I have served in churches with 15, 150, 1500, and 15000 in attendance. Despite everything that makes each unique, every one of these churches suffers from the same phenomenon:
Yes, even in very small churches there are individuals who feel neglected and overlooked.
Small churches aren't the only ones experiencing this phenomenon. Despite large churches seeing growth, I have talked to too many guests who have left a big church because they never felt seen. If you're in a large church (or your church is growing and becoming a larger church) and want to learn more, check out this post.
However, too many people I talk to have this experience in the context of a small church. Below are the most common reasons this happens.
In my years serving and attending, here are some trends I've witnessed that contribute to people slipping through the cracks.
Most small churches I've been to have had a wonderful family atmosphere. New guests were given a big welcome and treated like the cousin that hasn't been to the family reunion in a while.
But there's a darker side to small church culture: It's easy to become a clique.
This happens when a church resembles a country club more than a hospital for the sick. An inward focus will kill the vitality of a church. This causes newcomers to be viewed as outsiders the moment they've stepped into the sanctuary. Some people will take notice and find a healthier community elsewhere.
Following a clique culture, the leadership can contribute to that culture by bending everything toward the preferences of their members. This becomes especially problematic when everything is bending toward a small cohort of members.
Yes, leaders must focus on the flock God has given them. But not at the expense of everything else. If someone happens to show up at your church, it will be quickly apparent to them that if they're not in the in-group, they'll never belong at your church.
I talk to ministers every day and I'm surprised by how many small church leaders don't take the time to guide their members toward being welcoming.
Most assume they don't need to precisely because they're small. Their church is like a family and everyone is welcome! Or so they think...
Please don't take hospitality for granted. Just because a church is small enough that a guest sticks out doesn't mean that guests will be noticed and welcomed properly.
I'll never forget the moment I was talking to the pastor of a declining church. After talking over the steady trend of decreasing attendance, he mentioned a conversation he had with one of his elders, where the elder mentioned he liked the church this small and didn't want any new people.
Yeah. I couldn't believe it, either. As you might expect, that church no longer exists.
Discipleship is the goal of most churches. With discipleship often comes a positive change individually and in the congregation. If there's resistance to change in a church, in can come in the form of resistance to the presence of guests. Guests quickly pick up on this and often leave.
Create a Welcome/Hospitality Team at your church to make newcomers feel seen and loved. This is important no matter the size of your church.
Emphasize welcoming guests during sermons. Anything you can do to set the tone of your church so that both leaders and members prioritize reaching every soul in your building.
This doesn't mean you have to ignore the flock before you. The goal is to foster intentionality within your church so that anyone who comes will immediately be integrated into that flock.
People are discerning. They can tell if a church is genuinely welcoming or not. They can tell if you are interested in connecting with them.
There are people in your community looking for a shepherd that can love them and point them toward the Good Shepherd. Being intentional to love and accept these people will go a very long way in preventing them from slipping through the cracks at your church.
No matter how you go about keeping congregants from slipping through the cracks at your church, there's no doubt that God has equipped you to fulfill this mission. You are uniquely gifted for this task!