Encouraging, Living, Reaching


Is Small the New Big?

Is Small the New Big?

As I sit here in my local Starbucks, a perplexing question comes to mind: is Starbucks big or small?

Well, everyone knows Starbucks is huge! Right? A corporate giant presently valued at $62 billion on the stock market. Yet, the Starbucks I’m sitting in is downright small. Looking around I count 25 seats and estimate the size of the store to be about 25’x50’, not very big at all. Just a few doors down is a Subway Restaurant which is even smaller than Starbucks! Yet the home page of Subway’s website proudly declares there are 43,088 Subway restaurants in 108 countries. Is Subway small or big?

What about the church? Is the church small or big?

The average assembly

Over the course of a year I have the privilege of visiting some 30 to 35 different assemblies, mostly in the Middle Atlantic region of the United States.   Most of the assemblies I visit are small. While there are a couple of exceptions, most will typically have less than 100 people present. Maybe this describes your assembly?

At times it can be discouraging to see so few at the meetings of a local assembly. Yet, when I see a Subway or a Starbucks I’m reminded that small doesn’t always mean small!

A part of the whole

As members of the Body of Christ we are part of something WAY bigger than Starbucks and Subway combined. Our Lord and Savior said: “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” Matthew 16:18 ESV. He IS building His church and His church is something much bigger than I am able to comprehend.

When contemplating the size of a local assembly my thinking tends to be one-dimensional. Are there more or less people here than the last time I was here? Over the years has attendance trended up or down? It seems that I’m fixated on what I can see. I’m looking on the outward appearance.

A true evaluation

Is this how our Lord Jesus Christ evaluates local assemblies? No. He gets to the heart of the issue by looking beneath the surface. In Revelation 2 & 3 our Lord reveals His personal evaluation of seven different local churches. It is important to bear in mind that each of these churches were actual local assemblies. By examining His evaluation I believe we can glean an understanding of what is important to Him regarding the health of a local assembly.

A cursory reading reveals a number of issues our Lord is concerned about: love for our Lord Jesus Christ (Rev 2:4), good works (Rev 2:2), faithfulness in persecution (Rev. 2:10), doctrinal purity (Rev. 2:14), moral purity (Rev. 2:20-21), spiritual vitality (Rev. 3:1-3), faithfulness to God’s Word (Rev. 3:8) faithfulness to His name (Rev. 3:8) and others.

It’s interesting to note that the issue of numbers is conspicuously absent. Numbers tend to be the first and only characteristic we consider. Yet, our Lord doesn’t even mention the issue.

“But the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Do not look on his appearance or on the height of [Saul’s] stature, because I have rejected him. For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.’” 1 Samuel 16:7

The real issues that matter

Maybe ‘numbers’ isn’t the issue? Maybe the issues that really matter are referenced in Revelation 2 & 3? Maybe if our individual and corporate love for Jesus Christ increased, and we did the good works we were saved to do (Ephesians 2:10), and we pursued doctrinal & moral purity both individually and collectively, maybe, just maybe, the Lord would see fit to bless our assemblies numerically.

My friend and fellow assemblyHUB contributor Mike Dilione recently commented to me on this issue:

“I often think of how the church grew in the book of Acts, it normally talks about the Word of God increasing.  That has always been my prayer… that the word of God would increase in our assembly and personally.”

One-dimensional thinking

I’m not trying to say numbers and numerical church growth are unimportant. Rather, I’m attempting to point out that focusing on numbers as the only, or even the most important barometer of an assembly’s health is overly simplistic. Such one-dimensional thinking overlooks factors of greater importance.

If small really is the new big then we may not be able to perceive the growth in numbers. Based on what I can see, Starbucks feels small—yet I know Starbucks is anything but small.

Consider the following:

  • Does “church growth” mean growing the number of believers in a local assembly or does it mean growing the number of assemblies globally? Or, does it mean both?
  • Should we rethink what the ideal size of a local meeting is? Instead of a city having one assembly of 150, maybe three geographically dispersed assemblies of 50 believers each is better suited to reaching our modern society.
  • Should we rethink the ideal size of our local meeting spaces? Many assembly buildings are disproportionately  large considering the number of believers in fellowship. Does it make sense to maintain a building built for 200 when there have been only 100 in fellowship for decades?
  • It’s painful for me to be in a meeting place built for 200 when only 100 are present. It feels empty and lonely; it feels like something is wrong, even foreboding. It feels like an empty restaurant during lunch hour; where is everybody? What do they know that I don’t? Should I even eat the food??
  • In contrast there is something wonderful about being in a meeting place that is appropriately sized. It feels warm and friendly; it feels welcoming.   Being physically close may even inspire closer spiritual fellowship with one another.
  • Many assembly buildings are 50+ years old. They were built for and by a different generation. Often the décor hasn’t been updated since the 70s or 80s. Walking into many assembly buildings is like stepping back in time. Maybe this doesn’t matter, but then again there is something wrong if we update and modernize our homes but ignore the condition of the buildings we meet in. What does this say to the community around us?
  • Maybe the time has come for the assemblies to intentionally pray and think about these issues. For many assemblies it could be beneficial to downsize and modernize their meeting spaces.   Doing so may even produce a surplus of funds that could be used to plant a new assembly across town.
  • Good works, maintenance of faithfulness in an antagonistic society, doctrinal purity, moral purity, spiritual vitality, faithfulness to God’s Word, faithfulness to God’s name all matter. The time has come for the assemblies to return to their first love.
  • If we do the work of planting and watering the seed God WILL give the increase. See 1 Corinthians 3:6 ESV.

Small is the new big!

Scott Thomson

Scott Thomson made a profession of faith early in life. However it was during his late teenage years when he obeyed the call of the Lord Jesus to repent. Luke 5:32. In December 2012 Scott and his wife Mary were commended to full time Christian service by the North York Gospel Chapel. Scott maintains an itinerant Bible teaching ministry and regularly contributes to the Why We Web blog as well as his own blog, Digital Sojourner. Scott and Mary have 3 children.

9 Responses to Is Small the New Big?

  1. Tim Anderson

    Another excellent article…Definitely lots to think about!

    • Scott Thomson

      Thank you Tim for your kind comments. If you would like, feel free to post some of your thoughts… I would enjoy hearing what they are.

  2. George Ferrier

    A good perspective Scott. I’m reminded of this verse:

    Zec 4:10 For who has despised the day of small things? For these seven rejoice to see The plumb line in the hand of Zerubbabel. They are the eyes of the LORD, Which scan to and fro throughout the whole earth.”

    • Scott Thomson

      Thank you George for your encouraging comments. You have referenced a very interesting verse. I confess that it has been some time since I last studied the book of Zechariah; you have stirred up my interest!

      I wonder what the “small things” were? The ruined state of the temple? The foundation of the temple (Zec 4:9)? The scale of the planed new temple as compared to Solomon’s temple? Regardless, it’s very encouraging to read that a day would come when those who ‘despised’ would rejoice! Clearly, He is able to do excitedly abundantly above all that we ask or even think!

  3. Jaby

    Numbers (total size) aren’t the issue but growth. I read once that an ideal church should be growing:

    -members (for lack of a better word) grow in their faith,
    -they then share their faith in word/deed
    -others see this and get interested in why and come to church.
    -these others eventually get saved
    -the process begins again.

    Is that too idealistic?

    • Scott Thomson

      No, I do not believe it is too idealistic. Rather I think you hit the nail on the head.

      My core thought behind the article is: small numbers is the symptom of a much greater, less obvious problem. II would argue that there is a danger in defining the problem as “small numbers” as this could very easly lead to pragmatic “solutions” that are unbiblical and not pleasing to Christ.

      However if we correctly define the real underlying problems (i.e. the issues referenced in Rev 2&3) then we will be able to properly address the problems.

      Hence, I completely agree with your comments. We have been saved to DO good works– growing in the faith, evangelizing, sheepherding/discipling the newly saved, and bringing them into assembly fellowship.

      Thanks Jaby, I appreciate your helpful comment.

  4. James

    An assembly ought to be large enough to function, do serve each other, and to do the work of God in the part of the world it touches. It should be small enough that everyone in the local body can exercise his or her gift, have his or her own work to do, and be profitable to the Lord, within and through the assembly. It should never be so large that you can go there, sit on a back pew, and hide.

    I read a business book based on the idea of biomimicry. It hypothesized that seven is the perfect number (interesting that this secular author knew about seven). Seven is the number of distinct objects most people can remember in a list, without a mnemonic. Seven is the number of primary relationship most people are able to have. The perfect number for a business unit (according to Gore Corporation, which gave us Goretex) is 49. That would be seven times seven. Their thinking is that it breaks evenly into seven work groups, where the members of each group can develop a felt sense of each other’s style. In a group of seven, you can really learn to zig when the other guy zags.

    A brother preaching on Romans 15 once pointed out that there are about four or five distinct assemblies mentioned under the umbrella of the “Church in Rome.” They all met in homes. I’m guessing the average ancient world home accommodates, maybe, 49 people. Give or take a dozen.

    When the church at Antioch got big enough, they sent some of their most gifted guys to plant new ones. It played a pretty big part in how the church grew in the early years. Some of the old brethren called them “hive-offs.” I like that term. Like splitting a bee hive.

    Small is not the new big. Small is the old big. Everyone is gifted. Everyone is in fellowship. Everyone is ministered to. And everyone ministers. It’s a great model. One that must have been designed by an organizational genius.

  5. Scott Thomson

    Amen! “Everyone is in fellowship. Everyone is ministered to. And everyone ministers. It’s a great model. One that must have been designed by an organizational genius.”

    I read once that the number of digits in a phone number, 7, was specifically chosen because that is the largest number of digits most people can remember without writing it down.

    I find it very interesting that the New Testament does not give a fixed number as the ideal size of a local congregation. Clearly this isn’t an oversight… it gives great flexibility for local assemblies to do that which is best considering their unique circumstances. He is an organizational genius indeed!

    Thanks James!

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