Can a church that is smaller in membership still be a church of significance? When I was a seminary student in the 1980’s, one of my classmates asked a professor to pray that upon graduation, he would be called to a “significant” church. The professor was (shall I say) not happy! However, misdirected the student’s prayer may have been, the concept of serving in a significant way is probably one which many of us feel. Still, it begs the question, “What does it take for your ministry to be significant?” And, if one is called to serve in a smaller membership church, can that context be considered significant?
Recently, I traveled outside of New Orleans for seminary business. On trips to Wyoming and Arkansas I encountered a phenomenon that is seldom seen in New Orleans: snow! Foe three days during the Wyoming Baptist State Convention, it snowed each day. I upgraded my vehicle at the rental counter to a 4-wheel drive as a result. Several weeks later, in going to the Arkansas Baptist Evangelism Conference, I delayed my trip by a day, waiting for the roadways to clear from an Ozark snowfall.
The experience caused me to reflect upon the parallels between smaller membership churches and snowfall.
Like snowflakes, every small church is significant. What have we been told about each individual snowflake? Every snowflake is different; each one is unique. I take their word for it. I have not examined multitudes of snowflakes under a microscope, but I take it by faith that every snowflake is unique. That suggests that each one is significant, in its uniqueness. Each one is different from all the rest.
Small churches are not all just alike. They are different in context, history, focus, and potential. From a distance (like snowflakes) they may seem to be just alike. But on closer examination each small church is unique. This uniqueness means that God has shaped your church for a significant place in the kingdom of God. Your ministry in the church you serve, regardless of the size, is a unique and significant component of the overall plan of God. No other church can perform the task of your church; and your church is not expected to perform the role of any other local church. Like a snowflake, you have God’s individual fingerprint on you as a church.
Also, like snowflakes, smaller churches are significant in terms of their collective role in the Kingdom of God. One snowflake may be beautiful, but it may go largely unnoticed if it is not joined by its friends. However, put a whole lot of snowflakes together, all at once, one a cold wintry night (every school kids dream come true) and the snow can literally take over a city. Schools close, businesses shut down, electricity can be lost, and traffic slows to a snail’s pace. A lot of individual, unique snowflakes are suddenly seen to have great significance when they get together.
Small churches constitute the majority of the Southern Baptist Convention. We are a big convention of mostly smaller churches. By some estimates, as many as 75-80% of SBC churches are less than 125 in worship attendance. It should be obvious, that 75% of anything is significant. Since, the overwhelming majority of SBC churches are in this category, it should be self-evident that smaller churches are significant because there are so many of them. Abraham is to have said, “God must love the common man, he made so many of them.” To paraphrase, “God must consider smaller membership churches to be important, he made so many of them.”
Significance is measured in many ways. Size is a factor that may or may not be an accurate measurement. However, a church that is fulfilling its mission, focused on its task, relying on the dynamic of the Holy Spirit, and proclaiming the transforming gospel of Jesus Christ, should realize its significance in the plan of God.
The next time you see a picturesque snow fall, remember the lesson: Like snow, smaller churches are significant, they matter in their uniqueness and they matter in their collective impact for the body of Christ.
The Caskey Center for Church Excellence at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary exists to advance church excellence in smaller membership and bivocational churches.
Dr. Mark Tolbert
Director, Caskey Center for Church Excellence
New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary