Discerning Reader Editorial Review
Reviewed 01/14/2009 by Mark Tubbs.
Recommended. A stretching call to selfless service.
If you don’t already attend a small church, what would you say if someone you didn’t know admonished you that you ought to attend a small church? Would you seriously entertain the thought? Would you thank them politely for their interest and dismiss the admonishment posthaste? Would you denigrate small churches in the admonisher’s hearing? If so, why? Third-rate physical premises? Lack of children’s programming? Disconcerting idiosyncrasies? Uninspiring, bland preaching? Potentially unimpressive corporate expressions of worship?
In this modest 64-page book, author John Benton refutes all these objections, and then some. Benton isn’t content just to explain why it’s okay to join a small church, but explicitly encourages the reader to do so. He goes so far as to say that small churches are particularly special in God’s eyes: “In encouraging you to join a small church I am inviting you to get on board God’s agenda.” Benton extrapolates from Scripture to show how God delights in fulfilling his purposes through small things. Don’t be fooled: small things can lead to big things. He claims that smaller churches potentially
• Enjoy closer closer fellowship
• Will stretch you more as a Christian
• Offer you a life’s work of real significance
• Offer you the chance to confound the world
Benton’s piece de resistance is this circular argument: Unless solid Christian seek out, populate, and serve “little and very local” churches, the light of the gospel may go out in those areas. However, small churches can hold out the offer of the gospel in an authentic, small-scale way that bigger churches cannot: “Everyone needs to become a Christian and local churches are the God-ordained means of holding out the Word of life to the community.” For all the megachurches that successfully attract scores of unbelievers and nominal Christians to their services and functions, there is a disturbing lack of discipleship and retention occurring (see Willow Creek’s recent study, published under the title Reveal). Benton claims that these problems do not occur as often in the smaller church because everyone lives in one another’s back pocket. There is no place to hide, so sanctification occurs on a regular basis, in a very upfront and personal way.
I hasten to add the following: Benton in no way advocates that one ought to join any old small church willy-nilly. Three major criteria should inform the decision:
• Is the love of Christ shown in the friendliness of the people?
• Is the teaching biblical?
• Is the church seeking to reach out with the gospel?
Provided these criteria are met (and some courageous souls may join a small church lacking these qualities in order to help it become more friendly, biblical, and evangelistic), the secondary question Benton would have us ask is, “How could we drive past one church to go to another?” He tells the story of a couple with children who moved out of London into a small village and decided to attend the local Anglican church which exhibited all of the features mentioned in the first paragraph of this review. Their friends were initially worried for them, but in due time this couple made significant contributions to this church. By the time they moved away three years later, they left a church that had benefited from their selfless desire to be local, involved, immoveable, faithful, evangelistic, prayerful, and trusting – all hallmarks of a godly small church member, according to Benton.
Of course the ubiquitous question, “What’s in it for me?” easily arises. To return to the couple from earlier: “There was a real cost to them taking this difficult option to join a small fellowship…whilst not a comfortable or ‘prudent’ thing to do, getting involved in a struggling church may be in God’s goodness, a mission from the Lord.” Some may write this off as altruistic, so Benton offers a more pragmatic motivator: “You would be a true God-send to a smaller congregation…Don’t let the big church bury your talent (Matthew 25:18). Don’t become deskilled for lack of opportunity.”
You may be asking at this point, “Is it wrong to attend a large church?” Not usually, not always, and not necessarily. As Benton says, “To join a big thriving church is not always wrong, but it is frequently the easy option…how the devil would love to herd Christians into a few big city centre churches, getting them to travel miles from their communities and leaving vast tracts of our country with no viable witness for the gospel.” Intentionally joining a small church is not for everybody, but it seems to Benton that many Christians, for whatever reasons, are not heeding the call.
This book, brief and colloquially written at times, was a quick but convicting read. While I was predisposed toward the author’s point of view, I would recommend it even for those who feel adamant about remaining in or joining a large church. This book may stretch you…much like joining a small local church would.