"Small is Strong" (Chapter 1)

Welcome to the Z-4:10 Network Book Blog

Thanks for taking part in this online discussion of Keenon Callahan's Small, Strong Congregations. It's a first for me, a first for epc.org and a first for the Z-4:10 Network.  Thanks in advance for your patience with this work in progress.  I pray that this interchange with the 45 or so who are reading the book together will benefit you in your Kingdom work and that you will make some helpful connections with others in similar ministry contexts.

I'll start out with some comments - one chapter each week.   My comments will be brief, intended to be conversation starters.  This Book Blog will only be as good as your participation.  Please add your comments - I'm much more interested in interacting with you than having you just read what I'm thinking.  If you have difficulty making the system work, please .  A heads up - I (and the Book Blog) will take some time off the week before and after Labor Day for some R&R with family. 

Ed McCallum

Chapter 1. Small is Strong

Zechariah asked the question, "Who despises the day of small things?" (Zech. 4:10).  A lot of us in North America, if we're honest, would have to raise a hand and say, "I do." I once did a word association in a workshop, asking what the word "small" brought to mind. Some of the answers that came back: piddling, limited, undersized, stunted, feeble. The "bigger is better" motto just feels plausible and right.  We're infatuated with bigness in North America - big homes, big stores, big schools, big bank accounts, big corporations, big churches. 

My dream is to get to the point where we can say "large church" and "small church" without assigning relative value.  Big is big, and big churches do some things very well that small churches can't.  Small is small, and small churches do some things very well that big churches can't.  It's here I appreciate Callahan so much.  He is descriptive about small, medium, and large congregations without giving any one a higher value.  He places value on the strength of a congregation, not its size.

Callahan advocates that small congregations think and act like a small strong congregation. "The minute you try to become a ‘mini' mega-congregation, you will be done in."  That's jarring.  It runs contrary to conventional church growth thinking that says, "If you want to grow, start acting like the size you want to be." There's usually an underlying assumption with that statment - small is not what you want to be, bigger is better.  Being small and strong is a "distinctive way of thinking, planning, and acting as a church."  We are in a different world when we start thinking that is OK.  Being small and strong is a good thing.  I have to disagree with the writer who said, "Most [churches] remain small because they are spiritually and organizationally dysfunctional." Dysfunction knows no size boundaries.  If Callahan is right, more and more churches will be making a deliberate decision to think, plan and act as small, strong congregations.

Ed McCallum

If you want to start a private conversation, please email me or give me a call at the General Assembly Office.

Please add your comments

Comment on one or several of these items - or something else in chapter 1:

  • Agree or disagree with my comments
  • Where do you agree or disagree with Callahan?
  • Do you agree that "In the twenty-first century, we will see a marked increase of small, strong congregations in metropolitan areas? (p. 9)
  • What do you think about Callahan's list of "twelve central charateristis of stong, healthy, congregations"? (p. 22)
  • What examples have you seen of churches remaining faithful to the Great Commission and also to a calling to be a small, strong congregation?

Comments(11) Login to Post Comments

Kristen Uppendahl on Aug 6, 2008 12:45pm

If our God is a God of relationships, than the size of the congregation should not be a factor in determining the worth of a church. In this post modern day and age, the very essence of the word "church" has been refined, restructered, and repackaged in order to appeal to the masses. Unfortunately, some of the large revamped churches have lost sight of what is really important: Truth. It is true that bigger churches have more resources, and staff to help impliment programs, but it is also true that small churches have the ability to connect with people on a more intimate level. I think this book will help perpetuate the idea that small is not necessairaly a death sentence, but rather a valuable addition to the body of Christ and as long as the focus remains on Him, size truly does not matter.

Mary Ann Dean on Aug 6, 2008 5:09pm

Callahan’s Book is excellent. The main challenge for me is to change and develop a mind-set of being a mission church, not programs, membership and attendance, as I now view churches.

The 12 central characteristics of strong, healthy congregations give a good guide to evaluate a church, strong, weak or dying. These are very measurable. The size of the church in unimportant. The most important consideration is the condition and mission of the church.

Eddie Davis on Aug 8, 2008 11:14am

Thanks, Ed, for initiating this discussion and for recommending the book. Of course, Callahan's stuff is good and worth our reading, thinking and discussion. A long time ago, a large, regional church pastor who was somewhat of a mentor to me, told me that large or small, the pastor's role was more similar than the public realized. Callahan would agree, it seems, since "a large church is really a collection of small congregations." This is not earth shattering, but it should help the small church pastor cope with the prevailing cultural (both inside and outside the church) appraisal of the value and significance of his work. If he or she can simply believe this, it will retool the brain and heart. I can remember when I first planted Christ Fellowship Church in 1983, my first presbytery meeeting after we'd begun. Several of my unlearned and uninformed friends cast their eyes down when I reported on a 35-50 count for our services. One said, "I'm sorry. We'll be praying for you." It was several years before I went to presbytery without anxiety about reporting on the "size" of our ministry. God was good to sweetly use Sproul's Chosen by God to secure my self-esteem in His sovereignty. Others' opinions no longer mattered as much and I've been a happier person since.

The 12 characteristics are good to add to the healthy church stuff Bob Stauffer put us onto a few years ago. Our work is hard but not rocket science. Lists like these are good to use for thinking and praying and planning next steps. Also, and more important, deciding what not to do yet.

Josh Cole on Aug 9, 2008 8:36pm

I also appreciate having this discussion and reading the book. I found Callahan's book freeing. The pressure I have found pastoring small congregations is to keep your eye on what you can/should be instead of what you are. "when we get 50 new members we can...." Callahan shows that small can be strong. Callahan says be who you are and work to be strong. This is resting in God's sovereignty and not in my work or lack thereof. As pastor of a congregation that is only 10 months old and still prayerfully considering its mission to our community and still prayerfully considering how we operate as a congregation, this book has been very helpful. I look forward to discussing further chapters.

Bill Crawford on Aug 11, 2008 5:53pm

Very interesting first chapter. The thing that continues to cause me to take pause is a certain underlying sentiment that a small church "should" stay small.

I don't necessarily buy that premise. I fully agree that a small congregation can be strong and healthy.

Austin Olive on Aug 12, 2008 10:52am

I found the chapter to be useful. We are using this for our summer/fall weekly men's meeting at our church. The 1st chapter gave us some good, fruitful discussion last night. (I know, we're a week behind...)

As I was thinking about it, there were four things I liked about the chapter in particular:

1) The issue he raises of having the right mindset to win the game -- avoiding the tendency (all too common in sm. churches, I think) to "play to avoid losing," rather than to "play to win." It's an obvious thing, but it's also such an easy trap to get in that I think we need to constantly remind ourselves not to get stuck in the wrong mindset.

2) It is such an important reminder to us that in our new, 21st century culture of immensity, people really do want the immediacy & intimacy that our culture has lost but that a small church provides. What a great reminder when we feel 'less than' & forget that God has created us to be ministering to people 'where they're at' rather than to be working toward some corporate or '80s church growth model. It frees us as small church folks to have the confidence to, as he says, minister from our true strengths.

3) The concluding reminder that we need to always keep the steadfast love of the Lord
as the beginning, middle, & end points of our focus. I felt encouraged at this reminder that small churches are able to live out this covenant faithfulness of the Lord in a special way.

4) The last thing that I really liked was that listing of the 12 characteristics of strong churches. I bought the book that he wrote about that ("12 Keys to an Effective Church") & I hope to read more about what he's getting at there. Things like that help, I think, to give us a good measuring rod to evaluate ourselves by.

But speaking of that, I was struck by the fact that Callahan says that you need to work on your strengths & not on your weaknesses. Having gone through 2 rounds of Natural Church Development in my last church in Louisiana, I was left wondering which is right. after all NCD urges us to figure out what our weakest factor is & to work at bringing it up. What does one do with this difference? Any thoughts?

Finally, in regard to Bill's comment, I am a fan of the model some folks use of growing a small church till it hits that top end of what we might call small, and then working to plant a daughter church that will be another small, strong church. It seems like to me that's the best of both worlds: small & ever-growing.

But speaking of coming from Louisiana, it's time for me to eat some of that tasty chicken & andouille gumbo I cooked...

Anonymous on Aug 12, 2008 3:59pm

Look forward to the book and discussion. It certainly makes sense to build on strengths.
Martin Rossol

Bill Crawford on Aug 13, 2008 4:14pm

I vote for focusing on your strengths. You really can't do it all. It's like disaster relief - even though we wished we could rebuild homes we just didn't have anyone with the skills but we could clean up after people who did.

Edward Murrey on Aug 15, 2008 4:13am

There were several insights from
"Small is Strong" that encouraged me.

1."It is not true that small is declining". (10)

2."Small does small very well. Small does not try to do "mini-mega". (15)

3.The contrast between "playing to win" and "playing not to lose". (20)

4."The steadfast love of God" (25). Amen. People are looking for this and the small church can be an "oasis of grace".

5.Looking forward to learning more about the eight qualities. (28)

Thanks Ed. It's a paradigm shift to begin thinking that "small is good."

Edward from Valleybrook

Ed McCallum on Aug 15, 2008 3:56pm

Thanks for comments. I appreciate hearing how you're responding to the book. Let me pick up on one of the thoughts -- Should a small church stay small? To put it another way, does a commitment to thinking and acting like a small, strong congregation mean saying "no" to growth, and isn't that one step away from heresy?

Churches are small for different reasons, some of them positive, some not (see the link to "kinds of small churches" in the right hand column). Part of our difficulty here is all the stuff that clusters around the idea of "church growth." Craig Van Gelder takes pains in his writing to distinguish between "church growth" and "growth of the church." It really has made a difference in the way I think about the issue. "Church" is the subject (the noun), not "Growth." The unfolding biblical story, the images from the construction site applied to the church (I will build my church, living stones, etc.), and God's mission to bring all the nations to worship him all make it clear that the church is to grow. But what does that mean for the body of believers in a particular place and time? Numbers on the roll and in services tell us important things, but only give a piece of the picture. How have the ministries of the church impacted the community? How is the church demonstrating it's allegiance to the King by living as a contrast community in a way that glorifies him? How is the church opening itself in hospitality and service to the community? How is the church giving opportunities for people to hear and respond the truly good news of the kingdom? Is it seeing the fruit of new believers?

After all that, I'll give the answer from the extreme middle. Should a small church stay small? Maybe, maybe not. It depends on the reasons. I want to affirm small churches working to be strong. If numerical growth results, as it well may, that's wonderful. Maybe it will result in a church that keeps getting larger, maybe it will generate a network of other congregations (maybe both). Maybe it will partner with other small churches and have a ministry together to their region. Maybe a church is in an context where small is the only size it can be. Bottom line - I believe the Lord calls some churches to being small and strong and others to a path that will lead them through many size transitions - which brings its own set of issues to work through. My encouragement to small churches is to work on being strong and see what the Lord does.

Robert Buchanan on Aug 19, 2008 9:56am

I'm playing catch-up, finally reading chapter one. I pastor one of those churches that you still have to be present at most if not all functions - it's not the ministry of presence, but the ministry of being present. Throw in some vacation time, a wedding, and a funeral, and the book blog takes back seat. I'm encouraged by Callahan's insights, I think he's right on. I believe that some in our culture are reacting against the mega mc-church thing, others are reacting against the smaller, what can feel at times - "suffocating" church. I read the Twelve Keys some fifteen years ago - I'm not surprised they have endured, coming from Callahan (the book is copyrighted 1983). I love some of his closing remarks - "Our strength is not in bigness, buildings, and budgets. We do not match the culture bigness for bigness. Our strength is in God. Our strength is not of our own doing. Our strength is the gift of God. Our steadfast love is the gift of God. We are steadfast because God is steadfast in God's love with us." I think we have a long way to go before the church as a whole accepts that small is strong. When I came to the Twelve Keys I was already thinking about re-reading the book and working on them when he rebuked me for thinking that way. I wrestle with small is strong, I still want our church to grow. Strong is strong, regardless of size. Small can be strong as he points out, or it can be weak and dying. Let's don't use being small as an excuse for not being honest in assessing where we are as a church - AND - don't use small as the new badge of spirituality. Agree Ed - work on being strong and see what the Lord does.