Significance vs. Size

65 million Americans living in rural areas may never step into a megachurch. How are average-sized congregations making a big difference in small-town USA?
Little things make a big difference. It's a phrase we're used to hearing, but one that often gets drowned out by our fascination with big things—particularly when it comes to the size of our congregations.

I am grateful for the diversity of ministry a megachurch can provide—our church would fit into this category. But I am also deeply aware that megachurches are not the only type of congregation God is using.

The Barna Group notes that, in 2005, 45 percent of American adults attended church on a typical weekend, but only two percent attend a Protestant megachurch. Bottom line: The vast majority of America's Christians are being discipled and cared for in smaller churches.

I first became aware of this when my church and I conducted a survey in 2000 of the 2,783 counties in the United Sates with a population smaller than 150,000. We are in Victoria, Texas, a small city (population 60,000) with a county population of 84,000 approximately 100 miles from any major city.

Our attendance was nearing 2,000 in our two Sunday morning services at the time, and we wondered what was happening in America's other smaller counties. We surveyed more than 2,000 of the 2,742 counties and the results inspired and challenged us.

We found some incredible pastors and churches doing impressive work that has been largely overlooked. We also found many overlooked areas that need vibrant, significant life-giving churches—not necessarily large churches, but significant churches.

Unfortunately, our media-saturated culture—and even the success of others—can cause us to compare ourselves and feel like we have come up short. Recently, I attended a conference and a friend of mine said the following: "I enjoyed the conference—it was put on well. But it is hard to relate when the choir of the church is bigger than the town you live in."

My friend is not alone. When we started our survey there were only 359 counties in the United States with a county population of over 150,000, according to the United States Census Bureau. In comparison, there were 2,783 counties (87 percent of all counties in the U.S.) with fewer than 150,000 people living in them. These 2,783 counties had a combined population of nearly 90 million people. If considered as their own nation, they would the 13th largest nation on earth. That is certainly significant.

This is not just an American challenge. In the world there are just 482 cities with a population of more than 1 million, 71 of which are in the U.S. where there are thousands of overlooked small towns. In India, it is believed there are 500,000 villages that have yet to hear the gospel. The World Christian Encyclopedia states it very plainly: "Urban dwellers are more evangelized than rural dwellers."

But I believe God is raising up people who are finding their significance in their service to God regardless of the size of their church or community. Those in search of significance ask questions such as, Am I making a difference? If I disappeared, would anyone notice? Am I helping people that cannot help themselves? Am I doing something dear to the heart of God?

Years ago, while driving north out of Texas, I passed through small town after small town—and that's where I experienced the discontent that has driven me to team up with fellow pastors in small-town America. I first noticed this discontent as I observed the high school football stadiums along the way.

Any who have seen the film Friday Night Lights know how important football is to Texas. We love our football, and in most every Texas community, a stadium sits in the middle of town as a shrine to our love affair with football. But as I drove through these small towns, I noticed these great football stadiums—built with the finest material and engineering available—sitting in the middle of communities filled with dilapidated churches.

That's when I believe God prompted me to conduct a survey identifying significant churches in America's smaller counties, and that's when He assured me I'd find friends there who would make a difference.

Through the survey, God filled my heart with a dream that began working against my discontent. He also brought people into my life who have become dear friends and devoted co-workers.

These pastors have built exemplary churches—not necessarily large churches by big city standards. Consider this: If a church has 100 people in weekend attendance and the county population is only 5,000 people, that church has reached 2 percent of the county. Similarly, if weekend attendance is 1,000 people and the county population is 50,000, that church has reached 2 percent of its county.

That is the reason the Significant Church Network was born. It has a two-fold focus: First, to bring support, mentoring and training to pastors and church leaders who feel forgotten as they labor in overlooked places; second, to help God's people everywhere discover the sense of significance God intends us all to live with.

We were created to live a life of significance. As Ephesians 2:10 states, "He creates each of us by Christ Jesus to join him in the work he does, the good work he has gotten ready for us to do, work we had better be doing" (The Message).

And true significance is birthed from doing what matters, what is worth doing. True significance emanates from the liberating knowledge that what I do matters to God and people—and we are called by God to live with that sense of importance. To do this, we must resist the foes of our significance: a focus on size, notoriety and approval. And we must recover the foundation of real significance: an awareness that what I do is worth doing, even if nobody ever notices but God.

We all wonder what our communities will look like in the decades to come. I would like to believe that the next 10 years will be known as the beginning of the Third Great Awakening in our nation. If you are unaware of what happened in the first two Great Awakenings, it makes for fascinating reading. Cities were changed as people began attending churches and steeples from newly-constructed churches filled the skylines.

The Great Awakening, according to historians, was not one continuous revival but a series of revivals in several locations. And almost without exception, these sparks of renewal started in smaller communities before spreading into larger cities and towns.

Why? In small communities, people are intimately connected with each other. If you go to a local restaurant and there are 100 people there, you will likely share a family meal with community members that also attend your church. If you walk through the local grocery store or hardware store, you are going to see people you know. The victories, hardships and struggles in smaller communities are not just commonly known—they are commonly shared.

With this in mind, I believe community churches hold the key to this next Great Awakening. Our communities are hurting, filled with people who don't know how to turn around circumstances a post-Christian mindset has caused in their life.

I remember recently going back to my own hometown (population 1,000) and visiting a bakery I had frequented as a child. I asked the lady behind the counter how people I grew up with were doing. After relaying some sad stories of divorce, substance abuse and disappointment, tears welled up in her eyes and she said, "Things were different in the old days—people acted better and cared for each other better."

How true that is. I know what it is like to be raised in a smaller community. For 16 years, I have learned what it is like to do ministry in a smaller community. It is easy to feel energized seeing the lives of people change who you know well and love deeply. It is also easy to feel unsupported, unimportant and worst of all insignificant.

We all know what it feels like to be overlooked and uncelebrated. My wife, Tamara, grew up in a pastor's home as the daughter of the late John Osteen. Her dad pastored one of the largest, most influential churches in our nation ... but it did not start that way. She remembers when fewer than 200 people gathered each weekend in Lakewood Church. She is grateful that her dad instilled a spirit of significance in her, continuously reminding her that our esteem should come from our privilege to help, not merely how many we help.

Likewise, a church should not be judged by its apparent size, but by its significance in its community. Jesus Himself—the most significant person in history—was discounted because of His appearance. Isaiah 53:2-3 says, "He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to Him, nothing in His appearance that we should desire Him. He was despised and rejected of men." In Matthew 21:42 Jesus described Himself to religious leaders who despised Him as "the stone the builders rejected, who has become the chief cornerstone."

It is clear to me that we must embrace our significance before we fulfill our destiny. It is also clear that Jesus' ministry continually grew in influence because of who He is on the inside not the image He portrayed on the outside.

God wants us to fulfill our eternal potential everyday. And He wants churches filled with leaders who are beacons of significance not burn outs of a church system. Here are some practical steps we encourage significant churches to pursue:

1. Embrace the significance of your ministry over the size of your ministry.
In 2 Corinthians 10:12, the apostle Paul wrote, "We do not dare to classify or compare ourselves with some who commend themselves. When they measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves by themselves, they are not wise."

It is not wise, but it is common among Christian leaders. And it is how so many wonderful leaders have had their sense of significance destroyed. I remember talking with our Significant Church leadership team, and discussion turned toward the reality that some pastors who shepherd three percent of their counties are among today's finest Christian leaders. If you pastor three percent of the population in a city of one million, that's 30,000 people attending your weekend services. If the city is 2 million, it is 60,000, and so on.

It may help some pastors to hear that, but it is more important all pastors hear God values their effort not merely their achievements.

2. Focus on the importance of your ministry to individuals—not masses of people.
Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy told of an emperor who wanted to find how he might best live his life looking into the wisdom of the universe. He asked three questions, none of which were easily answered: What is the most important time? Who is the most important person? What is the most important task?

These were the answers he discovered: The most important time is now. The most important person is the person you are with. And the most important task is blessing the person you are with.

3. Build relationships with people who value the right things.
Our sense of significance is fueled by being with the right friends. Form friendships with people who understand significance and you will discover it is true.

Inspirational speaker Dan Clark tells the story of a friend named Paul whose brother did quite well in life. One Christmas, Paul's brother gave him a brand new automobile. On Christmas Eve as Paul came out of his office, he saw a young street urchin eyeing his car.

Paul asked him, "Do you like the car?"

"Oh yeah," was the reply.

Paul said, "My brother gave it to me for Christmas."

"Your brother gave it to you for Christmas? Didn't cost you nuttin'?" The street urchin asked.

"Yes," Paul replied. "My bother gave it to me. It didn't cost me anything."

"I wish ... ," the young boy began. And Paul assumed he would finish the sentence " ... I had a brother like that."

But Paul was surprised when he said, "I wish I could be a brother like that." Paul was shocked into significance that day. And he learned an important lesson. A real sense of significance is birthed in a focus of being not doing. And it is fueled by fellowship with the right people—people who understand we were all created for significance.

Jim Graff is pastor of Faith Family Church in Victoria, Texas, and the founder of The Significant Church Network. For more information, visit

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