Smaller Churches . . . Here to Stay & Making a Difference

Small wooden rural churchBy Shawn McMullen

Encouraging stories about local congregations you may not know, but churches still having a huge impact for God.

Thom Rainer, president and CEO of Lifeway Christian Resources, notes that 90 percent of all churches in America average fewer than 350 in worship attendance and that 50 percent of all American churches average fewer than 100.

Smaller churches have been a part of the American landscape since our country’s inception and they’re here to stay. Across the nation, smaller churches are making disciples and impacting their communities.

Here are some examples.

Greenville, Pennsylvania
John Canon worked full time and was serving as an ordained elder in his home church when he received an invitation from a smaller church in his area to preach for them after their minister resigned. The church was part of a mainline denomination, and the arrangement was to last a month.

Pleased that John’s sermons came directly from Scripture, the church leaders asked him to remain with them until they found another full-time preacher. That same year, the church voted to break ties with their denomination. After their decision, the leaders asked John what denomination they should align with. John responded, “Why join any denomination? Let’s just be Christians and follow the Bible.” The congregation agreed and became an independent church, taking the name Jerusalem Christian Church.

As the church continued to grow and change, John called on Ron Swartwood, a longtime friend, Bible college graduate, and experienced minister, to come alongside him to help in the teaching and shepherding of the congregation. Together the two worked with existing leaders as they taught the Word of God faithfully and consistently. Over time the church installed a baptistery and began to practice the weekly observance of the Lord’s Supper.

Today this smaller church is thriving in rural western Pennsylvania, having launched a disciple-making strategy that is transforming lives in the surrounding communities.

Rapid City, South Dakota
Black Hawk Community Church opened her doors on the outskirts of Rapid City, South Dakota, in the early 1950s to provide Sunday school for the children of the Black Hawk community. For years the church remained relatively small as it continued to reach out to children.

Led today by Ken Fairbrother, the church has grown from 50 to nearly 125 in average worship attendance and offers two Sunday worship services. A recently formed committee is working on plans to build a new building.

The church continues to impact its neighborhoods through a community food pantry, serving local residents as well as families from Rapid City. Each year members of the congregation visit the neediest families in the community to provide holiday food boxes.

A women’s group in the church operates a layette ministry to families of newborns, including a partnership with the Rapid City Community Health Center. The ministry provides quilts, bath towels, washcloths, soap, infant outfits, notes of encouragement, and gift Bibles (one for the infant and one for the parents).

Each year the church blesses the community around the Christmas holidays with a standing-room-only Christmas Eve service. An annual soup and sandwich supper and fall bazaar raise money for local missions: a children’s home, a rescue mission, and a pregnancy-care center.

Rochester, Minnesota
Dr. Rick Walston’s background as preaching minister, counselor, Bible college professor, and academic vice president prepared him well to lead and serve the Marion Church of Christ in Rochester, Minnesota.

Rick describes the church as small but intentional. While some churches have chosen other means of making disciples, the Marion church has found a niche offering a traditional Sunday school program for children and adults. A Wednesday night teaching time preceded by a fellowship supper allows the church to train about 50 percent of her Sunday worship attendees during the week.

Several times a year the church provides intergenerational ministry opportunities for its members, serving the community in a variety of ways while giving adults and young people the chance to work side by side. Young people in middle school and high school are given a variety of opportunities to serve in the church—from assisting in the nursery to helping serve Communion to running the soundboard.

“While we remain traditional in many ways,” Rick notes, “we are always trying to breathe new life and creativity into how we do it.”

Kalkaska, Michigan
Thirty years ago God called Dan Johnson and his family to the ministry of the Church of Christ in Kalkaska, a small community in northern Michigan. When Dan arrived, the church was small and stable but not thriving.

The previous senior minister, who had served faithfully for nearly two decades, had resigned nearly a year before. The congregation was approaching its 100th anniversary and had seen a significant decline in attendance. The small rural community itself was experiencing an economic and population downturn.

Less than a year after Dan’s arrival the associate minister, the only other minister on staff, departed on friendly terms for another ministry opportunity.

Dan, trying to find his way forward, attended a church growth conference where he explained his situation to the presenter. To Dan’s dismay, the presenter acknowledged that his potential for success was limited and encouraged him to find another church with greater possibilities.

At about that same time, a hard-working, blue-collar deacon approached Dan and asked if he could pray with him before the start of each Sunday worship service—something Dan confesses he had never before considered. Today Dan views that moment as a turning point that helped move the church from its slow and steady decline to a sustained season of health and growth.

Together Dan and the deacon began to seek God’s blessing and favor. They prayed for wisdom to lead the church into God’s preferred future. They prayed for the lost, for the saved, and for the strays. They prayed for Dan’s preaching.

Soon other men joined the two in prayer. From there Dan personally recruited 30 men in the congregation to be part of a group known as the Preacher’s Prayer Partners. He asked them to pray one day a month for him, his family, and his ministry. Each week’s prayer partners met to pray early Sunday morning, asking God to bless Dan’s preaching, empower it with his Holy Spirit, and cause it to be effective in the lives of the members.

God heard and answered their prayers. The spirit of the congregation began to improve. Their outlook became brighter. Dan’s preaching improved. There was more unity and harmony in the congregation. Attendance rose and participation broadened.

Bolstered by the power of prayer, Dan determined to become a better leader and to help the elders of the church become better leaders. They prayed together, read books together, attended conferences together, and went on retreats together. They learned to understand one another, trust one another, rely on one another, and forgive one another. They learned to confront conflict and criticism together and to make “unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” a hallmark of the congregation.

The elders began to invest more time in the Scriptures, more passion in prayer, and more sacrifice in giving. God honored their commitments as the congregation followed their example, slowly but surely.

As the leaders grew, they often took significant risks to encourage people to serve in unusual ways, including allowing a church member who was a former exotic dancer and drug addict to begin a ministry to women in a local strip club.

One ministry that made a big impact on the community was the brainchild of a young mom who had a heart for people who were struggling to provide gifts for their children at Christmas. She approached the elders with a plan to solicit new and like-new toys and clothing to distribute to the community. The plan was simple. The enthusiasm of the church was evident. The response was overwhelming.

The event has now grown to serve more than 300 families in the community annually. Donated items are beautifully displayed for holiday “shoppers.” The church provides a free coffee and cookie bar, free gift-wrapping, and “elves” who carry shoppers’ packages to their cars. One family who owns a tree farm generously donates Christmas trees to the families as well.

In providing for families in this way, the church doesn’t ask for names, phone numbers, or personal financial information. There is no requirement to attend a worship service. The church simply provides the service in the name of Jesus so that everyone in their community can have “A Merry Little Christmas”—the name of the event.

Dan Johnson recently retired from the church, and the congregation is now led by Andy Bratton, a gifted leader and shepherd. And the small and declining church now averages more than 400 in weekly worship.

These four congregations are but a microcosm of a large body of healthy, vibrant, smaller—or formerly small—churches across the country that are reaching their communities, making disciples, and transforming lives. It’s clear that smaller churches in America are here to stay. And that they’re making a difference.

Shawn McMullen is director of church relations at the Center for Church Leadership in Cincinnati, Ohio ( He works closely with smaller churches and is establishing a smaller churches network within the center’s larger network. He is the author of Unleashing the Potential of the Smaller Church and Releasing the Power of the Smaller Church.

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  1. Mark Grayless
    January 30, 2017 at 11:52 am

    I truly appreciate those who serve in smaller congregations … they often feel unimportant and underappreciated … however, they often don’t realize that their fellowship of 80 has more impact in their community than a large metro megachurch. Those souls are just as important as those in the large church … keep serving … by the way, I too have a heart for small churches…. my first ministry started with 21 present for my trial message.

  2. Michael G. Mullenix
    February 1, 2017 at 10:24 pm

    I met Rick Walston in New England as summer interns in 1974. How time has flied! Anyway, my wife, Sheila, and I celebrated 39 ordained years (Jan. 15, 2017). We are currently serving a small independent Baptist church, now for six years. They wanted to hear the Word of God. We are a congregation of 15 and have been an outreach to the community with food banks, helped established a homeless shelter and an overseas missions. Being part-time, I was able to serve on the campaign trail for now President Trump; what an exciting 16 months—and yes, with full congregation backing. I thank God daily for my wonderful wife of over 40 years Sheila and her musical abilities (piano). She has worked every job imanginable, because we have always served medium to small churches. Another advantage, I was able to return to college for two additional additional degrees and became a board certified chaplain (25 years). We praise God for using us in this world! However, I am concerned as the church universal continues to shrink. We are now in God’s hands. May His Son, our Savior Jesus Christ, return ever so quickly. Keep the faith, keep strong, Amen! Michael &Sheila Mullenix Seymour, Indiana. 47274

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