I’m the pastor a small church plant in downtown Naperville (Cross of Christ Fellowship). On a big Sunday, we have 40 people—nearly half of which are children. We have been worshipping together for 3 years and have seen God grow us in many wonderful ways: we are a close church community that loves and cares for each other; we have an elder candidate; we’ve stayed together even through challenging circumstances (like having to find a new venue last year); nearly everyone in the church is serving in some capacity; individuals are growing in godliness and sound doctrine; the congregation sings and gives generously; the gospel is bearing fruit in marriages and families; we are preserving and continuing to proclaim the gospel to those in our community.
But although we have seen numerical growth since we’ve launched, we’ve also seen God sovereignly move some of our members and regular attenders away. The result is that we are roughly the same size as we started—except we have more children! This can be very challenging, and at times very discouraging. Those who go into church planting expect to see many conversions and quick numerical growth. (I certainly did! I thought we would have at least 100-150 people by now and be close to planting our first church). And there are some church plants where this does happen, and we ought to praise God for this and pray for it ourselves. But there are also far more church plants that do not grow very much numerically, and remain small after years of worship services or even end up closing their doors. For those in situations like this, temptations to give in to discouragement or jealousy often arise.
One temptation for those of us in a small church plant is to feel jealous or envious of bigger established churches which have more people and resources. We can feel like the Israelites in the desert longing for the safety and security of Egypt. Though we left our sending church with great hope, the long, slow, painful plod through the desert of church planting makes us dream of a time and place where we can feel established and secure, and be free to serve less.
I remember as a college student at the University of Nevada Las Vegas feeling the same thing as I was involved with our college ministry, Campus Crusade for Christ. We had one staff member my freshman year, but after that we were student led, unlike other schools where there was a large staff team and large student group. It was hard not to be envious of other schools nearby where the weekly meetings had over 1,000 students compared to ours which had 10-15!
Yet there were many blessings of being part of that ministry, which I think are comparable to being part of a small church plant. And now in retrospect, I can look back and give thanks for that season.
First, I had WAY more experience leading than students in another situation. We had to plan and organize all the outreaches and retreats and events; we had to evangelize and disciple other students; we had to lead worship and teach—or find teachers. The same is true for those in a church plant—in a situation where there is only a church planter and a core team, the members of a church plant get experience leading and serving in ways that likely would not have happened in more established churches.
Another blessing for those in a small church plant or ministry is stepping out in faith to see a new gospel work take root. Because of our time here in Naperville, many people have heard the gospel who may not have heard the gospel before. Sometimes we forget this, but it is something that is wonderful and we should praise God for.
Another blessing is the opportunity to trust God in a really dramatic fashion. Though members of a large ministry or church have to trust God too, sometimes it is easy to forget about how much we need God when we are in seasons or places of plenty. Being in a church plant provides MANY opportunities to trust God in very visible ways: we have to ask God for financial provision as our congregation is not large enough to provide a salary or cover our expenses by itself; we have to ask God for worship space as we don’t have our own; we have to ask for laborers to be on mission with us; we have to ask God to preserve us and trust Him for the future, even as things can feel precarious. Now those in established churches have to rely on God in all these things too, but I believe those in a small church or ministry get to do this in an even more heightened or visible fashion.
Another blessing is a close community. We all know each other and we all know the trials and challenges that we’re facing. If someone is away, we know and reach out to them. If someone is hurting and needs help, we reach out. I know every single person or family who visits or is away every Sunday. This is harder in a larger established church, where one can more easily get lost or overlooked.
In the end, our only hope is Jesus Christ. We worship a sovereign God who gives the growth as He pleases. Jesus is building His church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it (Matt 16:18). Jesus does this through small, medium, and large churches. He does in this church plants and established churches. We need Him to do a work in our heart and help us pursue faithfulness and contentment as we wait for Him and trust in Him.
Be in pray for us and those in smaller church plants. Church planting is hard and we need God’s grace to encourage and sustain. Consider praying for a church plant regularly, giving generously, or joining them. While church planting is tough, it is also a sweet privilege too.