Understanding the Small Church - Characteristics

From Voice, Jul/Aug 2013. Used by permission. Read Part 1.

Characteristic 1: the small church is relationally driven

Perhaps the single most important distinctive of the small church is that it is relationally rather than program driven. There exists within the congregation a family atmosphere where individuals are considered part of a bigger family, where relationships become more important than performance and organization. The small church has a place for everyone and shows concern for everyone. People are counted rather than programs and ministries. Rather than the life of the church revolving around the worship service or the programs, it centers around the relational bonds of the congregation.

This has enormous impact upon how the small church functions and organizes its ministry. Within the small church, it is not the person’s position that gives power and authority to the individual but the relationships the person has with the other members. Consequently, the pastor is often not the primary leader of the congregation. That role is often given to an individual or family, who, by their personal interaction with others, influences the rest of the church.

Because the church is relationally driven, the programs and organization of the church are determined and monitored by the effect they will have upon relationships. Opposition arises against anything that becomes a threat to the unity. People are more important than performance. The small church will often overlook poor performance rather than confront the individual and risk the relationship.

Characteristic 2: the small church works through informal channels

Because of the close relational bonds, decisions are often made over coffee rather than formal meetings. When there are formal meetings, it is more of a social event than a business event. Goals are verbalized rather than written. Policies are based upon the effect the situation will have upon individual relationships rather than upon the organization as a whole.

As leaders, the challenge is to develop and maintain the organizational structure in a way that does not threaten but enhances the fellowship of the congregation. While policies and procedures for conducting church business are important and should be implemented, they should be communicated informally and in relational terms, rather than through formalized channels.

Characteristic 3: the small church works as a whole

When the small church acts, it acts as a whole rather than as individual parts. The whole congregation makes decisions rather than a representative few. People desire to know what is going on in every program and ministry even though they are not directly involved. The small church functions as a participatory democracy where everyone wants a voice and wants to be involved in the decision making process. Even when the vote is perfunctory, people still demand the right to vote. The ultimate decision making authority resides within the congregation rather than within the board or pastor or elders.

This is especially true regarding the vision and direction of the church. Whereas in the large church, the senior pastor sets the direction of the church, within the small congregation the vision must arise from the people themselves. Rather than the pastor being the vision setter, he becomes a vision facilitator, one who helps and coaches the congregation as they set the agenda for the future.

Characteristic 4: Power and authority reside in the laity rather than the pastor

The small church is “owned” and operated by the congregation rather than the pastor. Because of this, the pastor is less important to the function and health of the small church than his larger church counterpart. While the pastor may retain the title, the power of the church belongs to the people who have built and directed the church for generations. If the pastor comes into conflict with that power, then the pastor will often be asked to leave.

The pastor, to be influential, needs to focus upon being a shepherd, friend, and an advisor, rather than attempting to be the administrator and chief executive officer. To be effective, the leader needs to be sensitive to when it is necessary to exert leadership and authority and when it is imperative to allow the people to take the initiative. It is true that the pastor and board members are ultimately accountable regarding the spiritual oversight of the congregation, and that often requires making difficult and sometimes costly decisions. Never should we compromise biblical truth in order to avoid confrontation. On the other hand, we should not blindly and authoritatively demand people to follow. Leadership is servant leadership, where we sacrifice our own personal agenda and pride for the well-being of the whole.

Characteristic 5: the small church relates as a family

The small church functions as a family. In order to become part of the family, a person must be grafted in. This depth of relationship takes time to develop, thus making it difficult for first timers to be included. If you ask any small church what the strength of their church is, they will inevitably say it is their friendliness. If you ask people who attend for the first time what they disliked about it, they will often respond by saying it was their lack of personal warmth. This is not intentional, but a result of the close knit community that exists, where people already have their social needs met. Therefore, they do not feel any need to reach out to others. While they may greet new-comers after church, or even invite them to lunch, they have little desire to spend the time and energy to cultivate an in-depth relationship with them, for to do so would require that they sacrifice other relationships. Consequently, leading the small church involves helping people realize the importance of reaching out to new attendees with the purpose of developing close relationships with them.

While this close unity makes evangelism difficult, once a person is accepted and made a part of the congregation, it is even more difficult to get out. When a person is absent, someone will call and inquire if they are sick. They will be missed and the church will not let go of them without a fight. While it may be hard to get in the front door of the church, it is even harder to slip out the back.

Characteristic 6: communication occurs through the grapevine

Everyone in the small church knows what is going on because everyone talks about it. The rule of thumb regarding the grapevine is that the smaller the church and more close knit the people, the more the grapevine will be an asset. In such cases, there are no secrets within the church. What is communicated privately will be publicized openly. Positively, this means that everyone knows what is happening. Negatively, people will find out about issues under discussion before the leadership may be ready to have the information disseminated within the body. Therefore, open communication is often the best procedure.

On the other hand, the larger the church and the more socially separate, the more likely the grapevine will carry misinformation requiring clearer and more formal communication on the part of the leadership. If the grapevine becomes a liability to the church, then the leadership needs to develop formalized ways of communication to inform the congregation of issues before they are broadcast on the grapevine.

Characteristic 7: traditions and heritage undergird the structure, ministry and culture

Within the small church, traditions are not ruts, they are the stories and bonds that tie the present congregation to the previous generations. Because the small church values not only the present membership, but also the past members, traditions play an important role within the life and expression of the church. They are not interested in the latest fad and they are slow to change for change constitutes a break not only from the past, but from the past membership. Each church has a story and each story has a person who is the hero within the story. To be a part of the church, new people need to learn the stories and value the people behind them.

Each church has sacred cows that are the untouchables. They may be major issues such as a particular program, or they be as minor as the time of a service or the placement of the pulpit. The reason they are sacred is because they are a connecting link to previous generations that people remember. For example, the pulpit is sacred because it was built by Fred’s great grandfather who was one of the founders of the church. To replace the pulpit would be tantamount to forsaking the heritage of the church. The leadership, then, needs to identify what these sacred cows are, why they are so, and be sensitive to when and how they seek to change them.

Characteristic 8: the church functions and worships inter-generationally

Because they are a family they want to be with the whole family. To divide the congregation by age is to split the family. People in the small church not only enjoy being with other family members, they often resent any segregation (other than during the Sunday School). While they may have a separate service for the children, they still want the children present during part of the worship period. This is not only because they think it is important for the children to sit during the service, but because they enjoy seeing the children sing and participate when the church family gathers together to worship God and celebrate the familihood of God’s people. In contrast to secular society which tends to segregate generations, with each generation competing against the other, in the small church, each generation looks out for the interest of others and values each one. The older generation values the younger people for their new ideas, whereas the younger people value the wisdom and even traditions of the other.

Characteristic 9: the focus is upon people rather than performance

In the business mode of management, people are measured by the way they perform their assigned task. If any individual fails to fulfill their responsibility, they are removed and the job is given to another. In the small church, the focus shifts to the individual person instead of performance. Thus, a person is kept in a particular position even though there are others more qualified and would do a better job. If the person fails to be responsible, others quietly do the job and nothing is said. The reason is because people do not want to hurt her feelings. Even though they may complain about the person’s performance, ultimately they continue to overlook it because of their value of the person. Because the small church stresses people over performance, the congregation is not goal or task oriented. Those who try to manage by objects are met with indifference and apathy.

People don’t belong to the small church or come to meetings to be organized and accomplish lofty objectives. They come to be worship God and study His Word in the company of their friends and family who share their faith. Consequently, to lead effectively, the leader needs to focus upon management by relationships. Instead of developing goals to accomplish tasks, the pastor needs to develop people who will minister to others. Instead of finding the most qualified person to fill a particular role, the pastor needs to informally train the people in those positions.

Characteristic 10: they have a place for everyone

The small church has a place for everyone. Whether it is the mentally slow person who runs the sound system, or the retired grandmother who teaches the adult Sunday School class, everyone is given the opportunity to be involved. Most large churches would gladly have the percentage of participation that is often exhibited in the small church. One of the reasons the small church has so many people involved is that they act on the premise that involving people is a way of including people. In the larger church, people need to earn the right to be involved by faithful attendance. In the small church people are involved in hopes of getting them to faithfully attend. A second reason is that there is an intense desire to have everyone involved.

When filling roles and responsibilities, the small church often does not ask who is the best qualified, but who is not involved in any ministry within the church. The idea is that the load needs to be spread around. Like a family where everyone is given a chore around the house, so also the small church seeks to give everyone a task. After all, it is their family responsibility.

Characteristic 11: the small church values relatives

Because of its size, often times the small church has a higher percentage of people related to other members within the church. This inter-relatedness has a huge impact on the life of the congregation. One way it impacts the church is in the selection of key leadership positions. These are often determined by bloodlines. Individuals whose family has a long history within the church are often chosen for leadership roles at a younger age than those who do not have such a history. When one individual steps down from the board after serving for many years, that position is given to his son, because the position has traditionally been assigned to his family. Only when there is no younger member, or the younger family member is spiritually carnal is the position given to another. Another impact is regarding who has influence in the church. Often there is a person or family, who, because of their bloodlines, are the dominant people in the church. What we need to recognize as leaders is that leadership involves working with these individuals rather than against them in making decisions and setting direction for the church.

Characteristic 12: the small church values generalists

In an age of specialization, the small church values and utilizes generalists who can do a number of different jobs and responsibilities. Because there are few workers to perform the multiple tasks within the small church, there is a greater value placed upon leaders who can do a number of things satisfactorily rather than an individual who can do one thing extremely well. The larger the church, the more the church demands specialists. The smaller the church, the more the church depends upon generalists. This not only involves developing competencies in a number of areas, but also a willingness to do a number of tasks.

The small church pastor not only needs to be a preacher, he may also need to be a Sunday School Teacher, a youth director, a song leader and a caretaker of the church property. They will not value the pastor based upon his expertise in one particular field, but upon his willingness and ability to perform a number of different responsibilities. Quality is not measured by how well one performs in one area, but how one performs in a number of areas.

Characteristic 13: there is a place for everyone and everyone has a place

Place is extremely important in the small church. Like a family which sits in the same place for every meal, so also each person sits in the same place Sunday after Sunday. When they are absent, everyone notices their place is empty and they are missed. Even after their death, their place remains. People will remember “that is the place Grandma Jones sat.” Place is more than just a worn seat on a pew, it is a symbol of their belonging to the church family. It symbolizes their security in a world that is insecure. It becomes part of the memory and story of the congregation.

Place is not only a seating arrangement, but also a place in the ministry of the church. People are never excluded, but are readily accepted into the church. If jobs are not available, jobs will be created. This is not just because there is more than enough work to do, but because the small church operates under the firm belief that part of belonging is serving and a place is both a spot on the pew as well as a position in the ministry.

Characteristic 14: it has a different calendar and different time table

Every small church has their own calendar around which they function. This calendar is often seasonal and tied to the employment base for the community. For an agricultural community, this means the summer months are often extremely busy for the farmers, and it will difficult for them to be committed to any program, especially ones occurring during the week. On the other hand, during the winter months they have more time to commit to the ministry. Developing programs and ministries that run from October through April will result in greater participation and effectiveness.

In ranching communities, the small church pastor needs to be careful against planning special events during calving season, when ranchers must stay at home to keep an eye upon their livestock. Community events such as the county Fair may also have a significant influence upon the church calendar.

Characteristic 15: the people are givers

People in the small church have a strong sense of ownership of the church. As a result they are willing to give their time and money to the church. However, often they view giving differently. Instead of giving from the standpoint of a set amount, they approach it based upon the needs of the church. When the church struggles financially, they rise to the occasion, giving far more than ten percent. The budget, when it is made, is suggestive rather than determinative.

When a need arises, it is met, regardless of whether or not it fits within the budget. Because of this, the church never becomes fully solvent. On the other hand, it always seems to have just enough. Yet in the end they often out-give and out-do many larger churches. However, they need to be able to see and understand the need. When a missionary comes, they give generously because they immediately see and understand the need. When they are asked to give to a program that they are unfamiliar with or is distant, the money only trickles in.

(Next week: Trends affecting small churches)

Glenn Daman Bio

Dr. Glenn Daman is graduate of Western Seminary and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and serves as pastor of First Baptist Church, Stevenson WA. He has published three books on small church ministry and is Director of the Small Church Leadership Network.

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Dave Gilbert's picture

Nothing gets in the way like a church "on a mission"...one that seeks to grow at the expense of truth, IMO. Certain popular "leaders" like *cough, cough...Rick Warren and Bill Hybels...cough* should really take a step back and look at small churches and how they operate ( I think their problems go far deeper than just their way of thinking being the trouble in this area, but that is, as they say, a subject for another day ). It's not about quantity, it's about quality. The quality is the saints of God, and smaller churches are far less likely to contain unbelievers, stray from their main mission ( to edify the saints while they grow ), and get worldly in their behavior without dealing with it promptly, as I see it.


I feel that small churches really behave as a family, whereas large ones get distanced far more easily from the personal approach.

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