Why Church Must Be Small

This is the topic of my talk this Sunday.

The sub-text says: “In church life it seems that ‘bigger is always better’ but is it really? Perhaps it depends on what we are trying to do… On this day we will try to convince you that for the church to genuinely accomplish its mission its primary expression must be small.”

I haven’t stretched people’s thinking too much in the first few weeks but I imagine this will get some push back…

My observation is that the Sunday event has become the primary

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focus for most whereas I believe that much of what constitutes ‘church’ as it is described in the Bible is very difficult to do in that setting. Its not to say there is no place for a Sunday gathering – a larger expression on occasions – but it is to say that if we are to do the things that church is to do as the ‘family of God’, then our primary expression will need to be in the smaller setting.

So what I am proposing (in theory) is that our first port of call – our top priority – will be our smaller communities – I don’t want to call them ‘home groups’ because that already tags them in a certain way – and our secondary community may well be the larger group, but if you never get to the larger group, or if you don’t want to attend the larger group then that is fine.

I will write more on this later as I have already listed ’13 reasons church must be small’, but the biggest challenge by far is not simply inverting people’s paradigms (although that will be tough).

It is that the secondary expression has snaffled the best timespot of the week! Over the last 7 years in all of our experimenting and tinkering we have discovered that Sunday tends to be the most accessible time for people to come together, especially if kids are involved.

Honestly, I am not sure how to overcome this because we are not about to stop meeting on Sundays in the near future – if ever. But I am not convinced we will actually shift people’s imaginations unless there is a dramatic change in behaviour. If we simply roll on with Sundays as usual and the ‘option’ of re-imagining church then I doubt very many will do the hard yards of actually re-inventing – because it will not be easy.

I am not intending to even act on this until we get back from our trip, but I do want to plant the thought seeds in people’s minds and let them know that this is core to our future.

Perhaps the most ‘accessible’ expression of church is Neil Cole’s concept of Life Transformation groups where 3 people = church. It is easy for 3 people to find a time to meet and virtually all the ingredients of church can be present in a small community of that ilk. However I would still argue for a more ‘household’ / ‘family’ orientation in our primary communities so that we experience greater diversity in relationships.

I am interested in whether others have made this paradigm shift in reality rather than in theory and how you have gone about it.

13 thoughts on “Why Church Must Be Small

  1. Hi mate

    The “body” language Paul uses in 1Corinthians is instructive here. When he says that when one member of the body rejoices we all do and when one mourns we all do i think he means “we all do”!

    Big church doesn’t really permit this level of intimacy and the result is often a parody of it. The Pastoral Team makes sure it knows everyone or has a band of people who do so that they can vicariously rejoice and mourn for the congregation. What do I mean by that? Read the bulletin/notice sheets of any large church. A whole bunch of weddings/funerals etc are listed often of people vaguely connected to us. The church office is mourning and rejoicing vicariously for us, but we don’t actually feel it in the body because a loss (unless in our direct viscinity such as our home group) doesn’t affect our vital organs. We’ve completely outgrown the body metaphor and even the building metaphor (we are God’s house). You can’t lose your hand without noticing it, but a distant branch of your organisation can fail and shut down and few others will be directly affected.

  2. For years, I’ve held the belief that small-groups and home-churches are the environment in which believers can grow together, and that the sunday service should be viewed as a *celebration* service, where many small groups come together and celebrate one God, and oneness in God.

    The way I picture it, if I’m supposed to find my church home and community in a large setting, and somebody 13 rows over and 8 rows back stands up and says, “God healed me of cancer!”, well… Praise God! But quite honestly, I don’t care. I can’t care, because there’s no relationship. But in a small group setting, one person’s praise is praise for us all. And one person’s struggle is shared by everyone.

    I belong to a church body that’s comprised of about 60 people, and there’s about 15 or so that are involved in mid-week small group studies, and while those numbers aren’t terrible impressive in terms of how people typically measure church size, a full quarter of our membership is involved in the mid-week fellowship, allowing for that personal touch and personal growth.

  3. In 2004-06 my old church tried this. The vibe was “we’ll put less emphasis on the Sunday gig, now do more in small groups”. In the last three years that’s changed a bit though.

    With Sunday being the best time – one church went to meeting in home groups one Sunday in the month, they were moving towards homes most weeks, but then they decided that wasn’t working.

  4. Agree with your thinking Hamo and empathise with the dilemma. Our church (cell/ housechurch network) has been working with a cell/celebration model for over 15 years and varied what we’ve done over that time. The intergenerational thing always has been part of our core values. It isn’t easy but SO SO worth persevering with.

    At different times we’ve had Celebration once per month on Sunday morning; 1st Sunday morning, 3rd Sunday evening; 1st & 3rd Sundays morning; back to monthly, and currently we are doing fortnightly Sunday morning. Housechurches have met at all sorts of times, ideally weekly, and particularly those with kids involved have changed their day and time depending on age, stage, who is in the group. You are right though: Sunday morning is prime time for involving kids/families, and that’s when most of our groups with primary age kids meet. But with fortnightly Celebration on a Sunday, that affects housechurch life. So we are now saying that groups need to meet at least 3 times per month in addition to Celebration. That means Sunday groups have to get creative about that 3rd meeting, and that can be a challenge.

    We are also familiar with the Neil Cole LTGs. We’ve found that even a cell group can be to big to get to the heart for some things. We encourage people to meet in 2s or 3s similar to an LTG. (We call them DNA – Discipleship, Nurture, Accountability)

    Hamo, if you are interested in more of the nitty gritty of our experience and how it has/is working for us I’m more than happy to chat further offline.

    (By the way our context is suburban Sydney.)


  5. Big church , small church, indoor church , outdoor church , wooden pews, plastic chairs, church on sunday, church on wednesday, stained glass windows, normal windows, wooden pulpit, perspex pulpit, drums , no drums, choir, backing singers, start on time, wait for the late comers, start with worship, start with sermon, lengthy sermons, short sermons, sing hymns, dont sing hymns, have coffee before the service, have coffee after the service, how should we arrange the chairs this week, how should the singers be situated, etc etc…. what is it really all about have done all this in the last 20 years and has done nothing for my spiritual state, is it about me or about worshiping God.

    Maybe we should take a leaf out of the football worshippers book, they become member of a football club, they go along to the same venue, sit in the same seat, sometimes get wet and cold, scream for their team , abuse the opposition, watch their team perform the same ritual week after week , coming out on to the grounds running thru the banner and playing 4 quarters of footy. They then go home thrilled if their team wins , dissapointed if they dont, but then they come back and do it all again, and they hate when the seasons over and cant wait for it to start again, thats real devotion.

  6. Hey jovial_cynic your comment about not caring because you dont have a relationships with certain people, just aswell all the people who have given up their time to help the the bush fire victims (the people they have no relationship with) dont think like you . I think your commment is really selfish. By the way how many people in the bible have you had a relationship with….

  7. I read a great book a few years ago, in fact I was looking at it again just thismorning before reading this post. This book is The Search To belong by Joseph Meyers. In it he says some interesting things about small groups and intimacy. Things I did not expect, or rather that surprised me at the time. I always thought the classic church small group answered all the questions of intimacy and belonging, I thought they were the answer ever large church pastor had to the criticism ‘your church is too big’. But I think your comment about Cole’s groups of 3 might be getting closer to the point.

  8. Lesley –

    You said “I think your commment is really selfish.”

    I think perhaps you misunderstood my point. I’m saying that it is impossible for me (and I believe this to be the case for most people) to feel the joy of a stranger’s triumph, or the pain of a stranger’s fall in a way that has personal impact. We need closer contact. And maybe that means stepping into the lives of strangers, and befriending them so that they are *no longer* strangers. I’m not advocating caring only about people we know. I’m suggesting that a large church setting without a dedicated time of fellowship creates an illusion of relationship (everybody under the same roof, right?), but without actually providing an environment where people can get to know each other.

    We are called into relationship with one another. And I believe that we’re called into relationship so that we can lift each other up.

  9. Hamo your post is timely with regard to our journey. We started up with a house church a couple of years ago, meeting on Monday nights. Elise & I subsequently moved house, ended our involvement with our old church – due mainly to distance although we wouldn’t go back, because of how our thinking has changed.

    In recent months we discovered that Monday nights weren’t so good because by the time we’d eaten dinner and reconnected after a fortnight apart, it was late and we wanted to go home & sleep rather than get into real meaty content. Lo and behold, someone suggested we meet on Sunday mornings for brekky & church – it’s great so far!

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