Book Review: Why Join a Small Church?, by John Benton
John Benton, pastor of Chertsey Street Baptist Church and editor of Evangelicals Now, strikes back against the mega-church movement with his book Why Join a Small Church? In it, he defends Christians pouring their lives into small and maybe even struggling congregations instead of joining the large church across town or, if you are a church planter, starting from scratch in the school auditorium next door.
Benton insists that a “philosophical materialism” has so permeated evangelical life that we are willing to drive past two or three small, orthodox congregations in order to attend the church with a sharper preacher, a vibrant youth ministry, and coffee-on-demand. “God loves what is small,” Benton asserts, so the church-seeker ought to be willing to take a risk by joining a congregation with few creature-comforts but a love for God’s Word and a heart for God’s people.
A SMALL CHURCH JOURNEY
I’ve been there. I joined Capitol Hill Metropolitan Baptist Church (as it was then called) the week before Mark Dever was installed as the pastor. I was young but I was certainly not restless and reformed. I had no evangelical heroes at the time. In fact, I’m pretty sure I didn’t know what evangelical meant. I was interested in national government, not church government. Yet at this “little” church, I found community and theology, life and doctrine, and it changed my life. After getting married about a year later, I remember how my wife and I prayed the Lord would bring other young couples to the church. And he did. Lots.
A few years later, when we moved to Louisville, we joined another tiny church—this one was even smaller. We moved a half-block down the street. Third Avenue Baptist Church was nothing to boast about. It was the home of cantankerous seniors and peeling paint. We went through more than one pastor, we grew and shrank, grew and shrank. Now, with a permanent pastor in place, it is really growing. It still has its struggles (that building is really old!), and it is a young church (largely made up of seminary and college students), but years ago there was not a college student in sight. It is amazing to see what the Lord has done with that small church.
The church I pastor today in Atlanta is not presently and has never been a megachurch, but after my experiences in DC and Louisville, it feels like a one. We have roughly 300 people on Sunday morning, and sometimes I still feel out of sorts as I remember the days when I could tell if someone was missing. Yet while the church feels oddly big to me, to some people it feels just right. A man recently sat in my office telling me why he came to our church. He said, “You weren’t the largest church and you weren’t the smallest church, you were just right!”
DON’T DESPISE THE DAY OF SMALL…CHURCHES?
Now, back to our book. Benton gives the impression that God uniquely loves small churches, yet I’m not so sure. Benton argues that because God spared just Noah and his family, because God’s promise came through Abram, because He used an aged Moses to lead the Israelites out of Egypt, and because Jesus was born a baby and yet the King, God must have a special place in His heart for that which is small in the eyes of the world, like small churches.
I think Benton’s reasoning gives those in small churches good reason to think twice before leaving, but I’m not convinced that it is reason enough to make it my mission to join or pastor a small church, or to deliberately keep my church small.
What is tantalizing, however, is Benton’s heart to rescue the small church from obscurity and defend it as a potential trophy of God just waiting to be polished. Why are so many church planters skipping over dying churches and planting churches right next door? Certainly there are a lot of reasons: entrenched leadership, the desire for a ministry unencumbered by the traditions of the past, and so on. I get it. But certainly there is room, as Benton suggests, for mature believers to find congregations that are like-minded (at least on paper) and seek to influence them so that the existing congregation can have a fresh experience of God’s grace and so that the existing facility can be reclaimed as a beacon of light instead of a stumbling block for its neighbors. Benton puts it this way: “O how good it would be for no more churches to close, but instead for them to start growing. How it would get non-Christians scratching their heads and perhaps to thinking again about Jesus. So join a small church” (16).
Truth be told, I think some small churches ought to close. I don’t know what it is like in England, but in some U.S. cities it seems like there is a church on every block. When people walked to church that made sense. Today it doesn’t. Nonetheless, there are thousands of small congregations that would be well served by a young pastor seeing what it could be instead of dismissing it as a relic of the ancient past, a bastion of traditionalism, or an impediment to his church growth strategy. The opportunities for congregations to be reclaimed are tantalizing. Maybe, just maybe, the Lord wants zealous men who have chosen not to risk their lives in the 10/40 window to walk alongside an eighty year old for a few years and do a few funerals before changing the world. Maybe the Lord would be pleased by parents leading their children to a place of service to understand better how we have been served by Christ, instead of taking them to a church where every conceivable need is met. Maybe small churches do have a lot to offer.
This is the heart of Benton’s message, and I think it is worth listening to. In an age that rightly prizes authenticity, it doesn’t get much more authentic than a local church serving a community for the glory of God.
That said, I don’t think anyone should make being part of a small church his goal in life. We want churches to grow spiritually and numerically. But in a church culture overwhelmed first by the megachurch movement and now by the multi-site movement, someone needs to stand up and say, “We are not to believe the doubts and fears that the little church is irrelevant or that we are wasting our time in giving our energies to its life and outreach. Rather, we are, in faith, to look beyond our circumstances to the sure promises of God, and work hard for him. And in the light of eternity we shall find that we have spent our lives in the best possible way” (55). Benton said it, and I’m glad he did.