Should Young Pastors Prefer a Large or Small Church?

Suppose a young, ambitious, seminary-trained, godly pastor was given the choice between a large church and a small church as his first charge. Which should he prefer? Which should he prioritize? Theodore Cuyler took on this question in his book How To Be a Pastor which was written in the early twentieth century. His answer is straightforward, his reasoning compelling. It is worth considering today.

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“I answer unhesitatingly, the small church.” He minces no words there, does he? He offers a three-pronged defense of his position.

The first prong is simply the example of church history. He shows that some of the great pastors have had small beginnings—Chalmers in little Kilmany, Guthrie in humble Arbirot, McCheyne in a small community within Dundee. Cuyler himself, though at the time pastoring one of the largest Presbyterian churches in America, had begun in the most humble circumstances. There is good historical backing to his position.

The second prong reminds the prospective pastor of the value of individual souls, for a small charge gives new ministers a better opportunity to study individuals. Because his church will be made up of fewer people, he will be able to give sufficient time and attention to each of them. “The most profitable study for every minister, next to his Bible, is human character,” Cuyler insists. “The misfortune with many of our young ministers in these days is that they know more about books than about human nature.” If that was true in Cuyler’s time, it is certainly equally true today. There are many young pastors who know a lot about doctrine and principles of leadership, but who have little knowledge of people, their difficulties, their complexities. In a small church a pastor will be able to get to know—to really know—his people and the value of each and every soul. Where in a big city church he may preach to anonymous masses, in a small country church he will preach to well-known individuals. “A crowd is an inspiring object for me to preach to; an individual soul brought into close and living contact is an inspiring personage to preach to me.”

The third prong of his argument is that a small charge will give a novice more uninterrupted time to study and think. Though there are exceptions, he insists that little great work comes from huge pastorates. He points to Edwards, Bunyan, and Hodge, none of whom could have prepared their great works of theology had they been pastoring big city churches with all the associated responsibility. Those who do succeed in large churches often do so because of the foundation laid in their earlier, quieter years of ministry. “A young minister must learn the use of his tools. He must learn how to think, and how to put his thoughts into the most effective shape.” While experience may eventually allow him to prepare great sermons in minimal time, that will only be possible if, in the early years, he is extremely diligent in studying the Bible and in pursuing the art and craft of preaching. “A small church will afford him the best opportunity to lay good, broad, solid foundations by deep meditation, deep study of the Word and of fertilizing books, and deep study of human nature.”

With the benefit of a long ministry behind him, Cuyler offers encouragement to the young and ambitious who may be tempted to think they can do the greatest good where they can stand before the greatest congregations.

Young brethren, if you know when you are well off, do not itch for a call to a large town and do not lose one golden hour that you may now be spending in some modest little corner of the Master’s vast vineyard. If you have bread to put into your mouths, and nutritious books to study, and immortal souls to win for Christ, be thankful and buckle to your work. Time enough to shoulder up the bullock when you have learned to carry the calf. Bend your whole undivided strength upon your first charge, even if it does not contain over one hundred precious souls; and remember that a single soul for whom Jesus died, is a tremendous trust.

In another of Cuyler’s discourses he returns to this topic, though only briefly, and says, “My ministry began in a very small church. For that I am thankful. Let no young minister covet a large parish at the outset. The clock that is not content to strike one will never strike twelve.

And so, young pastor, are you content to strike one? Are you willing to minister in obscurity where you can come to know what it is to pastor precious souls, where you can lay a firm foundation of knowledge and skill, where you can finish the preparation that seminary merely began? Are you willing to be faithful in little before expecting you will prove faithful in much?