Thanks first to Bethany House, for this free review copy of The Strategically Small Church (TSSM). I enjoyed reading it, and letting author O’Brien share his own struggles and encouragement. He shares a lot of practical wisdom, along with some well-thought examples of the church in action.
This is an easy read. O’Brien is very personable, and his aim is more along the lines of encouraging pastors than it is a plan for shaping ministry or programming. What O’Brien is combating with this book is the idea that a small church is a failed/failing church. And his assault depends on showing that the features of the small church ought to be seen as benefits, and not as limitations.
Right from the start, TSSM makes clear that this is not an attack on mega-churches, though I think there is a clear preference, and an implication that mega-churches are strongest when they exemplify the characteristics that smaller churches embody more naturally. Yet the vision he has of a small church has nothing to do with size, really. While he shares a lot that easily relates to the organic church movement, he does not paint home churches as essentially better, either practically or theologically.
The benefits he sees embodied in the small church have nothing to do with the place community happens, but are rather about how that community views itself. Does it see itself as failing to grow, not living up to its imagined potential? Or does it see itself fitting the community in which God has placed it? Does it look for the strengths it possesses, or constantly look at its limitations – the way it doesn’t measure up to the ideal scenario its leaders see at the big church conferences? Does it feel like it has to do everything, or does it stick to what it does best? Which is more important excellence, or authenticity?
He leaves a lot of wiggle room, and is more out to define an idea, that of a close-knit body which chooses ministry with cutting precision, taking into account the surrounding community and the gifts and passions of its members. His idea of “small church” also displays an intergenerational and mentored approach to discipleship. And rather than an abiding interest in growth as a viable metric for success, the interest of the small church is community and ministry – two sides of a coin, one internally focused and the other externally focused.
Two areas where examples and discussion showed the greatest benefit, in my opinion , are:
- Small churches can’t do it all, so they don’t. They realize where they are strong and align their ministry around that. This allows many “smaller” churches to focus on core needs within the community. Rather than medium to large churches competing over “consumers,” these smaller churches are part of the community, and all partners in sharing the gospel with that community, both in word and action. The idea here is many smaller churches working in unison.
- Small churches see strength in developing a larger group of capable leaders and servants, rather than focusing on a singular figure (or set of individuals) who holds attention by skill, foresight or charisma. A focus on mentoring and intergenerational ministry allows for the development of a broad base of ready individuals – a community of servants, rather than a staff with spectators. Also, a tendency to be more concerned with authenticity than excellence allows these “small” churches to be forgiving of failure, allowing room for growth and development – not characteristic of “large” churches which must focus on excellence to compete for their congregants’ and local community’s attention.
While O’Brien is not always as clear as I would like (especially towards the beginning of the book) he does a great job identifying examples that illustrate his points. Sometimes they are humorous, other times not. But they all demonstrate the need for seeing God’s provision for the church, rather than drowning in the pool of popular (and often needlessly discouraging) church growth strategies. And though it all, the book will challenge you to think through the context and ministry of your own church.
In any case, I give this book ★★★★☆. Whether you are pastor or layman, part of big church or small – or whatever in between – there is something here for you.
The Strategically Small Church
Intimate, Nimble, Authentic, Effective
Author: Brandon J. O’Brien
Soft Cover, 176 pages
Publisher: Bethany House