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Schaller and the Small Church
(But please read this, too, if you have a large church)
By Mic Thurber, Mid-America Union Conference Ministerial Director, August 27, 2013

Lyle E. Schaller’s work first caught my attention more than 20 years ago. His descriptions of the nature of church life in various sized congregations was more often than not, spot on. The old saying “can’t see the forest for the trees” means we’d be wise to check in from time-to-time with those who spend their time looking at the forest so that we tree-lookers don’t miss some important stuff.
Schaller’s work in studying and identifying trends and realities in churches of all sizes is quite well known. Since the territory I now serve has many more small churches than large ones, it seemed worthwhile for me to revisit Schaller’s thinking on small churches. And since Amazon and I are on a first-name basis, I ordered two of his books on small churches: The Small Church is Different (Abingdon Press, 1982), and The Small Membership Church: Scenarios for Tomorrow (Abingdon Press, 1994). This review will highlight some things from the latter, but the earlier book is also worth your time.
Though nearly 20 years old now, what I found in The Small Membership Church was a trove of insights and information that pertained to both large and small churches (he often compared and contrasted large and small churches in the process of developing his observations).
In the introduction to the latter volume he reminds us that “for nearly four centuries, the small congregation has been the dominant institutional expression of Protestant Christianity on the North American continent.”1
That’s easy enough to verify through more recent stats. A recent National Congregation Study quoted by the Hartford Institute for Religious Research shows that some 177,000 churches in America (or roughly 59% of the 300,000 churches) have worship attendance of 99 or fewer persons.2
I found one of Schaller’s initial suggestions about small churches very helpful: “The small church is not a miniature version of the large congregation…They are different orders of God’s creation…They function around different sets of organizing principles.”3
This was actually a very helpful statement for me. Perhaps we too often view small congregations as something we hope they grow out of, rather than viewing them as an order of God’s creation. When we do that, we may actually introduce harm to some congregations.
Don’t get me wrong! I’m all for kingdom growth. That’s our mission and it should be our passion. But Schaller’s point is worth considering. If the small church (in general) is inherently different, we need to be careful about the approaches taken to grow the church, how we staff and lead a small congregation, and how we evaluate them.
Without wanting to give too much away, it is worth surfacing Schaller’s paradigm for understanding the differences between small and large congregations. When I first read it, it was one of those “aha!” moments. In the sweep of a few words, Schaller gave me a vocabulary to understand some observations I’ve had about both large and small churches for some time. Further, my mind raced back to a number of experiences in both small and large churches over the years that started to make sense in way that never occurred to me before once contextualized with his paradigm. Your mileage may vary.
In The Small Membership Church, Schaller likened large churches as being “First Great Commandment” churches, and small churches as being “Second Great Commandment” churches.
“The best small churches are organized primarily around the principle of loving your neighbor…By contrast, the best of the larger churches are organized primarily to respond in a meaningful manner to the religious needs of people.”4
The smaller congregation is the “third place” for many, and you can tell it by the kinds of greetings that happen in the church foyer before and after services. They are a place “where everybody knows your name” and people will be worried about you if you don’t show up for a week or two.
Larger churches, or First Great Commandment churches in Schaller’s take on it, are organized with many options for those searching for God and spiritual meaning. There are generally a plethora of connection/entry points where someone seeking to discover God’s love and concern for them are available. First Great Commandment churches do provide the “third place” for their members, but they are through smaller groups such as a choir, HBF, women’s group, or youth group, whereas the small church connects more with the entire membership – everyone is expected to be a part of the “inner fellowship circle.”
There isn’t space to more thoroughly develop his ideas about this here, but I will mention a couple of salient observations that this paradigm raises:
Pastors (through giftedness, socialization, past experiences, and temperament) can also lean a bit towards being First Great Commandment or Second Great Commandment pastors. He insightfully observes that placing a First Great Commandment pastor in a Second Great Commandment church may well lead to fireworks. Thinking back on some pastor/church pairings I’ve known in the past bears this out.
Make no mistake, Second Great Commandment churches should and can grow, but unless you honor the makeup of the small congregation, the result will be division and conflict, not a stage for growth. In Schaller’s thinking, if we want to transform a small congregation into a large one, it takes special pastoral leadership, gifts, and commitment, and a common agreement among the stakeholders (which is nearly everybody in a small congregation) that they will become a first commandment church. If both of these are not present, well, you end up with a church that he describes that possibly the reader will recognize:
“One version of the road to extinction is the reasonably healthy second-commandment congregation that calls a new pastor to help transform it into a first-commandment church. During this painful process, the congregation is polarized, and that new pastor becomes the victim and is sacrificed. The successor is unable to resolve the conflict and departs. The next minister is a severe mismatch; many members who dislike perpetual internal conflict leave, and the institutional strength dissipates. What once was a healthy, second-commandment congregation has become a caricature of a first-commandment church. It repels those who seek either model. The resulting loss of identity erodes the loyalty of the old timers and repels potential newcomers. Ecclesiastical euthanasia becomes the most attractive option.”5
Dangers also exist in large churches, especially when placing Second Great Commandment-leaning pastors in First Great Commandment churches. He summarizes in The Small Church is Different that “A common mistake in many large congregations is to try to operate as if they were a small church. That method has proved to be one of the most effective means of turning a large congregation into a middle-sized church.”6
I gleaned from his book that it’s possible to grow the small church within the gifts and creation order of the small church. The means to growth will not look the same as it might in the larger church, but the potential is there. The small church is a precious asset in the kingdom of Christ, and we would do well to do all we can to understand the nature of the people who make up these churches so that we can best partner with the Holy Spirit in helping them become what God calls them to be.
Small or large church, Schaller’s observations are salient and worth some thought. His books are an easy read while at the same time providing vocabulary and insight into congregational life that’s worth considering. I recommend this book no matter what size church you pastor.

Mic Thurber is the Ministerial Director for the  Mid-America Union Conference
1 The Small Membership Church, p 11.
2 http://hirr.hartsem.edu/research/fastfacts/fast_facts.html
3 Ibid, p. 12, 20.
4 Ibid, p 30, 31.
5 Ibid, p 55.
6 The Small Church is Different, p 35.