Do smaller churches measure up? “Often, size becomes a major diagnostic tool for churches,” says Rev. Paul Van Dyken, pastor of Grace Christian Reformed Church in Burke, Vermont. “People think that if you’re not big, you’re not healthy.”
When Van Dyken and some of his peers decided to form a group to study how to lead smaller churches to health, it wasn’t hard to find pastors to join. Almost all of the CRC congregations in Van Dyken’s region are considered “small.” Van Dyken’s congregation, for instance, has fewer than 180 members.
As smaller-church pastors, Van Dyken says he and his peers already understood that size was not the way to measure success. “But part of our goal was to help our congregations understand that as well,” he says.
Size is Relative
The local CRC in Edson-Peers, Alberta, has been in existence for more than 50 years and has a membership of 186. Edson-Peers’ pastor Paul Van Stralen agrees that smaller churches often mistakenly use size to measure how well they are doing. But size is relative, warns Van Stralen. “Though we are a small church, we’re also in a small community of just over 9,000. In comparison with the 10 or so other churches in town, we are among the largest,” he says.
Still, in the context of the broader CRC community, Van Stralen doesn’t apologize for his church’s comparatively small size. “There is the notion that if we were larger, we’d be able to do more things, but all in all we are doing quite well.”
“There is a strong sense of community in our church,” he says. “New members feel welcome and included. We have an unusually large percentage of members that volunteer, and nearly every member is involved in a Bible study, a committee, or a church program.”
“When churches focus on whether they’re fulfilling their mission, there is a sense that’s it’s not about growing larger but about being faithful,” Van Dyken says. His smaller-church peer group looked at how having a strong sense of mission provides opportunities to evaluate church health using measures other than size.
Smaller churches may not have as many resources as their larger counterparts, but they’re still doing God’s work, points out Rev. David Tigchelaar, who serves Hebron CRC, in Renfrew, Ontario – membership 199. “We should focus on how we’re using our gifts for God’s glory,” says Tigchelaar. “And if we’re doing that the best that we can.”
Attracted to Small
Smaller can be good, says Rev. David Vroege, pastor of All Nations CRC in Halifax, Nova Scotia, an active inner-city church with 128 members. Vroege says some people simply prefer small in many areas of their lives. “For instance, some people prefer the small, local corner store to the super-size grocery stores. So maybe small churches appeal to people, too.”
In addition, the smaller size of a congregation can make it easier to quickly enfold newcomers and allow them to use their gifts, adds Tigchelaar. “I think of a young woman in our church who just recently arrived and is already using her gifts in the GEMs (Girls Club) program. Small churches give people a place.”
Moreover, it’s easier for the leaders in a smaller church to stay connected to their members, says Van Stralen. “We have a smaller council with smaller districts,” he says. “As a pastor of a small church, I am able to know all my members and even develop relationships with them.”
Bigger Isn’t Always Better
Through the course of their studies, the smaller-church pastors in Van Dyken’s peer group concluded that bigger is not always better. “One of the things that surprised us the most was the level of health in the smaller congregations represented in our peer group,” says Van Dyken. “All of us have struggles but, for the most part, our congregations are fairly healthy. We don’t have to be big, and we’re OK with that.”