By Daryl Neipp
In his book Satisfied, Jeff Manion describes a fictional interaction to which we can all relate. It’s a warm evening. A dad calls to his son, who is playing in the backyard, “Would you like some ice cream?” The son bounds into the house, where he finds a large scoop of ice cream in his bowl, and life is good (especially if it is mint chocolate chip).
However, what if there are two boys? The dad calls them both in from playing. What if they find their ice cream but the scoop distribution is not exactly equitable? It wouldn’t be long until the dad heard, “That’s NOT fair!” from one of the boys.
We can conclude that the issue would have nothing to do with what one boy received; rather, it would have everything to do with what the other received. This is how comparisons work: we look at what someone else has, then become discontent with what we have. While this little story is something we can all smile about, the problem of comparison is not something we simply outgrow. Well into adulthood we carry this tendency to always search for the greener grass, which can be particularly harmful within ministry contexts.
Appreciate How God Has Gifted You
As the medical profession has long observed, good health results in good growth. This is true for churches, too, particularly in the age of the megachurch. Pastors of small churches increasingly feel inadequate as they compare themselves and their small-church ministries to the one across town that has the latest and greatest of . . . well, everything! The question is, What if there is a place for the megachurch and the small church? What if the body concept was not merely meant to apply to a local church but also to the universal one? Take a look at this familiar passage from 1 Corinthians 12 (ESV) and filter it through the lens of our topic:
14For the body does not consist of one member but of many. 15If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 16And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 17If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? 18But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. 19If all were a single member, where would the body be? 20As it is, there are many parts, yet one body. 21The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” 22On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, 24which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, 25that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. 26If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.
Did you notice verses 22 and 23? What we understand about our physical bodies is equally true within the church: parts of our bodies may be smaller in comparison with others, or even unseen (such as internal organs), yet they can be indispensable. In other words, just as the arm should recognize the value of the eyes, perhaps the megachurch should recognize the value of the small church and the small church should recognize the value of the megachurch. What if small church pastors actually viewed themselves and their churches as indispensable to the communities where they have been placed? What might happen if—rather than living within a shroud of discontentment because of their constant comparison to other, larger churches—small church pastors embraced the reality that God has strategically placed them in their locations? Please do not misunderstand: this is not an indictment against large churches! Instead, it is a recognition that churches of all sizes have a significant role to play in reaching the world for Christ and in making disciples. Consequently, small church pastors should not get caught up in the trap of comparison but, rather, should embrace the uniqueness of who they are and leverage it for effective ministry.
What Do You Uniquely Bring to the Table?
If small churches are actually indispensable to the work of God, the next logical question is, What do small churches uniquely bring to the table? The reality is that megachurches do some things extremely well, but with that large capacity come complexity and unique challenges. Consequently, there is a niche the small church can fill. For example, Thom Rainer found that “79% of megachurches say small groups are central to their strategy of Christian nurture and spiritual foundation.” In addition, a simple Google search of “We believe that life change happens best within small groups” is all one needs in order to conclude that this statement encapsulates the prevailing thought. In other words, and ironically so, large churches put great emphasis on becoming smaller! They recognize that while their sizable worship gatherings are a draw, the greatest potential for spiritual growth comes out of a smaller footprint. But if that is true, doesn’t a small church actually have an advantage? This is what I mean when I say that small churches have something unique to bring to the table. There are many other possible benefits as well. For example, because a church is small,
- the congregation has direct access to the pastor,
- individuals will be noticed,
- people have a place to serve and add value,
- people will experience authenticity,
- Christians will have the opportunity to share their stories with others,
- members will do life together,
- everyone will be involved in a less formal environment,
- kids will be involved in ministry,
- relationships will be prioritized,
- there will be a simple mission, and
- there will be greater accountability.
This list is not meant as a criticism of the megachurch, nor does it mean that a large church cannot have a level of success within these categories. However, small churches have something of value to offer. In the parable of the talents (Matt. 25:14–30), Scripture reminds us that not all people are given the same measure of responsibility, but Scripture affirms faithful stewardship of what has been entrusted to us. So rather than living in a state of comparison and discontent, pastors of small churches should embrace who they are and leverage what they uniquely bring to the table rather than viewing it as a limitation.
If the body concept is true and applicable to the universal church, I think we can agree that no church can be all things to all people. In fact, we could even go a step further and conclude that your community actually needs small churches and large churches. Both have a contribution to make, and each will attract people. Subsequently, you must figure out what specifically you are good at and then do it better than anyone else. That doesn’t mean you neglect other areas of ministry, but it should mean that you discover your niche. If God created you to be an eye in the Body of Christ, then be the best eye you can be. In your unique church environment, this could be applied to any facet of your ministry. Regardless of what it is, embrace and harness it fully for the gospel ministry.
Daryl A. Neipp (PhD, Piedmont International University) is associate pastor of New Community Baptist Church, Avon, Ohio, and an associate professor at Liberty University. Some of the examples used in this article were drawn from The Grasshopper Myth by Karl Vaters.