Over the last decade, the churches in America have witnessed an overall decline in size. A recent Lifeway Research study indicated that twenty years ago, churches of 100 or smaller constituted 45% of all American churches—today, that number has increased to 65%. While some analysts may view the statistics as doom and gloom, I always look at things either realistically, innovatively, or optimistically. I believe we can do all three.
As a missiologist, recognizing the continued trend of American churches becoming smaller is not a bad omen. The smaller churches paradigm opens five missional doors to propel the church for more significant cultural impact. Those five effectual doors are church multiplication, community outreach, missional giving, disciple-making, and gospel-reconciliation among diaspora.
One of the reasons for this article is not merely to present facts and figures or theoretical knowledge but to encourage and embolden the smaller church (and pastor). For far too often and far too long, small church pastors have been viewed as less anointed, skilled, favored, gifted, or even called. Small church pastor, and small church bashing, need to cease! The church growth movement has failed in producing disciple-makers and in multiplying.
For clarity, you may be inclined to deduce that smaller churches mean greater Christian decline—but the Lifeway data does not make those distinctions, nor are they factors concerning innovative pioneering and church movements. To be clear, every major church movement through ecclesiastical church history occurred through smaller churches—yet, as Americans, the “bigger is better” motto consumes evangelical thinking. The Western church must view itself as a global church partner (co-laborer), not an imperialistic superior. With that stated, let’s examine the five practical missional opportunities for the trending small church.
Yes, multiplication is the first and most significant opportunity for smaller churches. Everyone knows that simple is reproducible; the complex is not. Smaller churches have always been viewed as multiplicative. However, missional and communal have become synonymous with small groups or house churches. While house churches and microchurches are aspects of a smaller church, generally, they are viewed as an anomaly or part of some niche evangelical fringe. We want to focus on actual evangelical congregations of smaller than 100.
Conferences and books have exploited the small church pastor into thinking they are not good enough; that if they do not break the 200 person-barrier, they are somewhat incompetent and should feel shame. That’s a straight Satanic lie. Neither the big church nor the small church is wrong—both can be and should be utilized, but we need to see the beauty and significance of the small church. The global church must applaud the small church pastor equally as the megachurch one. Frankly, I’m glad that this trend is occurring. Why? Multiplicative church movements will not happen by attempting to utilize the large church methodology—it just won’t. I have nothing against larger churches; I attend one. Yet, I’ve been a planter and small church pastor—it’s time to celebrate and rejoice about the small church.
Thus, the research indicates that American smaller churches have grown exponentially from 45% to 65%. The research is not demonstrating that Christian decline caused the smaller church movement. On the contrary, linking the other factors of higher per person financial giving, increased fellowship, missional obedience, and discipleship, the smaller church is a cultural trend that appeals to Gen Z, Millennials, and some Gen X’ers. The days of bigger is better in America is not necessarily true anymore—that was the 80s yuppie marketplace, not the 20s inclusive society. Through social media, the 20s culture has relied upon being invested in the community—having a voice, being heard, recognized, and included—smaller churches answer those needs. Likewise, culture has shifted to smaller marketplaces, organic, and intimate settings—smaller churches are multiplying because they relate to the part of culture seeking this dynamic.
The Lifeway Research indicated that smaller churches increased (per person) in volunteerism and outreach. The statistics demonstrated what we have already known and guessed that larger churches tend to cause isolationism. This means that people in larger congregations may fade into a congregation without being needed, seen, asked, or want to participate. In smaller churches, believers practice their faith by engaging in communal and individual outreach. In a small church, you will be seen.
For clarity, a large church may indeed have a more significant impact upon a city with its ability to provide hundreds of volunteers. Again, the article’s point is not that larger churches are wrong, but that smaller churches are good and that the trend shows great opportunity. Smaller churches showed that more of their congregants participated in community outreach than larger churches. Is there a direct correlation between larger churches and inactive faith—perhaps—but, all believers should agree that while works are not salvific, we were created “for good works” (Eph. 2:8-10)? There can be no separation from the gospel and the mission of God.
As obedient Great Commission servants (Matt. 28:18–20), believers have always been compelled to give to the mission of God. While statistics demonstrate that Americans still give more to religious values than any other association, donations have never been higher. Research indicates that of church tithers, regular church attendees provide 81% of the offerings. Overall, smaller churches exhibited to have more active and dedicated members.
Studying over 15,000 congregations, smaller churches reported higher percentages of donations given toward missions. The analysis illustrated that smaller churches were invested more individually and communally. Individuals within smaller congregations tended to feel connected to their missional giving, sometimes having opportunities to witness and partake within the immediate mission. Additionally, the data demonstrated that smaller churches allocated larger percentages of cumulative giving to missions. Perhaps, the smaller church views the pastor as an example? While subjective, with their moderate to lower-income (than larger churches), means of living, and sacrifice of giving for the mission of God, it may propel the smaller church members to participate with the pastor.
Cruciformity & Disciple-Making
Having mentioned participating with the pastor, as the apostle Paul stated to the Philippian churches, “What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things” (Phil. 4:9). As the more intimate fellowship of believers exists in the smaller church, the witness of example also exists. Closeness may not always imply cruciformity, but there can be no cruciformity without it.
Cruciform communities consist of devoted and sacrificial individuals. They engage and partake in one another’s hardships, sicknesses, trials, joys, celebrations and collectively embrace them all. While an aspect of a larger church produces excellent worship experiences, the smaller church employs intimate and communal prayer. These folks walk with one another through the daily rhythms of life. For this reason, disciple-making tends to be more genuine and engaged in smaller churches.
Pastors of small churches should embrace this one concept if none at all. Rejoice in the participation of spiritual formation and transformation—the testimony of spiritual renewal. As the Holy Spirit begins to work within the body of Christ boldly, you can experience God’s faithfulness with each individual. You partake in each wedding, funeral, graduation, Bible study, VBS, and more. You watch infants grow into youth and from youth to adulthood—seeing the fruit of your disciple-making labor. Smaller churches instinctively produce a greater cruciform community and disciple-making environment.
Diaspora are globally displaced or scattered peoples from their land of origin. Global migration has reached its zenith, whether through intentional international workplace contracts or illegal immigration. Additionally, United States immigration has reached the heights of the 1890s Ellis Island days. The unreached people groups of the world have come to our shores seeking refuge, asylum, freedom, and prosperity. While some analysts see the Western church in decline, we should see opportunity! The gospel provides refuge, asylum, freedom, and wealth in God.
Due to the astronomical impact of diaspora, the American church, more specifically the smaller church, has an amazing opportunity to reach, disciple, and bring gospel reconciliation to their communities. Knowing that diaspora people tend to cultivate ethnic-cultural enclaves, smaller churches can bring gospel reconciliation to these diaspora communities. As the Philippian jailer and Roman Centurion witnessed gospel reconciliation occur within their households, the intimacy and closeness of small church cruciformity and discipleship are similar. By reaching diaspora, the Western church can reach the world.
Consequently, while the small church possesses these five effective missional open doors, I do not believe they are exclusive to the smaller church. Yet, as this trend continues to rise, the objective is to finally rejoice in the small church. We ought to applaud the consistent hard work of the small church pastor. We ought to embrace the opportunities that the Lord has blessed us with. Through multiplication, community outreach, increased missional giving, disciple-making fellowship, and diaspora enclaves, Christian decline in the West can not only be reversed but it can engage in global church partnership. The moral, whether small or large, the Lord of the harvest is seeking laborers (Luke 10:2). Collectively, we must rejoice in all components of the mission of God.
 Aaron Earls. 2021. “Small Churches Continue Growing—but in Number, Not Size.” Lifeway Research. October 20, 2021. https://lifewayresearch.com/2021/10/20/small-churches-continue-growing-but-in-number-not-size/.
 For the record, America receives more missionaries each year threefold than any other country. America is the mission field of the world, not vice versa.
As someone who assesses cultural trends, demographics, and global movements, it is not easy in today’s shifting world as a visionary and trainer.
One of the hardest aspects for “early adopters” is translating what you see coming and then getting others to invest in that vision. For the most part, only a small percentage of people are early adopters of vision and even a smaller part are vision casters.
The Reality of Inner City Churches
It’s amazing how we view the works of Schaeffer, Wagner, or McGavran with deep regard (at least some, do), yet when they were writing, the church didn’t seem to pay attention to them. But, their words have become somewhat prophetic as the church leads into the 21st century. We see before our eyes the proofs of global movements, urban areas, and immigration.
If you’re a church planter or pastor and haven’t heard the term diaspora, you will. If you want to know what is coming to urban churches then you need to become a student of diaspora movements (and immigration).
One of the major shifts in global population is the flowing dispersion of immigrant people groups. God is sovereignly moving people around the globe like never before. As a church planter to the military, I purposefully see the reaching, equipping, and sending as an identifiable diaspora-like movement.
If we couple the influx of hipster urbanites, gentrification, and urban renewal, it’s a massive powder keg awaiting implosion within inner-city churches.
Because most of our inner city and suburban older churches are not prepared for what is coming. The reality—these churches will die out. With the movement of refugees—either fleeing persecution or temporary visa status for work—they’re coming to cities all over the world.
What Immigration Tells Us
Western churches in urban areas will be forced to reach people of ethnicity. It’s not that urban churches haven’t always tried to reach ethnicities—but cities will be more ethnically and culturally diverse than ever. We should know that immigration to the United States is the only cause for population growth.
And, where do most immigrant groups go? Cities.
Without immigrants (legal), the United States would not be growing in population—but plateauing or even declining. Just to clarify, if you’re linking immigration with the Hispanic culture, let me help you. Currently, Germany and Ireland are the top two countries with diaspora peoples coming to the U.S.—Mexico is third, but only by a small portion of one percent, compared to the United Kingdom (4th).
How Does This Change Urban Evangelicalism?
Immigration and diaspora models play a major role in engaging urban areas with the Great Commission (Matt 28:18–20). As well, the combined hipster, gentrification, and urban renewal (for taxation) models will come into effect.
I’ve heard it said, “We need to stop mega-churches from “gobbling” up old city churches for satellite campuses because they know nothing about the people in the city” or “we already have ‘churches,’ they just need more people in them.”
Supposedly, as the theory goes, mega-churches and Anglo church planting in urban areas won’t work because both are viewed as outsiders looking in. The theory suggests that anglo planters and megachurch models do not understand an inner-city culture, and will not be able to engage the people.
This erroneous theory is caused by thinking Anglo church planters cannot reach African Americans, which are the prominent majority of the urban population.
This argument suggests that Anglo planters and mega-churches should solely invest in small “indigenous” churches, working with and alongside already existing minority inner churches—but not create new spaces of worship. While I may have agreed with this model ten years ago (for outreach purposes)—it’s as archaic as the tape cassette—well, maybe the CD.
Within the next five to ten years, domestic churches and church planters will be forced to reach across the cultural lines of socio-economic barriers, engage ethnic diversity evangelistically with E–2 to E–3 evangelism, and evaluate demographic and ethnic data. If a church doesn’t know who is in its neighborhood, it cannot reach it.
Research any recent urban demographic data and compare it to fifteen years ago. However, census.gov reports won’t provide a true picture—as many people groups within a city, either fail to report their true identity or will not report at all (mainly because of privacy, legal issues, or fear). Think about the major influx of Islam—in just fifteen years this people group has surpassed caucasian and evangelical reproduction.
Do you know how many mosques are now within your city?
While I devoutly pray that brothers and sisters in Christ would no longer view skin color, race, or religion as barriers—the fact is—immigration is a game-changer!
Even the inner-city African American culture will be melded into the many ethnic cultures already here and those arriving in the future. To reach an entire city the church must yield to a concerted effort.
Most cities are becoming more and more ethnically diverse: Indian, Asian, Middle Eastern, and European. To think that things are going to stay the same, especially in light of gentrification (even though I disagree with it, doesn’t mean it’s not happening), are antiquated and ignorant. Urban churches wishing to survive must engage foreign people groups.
The Good News
First, we have the ability to know, study, engage, meet, and communicate with every people group within our cities. Major mission organizations are working side-by-side in mapping the nations within cities. This information is available and can assist churches and church planters in engaging urban areas with the gospel.
Second, nationalities within city-limits sometimes have unreached people groups (UPGs) among them. Many of the refugees will one day desire to go back home—so, what better way to engage missions than to have UPGs return to “go and make disciples” in their own homeland.
Lastly, churches should be working together, collaboratively, as kingdom workers to reach every city with the gospel. However, this is going to take a multi-pronged approach. Existing mega-churches should find ways to purchase dying empty church sarcophaguses—keeping these “kingdom properties.”
Targeting areas of resurgent growth and ethnically diversified areas with house churches works well, too. Strengthening and revitalizing churches, which can be saved, and churches within lower socio-economic areas are a must.
As well, traditional style church planting (having a sending church) and more innovative church planting techniques (parachuting) must be implemented.
We’re all on the same team—let’s reach our cities and the peoples of the world.
Not necessarily beginning with, but accredited to, Donald McGavran and C. Peter Wagner, the Church Growth Movement compelled churches to grow by utilizing sociological analysis.
I’m not one of the critics that thinks the church growth movement was evil. It was nearly 60 years ago! At the time, there were applicational questions that McGavran and Wagner presented, and I think that most will agree—the “status quo” was lackluster.
As well, I don’t think it’s evil for a church to count heads and know who they’re reaching and how many. I don’t like polarizations. I’m usually more of a both/and type of person (except in salvation—that’s black and white) than an either/or.
My point in this brief article is to help church leaders see people for who they are—people.
People need Jesus.
People need love.
People need healing and redemption.
Sometimes leadership can become so obsessed with bringing in more people that personability is lost. Numbers become personified—taking the place of people.
One of the first questions I get at conferences is “How big is your church”? As if this is relevant to anything? Must I explain that I took over a revitalization—that I work with church planters? Why are we justifying “numbers” with success?
The beautiful aspect of church is that it’s the only organization on earth that collects dysfunctional, hurting, pain-ridden, broken, and sinful people with an anticipation of being perfected (in Christ). An anticipation of redeeming love.
The overall premise of the church is reproducible disciple-making to bring about rejuvenation, renewal, and reconciliation (in God).
Once again, I don’t want to discredit churches that are doing amazing work—but let’s not get distracted from the goal—disciple-making. I speak to numerous church planters and pastors who see their work as a failure because they’re not growing at the rapidity of others.
These leaders read way too many books, listen to far too many podcasts, and see too many social media posts regarding numbers, programs, and the “quick-fix.”
The main goal of the church has always been about making disciple-makers(Matt. 28:18–20).
I wonder if the Thessalonian churches were envious of the Philippian church’s size—for they had deacons and bishops (Phil 1:1)? The Philippian church had wealth—they supported Paul on his church planting mission—perhaps they could show the other churches the “right” model?
Or, perhaps, the Ephesian churches wrote letters to the other churches with the best program “to reach the masses”? Maybe they distributed scrolls for, 8 Simple Ways to Be Awesomeor Grow Your Church Like Ours?
I never pick up on any of that in Paul’s writings. I see in Paul, a person who was a devoted disciple-maker (1 Cor. 11:1; 2 Tim. 2:2). Paul was a servant who was dedicated to two words, “Christ crucified” (1 Cor 1:23, 2:2; Gal. 2:20). And, Paul’s motivation was to see the churches reach maturity. I’ve never read a single statement from Paul consigning numbers over people.
I think in today’s church, leaders can sometimes make things more difficult than they are—instead of keeping it simple.
What if the church focused on only two things? (1)The gospel. (2) Reproducible disciple-making.
The gospel and reproducible disciple-making are centered in Christ and focused on people—the dysfunctional, hurting, pain-ridden, broken, and sinful people. If the church begins to look at people through the lens of Christ, growth will occur—naturally.
Let’s not over complicate the gospel. In the same manner, let’s not over complicate disciple-making, either.
If we do life together—as the called out gathered ones (ekklesia)—our lives will be centered in Christ, releasing us to live out our lives within the world.
If we focus on gospel transformative reproducible disciple-making, our hearts are directed at people and for people.
If all we’re solely interested in numbers, then we’re neglecting the missional mandate to love one another and make disciples.
Let’s not reinvent the wheel—but simply, go back to the basics.
Let’s be candid and free the air about some misconceptions regarding disciple-making.
For most of the church age, the comprehension that disciple-making begins with relationship building has been foreign.
Without delving into the early church—which I’m more than happy to do (I’ll save you the homework)—reproducible disciple-making was never designed to begin at conversion, baptism, or church membership. It also was not designed for categorical stages, but instead, was a commission to reach unreached people groups.
Disciple-making was always (and is) about continually making disciples from unbelieving people groups for salvific reconciliation harmony with God and a sanctifying journey through life to exalt Christ. (Matt. 28:18–20).
Jesus called Twelve men, “disciples,” prior to their revelation of his identity. It was clear that these new followers of Jesus—at least to the Pharisees—took the identity of “disciples” (Matt. 9:14). It’s understandable to make an argument that they were covenant Israelites, looking for the Messiah—but not even Peter’s renowned profession happens for some time (Matt 16:13).
Likewise, a person can be seeking God, but not be a Christian. For instance, Apollos was an adherent to the baptism of John, and knowledgeable in the “instruction in the way of the Lord,” but Priscilla and Aquila “took him aside” and discipled him “more accurately” (Acts 18:25-26). Of course, we have no idea of how long Apollos was in Ephesus with Priscilla and Aquila or how long they discipled him—but to “explain to” Apollos the “way of God more accurately,” denotes more than a quick conversation.
Therefore, all Christians are disciples, but not all disciples are Christians.
The discipleship process shouldbegin pre-conversion—at building relationships, explaining, reasoning, walking, and living with others—hopefully, while they are in the searching process.
Unfortunately, when the church shifted to a more didactic form of “discipleship”—between the late second to early fourth centuries, mainly due to heresies—the communal life-on-life aspects of reproducible disciple-making changed.
Disciple-making doesn’t occur in stages
I’ve read many times and, in several publications, that disciple-making is about getting to, and recognizing, specific stages. Here’s some of the problems and arguments I have with stages of discipleship.
First, the Thessalonian church was only 3 weeks old when Paul and Silas were snuck out of the city—but no older than six months (Acts 17:1–9).How could this church grow in reproducible disciple-making, with a city of a hundred thousand persecuting them, in only a few short weeks? The truth is—reproducible disciple-making requires Holy Spirit gospel transformation, not programs or categories. In the case of the Thessalonian church, they would have been considered “babes in Christ.” Today, none of them would have been selected to lead or facilitate our modern small groups. Yet, Paul was encouraged by the report of their “faith and love” (1 Thess. 3:6).
Second, the dilemma with stages reduces disciple-making to a course to be completed. As if we enter a final stage of maturation. Believers are always learning and always growing. The Apostle Peter was rebuked by the Apostle Paul for representing a false gospel—what stage would we have placed Peter into during that period (Gal 2:11)? I’ve seen some models of discipleship list a requirement for a “mature disciple” to possess full knowledge of the gospel—guess that leaves Peter out? Paul asserted that Peter stood, “condemned” (Gal. 2:11). I’ll rest in the words of the Apostle Paul—that God is not finished with me, yet (Phil. 1:16).
Third, similar to my second point, when disciple-making is viewed as a program within the church, what happens to those who are not involved? I’ll tell you. Those “disciples” do not view themselves as disciples because they’re not in a “discipleship class.” The modern church values Scripture memorization more than Scripture adherence. Disciple-making is a continual life-on-life journey, which should begin at pre-conversion.
My point? Why bother with trying to measure believers up? Every believer is going to go through times of doubt, anxiety, turmoil, bitterness, error, sin, and so forth—perhaps the church should focus on being more like Christ—in unity—communally—not individualistically?
If the church could have a renewed vision of reproducible disciple-making, looking back at the early church, not trying to reinvent the wheel, perhaps evangelism and growth would be the outcomes? Perhaps the church could reach unreached peoples in communities, cities, and countries—beginning the reproducible disciple-making process.
The concept of reproducible disciple-making is not about finding a believer and discipling them, but a non-believer. What if each believer focused on discipling a non-believer? What would that look like?
It would look like multiplicative new conversion growth: salvation, baptism, identity in the Godhead, teaching to obey the commands of Christ. It would look like gospel transformation. It would look like communal life-on-life—sharing in troubles, failures, and successes. It would look like accountability and personal relationships, with God and man.
Is that so bad?
Fee, Gordon, L. The First and Second Letters to the Thessalonians(TNICNT) (Eerdmans: Grand Raids, 2009, 6).
Not long after arriving at my revitalization position, I envisioned the church distributing invite cards within their neighborhoods, workplaces, and communities. This seemed to be an easy, low stress, and high impact, approach to evangelism. In turn, the evangelism initiative would work as a cyclical driving force for outreach. The outcome was average, probably as good as expected. But I learned from it.
I’m not one of those people that believes that the church is either missionalor attractional—I believe it is both—and always has been. So, when conceiving the invite card engagement, it was to be more effective than mailers—a “no brainer.” But, there’s much more potential here—stick with me.
For 4–6 weeks, a deliberate church-wide initiative is set forth. The purpose is to garner support from every member to participate. The pastor expresses to the church the importance of total involvement in the new project.
The design is to invite as many people as possible (hopefully unchurched, unreached, nones and dones), with invitation cards. This event should be less stressful than walking door to door or street evangelism, seeking a high impact opportunity. The invitation cards should have the proper information regarding the church, website, address, times, and other essentials. Each member is expected to personally hand the cards out within their surroundings.
Now comes the fun part—if you like validation, team building, and leadership development. An outreach for the sake of outreach is still good works, and an outreach for Christ’s sake is edifying and glorifying to God—but what if we utilize and measure the initiative for greater purposes?
I learned something in my doctoral work—there should always be quantifiable or quantitative evidences. How do we know what we are doing is working? In this case, we could possibly count heads of new arrivals and/or, ask. But, for this article, we’d like to utilize the information from our initiative to create something greater within the church—leadership development and gift recognizability. How do we do this?
Every time a member arrives at the church building, they log in to an easily created program, which asks several questions: (1) How many cards did you hand out this week? (2) Where did you distribute the cards: a. neighborhood, b. workplace, c. community; (3) Have any of your invitees responded: a. small group, b. home Bible study, c. church Bible study, d. Worship service.
The questions are straight forward, they should take no less than two minutes to fill out. This also can be done by logging into a dedicated Facebook or website page. If your church has some tech savvy people, this initiative contains numerous possibilities.
The Key Results
Here’s the good stuff—utilizing the data. People have begun logging in and posting their results. We now have real identifiable and measurable information. We can see where the cards are going, who is taking them, how many each person gives out, and perhaps, what we’d like, the giftings of members.
Example: let’s say that our leadership is reading the church’s weekly data and notices that “Bob” has handed out a whopping 150 cards in one week! This sounds amazing—as a leader, he’s someone that I want to keep my on. Let’s also say that “Mary” has handed out 15, but 10 of the 15 are attending a Bible study in her home. Next comes “Kirby, Logan, Kim, Shania, Deb, and Tracey,” they all live within the same neighborhood. The leaders notice that none of this group’s cards have been distributed within their neighborhood, some were distributed at workplaces, and in the city, but none in their collective neighborhood.
How may leaders use this information?
Building A Leadership Pipeline
Noticing Bob’s amazing ability to hand out the invites, I want to reach out to him. It is highly likely that Bob has a gift for evangelism—at least we know that he’s not an introvert. Bob may be more comfortable in handing out cards than speaking, so it is vital that we encourage Bob and begin to edify his giftedness. We want to bring out what is already there. I would team Bob up with our evangelism and missions team, as well as, work one-on-one with Bob is disciple-making development.
For Mary, it seems that she has the gift of hospitality—she enjoys being with others. She’s invited people that she knows, or at least that she feels comfortable being around. According to the data, Mary has begun a home Bible study. Leaders should target this information to help advance Mary into a home group leader. It’s time to get Mary connected with the Life Groups leaders. While she may be intimidated by the idea at first, encouragement and cultivation will bring out her natural ability to facilitate, be hospitable, and organize.
Lastly, and these are only three examples, the last group of people may tell us that Kirby’s, et al., neighborhood may be an area of un-fallow ground (i.e. hard to reach). Leaders may gather these neighboring members to assist them in launching a church sponsored outreach (block parties, door to door, etc.). Bringing these members together and walking them through the stages of creation, organization, engagement, and implementation of neighborhood outreach will create future leaders when impacting other communities.
As you see, the church can utilize technology for the good and to help create a leadership pipeline. These are just a few examples; the ideas and implementations are almost endless.