The discussion of the sending church may cause some leaders and churches to feel left out. Many of the churches touted as sending churches are large and well-resourced. Why not leave sending up to them, along with missions agencies? It’s a question we will want to answer in order to tap into an oft-ignored yet deep well of sending potential. By "smaller," we mean any church that isn’t multi-campus or multi-thousand. That could be a roomful of people with no staff, a mid-sized church of several hundred with a growing staff, and everything in between.
Luke Holmes (@lukeholmes) is the pastor of First Baptist Church of Tishomingo, Oklahoma. Never heard of it? No surprise. Neither had Luke, even as a native of nearby Oklahoma City. That is, until six years ago when he and his family made the transition to the community of 3,500. That meant bidding farewell to his large church back home for First Baptist’s one hundred-member congregation. Why in the world would he do such a thing, especially with all the hype about big cities and hipster churches? The answer came with a shout: Have a heart for small churches!
Smaller Churches Have Unique Potential
Okay, so maybe it wasn’t shouted. But it oozed so much from Luke’s story that the phrase is emboldened and underlined at the top of my notes. His heart for small churches didn’t just land him in a smaller church; it helped him stay in a smaller church. “You can cross a culture within a language group,” he said, referring to the lightyears between Oklahoma City and Tishomingo. But that doesn’t mean Luke downgraded. Instead, he’s enjoyed the unique blessings of a smaller context, especially as it relates to mission. Here are some of them:
Relationships – “Smaller churches are much more relational. Everyone is involved because everyone knows one another. They support their own. There is a huge incentive to stay connected with their Sent Ones on the field when it's someone they've watched grow up. And it’s that much sweeter because it’s intergenerational.”
Unity – “In a smaller church, it’s easier to capture the whole church’s heart for a particular place and people. Casting a single vision builds unified prayer and involvement. This is especially beneficial for children because it gives them a simple, clear vision of the church on mission.”
Agility – “This is the key to revitalizing struggling churches. It helps them remember who God has made them to be. It’s a much smaller ship to turn than with larger churches. Smaller means more agile! Getting people overseas helps make this happen. If you can get three members overseas, things really start to change.”
Measurability – “It’s a joy as a pastor to watch your people focus outward.” Pastors in smaller churches often can be more directly involved in practically leading their congregations into mission. They get to be right there as change takes place in the people they know so well.
In a smaller church, it’s easier to capture the whole church’s heart for a particular place and people.
Common Speed Bumps for Smaller Churches
Luke also admitted that there are a number of challenges facing smaller churches. They aren’t road blocks, but more like speed bumps that require God’s grace and wisdom on the way to becoming sending churches. And they are well worth navigating. Some of them include:
Tradition – “At first it can be hard to drum up passion and get the ball rolling. People are slower to adapt to change. For decades, missions what was other people did. Changing that mindset can be difficult.”
Demographics – “Many smaller churches are in blue-collar communities. The businesses and schools in town don’t have overseas offices or opportunities. That means it can be challenging to pay for mission trips or support Sent Ones. It's also often harder for them to take off work to go themselves.”
Hesitation – “In smaller communities there is a natural skittishness toward other cultures and overseas trips.” This can be especially hard when family members aren’t supportive of someone’s desire to go. It can even cause tension in the church.
Interest – “Smaller churches aren’t fed by seminaries like many larger churches. We just don’t have tons of people who want to be sent.” Anyone raised up with a sense of calling to cross-cultural missions will likely come from the ranks of the faithful few.
Sending must not merely be an issue of quantity, but quality.
Including Smaller Churches Combines Influence
Luke pointed out why small churches often get overlooked individually. “We naturally gravitate toward more potential—larger churches can send more.” Yet if smaller churches were faithful to send one missionary well, together they could easily surpass the sending of a few larger churches.
But this isn’t just a numbers game—sending must not merely be an issue of quantity, but quality. And if thousands of qualified missionaries are to be sent, it will take partnerships between large and small churches to see it happen.
“There can be dissonance between large and small churches because of 'sheep-stealing,' but they should still initiate partnership. For example, it would be helpful for smaller churches to be able to participate in larger churches’ mission trips because it's often hard for smaller churches to plan all the administrative details of these trips. Joining in with a larger church can help their members catch a vision and begin building excitement in the rest of the body.”
It only takes a brief conversation with smaller church pastors like Luke to remember just how much Jesus loves his entire body, even the “less presentable” (1 Cor 12:23)—or less headlining—parts of it. Because every church is connected to “the head of the body” (Col 1:18), smaller churches have a serious role to play in God’s mission. “It takes us more time,” Luke said. “So give us time instead of counting us out.”
In other words, have a heart for smaller churches!
Bradley is a missiologist, pastor, and trainer. He has been at Upstream since 2014, producing blog and social media content, authoring The Sending Church Defined and Receiving Sent Ones During Reentry: The Challenges of Returning "Home" and How Churches Can Help, and serving as a board member. He is also the lead pastor at Antioch Church. As a former global Sent One, Bradley reflects on missions and formation at Broken Missiology.