Weekend Reading: The Strategically Small Church by Brandon J. O’Brien
I pastor a small church. I’m not ashamed of my church or the fact it is small. We’re actually pretty typical. Most churches in America—and around the world, for that matter—are small. There is no shame or sin for a church to be small. It shouldn’t become complacent in its smallness, but it can be content.
As I have spent a fair amount of time lately reading, praying, and thinking about ministry in a small church context, I have come across a handful of books which have been particularly helpful. One of those is The Strategically Small Church (Bloomington, Minnesota: Bethany House Publishers, 2010) by Brandon J. O’Brien.
Don’t let the title fool you; by “strategically” small, he does not mean intentionally small. In a nutshell, he is referring to a small church embracing its smallness in size and leveraging that for kingdom greatness. Consider this from the introduction:
What is a strategically small church? A strategically small church is one that has become comfortable being small, because it has learned to recognize the unique advantages of its size. A strategically small church realizes it can accomplish things that larger churches cannot. This doesn’t make it better or godlier. But it means it can proceed in ministry not from a sense of its deficiencies, but from confidence in its strengths. Strategically small churches are strategic for the kingdom of God, because when they embrace their identity, they can make an enormous impact. (page 15)
The main thrust of the book is to identify and describe traits that come somewhat naturally to the healthy small church. These traits become the titles for the central chapters of the book:
- Keeping It Real: The Authentic Church
- Keeping It Lean: The Nimble Church
- The Work of the People: The Equipping Church
- New Focus on the Family: The Intergenerational Church
In Chapter One, O’Brien goes head to head with the typical definition of success in ministry—bigger numbers, budgets, and buildings. He sets the stage for the rest of the work by redefining success, or at least trying to jettison the old definition. One of the primary problems is our expectations of what success ought to look like.
As a dear friend and mentor of mine likes to say, you can do two things with expectations. You can meet them, or you can change them. I say we change them. To do that, pastors of smaller churches must help their people learn to see for themselves. Or more precisely, to see the world as Jesus sees it. And that means the pastor must help his people value the mustard seed and view the church as if they were the first people ever to lay eyes on it, to put aside unreasonable expectations, cast their seeds, and trust God for the harvest. (page 36)
In Chapter Two, O’Brien tells the stories of four ministries that recognized the positive traits that come with smallness and took intentional steps to adopt those traits. Chapters 3-6 focus on those traits occur more naturally in small churches. Small churches can’t effectively stage a large production every Sunday. While they should (and usually do) focus on doing things with as much excellence as they are capable, the real focus is, or at least should be, on building an intimacy that comes through authenticity. Large churches with large leadership structures and large ministries to be coordinated often have trouble making rapid changes and quick decisions. A small church can and should keep its program offerings more lean, nimbly enabling them to respond more quickly to changes in the community, needs inside and outside the church, and ministry opportunities they are particularly gifted for. Because smaller churches cannot hire professional staff to do and lead ministry they have to rely more heavily on the lay-members of the congregation. We often say that like it is a bad thing, but that is exactly how Ephesians 4:11-13 directs us to operate.
11 So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, 12 to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.
Typically, larger churches (and many small ones try to) offer a huge array of age-specific, age-segregated ministry programming to cover the entire spectrum of life, cradle to grave. Most smaller churches do not have the resources to produce, manpower to operate, or enough population in the various age categories to warrant such age-specific ministry. Instead, they often do what societies, communities, and churches have done for centuries: inter-generational ministry. I do not understand why for the past several decades we have been afraid for relationships to form between generations. Why do we discourage children, adolescents, and adults from worshiping together and learning from one another?
O’Brien closes the book with what I think is an interesting insight. While the largest churches continue to grow, one of the trendiest ways for this to happen is to move to a multi-sight model where the there is one preacher transmitting the sermon to multiple locations. This continues to elevate the singular task of preaching as if it is the lone ministry of the local church. Please don’t misunderstand me. Preaching is incredibly important, but it is not the pastor’s only job. Because of celebrity preachers, even small church pastors feel the pressure to hit a home run every week with their sermon. The truth is that no one bats a thousand! We all strike out from time to time.
One of my tasks as the pastor of a small church is to actively disciple my congregation, and a good portion of that happens during the sermon on Sunday morning. But it also has to happen at other times. When I am doing that, I have the opportunity to identify potential leaders that I can help train to do the work of the ministry. This includes preaching. As pastors, we need to guard our pulpits; but we need to not be stingy with them! You people will endure some poor preaching from time to time. I have some bad news for you: They already do. I believe one of the reasons we have a shortage of pastors, especially for smaller congregations is that we are not raising them up. I am as guilty as the next pastor, but I am committed to changing that.
The intimate, nimble, authentic, effective small church is the perfect incubator to train new leaders who can continue to guide the local small church in those traits. In emphasizing this, O’Brien plays down the importance of preaching a little too far. That said, he does bring some balance back into local church leadership.
I highly recommend The Strategically Small Church. If you are the pastor or another leader in a small church, you really should invest in this encouraging read. There are at least three take-aways I will leave you with:
- The Strategically Small Church and author Brandon J. O’Brien are another voice in the growing chorus of leaders and writers celebrating the value and place in the kingdom of God for small churches and their leaders. Over the next several weeks I hope to introduce some more.
- The book introduces new ways to evaluate—a new paradigm, if you will—the ministry of your small church. This is healthy and helpful.
- As it introduces these traits that ought to be somewhat natural in the healthy small church, it illustrates and demonstrates what they can look like in the small church context. This is also helpful and incredibly encouraging.
I would encourage you to get this book and read it. I hope it helps shape your view of the small church as it has helped shape mine.
The vast majority of churches in America are small churches; how about yours? Do you feel undervalued and underappreciated because of leading a small church? Have you already read The Stategically Small Church? What did you think about the book? Please share in the comments below—and be encouraged!