Dispelling Four Common (and Unhelpful) Myths about Neighborhood Churches

“There’s a church on every corner in that community!”

I’ve heard this comment many times over the years. In most cases, the tone indicates a level of disdain. It’s understandable. Church buildings seem to be everywhere, while God’s mission seems to be nowhere. But I don’t believe we need to give up on these churches. God hasn’t.

When I see a church on three acres buried in a dense neighborhood, I don’t think “landlocked and limited potential.” I see opportunity. Who else is better situated to reach the people there? These little churches that dot the landscape of many cities, towns, and suburbs may be in desperate need of revitalization; but they have a future. I don’t believe that God intends to give up these strategic corners of the Kingdom.

There is significant hope for neighborhood churches across North America because many church leaders and their congregations are leveraging their resources and reclaiming their neighborhoods for Christ. Let’s dispel some unhelpful myths about neighborhood churches.

Myth one: Neighborhood churches can’t compete with large, regional churches.

First of all, it’s not a competition. I think most Christians would agree that the Kingdom of God doesn’t operate based on zero-sum, competitive, business-oriented principles. My church doesn’t lose if your church gains. But I understand the sentiment—if not the fear—from smaller churches when there’s a much larger church right down the street.

Large, regional churches—by design—must be broad in scope. They tend to be structured around programs and events. Great relationships can form in large churches, of course, but the predominant ministry model is driven by a “pull people in and fill the room” mentality. Because their reach is regional, maintaining a micro-focus on ministry is difficult.

Smaller churches tend to be driven more by relationships. The programs and events in smaller churches are determined and assessed by their effect on relationships, rather than by how many people attend. In most small churches, you know who’s missing, and you can pick up the phone and call them.

The competition between small and large churches is more perception than reality. Can small churches lose members to larger churches? Yes, it happens. But small churches can also glean members from larger churches. Some people desire the relational connections that epitomize smaller congregations. And as the majority of churchgoers want to drive less than fifteen minutes to church, many simply don’t want to travel further to get to a regional church, unlike previous generations. I believe small churches have a bright future of reaching their neighbors. Large churches are not a threat to smaller churches. Indeed, in the coming years, it may be the other way around.

Myth two: Small size means small influence.

Influence can be measured by reach and impact. Reach involves how far. Impact involves how deep. When a large church pursues significant reach, their success is often determined by how many people participate. Neighborhood churches can measure their influence more by deep impact than broad reach.

Whereas large, regional churches are necessarily broad in scope, smaller neighborhood churches can be laser-focused on customized ministry. For example, a large regional church might create an outreach to every police and fire station in the area. They organize a day of ministry and send out a mass of people with a broad reach. The neighborhood church is more apt to walk across the street to the police or fire station and build an ongoing relationship with the officers or firefighters. Both forms of ministry are valid. Both can have a great influence on the community.

Successful neighborhood churches embrace a philosophy of being strategically small rather than intentionally small. Strategic smallness seeks to leverage the strengths of a smaller size for greater ministry effectiveness, whereas churches that intentionally stay small betray a dangerous inward mentality. Small size doesn’t have to mean small influence. The influence of a neighborhood church will just look different from that of a larger, regional church.

Myth three: Our neighborhood location makes us invisible to the community.

There are clear advantages to location. Signage, road frontage, and vehicle volume can make a difference. But a church’s location is not what makes it invisible. The reason that churches fall off the neighborhood’s radar has more to do with a lack of mission and a lack of confidence. Small congregations can struggle with a poor self-image, feeling weak, unattractive, and limited. The invisibility factor is less about location and more about self-perception. When you perceive insurmountable inadequacies in your church, you are less likely to invite neighbors, friends, and coworkers to a worship service or ministry event.

In a recent conversation with a pastor in California, he described to me how his church had overcome the perceived downsides of their location. The church was buried in a neighborhood, two odd turns off the main road. Zoning restrictions meant limited signage. But his church was not invisible. In fact, most people in the community knew precisely where the church was located. How?

“People don’t drop into church anymore,” he said. “Inviting people is far more successful than a strategic road location with a lot of visibility. There is another church on the main road where you must turn to get to our church. They aren’t growing, and we are, mainly because we invite people to church, and they don’t.”

Myth four: The most capable pastors lead the largest churches.

In the 1990s, an emerging discussion addressed the desire to turn around struggling churches. Church growth experts started using the term “turnaround churches,” which became the precursor to the church revitalization movement of the mid-2000s. The idea was that small churches could grow again. Gen X pastors and Millennials began to sense a calling to these smaller churches, along with a vision for leading a turnaround strategy.

Today there is a solid group of pastors and church leaders willing to take on the challenges of church revitalization. Many are co-vocational or bi-vocational. There is a strong contingent of pastors with a calling to serve neighborhood churches. Many grew up in the area, sometimes in the churches they now serve. The lure of larger churches with bigger pay packages remains, but such is the case in any profession, not just ministry. The Millennial and Gen Z generations are the most diverse in the history of North America. Their callings within the church are just as diverse.

Neighborhood churches are just as likely to land capable leaders as their larger counterparts, but only if these congregations demonstrate a willingness to move forward.

We need to get excited about how God can use churches that are already situated in neighborhoods across our nation. A church on every street corner is precisely how God’s Kingdom can grow!

This article is adapted from an excerpt in The Surprising Return of the Neighborhood Church: Discover How Your Church Is Primed to Reach Your Neighbors, published by Tyndale. Pick up a copy today!

Posted on October 25, 2023

As President of Church Answers, Sam Rainer wears many hats. From podcast co-host to full-time Pastor at West Bradenton Baptist Church, Sam’s heart for ministry and revitalization are evident in all he does.
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