I think small church ministry is much more about simply a “plurality of disciples” rather than elders. What we need to develop are solid disciples as members of the local church who will shoulder the many tasks that otherwise fall on the pastor or simply don’t get done. Teaching Sunday school, running a nursery, cleaning buildings or meeting places, cutting the lawn… all of these things need disciples to do them.
  • Strain on leadership — in the many churches with 75 or less in attendance a great deal of pressure is placed on leadership. Depending on congregational demographics, a good number of churches of this size cannot afford to support a pastor full time — some other means of support is essential. There are other problems associated with this point as well: many small churches go without a pastor, depending on occasional itinerant ministry perhaps, or the leadership of strong “laymen” who keep the congregation together one way or another. And small churches are often very unstable – without pastoral leadership, it is very challenging to grow to any size and the passage of time will almost inevitably see a congregation simply age and die out, if it survives at all.
  • Lest we be too negative, it is a remarkable thing to note that so many small churches persist in the face of many pressures. The reason is the immense value of salvation through Christ. He is the life of the church, His message establishes the churches, His people gather and worship together, even if their circumstances are less than ideal. We recognize that many churches are troubled by errant doctrines and other hindering factors, yet the strength of Jesus Christ means there will be Christians found in every area, with churches formed as those Christians instinctively seek out like-minded believers to join together in worship of Christ.

Challenges face churches of all sizes. There are benefits to congregations of various sizes. Churches large and small contribute much to the life of the church over all. In coming weeks, I plan to do more writing on the topic of small church ministry. I invite other pastors to add to the conversation. Here are a few topics I have in mind for coming weeks:

  1. The value of small churches
  2. The cost of bi-vocational ministry
  3. Avoiding dependency: training a church to support its pastor
  4. Why small churches need big churches
  5. Missions and church planting

If you’d like to comment, send an email to . If you are fundamental Baptist pastor, I’d especially like to hear from you and will consider any suitable articles for future publication.

Don Johnson is the pastor of Grace Baptist Church of Victoria, Victoria, BC, Canada (a very small church!).

Although Proclaim & Defend is the blog of the FBFI, the articles we post are not an expression of the views of the FBFI as a whole, they are the views of the author under whose name they are published. The FBFI speaks either through position statements by its board or through its president. Here at Proclaim & Defend, we publish articles as matters of interest or edification to the wider world of fundamentalist Baptists and any others who might be interested.

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