Hindsight is so helpful when it comes to prognostication; we can prophesy with unerring accuracy something that has happened. Which is all a way of saying that we aren’t very good at prediction, and maybe a little better at interpretation.
If there is one thing the current pandemic has shown us, it is that those who have vital connections to God and his church have thus far fared better than attenders, onlookers, casual saints and the lazy.
It is unlikely that any churches haven’t been affected by lockdowns, stay at home orders, isolation, and quarantines –some adversely, if numbers matter, and I think they do. Some churches haven’t made it. I suspect they include churches who didn’t have the know-how to adapt with technology. I’m no big fan of Zoom and YouTube being our main means of connection, but they have been brilliant tools to help us through, even if engagement after a year started dropping, the more so in larger churches. A number of larger churches are starting back in person with less than 50% of their numbers prior to Covid. This may be because people are connecting more locally, but it’s hardly an encouragement to the leaders of these previously booming congregations. Yet, there is more at work here than the limitations of technology, or the fickleness of crowds.
The very nature of God’s church is premised on community, on proximity, on connectivity.
Christians aren’t wired, by the Holy Spirit, to live in isolation. Being in Christ is being in his church, nothing less, and that always finds a local expression, and it may be that the more local the expression the more effective it proves. The idea of watching church on a screen (excepting for when it is the only alternative) is not being the church, the saving community/body of Jesus. It is watching – not truly participating or being vitally joined.
Small churches may survive better, especially if the pandemic continues by morphing, of which the variants are salient warnings. We will always need bigger, apostolic churches but history reminds us that most churches have only ever been 80 or less. There is a sociological phenomenon that is consistent with the creational needs of humanity at play here; something that can’t be gotten around with hopes for more larger churches. And what is required for larger churches is a multifaceted and gifted team and uncommon leadership skill. The point is it is uncommon; this level of leadership is a gift that can’t be (easily) replicated by technique.
Two dynamics are currently feeding into the need for more smaller churches:
One is the fracturing of the family as the basic unit of society.
People are less connected to home and divorce continues to ravage families, especially children (I’m still amused with otherwise intelligent people saying they still love/respect their divorced wife or husband and are making sure the children are getting the best of both worlds, which like proposing that losing a leg will make you a better runner). And we are facing the fact that loneliness is a plague in our cities – the bigger the city the more extreme, where more and more singles live alone. People are craving connection and the best means of vital and healthy connections are always found in smaller settings – homes, around the table, at meals.
Which brings us to the second point.
The main means of community in the early church was table fellowship, even if some of the homes they met in were quite large by first century standards.
Christians would gather, pray, sing songs of praise to Jesus, read, and hear the scriptures, pledge to maintain biblical standards of morality, and eat together, including communion. That was essentially how they did small church together. This isn’t replicable in large assemblies. We simply can’t know one another and effectively participate with each other in large groups, unless we prefer the anonymity of crowds. But that is a sign of dislocation.
- Smaller churches are easier to start and replicate.
- Smaller churches have an agility that larger ones don’t. In an era that is increasingly anti-Christian, renting (or purchasing) larger spaces is incurring more and more community resistance, if not downright hostility.
- Smaller churches can comfortably exist (and validly so) with pastoral leadership rather than the significantly rarer apostolic/prophetic leadership.
- Smaller churches create an interpersonal dynamic that larger churches struggle with, unless their structure is, and genuinely so, small churches within the larger church. This is easier said than done, especially where the Sunday meeting is still the ‘real’ church.
- Smaller church is the form the church has historically and largely existed in. I don’t see this changing, and at this juncture this may prove to be one of our biggest advantages.
Small church is important.