This review appeared in the Jul-Sep 2007 vol. 164 no. 3 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.Subscribe Today
The Big Picture for Small Churches and Large Ones, Too! How to Survive and Thrive as a Small CongregationEP BOOKS, Webster, NY May 1, 2005
Benton, pastor of Chertsey Street Baptist Church, a small church in Guildford, Surrey, England, is convinced that infatuation with size as a measure of success and worth has impacted the way evangelical Christians view church size. There is no necessary connection between the size of a church and the blessing of God. Benton rightly concludes, “Reading the New Testament you will find that the number of people in a church is barely a relevant factor as to the church’s usefulness to Christ, and certainly is totally irrelevant as regards its acceptability to Christ” (p. 19). Although written within the context of small-church ministry, the book is a practical guide to effective church ministry regardless of the size of one’s church. As the author observes, “The qualities of a healthy church are the same no matter how big or little we may be” (p. 11).
In an opening chapter the author defends small churches. But he avoids being overly critical of large churches and defensive of small ones. Size is not the issue, for “the real problems in churches are to do with a lack of life and of fruitfulness,” not the number of people on the membership rolls or in attendance (p. 21). He identifies these major problems as deviation from the truth, division in the body, decadence among the saints, discouragement, and distraction from the church’s purpose. The solution, for both large and small churches, is a congregation in which believers love each other, love the lost, and put this love into practice.
A middle section addresses this love in action in five practical objectives: quality presence, quality welcome, quality teaching, quality hospitality, and quality prayer. “The quality control I have in mind is not to be impressive in a slick or worldly way. The quality we must desire is to be such that, if the Lord Jesus himself suddenly arrived at the church, he would say, ‘Well done!’ That is the only merit that counts” (p. 59). A chapter is devoted to each of these objectives, providing illustrations of biblical standards and means by which to measure such quality.
Several concluding chapters address the problems of discouragement and limited resources in small churches. Particularly in a culture that believes that bigger is better, it is understandable that smaller churches might feel inferior and insignificant.
This book is intensely practical and is an excellent guidebook for church ministry. Its title is a bit unfortunate. Its value is not limited to small churches, as the emphasis in the title might imply. On the tendency among evangelicals to separate gospel ministry from social action, Benton writes, “The separation which has come about between preaching the gospel and doing good to others is foreign to the spirit of the New Testament” (p. 70). Regarding the fact that many people commute many miles to be part of a church he asks, “Why is it that so many local churches are not local?” (p. 76). On one benefit of small churches he observes, “It is usually easier for a small church to attain and maintain the kind of love and unity among the brothers and sisters that our Lord wants to see. With fewer people there are fewer relationships which can go wrong. With fewer people it is harder to maintain the pretence that ‘everything is OK’ when it is not” (p. 139). Benton explains, “It seems to me that many larger churches are actually small churches, but with a very large fringe. In so many larger churches it is a very small group of dedicated folk who do the majority of the work” (pp. 165–66).
This book is written by an experienced pastor, a practitioner who has honed his skills in pastoral ministry in a small church. Benton writes with a wealth of experience. He is an advocate for small churches without condemning large churches. But more importantly, he is an advocate for gospel ministry in both large and small churches. Church leaders, both professional and lay, of any size church will find this book helpful.
—Glenn R. Kreider