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Thursday, June 16, 2011

Book Review: "Small is Big"

TITLE: SMALL IS BIG - Unleashing the big impact of intentionally small churches
AUTHORS: Tony & Felicity Dale and George Barna
PUBLISHER: Carol Stream, IL: Barna-Tyndale, 2011, (272 pages).

Statistics show that the best means of evangelism within an American context is starting a church." (13)

This simple statement unveils the entire book's main point. The 'new' way of growing a church is via small and manageable house churches, instead of large and unwieldy institutions. Key to the authors' thesis is that 'building churches' is God's work, while 'making disciples' is our work.
"Churches that are intentionally small (simple churches, organic churches, house churches) can reproduce easily and with virtually no cost. They have the potential for rapid multiplication because anyone can gather a few people together in a living room or coffee shop. And they are very easy to duplicate. Not only that, but they also penetrate sectors of society that will never enter a church building. That's why small is big!" (xiii)

The authors use many biblical models and historical developments to justify their point. Firstly, the lowest common denominator of church is 2-3 people gathered together, as described by Jesus in Matthew 18:18-20. Secondly, history reveals that ordinary people spark 'seismic' revival (26). Thirdly, modern research also shows that the fastest growing churches are not large ones, but small ones (31). Fourthly, being small, churches are more flexible and conducive for reaching out to people. Quoting Wolfgang Simpson, the disadvantage of large churches is when programs become a substitute for building relationships. Church becomes a place to institute rules and regulations. The rest of the book goes on to tell wonderful stories of conversions, growth and spontaneous house groups set up through simple and cordial conversations, without the baggage of high church. Toward the end of the book, the authors let up on the gas pedal, to caution readers about some 'inherent dangers' before the small church phenomena become institutionalized (205).

My Comments
I like this book for its innovativeness and a brave new thrust into a new phenomena. I believe it works. The way house churches are encouraged to begin is in itself very inviting. It can begin anywhere, especially with those who are willing to open up their homes or businesses for open and cordial conversation. Being small has at least five major advantages. Firstly, it is highly cost-effective. Without the need to use big resources to build large programs, it allows one to start small churches at minimal costs. This is ideal for startups. Secondly, it increases the participation ratio of the people. Traditionally, big churches suffer from the 80-20 pareto, where 80% of the work are accomplished by 20% of the people. Small churches attempt to let the whole people of God, minister to the whole Church. Thirdly, it gives us hope. In an age of shrinking churches and many dying congregations, growing small churches is an encouragement to the church at large. Fourthly, small churches are easily reproducible, meaning it sparks easily a wave of other churches without requiring the formality of multiple administrative details or approval. Finally, it has a more friendly face to the term 'church.' This last factor cannot be underestimated. Contrary to what some Christians believe, many are not going to church not because they don't want to. It is simply because they feel they cannot relate to big church. These people still need God. They want fellowship.

Having said the above, I do have some reservations about "Small is Big!" First, what about unequipped leaders? Granted, we allow people the freedom to start and grow. Ideally, we will like churches to grow, with their leaders providing good teaching so as to lead the sheep on the right path. Unfortunately, the danger of false teachers due to the lack of equipping is a very real concern. Second, not every church is called to be small. There is still a place for traditional institutions. In fact, the fear of 'instutionalization' is not exactly limited to big churches. It is only a matter of time before small churches look like an institute. The problem is that the human heart has a tendency to build spiritual tower of babels over time. Finally, small churches can mean inefficient duplication of resources. Large churches are able to provide good quality resources due to its critical mass. Small churches have to re-invent the wheel. This can be very inefficient.

In summary, I believe this idea of 'small is big' is ideal for large churches that are not able to grow beyond a certain size. Perhaps, rather than proposing that every North American church become 'small,' why not let large churches do church planting with the small-church concept? Perhaps, a better way is to find some combination of big church (for equipping and resource sharing) and small churches (outreach and wider lay participation) TOGETHER. That way, we have a great plan ahead for the future Church. If small-is-big, perhaps, "small+big" is bigger?

I recommend this book highly for church planters, evangelists, missionaries and those keen on new ways to reach out to people.

Ratings: 3.75 stars of 5.


This book is given to me free, courtesy of Tyndale House Publishers without any obligation for me to give a positive review. The opinions expressed are solely mine.

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