Rooting for the Small Church!

What is the place of the small church? Should we hypothesise that all churches are meant to grow, and therefore, we must do all we can to breakthrough the barriers that keep a small church from growing?

Or, should we say that the small church has its place and accept that, “My church is, and shall remain, a small church”?

Or, after having evaluated our church we come to the conclusion, “Although we may be a small church, we are nonetheless effective.” Now, (and please do not think that I am being insensitive or negative) if we are effective why then are we not growing? Are there valid and happy reasons?

I don’t have the statistics, but from my observation most of the churches in Malaysia are small. (I wish our national and denominational bodies will do more statistical studies so that we can have a better picture of the state of the Church in Malaysia). By definition a small church is numerically under 200 people; from babies to senior citizens (or as someone once said to me, “We count everything that moves!”). Using this metric, depending on who you quote, 80-90% of the churches in the US are small churches. My guess is that, it is probably the same in Malaysia. If we were to add all the churches in the small towns and villages in both Peninsula and East Malaysia they will certainly make up a very large  percentage of churches in the country. Even in the urban centres most of the churches are small.

There is no shame in being small.

All churches started small! Unless a large church decided to send out more than 200 people to start a new church plant; which has been done before, but it is not the norm. Hence, we are not to despise humble beginnings. However, note that it was never the intention of the parent church or the new church plant for it to remain small. It was planted to win more people to the Lord and to add them to the church. Churches that have lost its passion need to recapture the spirit and vision of those early pioneering days.

There is a huge difference between a small dynamic church that is making impact in its community and even beyond, and a small inward-looking church whose main focus are the needs of the members and trying to survive till Jesus returns.

There are good reasons why a church should remain small, and there are wrong reasons for a church to remain small. Below are some valid reasons:

  1. The community where the church is located, serves and is trying to reach with the Gospel is small; such as a small town or village. Even if the church is located in a large urban centre, the particular ethnic group that it is attempting to reach may be small; such as a migrant community.
  1. The church leaders believe that a small church is stronger relationally, can attain a higher level of member-participation, and achieve greater effectiveness in outreach. In other words, remaining small is a philosophy of ministry where growth is an objective. An outcome of such a philosophy would be church planting. Instead of growing into a large church, the parent church keeps on training and sending its members out to plant new churches. This is called extension growth. Or, the main church starts new ethnic-language congregations. This has been termed bridging growth. An example is when a Malaysian English-speaking church spawns a Tamil- or a Myanmarese-speaking congregation.
  1. Most pastors (and church leaders) are not large church leaders. Fewer still are megachurch pastors. If that is the case then, it is better to have many small churches that have pastors who are able to lead with vision and passion for growth and multiplication, than to load them with guilt that they are not growing their church into a large church.
  1. Small churches are easier to manage and lead. And if most pastors don’t have the capacity to lead large churches, it is best to accept our God-given abilities and work with small churches. Some people think that pastoring a mega church has built-in advantages because it has mega resources. But as I once heard Daniel Ho (former Senior Pastor of DUMC) say, “…we also have mega problems!” And not every (read, “most”) pastors (or lay leaders) are able to handle mega challenges.
  1. Some people don’t want to go to a large church. They prefer the I-know-everyone-in-the-church kind of atmosphere and where the pastor is everyone’s personal shepherd. Should the church grow too big for them, they move out to a smaller church.

Small churches are here to stay—and for good reasons. The thing is, we need to ensure that our church is small for the right reasons, and never at the expense of fulfilling the Great Commission of Jesus Christ.

Leadership Succession

In recent weeks I attended two very significant events. The first was the celebration of the life and ministry of Pr. Dr. Daniel Ho, who at the age of 65 stepped down as the Senior Pastor of Damansara Utama Methodist Church. The second was the celebration of Georgetown Baptist Church’s  60th Anniversary and dedication of their new building with a seating capacity for 1,200 people.

Close-up on the Hand of a Male Athlete Passing a Relay Baton to Another Athlete, With a Dramatic Sky in the Background

Daniel Ho’s readiness to step down as the SP of DUMC, a church he co-founded and led for more than 30 years, and which has grown into a mega church, is a testimony to his humility and leadership philosophy. Too many pastors (including lay leaders/elders) don’t know how to let go. And that is one of the reasons for the stagnation or even decline among some churches.

However, Daniel Ho had worked hard on the development of the leadership for the next and even later generations. He had been grooming his young lieutenants for a long time, and over the last couple of years he had taken deliberate steps to transit the leadership of DUMC to the designated successor, Chris Kam.

It’s the stories of Moses and Joshua, Elijah and Elisha, Paul and Timothy played out in our contemporary church scene.

I cannot claim to have been as intentional as the Biblical examples or Daniel Ho, but I did my bit at GBC. After 13 years as the SP I felt I was no longer the right person to take the church to the next level. GBC needed someone fresh, more able and with greater energy. I believed that Ng Kok Aun was God’s man. In fact it was by my encouragement that he had stepped into the full-time ministry eight years earlier. And during that time as we served together he had proven himself faithful and able.

At the point of transition, Kok Aun may not have been fully ready to assume the role of GBC’s SP (my fault due to lack of foresight), but 10 years later it is evident that he is God’s man for this season. The church has grown; it is healthy, strong and united. And one of the evidences for this is the new church building.

I strongly believe that there is a huge need for intentional leadership succession in the church today. Pastors and church leaders need to identify and intentionally raise up their successors. Secondly, a pastor or church leader must not overstay his time, especially if he is the main leader of the church. When he is no longer the man to lead the church he should be ready to admit it and step out. If a pastor is not prepared to do the latter he will not do the former. This calls for humility and honesty, as a pastor listens for the leading of the Lord during the different seasons of his life and ministry. It may be time to go and for his successor to take over.

We must think long term, we must think into the next and later generations; for without succession there can no long term success into the future generations.

Read next about “Leadership Succession from Within”.