15 September 2023

What Smaller Churches Get Wrong When They Look at Bigger Churches

Written by Tim Wilson
Inside the Lakewood Church In 2013 / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0

In every generation, large city churches have set the example for smaller churches: Spurgeon in the Metropolitan Tabernacle, Lloyd-Jones at Westminster, and Lucas at St. Helens. But today, to an even greater extent, large churches and their pastors impact decisions in churches all over the world.

Some of this can be an immense blessing. On a recent call with some rural pastors, numerous mentioned the success of Christianity Explored, a ministry begun in London. However, for all those positive stories, there have also been small churches whose members have become jaded trying to live up to a lofty standard. 

What things do smaller churches get wrong when they look at bigger churches? Here are eight suggestions:

1. Searching for silver bullets

All Christians want to see souls saved so the temptation is to look for an easy solution. It’s tempting to believe that revival will begin if you only use this new programme. You’ve tried Purpose-Driven, Missional Communities, and Messy Church. None of them worked, but this new idea will. Usually pastors after a few years learn this lesson, but church members (especially young enthusiastic ones) will still believe the secret is out there.

Give up the search for silver bullets! If Jesus had 5,000 people walk away after being fed miraculously, you will too! You can learn from bigger churches but begin with healthy realism.

2. Copying the outcome, not the process

It’s easy to copy and paste ideas from big churches. But how likely is it that Tim Keller’s methods in New York would work in Nether Alderley? 

A better attitude would be to examine how Keller decided on those methods. In his church planting manual, he outlines how his launch group thought seriously about the people they reached before choosing methods. Copying that process in your area would be much more successful.

3. Burying your Talents

In the ‘Parable of the Talents’, my hero is the two-talent man. He may not be as gifted as the five-talent man, but at least he isn’t bitter like the man with one talent. As a church, accept that you are a two-talent church. You’ve not got as many gifts as a big church, but you’ve got exactly the gifts God has decided your community needs. Choose to invest those talents well, rather than long for more.

For example, a church might bemoan the fact they don’t have any young families. However, they may have a number of grandparents who care for children. What if they started a children’s work on that basis? Learn to see the talents you have.

4. Reverse snobbery

An overreaction to our culture’s obsession with big city churches can be a reverse snobbery:

  • It’s easy in big cities’
  • ‘American churches are just out for money’
  • ‘They just steal all our young people’

This competitive spirit helps no one. We need rural churches and urban churches, big churches and small churches. Take what you can from bigger churches, pray for their success and don’t give way to envy.

5. Playing 11-a-side with five players

You can’t play 11-a-side football with only five players. Yet often that’s what small churches do. Of course, you can’t run a youth work to the same standard as a church of five hundred! Or have a music team that sounds like the Gettys. The numbers make a huge difference. 

However, while you can’t play 11-a-side, you can play 5-a-side. You can have two committed church members who pour their lives into ten kids. You can have a skilled pianist with songs to fit that set-up. Once you translate the team dynamics, there are things you can learn.

6. Ignoring your peers

You may agree that you can learn little from big churches. Yet you never set aside time to learn from those around you? Have you ever spoken to nearby churches? For example, you could ask:

  • What new songs work well for you?
  • What resources are you using for your children’s work?
  • What evangelistic events have captured the imagination?

Find nearby churches of a similar size and theology and you’ll often get good ideas.

7. Despising the small wins

When a family business is counting their profits, they don’t compare themselves to Amazon. Yet too often smaller churches compare themselves to big churches. Zechariah rebuked the Israelites for despising the day of the small things, and we need that rebuke too. 

Only four people signed up for Christianity Explored? Well, it was only two last time, so praise God for doubling your course! Learn to praise God for the small wins as well as the big.

8. Distraction from the centre

In the running world, there are many people who love to focus on the hacks. Buying an expensive watch, getting the perfect training plan and eating the right supplements. As good as this is, it distracts them from what will really make them faster: going out and going on runs!

Sometimes we can be like that as churches. We chase after the new course or song or Sunday School programme. Whilst these may make a little difference, the power of the church is the gospel.

Any truly successful bigger church (or smaller church!) will have this at the core. They will preach the gospel, pray with expectancy, and love generously. Far better to follow them in this than worry about what their website looks like! Let’s keep the gospel central and not be distracted.

Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.

1 Corinthians 1:22-24, NIVUK

P.S. If you’re interested, The Rural Project is going to be discussing this topic with Christians in rural churches from across the country on Zoom, Wednesday 20th September at 12:15. To get the details sign up here: https://peaktrinitychurch.churchsuite.com/events/gptl0bnz 

Written by
Tim Wilson
Tim Wilson is pastor at Wheelock Heath Baptist Church in Cheshire, England. He and his wife, Natalie, have three children. He earned an MA in Church Leadership from Union School of Theology. He is on the steering group of The Rural Project a partnership to further the gospel in the rural areas of Britain. He writes regularly on Substack, and you can follow him on Twitter (@uk_timwilson).

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