Top 10 Reasons Small Churches Tend to Stay Small

Top 10 Reasons Small Churches Tend to Stay Small
Joe McKeever
Review by Ron Talley

An extensive 2007 study indicates that 55.7 percent of all congregations in the United States are under 100 people in regular attendance (including children); 84.1 percent of churches are under 250. Here is the statistic in the study that I found most interesting: Of the churches with 50-100 in attendance, 32 percent of those were founded before 1900, and 77.5 percent of churches from 50 to 100 were founded before 1970. Apparently, if a small church stays small for too long, it’s likely to stay small for decades. Conversely, if a church can break the 100 mark early in its life, it’s more likely to keep growing.

By using the word “grow,” I do not mean in numbers for numbers’ sake. I do not subscribe to the fallacy that bigness is good and small churches are failures. What I mean by “grow” is reaching people with the gospel of Jesus Christ … any church—large or small—that does not place a high value on evangelism and outreach to the unchurched can’t expect to grow…period.

Growth is not getting members of other congregations to switch to yours. Growth is reaching the lost, and to that I say Amen.

The article goes on to highlight the top ten reasons small churches tend to stay small. Here’s each point with a brief explanation:

1. Wanting to Stay Small

According to McKeever, no one ever verbally says, “We want to stay small,” but actions speak for themselves. If new ideas are constantly rejected and new people are frozen out of the inner fellowship, it could be because church members simply don’t want their church to get bigger. Growing larger would mean things would change, and familiarity is comfortable. Personal comfort is more important than mission in churches that want to stay small.

2. A Quick Turnover of Ministers

If a church is turning over ministers every couple of years, that’s a problem. It takes a while for a new minister to build trust with the church members. If trust isn’t built, ministers are ineffective.

3. Domination by a Few Strong Members

If a minister leaves a church and a leadership vacuum develops, a strong member or two will often step in to help out without the intent taking over the church. But Joe says “taking over” is often what inadvertently happens. This strong individual or small group “takes care of things” while the church searches for a new minister. If the newly hired minister leaves after a short time, the same people step in to “take care of things” again, and now there’s a veiled authority structure in the church every new minister coming in will have to deal with. Instead of being able to lead, McKeever says new ministers are told “that’s not the way we do things around here” by the behind-the-scenes authorities derailing plans.

4. Not Trusting the Leaders

McKeever says:

I’ve seen this phenomenon occur in small churches (and never in large ones) at the monthly business meetings. In the small-and-determined-to-stay-small church, discussion centers on why 35 cents was spent on call-forwarding and $2.00 on paper for the office. Leaders and pastors alike are always frustrated that the congregation doesn’t trust them with $20.00, let alone $200.00.

The determined-to-stay-small church is far more concerned about the dollars and cents in the offering plate than about the lost souls in the community. This church would never step out in faith and do something bold to reach the lost and unchurched, and if they did, unless their mindset changed, they would then harass their leaders into the grave demanding an accounting of every dime spent.

If money is more important than mission, that’s a problem.

5. Inferiority Complex

This is that attitude that says, “We can’t do anything because we’re small.” As a result, no dreaming takes place. A preacher I look up to once said, “You ought to set God-sized goals for your life. A God-sized goal is a goal that’s so big, so huge, so massive, that it will only be accomplished if God is involved! Set it, take action to achieve it, and pray for God to get involved!” The same principle applies to churches.

If a church group never dreams, if a church group never develops a desire to be part of something bigger than themselves, it could be because they’re suffering from an inferiority complex that says, “We’re not good enough, talented enough, wealthy enough, whatever enough,” and they never try. Or they compare themselves to other churches: “We’re not X church with Y resources, so we can’t do Z.” Not only does this attitude show the people making up the church group don’t believe in themselves, they’re also displaying a lack of faith in God. After all, He can do the impossible!

6. No Plan

Going along with #5, small churches that stay small usually have no solid plans for the future. If you ask church members what the vision for their church is, they’ll often give you blank stares in return. With no vision and plan for achieving it, there’s no forward momentum — only stagnation.

7. Bad Spiritual Health

As McKeever puts it, if a church group is more well-known for a list of things they do and don’t do instead of the characteristics and attributes of Christ, then that group is sick. Churches should mirror Jesus. Just because a church is small doesn’t mean it’s sick, but more often than not if a church is sick it’ll be small (and will tend to stay that way).

8. Lousy Fellowship (Inwardly Focused Instead of Outwardly Focused)

This describes a church group that may be friendly to outsiders, but they aren’t real friends to outsiders. In other words, they may say “hi,” but they won’t go out of their way to develop real relationships. It’s nearly impossible for a guest to plug in to the inner circle of a church where this type of fellowship exists no matter how hard they try, so instead of sticking around they leave.

9. A State of Neglect Permeates the Church Building

McKeever says a building in shabby shape is often a sign of something deeper: “a dying church that doesn’t tend to its business.” The attitude prevalent here is one of apathy. When you get down to it, the church members don’t really care that much, and it shows in the facilities. Believe it or not, environment communicates a whole lot to outsiders before anyone says a word to them.

10. No Prayer

McKeever says this is simply a choice — “pray or quit.” If a church is reaching the lost, God is involved. Want Him to get involved? Ask. Don’t want Him involved? Don’t ask. Simple, yet oft overlooked.

There’s a lot more to McKeever’s article than the brief synopsis I’ve given you here. If you’re interested, I encourage you to read the whole thing for yourself. I’m adding it
to my list of church revitalization resources.

I do, however, see a flaw in McKeever’s reasoning. Namely, his focus is almost solely on “the church members” — he doesn’t say much at all about church leaders other than his portrayal of us as victims. In my estimation churches tend to stay small more often because of bad leadership than because of “bad membership.” That being said, there’s still plenty of good stuff in this article that’s worth thinking about.

This article “Top 10 Reasons Small Churches Tend to Stay Small” written by Joe McKeever and reviewed by Ron Talley was excerpted from web site, March 2010. It may be used for study & research purposes only.