Have you ever heard that little voice that tells you, “If you were doing it right, your church would be bigger.”? The enemy loves to discourage leaders and will pull out all the stops to convince you that your efforts are in vain. If that were the case, however, then he’d probably leave you alone to spend yourself in futility. The truth is, your doing a great service and everything in scripture seems to honor the small: children, mustard seeds, widows’ mites, a few loaves and fish, the least of all will be greatest in the kingdom, many are called while few are chosen. There are many reasons why a small church is not synonymous with an unhealthy or unproductive church.
Let me begin by saying that in talking about reasons why small churches are not necessarily unhealthy, I am in no way making any statement about large churches. It’s easy to make that assumption, so up front, I’m not saying anything about large ministries.
There are a lot of things we can do to get butts in the seats, but most of those gimmicks have little to do with Jesus and everything to do with appealing to our natural selves. No matter if a church is big or small, all kinds of people will come for all the wrong reasons. The important thing is to prayerfully clarify why you gather. Personally, I do not believe in seeker-driven churches. The Bible is pretty clear that “there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God” (Romans 3:11, Psalm 14:1-3, Psalm 53:1-3). People come to God because God has called them and stirred their hearts (conviction) by his Spirit. I’m not even really a fan of the seeker-sensitive approach. I understand being ready to give an answer and teach, but the gathering of the church is for the saints, not the lost. The church (people) is for the lost; the corporate gathering is for the edification of the saints. Church leadership is set aside to “equip the saints for works of service,” and corporate gatherings is when that occurs. Wherever you fall on this spectrum, you need to clearly define the purpose of your gatherings (you may have multiple gatherings with multiple purposes). If you’re just trying to chase culture in order to lure them into your gathering, you will never have an identity and you’ll be chasing the wind. No one wants to be a part of that. Have something to invite people into.
Even with a clearly defined purpose, you will find that visitors come and visitors go. We’ve had a number of people come through our doors and never return. We’ve had no reports of anything bad, they just decided to go somewhere else. Maybe you’ve had that happen in your church. There are a number of reasons for it, and they don’t mean you’re doing it wrong.
People can leave because the Gospel is preached. The Holy Spirit’s job is to convict (convince/assure) the world of sin, righteousness, and judgment. If you are preaching the whole Gospel, people may not stay because they don’t like being convicted of sin, or they’re hearing the truth about the sins of their loved ones. Some, rather than respond to conviction, will just find someplace else more comfortable.
Some people leave because they see no place of power. There are those who come to church to have influence or control. If you are organized with accountability in place, and clear expectations for leadership, some people may not stay. It’s human nature to want to be significant. Some people selfishly seek power, others just want to feel important, but if they don’t think they can get their foothold, they may find somewhere that doesn’t require as much accountability, or that has lower or vague expectations.
Though it doesn’t sound wrong at first, some people come to church to feel loved and accepted. Christians are loving people and it’s easy to find those warm fuzzies among them. These people certainly need to be loved and find community, however, they can sometimes become a drain on the church expecting them to care for their every need (or, more commonly, want). There are occasions where broken needy people come and need to be loved and accepted, to get a hand up. I’m not referring to them. I’m talking about people who come specifically to have the church manage their lives. If these people come and are warmly received they may stay for a little while, but when they are discipled rather than coddled they may start making the rounds to find a church that will support their lifestyle.
In a more general sense, people will leave because their expectations aren’t met. We are a Southern Baptist church and have had more than one visitor decide to move on because we weren’t “Baptist enough.” The music wasn’t right, the dress code didn’t suit them (pun intended), and we didn’t send people to the right camp. Sometimes it’s a matter of passions and expressions not matching. That’s okay. It’s important for people to connect with God and be able to worship him according to his vision for their lives. Other times it has more to do with idols than with serving God. In either case, we can’t judge, we just need to remain faithful to our calling, and to serve those God has entrusted to us.
We need to also acknowledge that there are legitimate reasons people don’t come, or don’t stay. When a visitor doesn’t come back, or a member leaves we need to prayerfully and earnestly evaluate ourselves to be sure we are not failing in our calling and purpose. If our conscience is clear before God, then we can joyfully move on and tell the enemy to get behind us as we continue to follow Christ, content in the smallness — and power — of our given ministry.