How Tiny Churches Do Things

Small church
In God's eyes, church size doesn't matter. (Lightstock)

Not long ago, I was worshiping with friends in a small, rural and very old church not far from our family home in North Alabama. The building was erected in 1857 and has been used by various congregations over the decades.

Presently, it’s a Baptist church. The members, mostly retirees, treasure its quaintness and its unpainted exterior and try to keep things natural. The building has no electricity, no nursery, no cushioned pews, and no frills of any kind. A few kerosene lamps can be seen here and there, and out back are the toilets. Since the church activities consist of one service each Sunday at 8:30 am, I’d be surprised if the facilities are ever used.

The members don’t demand a lot of their church and appreciate what they have found, the fellowship. (Some go on to other churches in town later in the morning.) The pastor of that little congregation is a retired minister only a couple of years shy of his 80th birthday. But he’s still sharp and energetic and it seems to be a good union.

While I was there, they did something most unusual.

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A few minutes before the sermon, one of the men walked to the front, turned, and announced that some of them had met and talked and they thought it would be a good idea to increase the pastor’s salary from $400 to $500 a month.  “Is there any question?” There was none. “All in favor, say aye.”  It passed.

Then, he said, “This being Christmas week, we want to make a love gift to our pastor of $500.  Is there any question? All in favor?”

Just that simple and it was done.

They gave the pastor a 25 percent raise and a huge bonus with no question asked and no negatives cast.

I remarked on this to my siblings at lunch that day. They had their own stories on that theme.

My brother-in-law who has led the singing in our family church for three decades or more remembered when the church treasurer–we all remembered him–kept the church’s entire finances at his house. All in cash, stored in a box somewhere.

“He had come through the Depression and I guess he didn’t trust banks.”

When he got ready to pay a bill, the treasurer would get in his car and drive to the business and pay it—in cash.

The things you can do in a small church are truly amazing.

My dad and I were driving the highway to Jasper one day when he pointed out a small church. “Not long ago,” he said, “the pastor was caught hunting out of season and fined. The congregation took up a collection and paid it.”

I remarked that I’d give anything to have been in the audience that day and heard how they went about making a case for paying his fine. Whoever pulled that off gets my vote for fund-raiser of the decade.

In small churches, people know each other. And, in most cases, they trust one another. When a decision has to be made, relationships are already in place and communication lines long established. All they have to do is hear from certain individuals and it’s done.

Just like family.

Which leads us to make these observations about small churches:

1. In the Kingdom of God, the size of a congregation seems irrelevant to anything. As Jonathan declared to his armor-bearer, “The Lord is not restrained to save by many or by few” (I Samuel 14:6).

Only the carnal mind of man resists this and believes that, contrary to Zechariah 4:6 (“Not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit, saith the Lord”), the Kingdom of God cometh by loudness, bigness, gaudiness, and swiftness. If it’s not big and growing and loud, it’s probably not of God.

Dear Lord, save your church. (The rest of us would do well to study Zechariah 4:10 and answer its question. See below.)

2. God often prefers to work with small numbers than large in the same way He gravitates to the (pardon the expression) “little people.” Paul looked over the Corinthian congregation and said, “You see how things are among you, brethren. Not many wise according to the flesh. Not many powerful.  Not many of royal birth among us. God likes it this way so that no flesh takes credit for what He does” (I Corinthians 1:26ff).

The Lord was not nearly as impressed by crowds as we seem to be. In John 6, He actually discourages them from following Him, knowing as He did that they were there for the wrong reason.

3. When God gets ready to do a great thing, He loves to start in small, un-dramatic ways. “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed ... smaller than the other herbs, but when it is grown, it is large and birds roost in its branches” (Matthew 13:31-32).

Jesus used a widow’s tiny offering to generate billions for His work over these centuries. He used a small boy’s lunch to teach generations of disciples about His power. Let us remember this the next time a child comes to Jesus in your church or a young person surrenders to the ministry.  God is up to something big!

4. Humanly speaking, we are not impressed by small things, small churches, small beginnings. And that is a fatal mistake. “Who has despised the day of small things?” asked Zechariah (Zech. 4:10).  I’ll tell you who: Most of the people who run denominations and write books on success, that’s who.

5. As churches grow in number, people know each other less and the trust level plummets. Therefore, they must enact some measures new to them, some of which will not be welcome and may even provoke a negative reaction:

  • The growing church where people no longer know each other as family needs procedures in place for conducting affairs.
  • They need to give thought to selecting qualified leaders with proven records.
  • Members must have the opportunity to have input into decisions and ask questions of their leaders.
  • The handling of finances can no longer be done by a private member who keeps the cash under his bed. There must be procedures and plans, and a number of people should have access to decisions and operations.
  • You must have good records and open books.  Once a treasurer begins to protect the checkbook as his private turf the church is in trouble.
  • There must be accountability of all leaders. They should be chosen and put into place with the understanding that the questions “Why did you do this?” and “What did you do with that?” and “Why should we believe you?” are going to be standard from now on. The questions may be uncomfortable and the answers sometimes unsatisfying, which is why only the mature should hold key positions.
  • Would-be leaders unwilling to subject themselves to one another (Ephesians 5:21) automatically disqualify themselves from serving.

God’s people must never forget one of the most basic tenets of their faith: “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God” and “There is none righteous, no not one” (both from Romans 3). As President Ronald Reagan used to say, “Trust, but verify.”

Regardless of the size of our numbers when we come together on the Lord’s Day, let us treasure the privilege of being part of His family and honor Him by honoring His church.

Dr. Joe McKeever writes from the vantage point of more than 60 years as a disciple of Jesus, more than 50 years preaching His gospel and more than 40 years of cartooning for every imaginable Christian publication.

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