In college, I had Megachurch dreams. I don’t know if this is true for all Christian college students dreaming of ministry, but it was for me. One day I was going to lead a large Church in a big city. People would know my name across the country as I spoke at conferences and conventions. I would be known for my great preaching, strong leadership, inspirational writing and of course my humility. I certainly had big dreams.
Then I went into ministry. My first sermon at a Church that would become my first located ministry had eight people in attendance. When I left a couple of years later, it was averaging 40 people in attendance, and with those numbers, I was sure to do an even greater thing if I was only in a bigger city. Then came my next ministry and then my next. After almost ten years I had never preached at a Church over 200 people.
Finally, my big day came. I started a new Church in a big city. This would be my chance to prove myself and finally gain some recognition. After eight years the Church’s weekly attendance was a little over 250, but I was miserable. My life and marriage were falling apart. I was far from the Lord and incredibly unhappy. The leaders there were gracious and granted me a sabbatical at the end of my ministry and it would offer me a chance to find myself.
After weeks and months of prayer, I kept coming to one big conclusion. God was calling me to be a pastor in a small town. I am a small-town boy, and this is where I fit the best. That lead me to Homer, Alaska and then down to Adrian, Missouri where I am currently serving. All total I have been the preacher in 6 Churches in 25 years and most of those have been in cities with populations of less than 5,000.
Along with this journey, God has blessed me with to opportunity to see Churches grow even in small communities. I have watched Churches double and triple in average attendance in places where it was thought impossible. It has truly been an interesting ride.
With each of these Churches, I have noticed numerous similar traits. Usually, the Church has started down a predictable path of struggle. They select poor leadership and frequently have too many leaders. They stop taking care of their property to save money for more important things. These Churches start living in the past and speak of yesteryear with great affection. They are extremely close-knit and care deeply for one another, often at the exclusion of outsiders. I could list about ten common characteristics in all of these Churches I have lead in smaller communities.
The good news is that each one of these issues is easily addressed. Sure, there will be some difficult meetings, ugly conversations and a few people will leave, but growth is possible in spite of all these struggles.
There is only one thing I have found in a small community Church that will kill it. There is only one attitude that is impossible to overcome. The Church cannot move forward with the mindset that says, “We don’t care about people outside of our walls.” If the kingdom of God is only for those who are already insiders, then it will fail to ever make an impact in its community.
Most of the struggles in leading a small Church are issues of methodology. People have no idea how to have a gospel impact, or they are clinging to the old ways of doing things. These problems can be overcome with teaching and leading. But an attitude that does not care about the people who are going to hell within our community is impossible to lead or teach.
Leading a small community Church is about getting people to see that every person in the world matters to God. Therefore, those people should matter to the Church too.