by Jeff Matas
As a small church pastor, you probably attended conferences and heard the phrase: Healthy things grow; healthy churches grow. The implication is, if your church is not growing, there’s something wrong. Something is amiss and unhealthy. Then for good measure, pastors often hear that “everything rises or falls on leadership.” I have led small churches and I have wrestled with statements such as these. There is truth in each of them, but they are often employed with no context leaving most pastors feeling like failures.
A few months ago, Indiana Ministries hosted a one-day workshop led by Karl Vaters. Karl is a nationally recognized champion of small church ministry. He is passionate about small churches, and he is a longtime pastor of a small church in Orange County, California.
Here are some of my takeaways from that workshop. At the end of the newsletter article, there is a link so that you (your staff, lay leaders, board) can watch every session from that impactful day.
Healthy doesn’t mean bigger
It is true that all healthy things grow, but they don’t keep growing, they grow to their optimum size. I’m six feet tall. I stopped growing before I turned 20. My height being fixed is not a sign of ill health. My body grew up to the optimal size determined by my DNA. My feet continued to grow even after my height was fixed. After I graduated college, my feet decided they weren’t done growing, and I went from a size 12 to a size 13 to 14 depending on the shoe. I am thankful that a sign of health doesn’t mean that my feet kept growing and growing until I turned into a six-foot hobbit!
The reality of church size
For over 2000 years of church history, 90% of churches were never larger than 300. Currently over 90% of churches are under 200, and over 80% are under 100. According to the Pew Center, half of the world’s two billion Christians attend churches that are under 250.
- Small is not a problem
- There is nothing that Jesus asks you to do that can’t be done with 2-3 people who answer the call and gather weekly to worship the Lord.
- Small is not a virtue
- Don’t fall for the trap that the reason we are small is that we preach the truth and the large church in town doesn’t.
- Small is not failure
- Don’t fall for the lie that the reason your church is small is because you as the pastor are a failure, you blew your calling, or you failed as a leader and shepherd.
Big church leadership emphasizes process, systems, and programs. Small church leadership emphasizes relationships, culture, and history.
For small church pastors, the Parable of the Sower is critical to understand the culture of your church. In the parable, the seed is the same. It’s all good seed. The critical factor is the soil— your church’s culture (see “Dirt Matters” by Jim Powell).
Hard soil. The seed falls on hard soil and the birds devour it. The soil is hard and packed because it has been walked on and walked over time and time again. This is the stubborn church, the “we don’t do it that way” church. Usually, the church reacts that way because they have been hurt. There are relationships that need healing and a few dysfunctional family systems that need attention. As a pastor, your job is to water the soil so that it begins to soften. Love your people. Tend to the wounded. Establish appropriate boundaries of behavior. Teach them that love doesn’t mean tolerating bad behavior. Love means that you confront those that need confronting and draw a line that says, “We don’t act that way here.” Work to water the soil, to create a biblically based new normal that is a healthy family system.
Shallow soil. This represents the shallow church. People show up but they don’t follow through. They are saved but many of them demonstrate few fruits of the spirit in their daily lives, their behavior, and their priorities. As a pastor, make it a priority to help them go deeper in their walk with Christ. Start by leading a small group of people in an intentional discipleship process that is based on reading the Bible and incorporates accountability (confession). Start small. A great resource is Jon Wiest’s book, “Banding Together—a practical guide for disciple makers.” Jesus started with twelve. Can you start with two others and disciple them? You will be surprised at how something so small can transform a church. To reference another parable of Jesus, it’s leaven. It’s small but powerful.
Thorns and thistles soil. This represents the busy church, the church that is trying to do too much. Your people are busy and the last thing they need is a church that is trying to do everything. Write down everything your church does. Go through your announcements and your church calendar and write down all the programs, activities, and events that your church is involved in. Then next to each event, write down the purpose of each. Does it help advance the mission of the church? What is the goal of each of those things? Do they accomplish the goal? Do they even have a goal, besides participation? In another parable, Jesus talks about the principle of pruning. Work with your church to identify and clarify your mission (to make more and better disciples) and to prune everything on your church’s calendar that fails to move your church forward in that mission.
Good soil. The soil—the culture—of the church is rich, deep, and good and will result in a spiritual harvest. That’s the goal for each of our churches.
Here is the link to the workshop:
I want to thank Pastor Matthew Derby (Northside Church of God, Muncie) for his gifts and skill in recording the workshop and editing the videos. I want to thank Karl Vaters for his generosity in permitting Indiana Ministries to record the workshop and make it available to our pastors and churches.