Why We Have Been Discouraged from Putting a Stake in the Ground for Smaller Churches

The idiom, “stake in the ground,” has its origins where someone would claim ownership, responsibility, or priority. For example, tent dwellers would put stakes in the ground to pitch their tents. Everything within the stakes was their land or home. Likewise, homesteaders would put stakes in the ground to mark off their newly claimed land.

At Church Answers, we have put a stake in the ground for smaller churches. In no way are we abandoning larger churches; we simply are being intentional about providing resources for smaller churches. That is our stake in the ground. 

When I was CEO of Lifeway, we put several stakes in the ground. For example, we created Lifeway Research so we could help churches and Christians understand trends and directions of congregations and believers. We created the Gospel Project, our stake in the ground for a theologically robust Bible study curriculum. We commissioned a new Bible translation, the Christian Standard Bible, our stake in the ground for a translation that balanced accuracy and readability.

As we have emphasized the importance and resourcing of smaller churches at Church Answers, we have heard from well-intending people that this emphasis is not a good idea. Let me share with you some of the objections. I will then comment with my responses.

  • “More people are attending larger churches.” Only 8% of American churches have an attendance above 250, but the majority of churchgoers do attend larger churches. So, we understand the objection. But we see a move back to smaller church gatherings. We would rather partner with smaller churches to help them reach more people rather than assume they don’t have the capability to grow.
  • “It’s not good business to focus on smaller churches.” We get it. We would do better financially to put our focus exclusively on larger churches. One person suggested to us we could not stay in business with a smaller church focus. We may be naïve, but we are trusting God instead of a business model. We have already been blessed to have several individuals and churches donate to our sister non-profit organization, Revitalize Network (www.revitalizenetwork.org), to help us provide resources at a much lower cost.
  • “Many smaller churches are barely surviving.” Again, that is a true statement. Instead of surrendering to the inevitability of church closings, we are choosing to do everything in God’s power to help these churches survive and thrive. And if some of these churches are indeed about to die, we seek to be a part of a great church adoption movement.
  • “Smaller churches do not have the resources to train their leaders and equip their laity.” Again, this statement may be a current reality, but why do we have to accept such a hopeless condition as a future reality?  One of the reasons we launched Church Answers University (www.churchanswers.university) was to provide ministry training and theological education that is affordable, attainable, and achievable.

In the near future, I will share with you two more of our stakes in the ground: partnering with global churches and emphasizing personal and church evangelism. 

For now, hear me clearly. There is great hope for smaller churches. In many ways their health will parallel the health of all churches in America.

We believe in the smaller churches. We will partner with local churches. We believe in the leaders of smaller churches.

There is much hope for smaller churches. 

And we believe the best is yet to come.

Posted on January 9, 2023

With nearly 40 years of ministry experience, Thom Rainer has spent a lifetime committed to the growth and health of local churches across North America.
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  • Jerry Miller says on

    Should our goal be to grow churches (regardless of their size) or to encourage faithfulness in churches?  There are large healthy churches and small healthy churches and large and small unhealthy churches.  I wish the focus would come off of how big the church is or how much it is growing in numbers and look instead on how the people are growing in the Spirit toward godliness.  Should we be disappointed if there are a lot of small churches that never get bigger but equip the saints to faithfully serve the Lord.  The pastor I had when I was a preteen was not focused on church growth, but he taught us and took us through the Bible Instruction Course (E-Free early 1980’s).  When he passed away the next pastor came in- his focus was all on how to get bigger and get more people to come, but he spent little time teaching us teens the Bible.  I wanted to be taught, but he wanted me to just show up for volleyball and pizza parties.  I quit going to church for a while.  Thankfully others came into my life that were more concerned with teaching me than with how many people came to church.  I really feel the “church growth movement” is one reason why there is so much decline in our churches today.  Now I am a pastor of a small church.  I intend to remain faithful here whether it grows larger or not.  

  • Travis Dewitt says on

    Thank you all for your diligence in speaking love and support to the entirety of the Body of Christ and sharing so much wisdom and experience. I recall reading somewhere of the significance of congregations of just one.

  • I left a large church of around 700 (had been 1600 and went to 700 – a story for another day) to pastor a small church of 100 that is now 150. I always enjoyed having benefits (health care, retirement) and the security of being an associate pastor rather than the senior pastor. Three years ago, through life coaching, God showed me that it was time to pastor a smaller church and I am now sold on pastoring a smaller church.

    Thanks for your investment in the Kingdeom.

  • Corey Beatty says on

    Wow. I personally thank you for standing with smaller churches like the one I pastor that averaged 55 in weekly attendance for 2022. Your books, podcasts and articles have helped me and our congregation immensely. The comments you quoted against ministering to smaller churches were quite disturbing. Maybe some of the focus your group has on larger churches should teach against this bigger is better mindset. There’s nothing very Jesus-y about that attitude, and is probably indicative of some deeper teaching problems at those churches.

  • It is good to support smaller congregations. The key is that small churches can be small but also strong. So we should not give up on the small church.

  • I’ve been a small-church pastor for 27 years, so please rest assured that I appreciate your ministry to small churches. It bothers me that some people would think you’re doing the wrong thing. Alas, I’ve run into that attitude quite often in my years of ministry, and I find it quite disturbing. I have no quarrel with large churches as such, but I do have a quarrel with people who disparage small churches. Such attitudes are little more than snobbery.

  • Thom,
    Thank you for standing with smaller churches. I am a pastor of a church in rural West Texas, and we feel God is not done with us. We have about 50-60 every week. These objections that folks have been sharing with you seem to be from those who have already written off the 92% of churches in America that have an attendance bellow 250. To me, I would have serious questions for those “leaders” of church life that are willing to write of 92% of churches. Thank you for standing on your convictions and calling and putting a stake in the ground for us small guys! I love the small church. Is it a challenge? Yes. However, every church deserves the best chance at survival and growth. –SP

  • My argument on the last statement about small churches no having the resources to train and equip the laity. While that may be true from a fiscal standpoint, smaller churches (and in reality all churches) grow through their laity. Especially in churches where there may be ordained clerical support half-time. Many smaller churches have to live out their commission to gather, share the good news, and witness to God’s love in the world through the laity and to not have resources for the faithful to learn about scripture and faith does them a disservice. If the mission is to create believers why not feed the smaller churches.

    In a world which tries to divide between the haves and the have nots, the church is not supposed to be that way. All are welcome and all are encouraged to live out their faith, wherever they may be.

    From experience, people are turned off by the Church (institution) when they are abandoned. We are living with the disaffection of a pastor from almost 20 years ago who, implicitly, decided this Parish wasn’t worth fighting for. Since then the numbers have been steadily dwindling – maybe not by their choice but in listening to their story that is what they felt. If a church doesn’t feel supported by the wider Church they might question the effectiveness of the Church.

  • Thank you for this! It’s easy to feel left behind by some ministries.
    For a small church, it can be even harder when you are mobile for years without a building to call your own.
    Perhaps, one day you can do a webinar with suggestions for churches like ours.
    Thank you for offering resources and your time!

  • Those are words of wisdom from the CA team and encouragement to those in the trenches and the frontlines. Thank you, CA and Dr.Rainer. Bravo.

  • There’s also the issue of geography: if you live in a large city, there’s probably several mega-church options for you to attend. But if you live in a small country town or rural area, chances are your ONLY option will be one or two small local churches. There’s a LOT of people in that situation, where the nearest “big” church is hundreds of miles away. By only promoting large churches, you are leaving out vast geographic areas from having the resources they need to simply survive, let alone to grow and fulfill their mandate to reach the unreached.
    It would be interesting to see a map with the locations of only “large” churches marked, which I suspect would highlight the huge areas where no such churches exist.

  • Robin G Jordan says on

    Americans do have an obsession with “big,” driving big trucks and SUVs, living in big houses, working for a big, successful companies, and so on. This obsession I suspect is tied to their perceptions of themselves, others, an the world and their notions of success. Large churches also have more resources and consequently they can offer more to the churchgoing consumer than small churches. Even opportunities for ministry and mission in large churches are often consumer-focused. They are not intended so much to meet the needs of people outside the fellowship of the church as they to met the needs of the churchgoing consumer. It is far more difficult to be a churchgoing consumer in a small church.

    I have been affiliated with several denominations over the years–the Anglican Mission in America, the Episcopal Church, the Episcopal Missionary Church, the Southern Baptist Convention, and the United Methodist Church. All of these denominations were composed largely of small churches. I briefly was in pastoral charge of a small EMC church, now disbanded. Small churches face their share of challenges. One of them is the unwillingness of congregants to make changes in the way they do things in order to maintain a viable presence as a church in a particular community. Rather they seek to preserve the status quo, often with disastrous results for the church.

    I personally welcome Church Answers putting a stake in the ground for smaller churches. I have a long-standing interest in small churches and rural ministry. Most of my experience with small churches is in the earlier stages of their life cycle. I have been involved in the planting and pioneering of a number of new churches–three in suburban settings, one in a rural setting, and one in a small university town. I have gained a lot of insights from those experiences as well as my more recent experiences with a small church in the last stages of its life cycle and a medium-sized historic downtown church in a small university town faced with the new realities of the COVID-19 era. A growing number of churches are faced with the realization that they are no longer a medium-sized church but a smaller church trying to function like a medium-sized church on a campus that was constructed when the church was much larger. They may have a viable presence in the community but they are not able to do what they did in the past and achieve the same results. They need to undertake changes in the way they do things to maintain their viability.