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Why I Prefer a Small Church

April 21, 2015 One Comment


by Harold Ristau

As a military chaplain, my family moves around a lot. One of the first things that we consider before choosing a home is its proximity to the closest Lutheran church. Many factors are involved, and size matters too. Yet people are often surprised that, despite the choices of many other newcomers into a community who tend to visit the largest congregations, we seek out the smaller ones. And here’s why:

1. Personalized Pastoral Care

In a small church, you receive lots of attention from pastor. I heard it once said that the ideal size of a Christian flock is one pastor for 100 sheep. After that it gets hard for the minister to know them all by name. In big churches people often have no choice but to compete for the time of their pastor. It’s not the pastor’s fault of course. He (or they, in the case of multi-staff churches) is less available because, unlike Jesus, he can’t be in two…ten… fifty places at once. Emergencies, multiple visits, committee meetings, and a plethora of other commitments make it difficult to maintain the “personal touch” that each pastor earnestly seeks to foster with every one of his lambs.

I heard it once said that the ideal size of a Christian flock is one pastor for 100 sheep. After that it gets hard for the minister to know them all by name.

While serving as a military chaplain in charge of a tiny chapel, I knew one couple who were undergoing intense personal challenges in their married life. They would constantly reiterate their gratitude for being part of such small community in which they had such easy access to pastoral counselling. Consider this: If you had a choice of going to a doctor with lots of clients or one responsible for just a few, who would you choose?

The idea that the pastor of a small church is better equipped to apply the Office of the Ministry to each individual might be a tad frightening. But whether or not we like the idea of pastoral care applied to ourselves, we need it. Sometimes the temptation for members is to hide in the crowd to avoid an encounter with the pastor. Even though I may find it uncomfortable (since when has Christianity ever been about being comfortable?) I need the pastor to rebuke me when necessary. I also need him to comfort me with the forgiveness of sins in Christ, and to comfort me it as if I were the only person on earth at that precise moment. Even when it’s the public absolution pronounced, it is hard not to have it directed at you personally in a small church.

The “small group” movement in churches was borne out of many of these same concerns. But small group leaders are seldom pastors, even though they’re often expected to behave as such without training or a call. In a small church, your called and ordained pastor is your “small group” leader.

2. Visitors Meet the Pastor

It’s true that inviting your friends to a small church is not as easy as inviting them to a large one, since new believers or unbelievers still judge heavenly realities by their earthly eyes and worldly standards. Nevertheless, your friends are more likely to get some quality time with the pastor in a small church, and probably even a visit if they like.

3. Small Bible Study Groups

The Bible study classes are obviously smaller in a small congregation. But that means that you don’t need to be intimidated by a large group atmosphere. If you are anything like me, you feel more at ease to ask your “stupid question” in a small group setting, thus alleviating the sweaty palms and racing heart.

Of course, feeling judged in large group Bible studies is usually more about our own worries and not reflective of what other Christians actually think. But in any case, a small group makes it a lot easier for the introverted types to participate.

4. Children in Worship

A thriving Sunday school is not necessary for a healthy church, though it can certainly be a blessing. But when it is held at the same time as worship, it prevents children and teachers from gathering around the physical presence of Jesus in Divine Service.

My experience with small churches is that if they have Sunday school at all, it often occurs outside of divine service, in order to maximize participation during worship. This way kids get to hear more of Jesus’ word and not less.

5. Opportunities for Service

Although we do not go to church primarily to serve, but instead to be served (Matthew 20:28), the church is nevertheless often a focal point for utilizing our talents and gifts in service of the Lord. Some small churches have very few programs; and a church with their lights off during the weekdays implies that people are out in the world serving Christ through their specific God-given vocations. But for those that do have programs, a small church provides many opportunities for service (and not necessarily on committees, since there are usually fewer of them).

Your service is often more appreciated in a small church too. When there are multiple talented musicians in one large church and none in another, and you are, say, a college or university student studying music, you may want to choose a small church to “share the wealth” so to speak.

All of our gifts are from above and intended for the edification of one another (James 1:17). In the collection of offering this reality is inescapable since no financial donation is ever considered too small. But the principle also applies to our spiritual gifts, talents and time. Ultimately, we ought to choose a church based on their doctrine (i.e., whether or not I am being fed rightly), but after that, our next question may well be, “How can I be of service amongst this flock that my precious Lord has gathered here together?” (cf. Romans 1:12).


How can I be of service amongst this flock that my precious Lord has gathered here together?

6. Church as Family

The intimate atmosphere of divine service in a small congregation is like a weekly family reunion bound by the blood of Christ our brother. After a noisy week surrounded by strangers, worship offers a pleasant break from that weekly environment and routine. For this reason, my family has always preferred the intimate ambiance of the smaller Christmas Day Mass versus the well-attended Christmas Eve Service.

The Church is always like a small family—a “remnant,” Scripture calls it (Romans 11:5; cf. Genesis 45:7). This becomes particularly clear when your local congregation is actually small. Relationships naturally deepen in this context. And yes, sins and problems become more obvious also. But all of this offers all of us more chances to pray, love and serve. When churches have problems, it means that God finds them worth fighting for; the devil leaves his own in peace. We don’t seek suffering, but we shouldn’t be surprised when it comes. The horror of the crucifixion is more striking when viewing it up close—with John and Mary—instead of from a position far off in the crowd. We meet Jesus in our brethren—bruises, scratches and all.

7. A Sense of Reverence

In a small church, it is easier to pray in silence before service, as chatter and whispers are more noticeable (and therefore less frequent) in a small congregation. God is not a killjoy, but worship is not the time for talking about the sports scores from last night’s game. Prayer and reverence go hand and hand.

Even the architecture of the smaller (and usually older) churches is intended to foster a reverential tone and Christ-focused experience. After all, in the olden days churches were built with only one purpose in mind: worship. We may not build our new churches that way anymore, but why not make good use of those that were?

8. Preaching to Your Needs

People often look for “relevant preaching.” Well, a pastor of a small congregation can better preach to your needs (not necessarily your wants) since he often knows them intimately. Don’t worry: your problems and confessions are held in confidence. But like a doctor prescribing medication, it helps to know the patient well.

As lay people, you too often know the needs of your congregation members better in a small church, which can assist you in your prayers for them.

9. A Lack of Distraction

A small church often has little choice but to focus on what really matters for the life of their community and the salvation of the world. It’s hard to be distracted by the crowds when there aren’t any. Besides Christians, all you really need for “church to happen” is a book, bread, wine and sometimes water.

This struck home for me while teaching new Lutherans in Nicaragua many years ago. At that time, our fellow brothers and sisters had no buildings into which to gather. All they had was a table as an altar and some benches for pews. They met, like we often do in the army, “in the field.” But it sufficed! There was very little to clutter their vision from the cross.

Various programs and committees can be helpful in building up the body of Christ and for outreach, but sometimes they can distract us from the true raison d’être of the church: believers gathered around the means of grace. As long as the Word and sacrament are faithfully preached and administered, Jesus Christ and all the company of heaven are present.

10. Learning from our Elders

Smaller churches seem to “gray” faster than larger congregations. For a father of five children, far away from any extended family, I try to instill an appreciation for the wisdom of the elderly in my kids. That’s easier done in a small congregation, where “congregational segregation” (ie, separating a congregation into “age groups” that tend not to mix) is less frequent.

The Bible says that growing old is a blessing and that gray hair is “a crown of glory” (Proverbs 16:31). Those who are older provide our societies (and our churches) with needed leadership (Deuteronomy 32:7). I want my children to spend time with older people and to hear their stories. History teaches us that if we lack exposure to something—or someone—we can grow to fear and despise it. We should learn to reverence old age, not fear it. Let us gladly receive that which is handed down to us from our Christian forefathers and mothers (Proverbs 23:22).

Now don’t get me wrong: there isn’t anything wrong with a big church. The Holy Spirit calls and gathers His people wherever and whenever He wills. But too often we seek large churches assuming they’re always better. In the process, we can overlook the blessings of a small church. A theology of glory boasts that big is always better. Instead, the theology of the cross announces divine things hidden in small places: a manger, a tomb, a font, a cup—even a heart!

With the increasing secularization of North American society and marginalization of Christianity in public discourse, demographic studies suggest smaller churches will become the norm in the Western World. Even the growth in membership in some large congregations is explained not by conversions to Christianity, but by the absorption of members from smaller churches. We should not stop praying and hoping for more conversions, but even as we do so, we can recognize that the small church phenomenon is not necessarily a bad thing.

If you belong to a small church, lift up your head—you may be more envied than you think!

So, if you belong to a small church, lift up your head—you may be more envied than you think! But whether you are a member of a large or small congregation, let’s learn not to boast in our size (big or small) but rather in the Lord, who sustains His Church with grace, forgiveness, and love forever.


Rev. Dr. (Capt.) Harold Ristau is a Lutheran Church–Canada chaplain with the Canadian Armed Forces.

One Comment »

  • Douglas Murray said:

    It is Always Wonderful to See Another Small Church. I Grew Up in a Small Church in Windsor. Down the Same Street was a Lutheran Church that We Shared with. The Church Was Always apart of My Life. Over My Life, Trust, Accountability, Integrity, Responsibility, Stewardship, Values, Wisdom, And Servanthood have Always Been a Part of my Life. Looking Forward to Giving Back, Helping Your Church, the People in Your Church, Your Church Projects. God’s Grace and Assurance. Doug Murray

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