11 Types of Healthy Churches That Often Stay Small
This article originally appeared on Christianity Today.
Many types of churches fulfill the Great Commission without seeing their own numerical growth.
“If a church stays small, they must be doing something wrong. It can’t possibly be healthy.”
This has been an underlying assumption of many in the church growth movement. (Although it’s usually more subtly stated than that.) But, as with any assumption, we must always ask one vital question.
Is it true?
I say no.
Certainly many churches that stay small are unhealthy. Thankfully, unhealthy churches tend not to grow.
But, as I’ve written in The Myth of Inevitable Congregational Growth, some healthy churches don’t experience the numerical growth we expect.
So I’ve started compiling a list of the types of healthy small churches whose numbers will often stay static, even though they’re doing great kingdom work.
It’s not a definitive list. Just what I’ve discovered so far. And it’s not universally true. Every one of these has exceptional cases of significant numerical growth.
Also, I am not offering these as an excuse for laziness or any other form of ill-health. Enthusiastic participation in the growth of the church through the Great Commandment and Great Commission is a non-optional essential for every congregation. But many types of churches do that without seeing their own numerical growth.
Here are 11 of them:
1. Planting Churches
Some churches contribute to the body of Christ by growing bigger. Some are like spiritual Johnny Appleseeds, planting other small churches all over the place.
2. Training Churches
Small churches are especially well-suited to be hands-on training centers. Including the church I pastor.
During the school year, up to one-third of our church attendance can be college students. Plus we have internships in both the school year and the summer months, during which students from all over the world get to interact with every aspect of the church body. Interning in a small church allows them to see the church as an integrated whole, not just in one narrow department.
3. Sending Churches
This usually goes in tandem with being a Training Church. We train them, then we send them.
In the church I pastor, for example, members are always leaving us for active ministry elsewhere. Last Sunday is a typical example, in which we said goodbye to three people. 1) A member of our worship team who has accepted a full-time position leading worship at another church, 2) an intern who is heading back home to Austria, and 3) a long-term member who will be training missions teams all over the world.
4. Retirement Community Churches
This is a valid and growing, but often overlooked segment of the church.
I have a friend who pastors a wonderful, healthy church in a retirement community. Every year, he performs funerals for 20 percent of his congregation. So he has to maintain 20 percent growth just to keep his attendance level. Which he does. In any other circumstance, 20 percent growth every year for over a decade would get you noticed. In his case, he has to fight completely unwarranted feelings of failure.
5. Niche Churches
I’m convinced this will be a growing segment of the church world in the coming decades. Especially in large population centers. Churches that serve a peculiar segment of the population – as in, people who would never attend either a traditional church or a modern contemporary one – are needed now, more than ever.
Sometimes the niche is ethnic or language based. Sometimes it’s a group that feels alienated from mainstream society. Often, these segments are so small that there will never be enough of them to build a big church. But they need to hear about Jesus in a way that meets their unique sensibilities and needs.
6. Counter-Cultural Churches
This often overlaps with Niche Churches, but not necessarily.
Big and megachurches usually grow large and fast because they use methods that tap into the ethos of a surrounding culture. This is an important part of contextualizing the Gospel message, adapting methods to fit the culture while maintaining a message that often remains counter to it.
But some churches are planted in cultures where the ground is very hard and rocky. Or they’re called to be counter-cultural in their methods, not just their message. These churches don’t tap into the culture, they swim in 180-degree opposition to it.
7. House Churches
House churches are a valid, but far-too-often overlooked expression of the body of Christ. And, like Niche Churches, they are likely to multiply in the coming decades.
8. Impoverished Churches
With some wonderful exceptions, most megachurch success stories happen where the populace has an income level well above average.
But there are many communities where the median income is low and dropping, usually along with a diminishing job market and population base. The faithful, prayerful, hardworking, wise and loving people who are called by God to live and minister in these communities – usually living at poverty levels themselves – should not be placed under unreasonable expectations of unlikely numerical growth.
9. Persecuted Churches
While we’re writing about the inevitability of numerical growth, our books and blogs are being read by church leaders in regions of the world where the church is undergoing massive oppression. They want help, but some of our church growth messages are adding to their burden, not relieving it.
This is not a theory to me. I’ve sat with pastors in persecuted churches who have told me heartbreaking stories. Entitled church leaders from well-to-do countries have told them their churches would be bigger if they had more faith or adopted their church growth methods. But even a rudimentary look at their neighborhood would tell anyone with any sensitivity that those methods won’t work here. And as to not having enough faith? All I could think, as I sat in their tiny homes and churches, was “if I had half your faith, I’d be a giant of a man.”
10. Transitional Churches
Many churches exist in communities that are undergoing massive demographic shifts. Leading a church to health and growth is a huge challenge when the sands aren’t constantly shifting beneath your feet. But when they are, it’s that much harder.
I know pastors in communities where 20-25 percent of the population moves out every year, only to be replaced by a new group of people who are unlikely to stay longer than three to five years. Certainly these new people bring great opportunity, but it takes an enormous amount of work to maintain a church’s current size – let alone grow numerically – when you lose that many people every year.
11. Strategically Small Churches
Yes, some churches are small intentionally. And they play a vital role in the Great Commission.
Again – No Excuses
None of this should be taken as an excuse to settle for less or to stay stuck.
It’s also not a a slam on big churches. Big churches are great. But they’re not for everyone. We must always provide vibrant, healthy alternatives for people who prefer to worship, minister and be discipled in a smaller environment.