What Makes Small Churches Great Churches:
Part 1: Truth
Small churches are not great simply because of their numerical limitations, no more than large churches are great because of the number of heads in the pews. One can attend a church of any size that is unhealthy and detrimental to the cause of Christ. The purpose of this series of articles is to recognize that small churches that average under 100 in worship attendance still play a vital role in the advancement of the kingdom of God and have an important role in our convention. In my opinion these roles are often neglected and/or minimized by those who report our news because the headline “100 Decisions for Jesus” reads better than “Gospel Presented, One Says Yes.”
I must tell you that as I begin this series, the articles arise from my preaching series to my local church. In many ways, 2011 marked our greatest year as a church. We sent a couple to Peru on a mission trip that saw over 1,000 commitments to Christ, sent thirty-one people (out of an average of 65) on a mission trip to Arkansas, sent two men to disaster areas in Kansas and North Dakota, actively took up various items for a Burmese congregation in our area, had members teaching Bible studies in a drug rehab facility, conducted blood drives at our church, and conducted a science camp that was the best church children’s camp I’ve ever been a part. Still, as we approached the end of 2011, a pessimistic spirit began to emerge in the hallways of our church. Why? Because even though we had the greatest outreach and evangelistic impact in our church’s history, we didn’t see the visible results in our weekly worship attendance and offerings. In fact, our attendance declined, and we had to reduce our budget for the third year in a row.
I tell you this not to evoke sympathy for my plight, but to let you know that what I write comes from a specific context and has a very specific purpose. As a man intimately connected with the rise and fall of church attendance and offerings, I sought the Lord for a way to change those. What He told me (or reminded me) was His measuring rod for effectiveness is not the world’s measuring rod. What makes a good year for a church is more complex than merely looking at worship attendance and offering totals. For God, a good year for a church is advancing His kingdom on earth, making an eternal impact in the lives He places in our path. The truth of the matter is our local congregation made huge strides in making an eternal impact in the lives of people. My congregation did not need to hear what more we needed to do, but instead they needed to hear what we do that pleases God and makes our church a great place to belong.
Small churches are great churches to belong to if they have an unashamed commitment to proclaiming the truth of God’s Word. Today’s world provides plenty of examples of life without God’s Word. God’s statement about the world prior to the Flood can easily be applied to our current world. Genesis records, “Then the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually (Gen 6:5).” Just interpret the news through the categories listed in 1 John 2:16 “The lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes, and the boastful pride of life.” Life apart from God’s Word is not much of a life. With all the freedoms portrayed by the world, truth be told, many live in bondage to lust, to sin, and to the worst qualities of the human race.
The only hope offered to counteract the lies people live is the truth of God’s Word; and the only source for interpreting all the information that comes our way is God’s Word. Any church that desires to be effective for God, no matter its size, begins with the foundation of truth. The truth revealed in God’s Word provides the platform for our ministries, for our teaching and preaching, and for our lives. With life full of uncertainty, God’s church must be a place where people can go and hear a certain word from Him. We do not need men’s speculations but God’s declarations. We don’t come to hear thoughts of men, but words from God.
When people get to a place that has proclaiming the truth as its foundation, they must take it seriously. The foundation of truth is not secondary but essential to people grabbing hold of that certain word from God. It doesn’t matter whether people are at home, at work, or at play; they need to know that the life they lead is according to truth, not fairy tale; according to truth, not fiction; according to truth, not what is right in their own eyes. So, small churches that unashamedly proclaim the truth of God’s Word are great places to belong.
By the time of 2 Timothy, Paul sensed his life on earth was coming to an end. In his second letter, Paul writes as a man giving his last instructions that should be carried out even when he is gone. In this letter, we find a great statement on the benefits of God’s Word and why being in a church that teaches God’s Word is so important. 2 Timothy 3:14-17 provides three benefits of being in a church that teaches the truth.
First, you must know the truth in order to receive salvation (vv.14-15). Paul reminds Timothy about the “things you have learned and become convinced of” and that knowing “the sacred scriptures” gave him the “wisdom that leads to salvation.” This knowledge requires learning, action, and an encounter with Jesus. Paul tells Timothy that God’s Word is profitable for teaching so people may have the intellectual truths of God, but intellect alone does not save. They must also be reproved and corrected in their lives, which requires action on their part to repent and change their ways according to God’s Word (v.16). Lastly, any knowledge of God is centered in Jesus Christ. Paul says the wisdom Timothy received leads to “salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus” (v.15).
Second, you must continue in the truth to make certain your salvation. Paul urges Timothy to “continue in the things you have learned” (v.14). Salvation is both a one-time event and an eternal experience. Baptists speak of the time “we were saved.” This comes from Ephesians 2:8 “For by grace were you saved through faith.” At the same time, the New Testament speaks of a person’s salvation as an ongoing experience centered in abiding in the truth. To reinforce the event, a person must continue knowing, living, and abiding in truth. John 8:31-32 states, “If you abide in My word, then you are truly My disciples; and you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” Paul adds his own testimony in Philippians 3:12-14 of not obtaining, but still pursuing and in 2 Timothy 3:16 he tells us how God’s Word guides us in continuing in our faith.
A third benefit to being in a church that teaches truth is the truth prepares you for God’s work in this world (v.17). Our lives are measured by our obedience to God’s Word. “Training in righteousness” is how we ought to live. God’s Word becomes the mirror to evaluate our righteousness in life (James 1:25). In God’s Word, we find the principles for godly living and for advancing God’s kingdom.
For His Word to have the right effect we must submit ourselves to it by studying and applying its truth to our lives, but the greater question this verse answers is why we must use God’s Word for these purposes. So often Christians are content with their own spiritual journey, but here Paul focuses our attention on others. We make certain our salvation by continuing to use God’s Word for instruction, for reproof and correction, and for training in righteousness, so that we are equipped to do every good work. Being in a place that continually proclaims the truth helps us seek, discover, and do God’s will on a daily basis that impacts others.
Healthy, effective churches that impact the world have a lot of good qualities; but, without the foundation of the truth of the Gospel and God’s Word, the church loses the one message that can eternally impact a person’s life. That is why a discussion on what makes a church great begins with truth. If you find yourself worshipping, serving, and/or attending a church that unashamedly proclaims the truth; then you have a strong foundation for having a great church.