Church Revitalization in the small church

“For God has not given us a spirit of fearfulness, but one of power, love, and sound judgment.” (2 Timothy 1:7)

ORLANDO, FL – The small church is the beginning of our early American Religious Heritage. We started our religious foundation with the creation of small churches. Even during the early days of the pilgrims at Plymouth Rock, the small church was in existence. Many things can be said about the small church. The small church is unique from all other sized churches. Paul Madsen says it so well, "The small church has no different mission than any other church of the land, regardless of size. It may use different methods to achieve that mission, but the mission of proclamation, fellowship, ministry, and service is the same for all.”

It is astounding to realize that 90 percent of all churches today are not growing, and that churches with 101-200 total members 50 percent of them have plateaued. Another 19 percent have declined, leaving only 31 percent of these churches that are growing.

A more recent series of studies (The State of the Church) was conducted by Bill Day; Associate Director of the Leavell Center for Evangelism and Church Health, who serves the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary as the Gurney Professor of Evangelism and Church Health in his sequential studies on church health and growth of 2003, 2007, and 2010 where he reports that currently there are less than seven percent (6.8) of our SBC churches which are healthy growing churches. That means 3,087 of our 45,727 SBC churches are healthy. Abraham Lincoln said about the small churches in America, "God must love the small church. He made so many of them.” Carl S. Dudley, professor of church and community at McCormick Theological Seminary, in Chicago, Illinois, states that the break-even number (small church congregation) would be around 175 participants in the Sunday School structure of the church. He does give us one careful delineation, he says that in the Mennonite denomination a congregation of 75 would be considered quite large.

Small Church Defined

  1. Number of members now

  2. Worship attendance

  3. A comparison with past days when the congregation was much larger

  4. The image projected by the pastor's definition of comparative church size

  5. The physical size of the building or buildings

  6. The size of the budget as compared to the past

  7. A full workload for the minister or ministers

  8. An individual's previous experiences in other congregations

  9. The quality of caring relationships among the members

  10. The size, number, and variety of fellowship circles or primary face-to-face groups which together constitute that congregation

Most definitions of the small church are misleading. In most mainline denominations, at least 60 percent of the congregations are included among the "small" churches. One stunning report comes from James E. Lowery as he describes the Churches of his particular denomination where he states: "43 percent of the clergy are serving 18 percent of the people in 62 percent of the churches in a situation which is programmed for failure.“ You ask ten leaders of small churches today you will get at least ten different lists of characteristics of a small church. There are at least fifteen characteristics of the small church today. Regardless of denomination, these fifteen elements appear predominantly throughout the small church in America.

The Small Church acts as:

  • One big family and is one cell

  • A close niche family

  • Casual in its character

  • Displays marvelous devotion and compassion

  • Allows for faster participation and connection

  • Significantly relies on volunteers to lead the church

  • Knows when you are not there instantly

  • Practices careful financing and management

  • Is involvement-focused not quality-focused

  • Has few entry points initially

  • Places the center of attention on a single event at a time

  • Pastor may or may not have impact

  • Is guided by a few committed lay leaders

  • Growth blueprint is small group and clusters designed

  • Draws participants for a variety of reasons

For the small house of worship there are various impediments to expansion that need to be defeated if it wishes to break the hurdle in church renewal. What is of significance, is that some of the small churches strengths can also be their weaknesses. I see at least eight growth impediments for those small churches desiring to break through in church renewal.

Here are the eight enlargement obstacles:

  1. The small church plant has partial or incomplete programming.

  2. The small church plant has very little outreach or evangelism.

  3. The small church plant can rear smallness if it does not keep a growth mentality clearly before the people.

  4. The small church plant can exhibit swift and steady pastoral transition after the initial funds run out to launch the church.

  5. The small church plant can begin to grow a tough crusted leadership team.

  6. The small church plant dictates mere existence financial practices.

  7. The small church plant exhibits to their target area insufficient amenities and services.

  8. In the small church plant, familiarity of small group becomes too familiar.

Since one quarter of the Protestant churches in the United States and Canada average fewer than thirty-five at worship, what can we find are the strengths of these congregations?

I believe there are at least nine strengths:

  1. The strength of a high degree of lay ownership

  2. The strength of possessing a vision for reaching the community

  3. The strength of having a hard working and dedicated pastor

  4. The strength of a supportive pastor's wife

  5. The strength of dedicated lay leadership investment

  6. The strength of ample facility for the present and near future

  7. The strength of correct methodology

  8. The strength of fellowship

  9. The strength of baptism

There are at least eight major factors that influence the capability of the small church to survive.

The small church:

  1. Is not a branch office

  2. It reinforces community

  3. It's subsidies increase vulnerability

  4. It is a socialization factor

  5. It displays the Importance of shared experiences

  6. It shows distinctively the centrality of worship

  7. It is a lay-dominated institution

  8. The members institutional commitment is directed as a whole rather than toward any one component

For the small church aspiring to crack the barrier to church enlargement there are at least 7 intentional actions to be considered.

  1. Requires changes in pastoral leadership patterns

  2. Requires changes in organizational formation

  3. Requires changes in how new members are incorporated into the work

  4. Requires changes in the new church's outreach strategies

  5. Requires changes in the budget and financial policies of the new church

  6. Requires changes in the way the new church functions in regard to business procedures

  7. Requires changes in the new lay leadership patterns

One important ingredient when just starting out to renew your church: Seek to Continually Build Momentum in Your Church.

Prayer is the often overlooked revitalization tool! It ought to go without saying but here is the first thing you need to do.

  • Pray and teach your people to pray

  • Stop talking about it and start actually praying at prayer meetings

  • Keep preaching about prayer and model prayer during your preaching

  • Have a prayer list and pray through it

  • Develop a ministry that prays for all other ministries

  • Be a leader that models prayer

For most denominations the small participant church, though it is tenacious, does not have the willingness alone to break the barriers needed for church revitalization. A church revitalizer should be deployed. Yes, the small church is vital to the American heartland and by and large will not die. Yes, they do not experience great shifts in membership, but they do not have the willingness to take the actions needed to break the barriers necessary for church revitalization.

There are at least nine characteristics of the church which is beginning to stall and face plateau or decline.

  1. Achieving original goals

  2. Peaking attendance & membership

  3. The good ole days

  4. Stagnant population

  5. Community in transition

  6. Not making correct transitions

  7. Senior influence

  8. Befuddled building complex

  9. Not involving new members

  10. Lack of pastoral discretionary time

  11. Declining attendance

  12. Comfort turning inward

Key Insights

Remember from “0-50”-ish members, your people helped you grow to that level!

To get the next 50 people the pastor will have to get them and personal evangelism will be a key contribution to that cause! Member will usually not help with growing the church due to comfort restraints. However, as you get to 125 participants church members begin bringing new people again!

Discovery #1: Growing and declining churches actually do the same things!

Discovery #2: Growing and declining communities do not statistically correlate with growing and shrinking congregations!

Discovery #3: Growing churches have a clear sense that God is active within them and is using them to change lives!

Discovery #4: In both growing and declining congregations the emphasizing of money and programming is a mistake!

Discovery #5: Growing congregations that have turned things around have experienced a spiritual renewal.

Discovery #6: Nothing happens without that spiritual renewal first and foremost.

Discovery #7: All renewed churches were outer focused and other focused.

Discovery #8: All renewed churches were willing to change! It was not lip service but real commitment.

The overall discovery from the report is that these factors are the distinctions between growing and declining congregations. It concludes all of these must take place for revitalization and growth to happen.

  1. Church Revitalization Is A Long-Term Many Year Process!

  2. Plan on investing a minimum of three or four years at the outset.

  3. Do not allow oneself to become distracted in the process.

  4. Remember you are called to do God’s thing not a good thing!

  5. Beware of a short attention span within yourself and your congregation.

  6. New is not always the best or right answer, it is just new and can contribute to failure.

  7. Be sure the new things you do match the main thing you are doing to revitalize your church.

  8. ™Lastly, Prayer is the glue that holds everything together! So keep praying! It will be the very thing that hold the church together during difficult times.

If you're interested in knowing more about church revitalization, check out the upcoming Renovate Conference!



Dr. Tom Cheyney is founder and Executive Director for and located in central Florida.



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