By Travis Smalley, Lead Pastor, Lakota Hills Baptist Church & NAMB Send City Missionary for Cincinnati, OH
I was being interviewed for a pastoral position in a small rural church in eastern Ohio. The first question took me off guard: Why would you come to a place like this? These wonderful people did not think they had much to offer me or the community. I handled the question with the obvious spiritual answer, “I go where God calls me to go.” And, in fact, God did call our family to serve there for a number of years.
That question haunts me, though. A vast majority of Southern Baptist churches echo that sentiment: does anyone really care about what’s going on here? They look longingly at what’s happening at bigger churches, then look back at themselves with disappointment and pity and think, “We are a little church, in a little town, with a little budget, and little significance.”
Though some may think of this as a show of healthy humility, it’s neither healthy nor humble. It reflects an unhealthy view of what God can do through them.
Smaller churches are enormously important. According to the 2014 Annual Church Profile (ACP) report, 90% of the churches reporting average fewer than 272 in their worship service, and 75% average fewer than 131. So, let’s quit calling them “small” churches, since they are in fact “normative” churches. The Southern Baptist Convention is made up primarily of churches of this size. The 2014 ACP report also reveals that 80% of Cooperative Program (CP) giving comes from 6,412 churches, and 75% of those churches average 354 or fewer in weekly worship attendance. Not only do most of our churches average less than 400 in weekly attendance; most of our giving comes from so-called smaller churches, too.
Southern Baptists have always believed in the power of cooperation. Any given church by itself may be “smaller,” but , banded together we constitute the #1 largest evangelical missionary organization, the #1 largest Protestant denomination the #3 largest volunteer national disaster organization in the country. The majority of what is being done in the world for the kingdom of God is being done through smaller churches.
As Southern Baptists move into the future it is important to understand the significance of the smaller church. How God has worked in the past is often indicative of how he will work in the future.
Maybe God has decided to overturn the wisdom and power of the world by using smaller and seemingly less impressive churches to take the gospel to the ends of the earth. The church is Christ’s body. It’s not about the size of any one bodily member, but the size of the God who constitutes and fills them all.
Recently I attended a community event and sat next to a Muslim woman who was there volunteering on behalf of her mosque. She was friendly and curious, and asked question after question concerning what Christians believe. It was a fantastic conversation, and God was obviously at work in it. Throughout the discussion, she was struck by the way we (SBC) work together to plant churches all over the world. She said, “I’m amazed that so many different congregations of people work together for a common purpose.” She is right! It is amazing, only something God can orchestrate. We certainly cannot do this on our own. Perhaps Christ gets more glory when his effectiveness is spread out across the members of his body rather than concentrated on any particular one.
The future of the SBC rests, in many ways, in the hands of smaller churches. If we could see small, healthy churches come alive with missional living and missional giving, the result would be nothing short of miraculous. I pray that God would enable the thousands of smaller SBC churches—mine included—to see the individual and collective potential that rests in God moving through our congregation to reach the world for his glory.
“Pastor, why would you come to a place like this?” Because this is where the action is! This is the epicenter of God’s movement in the world, and I don’t want to miss it.