The last time we worked in Kenya (2012-2014), we began worshipping in a large town church. The church has both an English and a Kiswahili worship service, both of which were generally packed. The sanctuary could hold perhaps 400-500 and there were always people sitting outside. As Kenyan churches go, they were well set up: lots of leadership; an excellent choir; some well off members and good facilities. We were welcomed and began to feel a part of both English and Kiswahili congregations.
But after a few weeks, we end up settling in with a different congregation a few kilometers away. This group had one worship service that on its best Sunday would include 50 people, if we included the kids who wandered in and out. They were lead by a senior church leader who was also heavily involved in denominational affairs so a lot of the pastoral work fell on two lay people who lead services, preached and administered the church.
The church building was solid but unfinished–the windows were wire screen not glass, a fact all the worshippers were very aware of on cloudy, windy mornings during the cold part of the year. The choir sang enthusiastically, when enough of them arrived in time for the special. Money was a problem because the congregation was mainly older people, widows and assorted unemployed. We were accepted in the congregation and were a part of it until we left to return to Canada. More than that, though, we were at home in the congregation–to say this congregation became our spiritual home in Kenya wouldn’t be an overstatement.
This decision to worship with a small struggling church rather than a large thriving one says a great deal about us personally. But it seems to me that it provides a good starting place for looking at an issue that I have been thinking about a lot over the years–church size.
Statistically, small churches abound–I have seen stats that say something like 80% of congregations have less than 100 members. Often, this statistic is quoted in the context of a concept called the “200 Barrier”. The “200 Barrier” refers to the fact that moving a congregation to grow beyond 200 members seems to be a difficult and complicated process that most congregations will never accomplish.
Unfortunately, it seems like all the information pastors and church leaders receive is produced by the leadership of the congregations that have passed that barrier. There is the unspoken but very real sense that churches that don’t pass that barrier are not as faithful or as dynamic and their leadership isn’t as capable or as good. Some of the stuff being produced seems to suggest that every congregation can break the 200 barrier if they just follow the right path and have the right leadership.
I am not against large congregations but drawing on my experience in small congregations, I don’t think that breaking the 200 barrier is necessarily the goal or measuring stick for a congregation. Small congregations are not large congregations in waiting and large congregations are not small congregations that have fulfilled their destiny. Both are being used by God and both have an important place in the Kingdom.
I am a confirmed small church fan and because of that, this blog will generally look at things from that perspective. I might refer to large (200+) churches now and then but I don’t have the experience or the background to say much definitive about them. That isn’t a problem for me because there are lots of people writing and speaking about those churches. But as we did in Kenya, I am going to settle in on the under 200 side and look at ministry from that perspective. I hope to provide some insight and food for thought for others on the same side of the barrier.
The peace of God be with you.