About forty people scattered on metal chairs greeted me on my first Sunday in my first (and only) pastorate in a quaint little sanctuary nestled in the woods between massive orange groves just west of Orlando, Florida. There were no pews, organ, carpeting or paved roads leading to this place. Snakes in the breezeway and gators in the nearby lake — I thought I was in the jungle!
About one year into the ministry, a visitor complimenting my sermon whispered to me: “You won’t be here long.” Puzzled at first, I realized she meant that I wouldn’t have to labor very long in this obscure setting. I was good enough to get a bigger church! Feelings of flattery mutated into frustration. Was I supposed to be unhappy with my congregation? Were these people not worth my life’s sacrifice? Is the pastorate like a business where you climb the corporate ladder to “real success”? I determined that I would not allow that mind-set to direct my ministry.
Fascination with bigness obscures the truth that Jesus, the builder (Matt. 16:18) and head (Eph. 1:22) of the church, has built many more small congregations than large ones. Small churches, not large ones, are the norm. The congregation in the United States that has more than seventy-five members is above average. A recent report from one church-growth-oriented denomination revealed that one-third of its congregations have under fifty members and one-half have under one hundred.
While the first church in Jerusalem began with three thousand souls and quickly expanded to five thousand, similar results were not forthcoming in Asia. How big were the congregations in Ephesus or Colossae? The visible church of Christ grew immensely, but not all in one place. The size of its congregations varied widely then, as it does today.
That it is the Lord’s decision for congregations to vary in size may be gleaned from several texts. First, in Matthew 25:14–29, we have Jesus’ parable of the distribution of talents. Each servant was given a different amount with which to serve, and each returned with a different increase. We all know pastors who not only preach to their congregations, but also turn their sermons into books for “additional mileage,” and then put those sermons on the radio for an even bigger ministry. This illustrates that Jesus has entrusted different amounts of talents to different servants producing different results. Credit the difference to Jesus!
Second, in Matthew 13:23, Jesus proclaimed that the seed sown on good ground (that is, the Word preached) yields various harvests — thirty, sixty, or a hundredfold. According to Jesus, we should expect varying results from the same seed and the same labor. God, not the preacher, causes the diverse increase. Salvation is of the Lord. He builds His church as He wills.
Third, consider that “there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone” (1 Cor. 12:4–6).
Note that the Holy Spirit has deliberately created a variety in His church — a variety of spiritual gifts, a variety of services, and a variety of activities (“kind of working,” NIV). Does not this divinely determined variation help explain the varying sizes of Jesus’ congregations?
Also, experience tells us that not everyone does well in a large church. Some souls get lost in the crowd, while some do so on purpose. Others do not relish the attention they get in a small church — the natural accountability is too glaring for them. A large church may offer great programs (which, by the way, often bless smaller churches), while most saints feel more needed in a smaller church. A large church has multiple and specialized staff, while in a small church every member can relate to the pastor as to a personal trainer of his soul.
Usually a small church has the most favorable pastor-to-member ratio. In this respect a small church is more like Jesus’ ministry to the twelve or like the average New Testament church. A pastor of a small church can visit every home, know all his people well, and intercede for their most intimate prayer needs.
Finally, what is most important to Jesus in any church? Is it not the combination of biblical proclamation of His Word, faithful administration of His sacraments, as well as loving care and Jesus-like discipline of His people? A good small church can provide all these to Jesus’ sheep, and, in the case of care and discipline, probably more intensively than a good large church.
There isn’t a right and a wrong when it comes to size. Though size is surely affected by our faith versus our sin, in the end it is the Lord Jesus who makes that call. He builds the church as He wills. He distributes His gifts, ministries, and results, and gathers His people in flocks around the earth according to His own wisdom. Large, medium, or small churches are truly not in competition with each other, but are diverse parts of the Lord’s comprehensive, eternal plan for gathering all His people into one visible church — eventually — in glory. So, each pastor and congregation — each according to diverse God-given abilities — responds to Jesus’ Commission, and the results, and the glory, belong to Christ.