The Value and Contribution of the Small Church for Youth Ministry.
By Glenn Daman
Some time ago prominent pastor made headlines when he made the following statement, “When I hear adults say 'well I don't like a big church. I like about 200, I want to be able to know everybody' I say you are so stinking selfish. You care nothing about the next generation. All you care about is you and your five friends. You don't care about your kids, anybody else's kids.” While the pastor would later retract the statement it nevertheless raises an important question regarding the viability and ministry of the small church. Can the small church be effective in youth ministry? For some, like the pastor who made this statement, effective children and youth ministry is best accomplished within the context of larger programs that provide programs tailored to the culture of the youth. The small church is seen as a poor step sister who has can do something, but never match the programs and effectiveness of the large church. For many the small church is only a place for old fashioned traditionalists who are stuck in the bi-gone era of previous generations. The small church is a place for them, but certain not a place for the younger generations that demand a hipper approach to worship and programs. However, perception does not often meet reality and we often mistake the superficial for the substantial. The true measure of the effectiveness of any ministry is not found in the number of people who attend but the individuals who are transformed. When we peal away the false perception that greater numbers always translate into more effectiveness and instead examine lives changed we discover that the small church can provide an environment for growth to occur.
Within the small church young people learn the nature of ministry. Within the modern era of programs, we often mistake programs with genuine ministry. While programs and strategic plans are beneficial in reveling authentic ministry, we need to recognize that genuine ministry ultimate is accomplished by the work of the Holy Spirit through people utilizing their spiritual gifts for the body of Christ. The church is not about that; it is about relationships rather than programs. Discipleship is about relationship rather than programs. Within the small church, young people have the opportunity to see people exercise their spiritual gift within the context of the whole church. Within the small church, the young people gave the opportunity to see all aspects of the ministry church. They can see how God is working through the church to change people. Because of the smallness of the church, young people can have a more holistic concept of what the church is and what ministry is. They have the opportunity to see the Board and how they provide leadership within the church. They can learn by observing how people volunteer their time and energy for the church and that being a part of the church is more than just attending, but taking ownership of the ministry. They learn that ministry is not conducted by paid staff, but volunteers who recognize the importance of serving.
Within the small church young people learn the value of generational learning. The greatest lessons about biblical truth is learned in the context of a living model. While the large church may provide more opportunities to develop relationships with their peers, within the small church they develop intergenerational relationships that provides a foundation for observing real faith lived out in the context of life. In the small church young people have the opportunity to get to know spiritual giants—men and women who have faithful in their walk with Christ and developed a deep love for Christ. Paul points to the importance of generational modeling when he states, “old women likewise are to be reverent in their behavior…so that they may encourage the young women” (Titus 2:3-4). The writer of Hebrews also points to the value of observing great men and women of faith by pointing out that they become a great cloud of witnesses who in turn provide the basis for our running with encourage (Hebrews 11:1-12:2). Granted it is nice to have friends who are your peers within the church community, but it is also invaluable to be able to develop close relationships with others who have run the race already and who can provide for us a context of encouragement in our own Christian life. As I look back at my childhood growing up within a small church, the greatest impact in my spiritual growth was not from my friendship with my peers, but from the lessons I learned by having the privilege of observing the faith of George and Francis Dorman, Kay and Vern Mitchell, Ruthie and Bill Rosenberry, and a host of others who became by cloud of witnesses surrounding me even today.
Within the small church young people learn the value of community. Biblical community comes through in-depth relationships rather than superficial friendships. One of the mistakes we make in the Christian life is equating friendship and fellowship. Friendship comes when we share mutual interests and social and cultural commonalities. Fellowship is bound by social structures or common interests, but by our mutual participation within the body of Christ. As a result, fellowship crosses all social boundaries including sex, ethnicity, culture and age. Furthermore, friendship results in the enjoyment of being with another, fellowship results in mutual edification and growth in Christ. The strength of the small church is that it provides the perfect environment for both friendships and fellowships. Because of the close relationship that exist within the small church, young people get to see how a genuine community really care about one another. They see the way the people help others in need, not because it is a program, but because people are moved to help others.
Within the small church young people learn the value of ministry. The church is not about attendance, but about ministry. One of the benefits of being a part of the small church is that the ministry of the church and the leadership roles within the church are not accomplished performed by a paid staff of professionals, but by volunteers who take ownership for the ministry. The reason people get involved is because they realize that if it is going to be done, they have to step up to the plate. They take ownership for the ministry. Consequently, the youth in the church not only learn the importance of participation in ministry, they are recruited for ministry. It is no surprise that that the small church provides the most missionaries and pastors.
Within the small church young people learn the value of authenticity. Within the small church there is no anonymity. Everyone knows everyone and they know the struggles and problems each person deals with on a regular basis. The one thing that young people are looking for today is authenticity, a place where people are real and are not afraid to allow others to see their faults. The tragedy of the church today is that we have depersonalized the church. We come and conceal the struggles and trials by putting on a façade that life is going good. But realty often is drastically different than the perception we seek to portray. Because of the relational closeness of the small church there is more openness. People are more aware of the struggles of one another. As a result, the young people in the church has an opportunity to see faith and its struggles lived before them. Because they have a stronger connection with older people they get to observe firsthand the struggles and triumphs of faith, not in the sterile environment of a Sunday School class or disciple program, but in real life with real people.
Within the small church young people learn biblical theology. But the earning they experience by observation also gives them the opportunity to learn both the value and application of biblical theology. Theology is not merely meant to be learned and intellectually dissected and scrutinized. It is meant to be live out in a life changing way. Theology is what we believe about God and his activities driven home and revealed in the decisions, responses and attitudes to real life events. As children formulate their own personal beliefs and doctrines, the greatest influence will not be what they hear in a classroom, but what the observe in the lives of people within the church. They learn about God sovereignty, not just in the Sunday School room, but in the faith and simple trust of a wife or husband who affirms God’s sovereignty and expresses their trust in him even in the sickness and death of their spouse. They discover the riches of grace when they listen to the testimony of an elderly saint who testifies of God’s redemption even though they had once lived in the depths of sin.
Every church has its strengths and weaknesses. It is true that the small church cannot offer the excitement and pizzazz of a dynamic youth program. But it can offer something that is far greater. It can offer a community, where it can learn valuable life lessons from those who have gone before. As I look back at my own teen years, growing up in a small church. My greatest memories and the things that shaped my life to this day, did not come from my friends that I had within the church (and I did have some close friends within the church), it did not come from some dynamic youth program. The lessons that continue to influence me this day came from the real and simple faith I observed in the older people who became for me a model of what the Christian life truly is about. Do I feel I was spiritual short-changed because I did not go to a large church? Not at all. Rather I feel that I was blessed beyond measure. The greatest thing my parents did for me was the weekly sacrifice they made in taking us each week to a small church where they unselfishly served and ministered as lay people. It was in this that I and my siblings learned the importance of unselfish ministry that guided me into full-time Christian ministry. If that was “stinking selfish” on their part, then I can only pray that more parents are that selfish.