What is the primary strength of a small church?
I have asked this question in many settings and with many different people, and they all reply in the same way. Their wording may be different, but their answer is the same.
We are a family, they say. We are really close. We care about each other. We are there for each other when someone is hurting. Whatever discussion this topic raises, it always comes back to the same thing. The heart of small-church life is relationships, and we love it that way.
In June of 1978, Billy Graham came to Toronto. In many ways it was an event at the opposite end of the small-church–large-church spectrum. Rev. Graham preached for four nights in the old Maple Leaf Gardens and four nights in the CNE stadium. As a very young Bible college student, I had the privilege of participating in those meetings. Approximately 209,000 people attended the meetings and just over 9,000 people made a commitment to Christ over the course of those eight days.
It was a wonderful experience, but those days are gone. No longer do crowds flock to evangelistic meetings. We live in a culture in which many people think of “evangelical” as a bad word. Church attendance is down, and a larger percentage of people claim to have “no religion.”
How do we share the gospel in what many people label a post-Christian society? Throughout most of the last century, people in Canada either attended church on a Sunday morning or suffered a measure of guilt that they were not there. Today people have much more diverse religious backgrounds than they did in the twentieth century. They also approach church attendance with a very different mindset. Today the question that Christians must answer is one of relevance. What possible difference would church make in my life?
If Christians are going to have an impact on people today, there is only one way they will be able to do so. They must build relationships with them. They must earn the right to share their faith. The tried-and-true methods of the past, such as large-scale evangelistic events, are neither tried nor true in our current culture.
It is important to note that the greatest strength of the small church corresponds exactly with the most effective way to reach people with the gospel. In these times, maybe it is not the large church, with its many staff members and expensive programs, that is best equipped to reach people. Maybe it’s the small church, which has relationships at its core.
Inside the Church
It makes total sense for any church to build around its strengths, so every program that a small church runs should be built around relationships. This is true of children’s programs, the morning service, Bible studies, and whatever else a church might decide it is called to do.
Karl Vaters, in his book Small Church Essentials, suggests that to connect with people in the wider community, small churches need to learn to do church from their buildings rather than in their buildings. He suggests that “in addition to keeping our doors open, we need to look for places where their doors are open so that we can start new relationships and nurture friendships where they are, instead of insisting they do it our way.” This advice should play right into the hands of small churches, especially those in small communities. A worthwhile goal for a small church in a small town is to have a member serving on each of the committees and service clubs working for the betterment of the community.
So why doesn’t this happen more often? One of the weaknesses that holds back many small churches is that while they see their relationships as a strength, those relationships are often limited to each other. The members do care for each other. The coffee time after the service is filled with conversation and often laughter. If someone from within the church family is in need, the members rush to meet that need. But that is sometimes as far as it goes.
And With the Stranger
They are not equally loving to the stranger who comes on a Sunday morning or the neighbour who lives beside them. A woman was visiting a relative in Toronto and decided that she would visit the small church down the street. She enjoyed the service, but after it was over, she wanted to talk with someone, anyone, and so she remained in her seat waiting for someone to come over and greet her. No one came. She continued to wait, and while there were lots of conversations going on all around her, none of them included her. Slowly people left until only the pastor remained, and he was heading to the coat rack to put on his jacket. Finally, she exited without having spoken to anyone.
While this may be an extreme example, it illustrates the weakness from which many small churches suffer. Relationships can be the strength of the small church, but they can only have an evangelistic impact if the church intentionally commits to making relationships with new people—those who are beyond the present church family, who visit the church or who share their community with the church.
In summary, if you are a large church wanting to reach new people, figure out how to be small, in terms of building deeper relationships for the sake of mission. Learn from your small-church sisters and brothers. And if you are a small church, make sure that your strength in relationships doesn’t become your weakness in terms of your calling to share the gospel with new people.
 Karl Vaters, Small Church Essentials: Field-Tested Principles For Leading A Healthy Congregation Of Under 250 (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2018), 231.