For several weeks I have been sharing—in sections—a seminar I was invited to present at the National Association of Free Will Baptists (NAFWB) annual convention in July of this year. The NAFWB is the denomination of which I am a member. I pastor a small church and had been doing some reading about pastoral ministry in general and small church ministry in particular. After posting on this subject on this blog, I was invited by the ENGAGE Leadership Network to prepare and present a seminar on small church ministry at the convention.
I have shared the content of that seminar with a number of leaders, as well as here on my blog. Today, we come to the conclusion. This is by far the shortest section. A key part of the conclusion is a short list of resources I recommend. Since I prepared this material, I have discovered a few more I would add to the list. I will, however, refrain from that today and instead I will write about those in the future.
Have you read any of the books I list below? What are your thoughts on them? What other resources would you recommend? Thanks for hanging in there with me. As always, I pray this has been an encouragement and help to you. Please share any thoughts in the comment section below.
Small churches are here to stay. They have existed since the beginning of the church. As a small church pastor, I want my small church to be a great small church. Every small church can be a great small church. I believe one of the keys to this is for our small church pastors to get out of their own heads. Please don’t spend your time comparing your church to others. Don’t succumb to The Grasshopper Myth and you won’t just think like a great small church, you will be a great small church.
- The Grasshopper Myth: Big Churches, Small Churches and the Small Thinking that Divides Us, Karl Vaters, 2012, New Small Church
- Dirt Matters: The Foundation For a Healthy, Vibrant, And Effective Congregation, Jim Powell, 2013, WestBow Press
- The Strategically Small Church: Intimate, Nimble, Authentic, and Effective, Brandon J. O’Brien, 2010, Bethany House Publishers
- Church Planting Is for Wimps: How God Uses Messed-up People to Plant Ordinary Churches That Do Extraordinary Things (9Marks), Mike McKinley, 2010, Crossway
- The Healthy Small Church: Diagnosis and Treatment for the Big Issues, Denis Bickers, 2005, Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City
- Facebook – Small Church Pastor
- Facebook – I Am Free Will Baptist (for Free Will Baptist church leaders)
- Create your own local network of small church pastors!
Sorry for the extended break. Now, back to our program already in progress.
I have been sharing—over an extended period of time—a seminar I presented at the 2014 National Association of Free Will Baptists convention. The seminar was sponsored by the Engage Leadership Network. Over the past several weeks we have introduced the concept of the great small church (Part 1); we took an overview look at some church statistics (Part 2); we pointed out three undeniable realities of pastoral ministry (Part 3); we discussed the importance of establishing and aligning our values, mission, and vision (Part 4); and we emphasized the importance of protecting our focus, as well as both human and financial resources, by adopting a “one in; one out” principle (Part 5).
As before, all footnotes are from the original seminar; all links were added for the sake of this post. I hope and pray this is encouraging and helpful in your ministry context, whatever that may be.
People Instead of Numbers
I don’t know a single evangelical pastor who would say having a large church is more important that the people who make up that church. The problem is that we often act like it is. We become so active building good ministry that we lose sight of who that ministry is to benefit.
Sometimes we begin to look at what that ministry or event or activity will do to benefit our church, especially in terms of numbers and dollars. Don’t get me wrong; we have to be concerned with numbers and dollars. But we have to be more concerned with the life-change that is produced in the lives of those we engage. This is an important principle. Make it a priority to invest in ministries that produce life-change even if they don’t add numbers. To borrow an illustration from the apostle Paul, “If anyone builds on this foundation [Jesus Christ] using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work.” (1 Corinthians 3:12-13, NIV) Be sure to use the gold, silver, and costly stones of life-changing ministry rather that the wood, hay, or stubble of crowd-building alone. There is nothing wrong with growing a large church or attracting large numbers, but that must not be our focus. Rather, life-change in our congregations and communities along with faithfulness to our calling must be the measure of success.
One of the ways we often try to build and grow is through the use of technology. Just earlier today I heard a purported leader say that if your church cannot be “Googled” it is dead or irrelevant or some such ridiculousness. Please do not misunderstand; I am not against technology. I utilize it regularly. But being a great small church is not dependent on your website, Facebook presence, Twitter followers, or any other measure of technological advancement.
Your community is not looking for the church with the best entertainment production value. Please do not try to even go there. If you have a smart phone in your pocket, you have more entertainment at a higher quality than anything you or your team at church can likely produce. Don’t even try to compete with that. What most members of your community are looking for is relationship. Realize that technological expertise is no substitute for genuine relationships. This is where the small church excels.
Faith Perceptions is a company that, among other things, operates a church Mystery Guest Program. A local church can hire them to send an anonymous unchurched person to attend their worship services and evaluate their experience. They recently released a study based on an analysis of data that covers surveys of 4,288 separate and unique church services using the same questions and criteria. Two categories, Micro Church (0-80) and Small Church (81-150), scored “Very Good” or “Good” in the following categories: Greeting Upon Arrival, Pre-Service Atmosphere, Seating, Post-Service Atmosphere, and Friendliness. In other words, every category that was relationally driven, small churches score well in; and this was recognized by the unchurched individual sent to evaluate. When people need relationships the small church can be, and should be the answer. This can be the case when we focus on people rather than numbers.
 http://www.faithperceptions.com/files/CHURCH_INDEX_Summary_June_1,_2014_FINAL.pdf. Accessed July 23, 2014.
Here is the next section–and the second practical suggestion–for helping you think like a great small church. Feel free to follow the links to Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4. While the last section dealt with the importance of understanding your church’s values, adopting a mission, and casting a vision, this section has to do with busyness and the need to evaluate what your church is doing and why it is doing those things. Please feel free to comment below.
One In; One Out
While I have lived in a pretty big city, I have never lived in a truly large, urban area. I have watched enough real estate and remodel shows on HGTV to know the homes, especially apartments, are small—really small. I have been told that because of this situation, many people choose to follow a simple rule: When you buy something new, you get rid of something old. When you buy a new pair of pants, before you put them in your closet you have to get out (ideally) your oldest pair of pants. In addition to making sure you have enough room for all your belongings, there is the added benefit of keeping your wardrobe fresh and up to date.
What if we took the same approach with the ministries and activities in our local churches? What if we made it our policy that we do not add a new ministry or regular activity unless we evaluate what we are currently doing and choose to let one go? Church is complicated, probably too much so. I think church should be simpler—especially smaller churches. We usually do not have the financial resources, facilities, or manpower to conduct large numbers of ministries.
Adopting this mindset will help make one of the most difficult transitions an existing church needs to make. We need to move from a destination mindset to a process mentality. When most of our churches were started, whether 20 or 120 years ago, a way of doing church was established and has likely not changed much. It is as if the church has reached her destination. This at least partially explains why it is so difficult for churches to adapt and begin to decline as their communities change. We need to realize that if we drop less effective ministries and programs as we add new ones, the local church will continually be revitalized.
We do not need to change for the sake of change, but we have to be willing to change if we need to. Developing a process mentality will allow us to honestly evaluate our structure, programs, and ministries. Our culture and communities change so fast. If you do not evaluate the operations of your church at least as often as Microsoft releases a new version of Windows, you are running behind. That doesn’t mean you have to change that often, but you do need to evaluate.
For the past few weeks I have been posting—section by section—the transcript of a seminar I had the privilege to present at the National Association of Free Will Baptists annual convention. That seminar was titled “Thinking Like a Great Small Church”. I have introduced the topic (Part 1), presented some statistics (Part 2), and addressed some realities of leading in a small church context (Part 3). In the next three sections (Parts 4-6) I will offer practical suggestions that I believe will help as you begin to think like a great small church. Part 7 will conclude with some resources that have been particularly helpful to me. I am sure you will find them encouraging as well. The footnotes are from the original paper and the links were added for this post. As always, I pray this is a help and an encouragement to you. Please use the comment section below to offer any feedback, positive or negative.
Ready, Fire, Aim!
There was a man traveling down a country road when he saw another man with a bow shooting arrows into the side of his barn. The man traveling was curious, so he stopped. When he saw the arrows in the side of the barn, he was amazed. Every arrow was in the very center of a bulls-eye! He asked the man how he was able to hit those bulls-eyes so consistently. He replied, “Come with me.” Together, they walked around to the other side of the barn. The man with the bow pulled out and fired five arrows at random into the side of the barn. Then he took his paint and brush and painted a bulls-eye around each arrow.
A number of years ago, it was all the rage in church leadership circles to develop mission statements and try to implement them. What most churches wound up with was some generic statement that included bringing glory to God, believers together, and the lost to salvation. They found clever, catchy, clichéd ways to say this, but that describes most of them. What they did not include, for the most part, was any reflection of the character, culture, or calling of that individual church. For most churches this effort into mission statement madness appears to have made no discernible difference. For many this exercise was a failure that discouraged and set back the pastor and the church.
There are a couple of common views regarding mission statements. One of those could be summed up as: Without a concise mission statement your church will probably fail and die. The other is that the mission of the local church should be self-evident. Pastor and author Mike McKinley likens it to a major league baseball team. No one expects the New York Yankees to have a mission or vision statement. Everyone knows what their mission is: Win!
I have chosen what I see as a sort of middle ground. I think mission statements are helpful, but not necessary. They are a tool. They help us to stay focused on the task at hand. Just like individuals have a call, gifting, and purpose, so do churches; and a church’s mission statement has to reflect that call, gifting, and purpose. Rather than write a mission statement and then try to conform the church to it, perhaps we should examine our church and write a mission statement that reflects it. I think there are three steps to this process:
1) Values: Every church has things or traits it values. These are the things that make your church different from mine. Start by making a list of your church’s values. These are not the values you wish your church had. These are the actual things your church actually values. Over time you can try to grow this list to include the values you want, but start with the actual reality. I will illustrate with some (not all) of the things I observe that the church I pastor values: a casual atmosphere, a somewhat unstructured worship service, relationships in the church, a come-as-you-are welcome, caring for one another’s physical needs, biblical preaching that teaches, and a racially diverse attendance/membership. In time I would like for generosity toward the community to increase in value, along with other things I believe are important.
What does your church value? Maybe your church’s values include concern for the poor, a fun environment, missions, engaging corporate worship, of social justice issues. No single church can value every good thing. Sit down and make a list of several items. Recruit your leadership to do the same. Compare your lists and talk about the items. Try to build a fairly comprehensive list of your church’s values. There will likely be a fair amount of overlap between some of the items. You can use the larger list to try to synthesize a shorter list of a few things that you value most highly as a church. If you don’t know what is important to your congregation, it will be difficult to move them forward on mission.
2) Mission: This is your biblical mission accomplished through the lens of your values. There are certain things every church ought o be about doing. The Great Commission is the responsibility of every church. But does every church go about accomplishing it in the same way? Of course not!
Some churches are more creative and use music, art, and drama to introduce people to Jesus and lead them toward discipleship. Some are more academically oriented. Still others are very relational by nature. Some churches are highly formal and speak more easily to those who place a high value on tradition. Others are more informal and often appeal to those from a low-income or unchurched background. Neither is more important. Both can be Great Commission churches. A biblical church will accomplish their mission through the things they value. As you discern your values, you will figure out your mission.
3) Vision: By this, I am referring to a specific vision for the future of your church. What good is a sense of mission if it doesn’t translate into action? Vision is where the action is at!
Vision could be defined as goals or a plan. Many churches consider their vision to be the same as their mission, but the mission is a little vague by its very nature. Your church’s vision must be fairly specific. In order to be effective, it must be measurable and definable. It might take the form of a 1-year vision, a 5-year vision, or even a 10-year vision. The vision is where your mission takes on feet.
So you have spent time and energy working through your values, mission, and vision. You are hard at work in your church for the kingdom. You are in a small church, so small changes in your attendance lead to significant changes in your church. What happens if over time your values as a church begin to change? The answer is pretty easy. So does your mission and vision. All three of these need to be reviewed and reassessed on a regular basis. Your church is a living body; just like any living body, it will change over time.
This is the third installment in the “Thinking Like a Great Small Church (Seminar)” series. (Click for Part 1 and Part 2.) This is the content of a seminar I was privileged to lead a few weeks ago at the National Association of Free Will Baptists annual convention. This seminar was part of a seminar series produced by the Engage Leadership Network at Randall House Publications. As before, any footnotes were from the original paper. any links were addied for this blog post. As you read the following section, do you find it rings true in your experience? Are these three realities discouraging to you? Are they encouraging? Do you disagree with my conclusions? Please comment below. I am still studying issues related to small church leadership; more voices can make for a more full learning experience. We can learn from one another.
Three Undeniable Realities of Pastoral Ministry
Based on the statistics we have seen, there are some realities or truths about pastoral ministry that are undeniable. I am sure there are others we could mention and spend time on, but I will focus on these three:
- The vast majority of pastors will never pastor a church larger than 200 people. If the average size church in North America has an attendance of 75, the majority of churches have an attendance less than 100, and Free Will Baptist churches have an average membership of 76, the reality is that most of us will never pastor a mid-size or large church. Most of us will always pastor small churches.
- Virtually every pastor will pastor a small church for at least some time in his ministry. I am not referring here to associate, youth, worship, and other pastoral roles, but rather to senior or lead pastor. The various types of associate pastors are more likely to serve in larger churches because those are the churches that most need and are most able to afford the additional staff. For the rest of us, virtually all of us will pastor a small church for at least some time in our ministry. The exception to this might be the large church pastor who is able to transition the ministry to his son or some other leader groomed for that position. Clearly, this is the exception rather than the rule. We all have small church experience.
- You can pastor a small church well without settling for less. I will be the first to admit that for most of us, this concept causes a struggle within us. I was sharing my passion for small churches with a friend who replied, “I don’t believe there are any small churches.” What he meant was he didn’t believe there are any insignificant churches. Here’s the rub: Small and insignificant are not the same thing! Your church can be small and significant. Your church can be small and healthy. You can pastor your small church well and it doesn’t mean you are settling for less. None of us wants to settle for less. You would not have made the effort to be here this morning if you wanted to settle for less. You would not have taken the time out of your day if you were willing to settle for less. The good news is you don’t have to. You can pastor your small church well without settling for less.
 This section adapted, with permission, from “Thinking Like a great small Church” by Karl Vaters. http://newsmallchurch.com/thinking-like-a-great-small-church-part-1-video/. Accessed July 25, 2014.
Do you agree that these are undeniable realities of pastoral ministry? What are some others you would include? Do you agree with the third point or do you believe small equals less? There’s no judgement here! Please comment below.
Last week I introduced the seminar (Part 1) I led at the recent National Association of Free Will Baptists (NAFWB) convention. Today, I will share the next section of the seminar. This is the section that deals with some statistics. Bear in mind that while the original seminar was presented to a group of Free Will Baptist leaders, the principles apply to any church. The footnotes are from the original document. The links were added for this blog post. I hope you find this helpful and encouraging. Please feel free to comment below. I look forward to your response.
The National Association of Free Will Baptists is a denomination primarily made up of small churches. This is an undeniable reality. We certainly have some larger churches, but the truth is most of our churches are small. What constitutes a small church? Who decides what category of church yours is? Obviously, there is no absolute standard. The only church size category that appears to be somewhat standardized is the category of the mega-church. A church is considered a mega-church when it averages 2,000 or more in weekend attendance. This clearly will not apply to our discussion.
Various researchers, statisticians, missiologists, and other experts generally mark the transition from small church to medium-size church when attendance crosses the 200-300 mark. Timothy Keller makes the distinction when a church is larger than 200. A leader in the church growth movement, Gary McIntosh, in his book One Size Doesn’t Fit All, also marks the transition from small to medium church when attendance moves beyond 200. Those are just a couple of examples. A quick internet search will reveal the opinions of experts—and those who pretend to be—from across the spectrum.
For those of us in small church ministry, this can be a little discouraging. We all want our churches to grow, but it seems we will always be trapped in small church territory. In fact, the vast majority of churches will always be small churches. This has been true throughout history and it appears it always will be. Could it possibly be this is by God’s design?
Most churches in the United States are small. How small? According to the National Congregations Study, the average congregation has just 75 regular participants. This number has not changed since at least 1998. How about Free Will Baptist churches? Where do we stack up against the national averages? It is difficult to say with any real accuracy. But we do have some clues.
We don’t know exactly how we compare because we don’t collect good data. We collect local church information mostly at the district or quarterly association level. The data is then compiled and forwarded on to the state association level. The information is then compiled and forwarded to the national association level. By the time the information reaches the national level all that is available is state numbers. The local data is not there. This means we cannot report how many churches fall within certain size ranges. We cannot know how many or our churches are small, medium, or large churches.
Another problem is the rest of the church world collects data on attendance or attendance and membership. We only collect membership information. We all know there is often little resemblance between membership and attendance numbers.
All that said, the most recent numbers tell us the average Free Will Baptist church has a membership of 75. While not relating directly to our discussion today, I do want to share some other information. Let me state clearly something most of us already know. The National Association of Free Will Baptists is shrinking by virtually every measure. I surveyed the church and membership information in the last five editions of the Free Will Baptist Church Directory (2010-2014, reporting information for 2008-2012). In that five year span we lost almost 100 churches, we lost over 15,000 members, and the average Free Will Baptist church membership fell from 78.3 to 74.6. This is not a sustainable trend!
While we cannot know how many Free Will Baptist churches fall within the various size ranges, we do have this information about the larger church world in the United States. The following table was taken from the Hartford Institute for Religion Research. According to their statistics, 59% of all Protestant churches in the United States have an attendance of less than 100 people. Small churches are not the exception, they are the norm.
It is likely these statistics are not new to you. You have heard them—or very similar—many times before. We usually hear these numbers as if they are a problem to be fixed. What if it is not a problem? What if this is God’s design? What if he wants there to be a few really large churches scattered around, a lot of mid-sized churches around the world, and small churches tucked into every nook and cranny of the globe? What if it is his plan? I am not proposing that we become complacent and not try to grow our churches; I am suggesting we become content and quit making church growth the goal.
Some, including researcher Warren Bird, try to make a biblical case for pursuit of mega church status as a goal by referring to Pentecost as “the first mega church”. In my opinion, this is an obvious fallacy. While Acts 2:41 does say that 3,000 people were converted that day, clearly God had no intention of sustaining such a large church. A short time later, Acts 8:1 tells us that a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered. If Bird and others make a case from scripture to justify mega church as the goal, I would make a case from scripture that smaller gatherings of believers scattered around the world is the goal. My aim is to do neither. There is a place and role for churches of all sizes.
 Keller, Timothy, Leadership and Church Size Dynamics: How Strategy Changes With Growth, Copyright ©2006 by Timothy Keller, ©2010 by Redeemer City to City. This article first appeared in The Movement Newsletter, and was reprinted in the Spring 2008 edition of Cutting Edge magazine, Vineyard USA. www.livingwatercc.org/images/VarArticles/ChurchSize2.pdf. Accessed July 14, 2014.
 www.churchleader.net/Portals/0/Resources/Assessment/McIntoshTypologyChurchSizes.pdf. Accessed July 14, 2014.
 American Congregations at the Beginnings of the 21st Century, www.soc.duke.edu/natcong/Docs/NCSII_report_final.pdf. Accessed July 14, 2014.
 This information is taken from the 2014 Free Will Baptist Yearbook. The numbers are from 2012. The membership average was calculated by dividing the NAFWB membership number of 170,820 by the number of churches, 2,289. The average was actually 74.6, rounded to 75.
 http://www.hartfordinstitute.org/research/fastfacts/fast_facts.html. Accessed July 14, 2014.
 http://leadnet.org/9-fascinating-facts-about-people-who-attend-megachurches/. Accessed July 15, 2014. I do not claim to know if he actually considers this a megachurch, but his comments rooting church size directly in Acts 2:41 is certainly a discouragement to those who faithfully labor in the small church context.
Where does your church fit in the size scale? Is your church past of a movement that is shrinking? Do you think some churches are small by God’s design? Is there a role for all church sizes?
During the recent annual convention of the National Association of Free Will Baptists—the denomination of which the church I lead is a member—I had the privilege to lead a seminar relating to healthy small church ministry. I had spent time reading The Grasshopper Myth (Fountain Valley, California: New Small Church, 2013) by Karl Vaters as well as his blog (www.newsmallchurch.com). With Karl’s permission, I used the title of a workshop along with some of his themes he posted on his blog. They are greatly expanded and specifically tailored to my audience of Free Will Baptist church leaders.
I am posting my notes from that seminar here over the course of several posts. Feel free to engage with each section or wait until the end to comment. If I can be of any help to you, especially in a small church ministry context, please do not hesitate to contact me. Most of all, I hope and pray this will be an encouragement to you who labor in the especially hard work of small church ministry. Your work may be hidden from the world, the church conference circuit, the Christian publishing industry, and maybe even your own denomination or church, but it is not hidden from the God who calls you to be faithful to your calling and will reward you accordingly. God bless you all!
I am sure there are many others, including some in this room, who are more qualified to present a seminar dealing with small church issues. Most of us are not new to small church ministry. I am relatively young and relatively inexperienced; but most of my experience is in the small church context. What I will say today is my opinion based on research and experience. That research includes what I believe God’s word says on the matter. I will not read or reference much scripture today, not because I do not think it relevant, but because I will assume we all agree to see this subject from a biblical standpoint. Also, while the Bible has much to say about the church and what we are to believe and teach, it really does not direct us much when it comes to church growth and church size. Some have tried to promote the mega church as “the goal” using scripture, but I will address that in a few minutes. Have any of you ever thought to yourself—or maybe even said out loud, “I pastor (or attend, volunteer in, etc.) a good church. If we only had more people, or more money, or better facilities, or some other thing, we could be a great church.” It has been both my experience and observation that when we adopt that attitude, we tend to begin seeing that attitude in our church. My primary purpose today is to encourage you with the truth that your church can be a great small church. Small and great are not mutually exclusive. They can coexist. Please let me state from the outset: I will not beat up on large churches! I believe there is a place in the kingdom for churches of all sizes. I firmly believe small churches have an important role to play in the kingdom, but so do large churches. Many of the books we rely on, web platforms we utilize, and songs we sing would not be possible without good, godly, Jesus-loving large churches! A great example of this is the Bible application many of you have on your phone or tablet. If you are using the most popular Bible app most of us use was developed by a single church. I will not demonize large churches simply to make me feel better about my small church; there are too many legitimate reasons to love my small church.
What is “The Grasshopper Myth”?
Karl Vaters is pastor of Cornerstone Christian Fellowship in Fountain Valley, California, blogger at http://www.newsmallchurch.com, and author of The Grasshopper Myth. Karl started using the term “Grasshopper Myth” to refer to the inferiority complex suffered by many small churches and their leaders. The phrase comes from Numbers 13:32-33, “All the people we saw there are of great size…We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them.” What is The Grasshopper Myth? The Grasshopper Myth is the false impression that our small church ministry is less than what God says it is because we compare ourselves with others. I have come to believe that a great deal of the problem lies in the mirror. Part of the problem is how we view ourselves. As small churches and small church leaders, we are not second-class members of the kingdom. We have a vital role to play. But the truth is that we will never accomplish God’s mission for our churches as long as we are busy navel-gazing.
 Cornerstone Christian Fellowship, 17575 Euclid St., Fountain Valley, California, pastor Karl Vaters. Cornerstone is associated with the Assemblies of God denomination.
 Karl Vaters, The Grasshopper Myth (Fountain Valley, California; New Small Church) Introduction.
Does this sound familiar? Does this describe your ministry? Please comment below. Check back next week for the next section of my seminar.