The Small Church Advantage

By Neil Earle

About 515 years before the birth of Jesus a small group of Jewish settlers erected an altar on the ruins of what had once been their splendid temple in Jerusalem. These pioneering reconquistas hailed from Babylon and were eager to rebuild their religion and their city in the land they believed was promised to their ancestors.

The Lord will come to his Temple," said Malachi – (first century model of where Jesus preached) – small things can lead to great things after all.

“The Good Old Days” Syndrome

Ezra 3:10 records the reaction. The older people among them wept when they compared the pitiful altar they had just raised in comparison to the glory of Solomon’s temple that had been destroyed some seven decades before. “But many of the older priests and Levites and family heads who had seen the former temple, wept aloud when they saw the foundation of this temple being laid.” The letdown was so great that God inspired three prophets to speak to the people and stir them up to finish the work. Haggai was one of them. He boldly tackled the “old days were better” argument:

“Who of you is left who saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Does it not seem to you like nothing?

Wow. What a challenge. Haggai had read their thoughts perfectly. He made the diagnosis then gave the cure, addressing both leaders and people:

“But now be strong, O Zerubbabel, declares the Lord. Be strong, O Joshua the high priest. Be strong, all you people of the land, declares the Lord, and work. For I am with you.”

Haggai then went on to make a shocking declaration:

The glory of this present house will be greater than the glory of the former house, says the Lord Almighty.”

What did he mean?

Well, the main reason those people returned under the overall supervision of God was to prepare an orderly society wherein a baby boy could be born in Bethlehem who would be Christ the Lord, Redeemer of Israel and Savior of the world.

The Gospels show that Jesus himself came to this later greatly expanded temple they were building, and made the offer of salvation they were looking for (John 7). He fulfilled the prophetic declaration: “The Lord whom you are seeking will come to his temple, the messenger of the covenant” (Malachi 3:1). Another prophet named Zechariah put it in equally bold challenging terms: “Who despises the day of small things?”

Smaller churches specialize in lasting friendships.

“A Day of small things”

That’s what God’s people thought in the 500s and 400s – that they were living in a day of small things compared to the days of mighty David and Solomon. But they were wrong. As Zechariah reminded them, God's purposes are accomplished in this world not by might or by human power but by my Spirit (4:6).

I look back on our own local church history and people tell me there were once 400 people in the Glendora church. Many of them worked at our headquarters campus up the road in Pasadena. Then came the downsizing of the 1990s and many people lost their jobs and we were cut to 200. When I came here in 1996 there were about 150. Now we have about 50 in regular attendance though there are many others associated with us who get our tapes and letters and even support us financially.

Still, if we are not careful we can see this as day of small things, and we would be just like the people in Haggai's day – missing the Big Picture.

Why do we not succumb to this downbeat approach?

First of all there is the spectacular and surprising spiritual growth in people here in our church. Three ladies here lead worship and regularly preach who never thought they’d be doing that in the 1990s. A group of elders and their male and female helpers and speakers have been running a church service for 15-20 senior citizens every Sunday for ten years. Ten years! This is no flash in the pan but a major outreach to the community of San Dimas.

A gray-haired grandmother in her 80s plays hosts to a house church that meets monthly in Montclair. Those are all big surprises of late and a refreshing contrast to even ten years ago when our congregation was more monochrome. These are not small things for the people involved but big things and God honors and propels their efforts.

Secondly, even small groups can be actively engaged in the Great Commission. Actually that is the litmus test of any church group: are they involved in world outreach? Jesus told his first eleven disciples that they were called to be his witnesses to the “uttermost parts of the earth” (Acts 1:8). We, like other small churches, support Bible distribution in Africa, poor relief in Bangladesh, emergency shelters in Pasadena and Pomona and a host of other ventures. Every year we send over $10,000 out of our local church to the work of world proclamation and sending relief. Some former Glendoraites help bring food and medicine to the poor in the hills of Mexico. Fifteen years ago no one was thinking in these terms. But Jesus states with fierce pride in his people, “Inasmuch as you have done it to the least of these, you have done it to me.”

Nouwen urged Christians to stay connected to ordinary people.

Small can be Beautiful

The small church has many advantages as far as effectively and knowingly praying for the sick, encouraging those who are faltering, promoting greater intimacy among the members through sharing meals and sending cards and notes, etc. as well as teaming together to impact the world with the knowledge that despite all appearances to the contrary, God is alive.

With God’s help, we intend to keep doing that. Here are two things to think about. First, make space for strangers. This is Christian writer Henri Nouwen’s phrase. Be open and receptive to the people you meet. Nouwen pointed out in his stimulating essay called “Reaching Out” that there are many instances in the Bible of people being friendly and hospitable and seeing great things happen. Abraham entertained three strangers (he thought) and the result was a promise of a son being born to him and Sarah (Genesis 19). Ananias of Damascus was afraid to meet Saul the Destroyer of the Church but when he did after the Spirit’s prod, the church gained its greatest missionary (Acts 9).

The two men on the road to Emmaus never realized that their new travelling companion was the resurrected Christ (Luke 24). Christians must be friendly and inviting. Small churches can use their tighter and dynamic internal lines of communication to impact people who show up. We’ve seen it happen many times. It will happen again as long as our hearts are in the Gospel work.

Secondly, realize God wants to use us. Individually we are of no great spiritual account or matter on this earth. But God worked with a small group of twelve men and a smaller band of motivated women to great effect (Luke 8:1-5). I was struck sitting in a Catholic church for a wedding this summer of the wood work on the walls of the church. It showed Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea taking Jesus down from the cross, tenderly wrapping him in burial cloth and then placing him in Joseph’s own tomb. It really hit home that God uses ordinary people to great effect.

Somehow Jesus knew that his small group would be there for him – even when only two men in that band of disciples stepped up to handle the Lord's body.

A Sweet Fragrance

There are many reasons to believe that God wants to use us to spread the word. We don’t have to “talk” people into anything we just have to be a good witness ready to answer when people asks us questions or give us openings, and people surely have enough problems and worries these days that there are plenty of these. One man lost his job. His coworkers were sad for him. “No, I’ll take it to my small group,” the man replied. One of his co-workers wanted to know more: ‘Would your small group pray for me?”

There’s a nice text in Second Corinthians that helps summarize all this. “But thanks be to God who always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ and though us spreads everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of knowing him. For we are to God the aroma of Christ…to the one the smell of death, to the other the fragrance of life. And who is equal to such a task (verses 14-16)?”

Paul is right. The task of world evangelism does seem overwhelming. Knowing we have to leave the outcome to God for the conversion of any human being keeps us properly humble. It is his work on earth after all and it is best accomplished when we follow the Spirit’s lead. The small church with its friendly greeters at the door, its needing the voices of everyone to respond to the worship leader, its ideal size that makes sincere follow-up possible – these are some of the advantages to worshipping and living life as ambassadors of Christ in a small church, like about 80% of the American population does every week.