Can a small church thrive? To simply answer the question with a “yes” does not explain anything or truly answer the question. Let me start by introducing myself. I’m Reverend Steve Wilson, and I pastor a small church in Nyssa, Oregon, right on the Idaho-Oregon border. I have been pastoring for just over nine years after leaving a career in law enforcement. I grew up in the Church of the Nazarene, and my dad was a pastor for 39 years. Growing up in the church—most of which I attended were small—I’ve experienced many different forms of growing pains. I haven’t been a Christian my whole life. In fact, I spent many years of my young adult life rejecting God. Even the people of God experience growing pains in times of change.
In the lyrics of a Bob Dylan song, he says, “The times, they are a-changin’.” That is true throughout many generations and cultures. Christ never changes and neither does His Word, but our world around us is ever changing. So, how do we make an impact? Have we lost our ability to reach the culture and be truly effective for the Kingdom of God? Are we less important now than we were in the 50s, for instance?
In a small church, we can often begin to feel limited in our abilities as we witness or hear about what larger churches are doing.
This feeling can cause us to become complacent in the familiar, the comfortable, the maintenance of the status quo, and at some point, we find ourselves wondering what happened. Small church, let me tell you, we are not inferior; we are important. I’m reminded of a quote that Eleanor Roosevelt is credited with saying: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”
In his book, The Grasshopper Myth, Karl Vaters writes, “The truth about the small church is we are not sick, we are not failing, we are not stuck, we are not incompetent, we are not limited in our vision, we do not need to be fixed, we are not less than… We are God’s idea!” Vaters encourages small churches to embrace the reality that we are God’s idea, and the early Church is a great example of that. The disciples and the other followers of Christ were obedient to the calling and mission of the risen Savior. They were fearlessly bold and not concerned with programs or if they had enough people or money to accomplish this work. They knew that the Lord would provide and equip them to do it. After all, a church could have all the money in the world and still be spiritually dead. So, where does that leave us?
Remember Peter was asked at the temple gate for money. Peter responded, “Silver and gold I do not have, but what I have I give to you” (Acts 3:6). Peter offered grace and hope, the very same that he had received. Our natural response should be the same.
We should be looking for new places where people can encounter the Gospel—alive and at work through His people.
To thrive is “to grow vigorously, to gain in wealth or possessions, to progress toward or realize a goal despite or because of circumstances.” That is the definition in Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary. The first two descriptions imply the accumulation of numbers or size and finances. However, this is a misplaced focus for the Church. Attendance numbers have been a matrix in the Church that we have tracked, but it should not be the definition of a thriving church. There is nothing wrong with recording attendance. After all, we read in Scripture that three thousand were added to their number that day, five thousand were fed that day, etc. Gaining and recording numbers certainly has its place, but it must not be the primary focus.
Similarly, a focus on accumulating great wealth and possessions can be dangerous. As a small church, we might get in the mindset that we just need more money if we are to do great things for the Lord. Or possibly that we need wealth and possessions so we can prove our success in the form of bigger buildings, etc. If we’re not careful, our motivations can begin to center on ourselves and not Him. What does God need? Does He need great amounts of money to accomplish things? No, He needs us to be faithful and obedient.
Let’s focus on the last description of the word thrive: “to progress toward or realize a goal despite or because of circumstances.” “‘Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything. But because you say so, I will let down the nets’” (Luke 5:5). They were then rewarded for their obedience. Despite our circumstances, we must respond with a “yes and amen.”
Despite our size, which only hinders us in our own thinking, we serve a God of impossibilities that has no limits.
We must respond with a “yes and amen.” When we respond with faith and take a step of obedience to almighty God, we realize that we are not small; we are part of the global Church, serving in our local missional outpost, allowing God to use us powerfully in our setting.
So, can a small church thrive? Yes, only with Christ truly leading the hearts of the people there. A small church can thrive after surrendering their comforts, complacencies, their own desires, and the unholy legalism that pushes people away.
A small church can thrive when they respond wholeheartedly in obedience and cast out their nets, even when it doesn’t make sense.
Isaiah 55:8-9 says, “‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the LORD. ‘As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.’”
Vaters, Karl. The Grasshopper Myth: Big Churches, Small Churches and the Small Thinking That Divides Us. New Small Church, 2013