Can churches be too small?

StockSnap_QVIEE1UZSXIn my last post, I wrote about the dangers of a church becoming too large. I’m sure for many readers I was simply preaching to the choir. A lot of believers have either never felt right about megachurches or they’ve become disillusioned with them. But can a church be too small? For many, that might seem like a strange question. We may immediately challenge the idea that “bigger is better,” but then just assume that smaller must always be better. But is this true? Does this best fit the biblical model of the local church?

I served as a pastor/elder of a house church for 3 years, and for most of that time the church met in my home. I’m very familiar with the joys and blessings of a simple church meeting in the home, and I understand quite well the reasons why Christians leave “traditional” churches for this kind of intimate, family-like setting. So I understand and sympathize with the thinking behind the house church movement. (I’ve had many conversations about the church’s “edifice complex,” etc.) But is a modern-day house church or a “micro-church” the most faithful way to live out the pattern of the church we find in the New Testament?

Steve Atkerson is even more familiar with house churches than I am. For over 25 years, he has worked to encourage, support and help house churches and house church leaders. But somewhere along the way his understanding changed regarding the house churches in the first centuries after Christ. He came to realize that the house churches in the early church met in the homes of wealthier members of the church (who had larger homes), and that these large, semi-public villas would have atria that could seat anywhere from 60 to 150 people. This is the kind of house church described in the New Testament and to whom the letters to the churches were written. (For more on this you can read my earlier post or Atkerson’s articles here and here.) This is obviously much different than 15 or 20 people sitting in a modern living room.

But this leads to the same question we had to consider in the last post [about abnormally large churches]: Is there anything unhealthy about churches being too small? And—as with the last post—the question isn’t whether a small, house church can be wonderful and healthy. Again, I know they can because I’ve experienced it! I still have very fond memories of our time together in the house church and the wonderful people with whom I was in fellowship. No, I’ll word the question the same way I did for megachurches (only changing “large” to “small”): The question isn’t whether a very small church can be healthy; it’s what are the dangers that all very small churches face, and is this the healthiest option for a church?

Here again I’m appreciative of the work of Steve Akerson. His reflections have confirmed some of my own thoughts and observations and caused me to think more deeply about aspects of house church gatherings that I hadn’t considered before. So what are some of these weaknesses of too-small churches? I’ll note some, but first a reminder: This isn’t a house church vs. traditional church comparison; it’s a Roman atrium-sized church model (à la New Testament house churches) vs. the current micro-sized house church model. (Maybe it would be helpful to drop the terminology ‘house church’ for how the church met in the early centuries, and instead call these villa churches!) This isn’t a call to return to a traditional way of doing church; it’s a fine-tuning of what we should understand as the biblical model of doing church. Could meeting as a very small church in someone’s home actually hinder us from living out biblical principles of church life?

Let’s start with a practical instruction to churches in Scripture. We’re told in 1 Timothy 5:17 that the elders who lead and teach well should be financially supported. And notice this is speaking of elders (plural) who are supposed to be well paid. How many house churches today are able to pay even one elder who is devoted to leading and teaching? Atkerson notes: “Even if there is an elder, the congregation is usually so small he cannot be supported. Unless he is retired or is self-employed and willing to neglect his business, time devoted to the church in equipping, leadership, training, disciple-making, evangelism and teaching is in short supply. As a result, little disciple-making occurs.”

The New Testament churches were not only supposed to financially support certain elders who devoted their time to leading and teaching, they were to be shepherded by a team of pastoral elders. How many house churches have a plurality of qualified elders shepherding the church? Far too many micro-sized house churches don’t have even one qualified elder. Because of this, there is often a lack of biblical leadership and substantive teaching of Scripture. The fellowship may be wonderful, and the people may enjoy and even genuinely benefit from spending time together. But the church is lacking the leaders and teachers God intended to be shepherding his church.

Some newer networks of micro-churches plan from the beginning that all of their pastors will be—and remain—bivocational. They also often stress the surprisingly rapid training and releasing of these new pastors to plant new micro-churches. How are they able to train pastors so quickly? They remove the need for substantive teaching of Scripture. Instead of calling these leaders ‘pastors,’  they’d be better described as evangelists or small group leaders. These groups are actually either cells connected to a larger church that provides needed teaching and training (and so not autonomous churches at all) or they’re churches whose leaders don’t teach the Bible to the people in the church. When one considers the repeated emphasis on teaching the church in the New Testament, this is alarming.

luan-cabral-XVqwbImMR4M-unsplashThe biblical design for the church body is a community of believers that’s large enough to have a healthy assortment of spiritual gifts. This is the way God intends for the body to grow, building itself up in love (Ephesians 4:16). I think it would be a wise thing for any small church to ask how well they’re living out being a community of believers with a healthy diversity of spiritual gifts. If this is problematic because of the church’s small size, it might be appropriate to ask if the church is abnormally small (especially in light of the actual size of early house churches, i.e. 60-150 people).

We also need to take into consideration the differences between first century Roman culture and our culture today. Not only do we not typically meet in the same large, semi-public villas that the Romans did (which were also places of business, with people often coming and going), but we also usually drive to the place where the church gathers together once a week. This, of course, means we have to park. In many neighborhoods, this can create a weekly annoyance for our neighbors, harming our relationship with those living around us and even hurting our witness to them. These kinds of problems have caused some communities to pass restrictions on regular church meetings in private homes. Instead of railing against these “godless” attacks, we need to hear the concerns of our neighbors and realize that our setting is not the same as the early church’s.

To conclude this post, I can’t do better than quoting Steve Atkerson’s excellent work on this (the emphases in the quote below are the original author’s):

“Being too small is a violation of the New Testament norm. Intent on holding to the New Testament example of meeting in homes, some house churches instead violate other New Testament patterns such as having elders and consistent, quality instruction. It is far better to not meet in homes if it means having the blessing of elders and teachers and a diversity of spiritual gifts operating. . . . In all, to accomplish what the early church accomplished may necessitate not meeting in our modern homes (but rather some dynamic equivalent). Thus, the real emphasis should be on New Testament church principles, not simply meeting in homes.”

2 thoughts on “Can churches be too small?

  1. A line from a Bob Dylan song says, “He who is not busy being born is busy dying.” So, in addition to asking how big is a church should be “for how long”.

    I have been to many small churches that were barely hanging on. Many times those in attendance were ALL very elderly. There was little in the format or message that was new or revitalizing. This is the sad state of the dying church.

    In John 15, Jesus compares Himself to a grapevine and His Father God the gardener. A branch that doesn’t produce fruit is cut off, and even producing branches are pruned. So, a meaningful question to ask of a small church is, “are we being pruned back or are we just dead.” The tiny congregations I have seen were full of “dead branches” in which nothing good grows. A church that remains the same year after year isn’t secure and established… it’s dead.

  2. Hi, James. Great comment. Of course, a church can be very large and still be spiritually dead or dying. We see too many of these unfortunately, but thankfully also spiritually vibrant large churches, as well. I, too, have experienced more than a few small churches that are terribly unhealthy and dead or close to it; but I’ve also known some thriving, dynamic, healthy churches that were small. This could be because of their unique setting or because of a commitment to use people beyond a certain size to plant other churches. Or it could also be because God is doing something else in the life of the church at that particular time. We can’t assume that every church is supposed to keep growing larger indefinitely, or that churches should grow like businesses with a certain amount of numerical growth every quarter.

    With all that said (on which I think you and I agree), your points are very well taken. It’s just as easy to assume that ‘small is good.’ If nothing else it’s familiar and comforting to the few still left. But it’s good for a church of any size to ask of itself: What do we see that God has been doing in us and through us recently? What are we doing now to accomplish our mission? If all the evidence of God’s work in and through the congregation is in the distant past, it’s time for some serious self-evaluation. I think your question is a very good one: “Are we being pruned or are we just dead?” A great book for a church that is wondering whether they are are dead or dying is Autopsy of a Deceased Church by Thom Rainer. Thanks, James, for a thought-provoking comment.

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