Do small churches suffer from inferiority complexes? Elzo Tenyenhuis, pastor of a small Christian Reformed church in Kincardine, Ontario, admits that small churches often struggle with issues of self-perception. “In smaller churches, there may be feelings of jealousy since larger congregations are more able to engage in more impressive programs,” Tenyenhuis says.
Rev. Vern Swieringa pastors a small congregation in Gibson, Michigan. He agrees that feelings of jealousy can plague small church ministries. When he and two other Christian Reformed Church pastors in Western Michigan formed a small church peer group, their initial meetings tended to focus on the negative. “We spent the majority of our time talking about the things we couldn’t do because our congregations were small,” Swieringa says.
Swieringa and his peers decided they needed to do something to change that. They applied for, and received, a peer learning grant from the Christian Reformed Church’s Sustaining Pastoral Excellence project to identify and celebrate what God is doing in the life and ministries of smaller congregations.
Their deliberate decision to focus on the positive aspects of being small has transformed their group and their ministries. “We began to discover the blessings of pastoring small churches,” Swieringa says. “We didn’t feel as defeated as we did before. It’s not that the challenges of being small have ceased to exist,” says Swieringa, “but our focus turned toward the positive impact our small congregations have on the universal church.”
“We live in a climate where small is of little account,” says Rev. Gerrit Haagsma, pastor of Kibbie CRC in South Haven, Michigan, and a partner with Swieringa in the small church peer group. Haagsma says it’s time for small churches to look at themselves through a different lens. “We discovered that we had often underappreciated God’s work among us because we saw things through big church eyes.”
In his experiences pastoring a small church, Tenyenhuis has struggled firsthand with the challenges of being small. “There are fewer resources to widen ministry approaches and fewer people to run programs, which can lead to leadership burnout,” Tenyenhuis says. On the other hand, like Haagsma and Swieringa have discovered, Tenyenhuis points out that there are many positive aspects of being a smaller congregation. “In a small church, each member is significant, known, and needed by the rest,” he says. “There is a greater sense of connectedness to membership and local community—especially in times of crisis.”
“A wonderful characteristic of a healthy small congregation is intimacy,” says Swieringa. His peer group conducted a survey to help identify what members valued about being part of a small church and intimacy topped the list. “The simple fact that I know nearly everyone by name in my church gives me a real sense of belonging to a family,” wrote one survey respondent. “Being a member of a small congregation, I have seen God working in people’s lives at a personal level,” wrote another respondent.
“This is not to say that members of large churches don’t experience intimacy,” says Swieringa, “but intimacy is more of a challenge for larger congregations, where it is a natural characteristic of healthy small congregations.”
In addition to aspects of closeness and intimacy, survey respondents expressed appreciation for their pastors’ ability to target the message to the their particular needs and experiences because of the church’s small size. “In a small church, the pastor has the opportunity to really know what is happening in the lives of his members,” says Swieringa.
Positive peer pressure is another natural characteristic of a healthy small church that survey respondents identified. “In a small congregation, it is hard not to see what others are doing to serve. To sit back and not get involved in the church’s life feels unnatural,” said a member from one of the congregations surveyed.
Swieringa and Haagsma say their small church peer group involvement has also taught them to accept the limitations of being small. “We became more cognizant of the fact that a small church cannot do all the things a large church can do,” says Haagsma. “We have asked ourselves instead, ‘What is it that we can do well?’”
“The work of our group has already impacted our churches,” says Haagsma. “In the context where very big congregations often get noticed and ‘bigger is better,’ we have begun to see wonderful things God was doing in our own smaller congregations. We've been able to encourage each other through difficult financial times and other issues that confront our small churches.”
Asked if celebrating the small might hinder church growth, Tenyenhuis says that need not be the case. “Celebrating small is fine unless staying small is the goal,” Tenyenhuis says.
“When you get a positive self image, you’re going to start growing deeper, and that’s the first step to church growth,” Swieringa says. “We are not de-emphasizing evangelism, but we believe there is a place for small congregations to be a welcoming point for people to enter the church.”
Swieringa says he is delighted to see that his new hopefulness about small church ministry has begun to filter down to the congregation—an experience he hopes to help replicate in small churches throughout North America. “We’re not lamenting our smallness anymore; we’re celebrating it, but always with the goal of reaching out.”