December 12, 2017

The Calling of the Small Church Ministry

Don Johnson

Somewhat surprising to me, there actually are a number of writers on the internet who are addressing small churches, their needs and methods. It is encouraging to find these resources (though I can’t say I would agree entirely with the ministry philosophy of many writers). Many of them address concerns I have faced or explain matters that I have never fully understood.

One item often repeated is that small churches are the norm – that is, the majority of churches are small churches. By small, we mean churches under 200 in attendance. Some will say as high as ninety percent of churches are under 200 in attendance. When you look at it from that perspective, small does seem to be the norm. However, while most churches are under 200 in attendance, most Christians attend large churches, as reported here.

“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).”

For the average church member, then, larger churches are really the norm. But what about the average pastor? If most of the attendance is concentrated in the largest 10%, as this article says, the fact remains that the vast majority of clergymen expend their labours in the small churches. The same site says the number of churches in the USA is about 350,000. Most likely not all pulpits are filled all the time, but if these figures are accurate, somewhere over 300,000 pulpits belong to small churches. For pastors, the norm is the small church ministry.

What this means is that if you are called into the ministry most likely most of your time will be spent in small church ministry. Relatively few will find their way into big church pulpits or “grow their church” into a big church pulpit. This fact ought to be reassuring. There are many frustrations in small church ministry, but one of them ought not to be dissatisfaction with our ministry due to lack of size. I don’t mean to say we should not be complacent, but we should not be discouraged because we are small. We should expect that this is our calling and it isn’t likely to change significantly for very many of us, even though we always have ambitions for growth. Our ambitions should be for growth within the range of our possibilities as a small church, in most cases.

Given all of this, what do we need to be effective in our calling as small church pastors? In answering that question, I will be offering opinions based on my own experience. I am sure that much more could be said than I will say, but I would like to offer the perspective of thirty years of small church ministry with the hopes that it might encourage someone else to do better than I have done. I also invite, once again, the contributions of others on this same theme. We can benefit from one another’s experience.

In a small church ministry, the pastor quickly discovers that he cannot succeed on his own. Other people are needed to build up the lives of the saints in the congregation. When a pastor enters a small church ministry, very often there are no other people available to take up the work of the ministry with him. In some ministries, no one has been prepared and entrusted with the tasks. In a church planting ministry, the pastor is starting from scratch, often with no mature believers laboring with him. Consequently, small church ministry is of necessity a discipleship ministry. You must invest yourself in the lives of the people and involve them in the work as much as possible. As soon as might be, individuals in the congregation should be challenged to take on the tasks of the congregation, taking time for whatever training is necessary and being accountable for faithful performance of their responsibilities. As the pastor disciples individuals, those individuals should be equipped to build the lives of others. (Eph 4.11-16, 2 Tim 2.2)

In addition to involving others, the pastor should realize that a small church ministry is a small ministry. A small church cannot do all that a big church does and the pastor should not expect the people to be more than they are. I have seen people and pastors grow in discouragement and ultimately fail in ministry because they are trying to do too much too soon. The first mission of the church is discipleship. (Mt 28.19-20) The key to discipleship is training through instruction and practice. All of this takes time. Better to start with fewer services in the week and regular investment in individuals than to have four services a week (with sermon preparation for each one), a full Sunday school program, visitation program, youth ministry, nursing home ministries and on and on, all led and prepared for by one man. Don’t do too much, discern what is necessary, and do the necessary well. Add ministries as ministers (primarily the people of the church) are able and available. And remember that a ministry may run its course and come to an end when circumstances change. In the early days of our ministry, we had a Saturday night Bible study. It filled a need for a several years, but after it had its run, it became clear that other ministries would serve the needs better and the Bible study was discontinued (though it is remembered fondly by those who participated).

Now, while I advocate involving the people in the work as they are able, the young man heading into the ministry ought to take the time to prepare himself for doing all the many tasks that will need to be done in a small church. The people of the church can help, but they are volunteer help, they have limited resources of time and training, and should not be used beyond their abilities. Consequently, much work still falls to the pastor. As I reflect on my own training for the ministry, I think that I could have made better choices in preparation if I knew then what I know now. For example, I would have spent less time in large churches. There is nothing wrong with large church ministries, but that wasn’t where I was headed. The time I spent in small churches, working alongside pastors who faced the same struggles I would face down the road, was far more valuable training to me. I could have used more of it. As far as pulpit ministry is concerned, I am pleased with the training I received – any inadequacies there was the fault of the student, not the teachers!

More could be said about academic preparation than I have space for here. I suppose that all the schools are constantly trying to improve what they deliver to the students. I would hope that the philosophy of the pastoral training departments might be more oriented to the small church than the large – there are more of them and that is where most “preacher boys” are headed. I am not sure we need more specialization in training (i.e. specialization in youth ministry, camp ministry, evangelism, etc.). I would prefer that young men be challenged to be prepared for an all-round ministry in a local church.

In conclusion, let me say that I appreciate the many faithful brethren who labor in small churches all around the country. I know your struggles, I would just like to encourage you — you are not alone, and your struggles are normal! The Lord will enable you if you trust him in your labors.

Don Johnson is the pastor of Grace Baptist Church of Victoria, Victoria, BC, Canada.

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