Jesus had a special message to each of the seven churches in Asia Minor. He usually commended each church for something good, and had a word of correction for something that needed to change. However, in the letter to the church in Philadelphia, Jesus didn't condemn or correct anything. He described this church as having "a little strength," and commended them for their faithfulness. Jesus may have described them this way because of some weakness in the church, but it is likely they were small in number and limited in their resources. What can we learn from the "small church?"
There are many, many small independent Baptist churches today. An evangelist friend of mine who ministers in northern Ohio, visits about 100 churches. About 90 of them have less than 50 people on a Sunday morning, and about 75% of them have bi-vocational pastors. There are many small churches around the world, especially on mission fields where the work is difficult.
Why are churches like ours small? Different factors could be mentioned. The general decline of religion in America certainly plays a part. From the end of WW2 into the mid-1980s, church attendance in America was between 70 - 80%. But a 2021 Gallup pole showed that for the first time less than half of Americans belong to a church, mosque, or synagogue. Whether or not a church has a traditional or contemporary worship service can affect the size of a church. Rock concerts attract people more easily. Another important consideration is what I would call a "consumer mentality" about church. Today, you can buy pretty much anything you want from hundreds of options and have it delivered to your door in a couple of days. You can go through the fast food drive-thru and have it "your way." Many people think of church in the same terms. Instead of church being about God, it is about me - what this church can do for me, how it meets my needs, whether or not I like the church or the pastor or the people. There are many options to choose from, and it is easy to join a "winning team." Certainly, there are important factors that need to be considered when choosing a church, but we need to be careful. To coin a phrase, Ask not what your church can do for you, but what you can do for your church. How can I make my church stronger? How can I contribute in a more meaningful way? How can I help make this church more effective? Have a focus on what you can give rather than what you can get.
Even though the church in Philadelphia was few, they were faithful. We tend to make judgments based on outward appearance (1 Sam 16:7). We can fall into the trap of comparing ourselves with others (2 Cor 10:12). But we must learn to look at the church from God's perspective. He values faithfulness over outward appearance. Having a large congregation, a myriad of ministries, or a beautiful building does not necessarily equate success in a church.
They were faithful in keeping the Word of God. "To keep," means to guard or observe. They were faithful to keep God's Word in their hearts which resulted in faithful actions in their personal lives. They were faithful to the name of Christ in their outward testimony. They were faithful in the opportunities that God gave them. He was the one who opened the door of opportunity that no man could shut. Christ commended them for their faithfulness.
Today, small churches are called to be faithful to the Word of God. We are called to be faithful in our testimony and witness in the world. We are called to maximize the opportunities that the Lord gives us today. If we want God to bless us with more opportunity, or to bless us with numerical growth, we must examine our level of faithfulness and commitment in the areas He gives us now.
The small church has a future. Jesus promised the church in Philadelphia an identity with Him. He promised them a crown, a reward, one day in Heaven. Jesus promised in Matthew 16, "I will build my church." We can look forward to the promises of God as well, even if we are part of a small church. May God strengthen our commitment and increase our faithfulness to Him in the places where He has called us.
Pastor Ben Newman