How My Small Church Hasn’t Burnt Me Out
Theologically, the smallest possible church is two. Jesus said so in Matthew 18:20. Practically, though, I never believed I’d be in one. Indeed, having worked at two relatively large churches, in the UK and the US (250 and 1,000 members respectively), the thought of the preacher in the pulpit and a solitary member in the pew was unfathomable.
But four years ago, it happened. One Sunday morning, mid 2014, just one elderly lady from my church attended. As I looked down at my meticulous service notes, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t mortified.
Since then, our little London church has grown. By God’s grace, we’re now 21 members, and see around 35 on a Sunday. The church is growing—and exponentially so if we use percentages!
However, some weeks it still feels like we’re on life support—like the weeks when my five-year-old son decides to raucously sword-fight his younger siblings with the service sheet whilst I’m leading and my wife is playing piano; or the weeks when I’m sprinting to the local store because there’s no bread for the Lord’s Supper; or when a few local Christians decide to leave because “there’s not enough church programs yet.” These weeks have all happened and they’ve all left me feeling close to ministerial death.
And yet, our smallness hasn’t killed me yet. How is that? Three thoughts have kept me alive.
1. Know the time.
For both godly and ungodly reasons, I’ve often dreamed of being a Spurgeon or a Wesley. I recently walked around Lloyd-Jones’ Westminster Chapel, and imagined what it must have been like to preach to a full capacity crowd. But those days appear to be gone. The UK is dark and it’s getting darker. We have never been a Christian nation (no nation ever has), yet here Christianity is in the throes of winter as militant atheism blossoms like spring.
For most people today, Jesus is either a hollow mentor or a historical mirage. Three years ago, a headline in the British Magazine, The Spectator, simply read “2067: the end of British Christianity.”
Obviously I cannot speak with such omniscience. Will British Christianity die on my watch? I trust not. Nevertheless, it’s important to be realistic about growth whilst ministering in such days. The US situation doesn’t map perfectly onto the UK one, but as one studies the progressively secular climate, the forecast looks dry. The Western Church seems destined to wilt. Although my stomach rumbles for growth, as I dream of harvest days gone by, acknowledging the fact that we minister in leaner days has often helped me manage expectations in a small church.
2. Keep watering with the Word.
Recently, I’ve been meeting with two non-Christians to study Mark’s Gospel. Their growth in understanding the gospel has been enormously encouraging. By the end, I wanted to hug them both. Yet initially, I wanted to shake them. My internal monologue read: You’ve attended our church for 18 months! You’ve heard over 50 sermons! You’ve sung the gospel hundreds of times! How can you not get it!?
I guess all pastors have such stories. The Word bears fruit in God’s own time. Nevertheless, since pastors of small churches have fewer people to metaphorically water, a relentless and exasperated inspection for fruit is more common. Therefore, regularly mediating upon the fact that the Word is continuously at work—being always active (Hebrews 4:12) and never returning void (Isaiah 55:11)—has been vital.
If pastors are tenacious in watering prayerfully a harvest will follow. Leaders of small churches may be tempted to impatience since fruit is more sporadic, but fruit will be seen—eventually. Hugh Latimer, English martyr, wrote, “The drop of rain maketh a hole in the stone, not by violence, but by oft falling.”
3. Kindle the vision of that judgement-seat.
One of the long-term killers in small church ministry is the perpetual feeling of worthlessness. Living in a highly affluent area of London, I feel this acutely. The world equates size with success (large = legend; little = loser).
Christians subconsciously take this philosophy into their ecclesiological setting. Leaders of small churches may shun the “celebrity pastor” badge and speak publicly of “faithfulness over fruitfulness,” but the truth is that many of us, in our pride, secretly salivate over the prefix “mega.” And there’s a sense in which we should. We should all want larger churches—churches that are growing in godliness and in number. Nowhere in Scripture does it say that a small church is somehow more desirable than an large one.
However, the Bible frequently correlates size and judgement: “Everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded” (Luke 12:48). In Hebrews 13:17, we specifically read that church leaders will give an account for everyone over whom they kept watch. The great shepherd will judge us for every sheep in our flock.
This future reminder doesn’t make me hope for a smaller church in the present, but it has helped me to keep worldly desires in check. The nineteenth century Scottish pastor John Brown would agree. Consider what he wrote to one of his newly ordained pupils who was sinking under the discouragements of small church ministry:
I know the vanity of your heart, and that you will feel mortified that your congregation is very small, in comparison with those of your brethren around you; but assure yourself on the word of an old man, that when you come to give an account of them to the Lord Christ, at his judgment-seat, you will think you have had enough.
My small church hasn’t killed me yet. In fact, it’s grown me.