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.
I pastor a small church. I’m not ashamed of my church or the fact it is small. We’re actually pretty typical. Most churches in America—and around the world, for that matter—are small. There is no shame or sin for a church to be small. It shouldn’t become complacent in its smallness, but it can be content.
As I have spent a fair amount of time lately reading, praying, and thinking about ministry in a small church context, I have come across a handful of books which have been particularly helpful. One of those is The Strategically Small Church (Bloomington, Minnesota: Bethany House Publishers, 2010) by Brandon J. O’Brien.
Don’t let the title fool you; by “strategically” small, he does not mean intentionally small. In a nutshell, he is referring to a small church embracing its smallness in size and leveraging that for kingdom greatness. Consider this from the introduction:
What is a strategically small church? A strategically small church is one that has become comfortable being small, because it has learned to recognize the unique advantages of its size. A strategically small church realizes it can accomplish things that larger churches cannot. This doesn’t make it better or godlier. But it means it can proceed in ministry not from a sense of its deficiencies, but from confidence in its strengths. Strategically small churches are strategic for the kingdom of God, because when they embrace their identity, they can make an enormous impact. (page 15)
The main thrust of the book is to identify and describe traits that come somewhat naturally to the healthy small church. These traits become the titles for the central chapters of the book:
- Keeping It Real: The Authentic Church
- Keeping It Lean: The Nimble Church
- The Work of the People: The Equipping Church
- New Focus on the Family: The Intergenerational Church
In Chapter One, O’Brien goes head to head with the typical definition of success in ministry—bigger numbers, budgets, and buildings. He sets the stage for the rest of the work by redefining success, or at least trying to jettison the old definition. One of the primary problems is our expectations of what success ought to look like.
As a dear friend and mentor of mine likes to say, you can do two things with expectations. You can meet them, or you can change them. I say we change them. To do that, pastors of smaller churches must help their people learn to see for themselves. Or more precisely, to see the world as Jesus sees it. And that means the pastor must help his people value the mustard seed and view the church as if they were the first people ever to lay eyes on it, to put aside unreasonable expectations, cast their seeds, and trust God for the harvest. (page 36)
In Chapter Two, O’Brien tells the stories of four ministries that recognized the positive traits that come with smallness and took intentional steps to adopt those traits. Chapters 3-6 focus on those traits occur more naturally in small churches. Small churches can’t effectively stage a large production every Sunday. While they should (and usually do) focus on doing things with as much excellence as they are capable, the real focus is, or at least should be, on building an intimacy that comes through authenticity. Large churches with large leadership structures and large ministries to be coordinated often have trouble making rapid changes and quick decisions. A small church can and should keep its program offerings more lean, nimbly enabling them to respond more quickly to changes in the community, needs inside and outside the church, and ministry opportunities they are particularly gifted for. Because smaller churches cannot hire professional staff to do and lead ministry they have to rely more heavily on the lay-members of the congregation. We often say that like it is a bad thing, but that is exactly how Ephesians 4:11-13 directs us to operate.
11 So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, 12 to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.
Typically, larger churches (and many small ones try to) offer a huge array of age-specific, age-segregated ministry programming to cover the entire spectrum of life, cradle to grave. Most smaller churches do not have the resources to produce, manpower to operate, or enough population in the various age categories to warrant such age-specific ministry. Instead, they often do what societies, communities, and churches have done for centuries: inter-generational ministry. I do not understand why for the past several decades we have been afraid for relationships to form between generations. Why do we discourage children, adolescents, and adults from worshiping together and learning from one another?
O’Brien closes the book with what I think is an interesting insight. While the largest churches continue to grow, one of the trendiest ways for this to happen is to move to a multi-sight model where the there is one preacher transmitting the sermon to multiple locations. This continues to elevate the singular task of preaching as if it is the lone ministry of the local church. Please don’t misunderstand me. Preaching is incredibly important, but it is not the pastor’s only job. Because of celebrity preachers, even small church pastors feel the pressure to hit a home run every week with their sermon. The truth is that no one bats a thousand! We all strike out from time to time.
One of my tasks as the pastor of a small church is to actively disciple my congregation, and a good portion of that happens during the sermon on Sunday morning. But it also has to happen at other times. When I am doing that, I have the opportunity to identify potential leaders that I can help train to do the work of the ministry. This includes preaching. As pastors, we need to guard our pulpits; but we need to not be stingy with them! You people will endure some poor preaching from time to time. I have some bad news for you: They already do. I believe one of the reasons we have a shortage of pastors, especially for smaller congregations is that we are not raising them up. I am as guilty as the next pastor, but I am committed to changing that.
The intimate, nimble, authentic, effective small church is the perfect incubator to train new leaders who can continue to guide the local small church in those traits. In emphasizing this, O’Brien plays down the importance of preaching a little too far. That said, he does bring some balance back into local church leadership.
I highly recommend The Strategically Small Church. If you are the pastor or another leader in a small church, you really should invest in this encouraging read. There are at least three take-aways I will leave you with:
- The Strategically Small Church and author Brandon J. O’Brien are another voice in the growing chorus of leaders and writers celebrating the value and place in the kingdom of God for small churches and their leaders. Over the next several weeks I hope to introduce some more.
- The book introduces new ways to evaluate—a new paradigm, if you will—the ministry of your small church. This is healthy and helpful.
- As it introduces these traits that ought to be somewhat natural in the healthy small church, it illustrates and demonstrates what they can look like in the small church context. This is also helpful and incredibly encouraging.
I would encourage you to get this book and read it. I hope it helps shape your view of the small church as it has helped shape mine.
The vast majority of churches in America are small churches; how about yours? Do you feel undervalued and underappreciated because of leading a small church? Have you already read The Stategically Small Church? What did you think about the book? Please share in the comments below—and be encouraged!
I have a love/hate relationship with conferences and conference speakers. I love sitting in a big room in a large crowd soaking in the teaching. I love being exposed to new and innovative resources. I love the energy. I love the music. I love meeting new people. I love so much about the conference experience.
And then I come home. What a let-down. At least that is often my perception. That is when I realize that just about everything I have just learned is completely useless in my small church environment.
Several years ago I had the privilege to serve in a support role on the staff of a large church; it certainly seemed large to me. To the researchers who track these things it would be considered mid-sized. Our attendance was somewhere in the 500 range. While serving there, one of the staff pastors and I went to the Innovative Impact conference hosted by Woodlands Church (known then as Fellowship of The Woodlands) in The Woodlands, Texas. One of the speakers at this conference was Nelson Searcy.
Nelson Searcy is the founding pastor of The Journey Church in New York City. He is the author of several books, including Fusion: Turning First-Time Guests into Fully-Engaged Members of Your Church (2007, Regal). Searcy is an engaging speaker and an innovative, entrepreneurial leader. Fusion reflects this.
In Fusion, Searcy lays out a step-by-step plan to take visitors that have been attracted to your church and guide them down a track toward becoming members who are completely immersed in the life of the church. That is a great goal. In spite of that great goal, there are several problems with the book.
Fusion is a business book about becoming more successful at the business of growing the local church. Searcy talks some of evangelism and spiritual growth, but mostly Fusion is about church growth. As if that is not frustrating—or even insulting—enough, he spiritualizes these business principles by adding a variety of biblical proof texts taken completely out of context. Remember, you can make the Bible mean anything you want it to by removing or changing the context. By relying on business growth and leadership principles to build the church, he cheapens the value of the work of the Holy Spirit and minimizes the hard work of discipleship. Assimilating guests into the church becomes a numbers game much like a career in sales. It becomes about the number you can get to stick. We want visitors to stick around, but they are not really part of your church unless they are being discipled.
Fusion is written for the large church trying to become larger. In the spirit of full disclosure, I am a small church pastor. I pastor a small church. Those statements sound like they mean the same thing, but they don’t. I picked up a copy of this book because I wanted to be better at connecting visitors with the church, as we should all be. But Fusion simply is not practical for the small church, at least not for the really small church. One example of this is the sample letters and emails to be sent out to guests. They all recommend the pastor who taught that Sunday should send or sign the messages. Searcy is working under the assumption that churches (at least the ones he works with) routinely have multiple pastors. This is as opposed to most churches, which actually have the pastor as the only staff member.
Fusion is a marketing tool to increase sales of Searcy’s other products. One of the primary products being promoted in this book is “The Assimilation Seminar”. I wish I had thought while reading the book to count the number of times the seminar or the “Assimilation System” were mentioned by either Searcy or one of the testimonials peppered throughout the book. Searcy is as much a salesman as a pastor. His website, www.churchleaderinsights.com, is full of seminars, workshops, ebooks, coaching opportunities, and other products to make your church larger, because that is what really counts.
Searcy implies if you will follow his system your church will grow. In Fusion, Searcy does not provide principles for assimilation that may lead to church growth. He does not provide general guidelines. He does not simply provide examples. He provides a system. Searcy makes no secret he is providing a system. He calls it “The Assimilation System”. The implied guarantee of church growth comes mostly from the handful of hand-picked testimonials scattered throughout the book. It was glaringly obvious he did not include testimonials from those church leaders who had implemented Searcy’s system, prayed, and worked and did not see meaningful church growth simply because that may not have been God’s will for them at that time. These leaders were given a false hope and a false promise.
Searcy implies church growth is the goal. Sure, God wants us to reach new people; but this is apparently so the local church can be bigger. It is not just this book. In the store on his website, there is an entire section devoted to breaking size “barriers” as if we have some biblical mandate to grow a bigger congregation. By the way, I have read the entire Bible. There is no such mandate. That pressure is purely man-made. The goal is not bigger churches, it is healthy churches that disciple believers and send them out to do ministry. On a side note: if you send them out, they are no longer at your church to be counted. GASP!
I do not question Searcy’s motives. I suspect his heart is at least somewhat pure in this. I just get so irritated at the arrogance of some (not all, by any means!) pastors of large churches who seem to work under the assumption that since they did X and became “successful”, if you will do X you will be successful as well. The vast majority of churches in North America and around the globe are small churches. They are doing good work discipling believers, performing social work, and planting new churches. Please do not demean those churches and their leaders by implying they are less because they are small.
Have you read Fusion by Nelson Searcy? What did you think about it? You are welcome to add your comments below, whether you agree with me or not!
It is so easy to think in extremes. This is not true only of Christians or of the church. We live in a society of extremes. There is no such thing as a moderate in the public square; you must either be liberal or conservative. Liberals are portrayed as more liberal than ever by conservatives. Conservatives are portrayed as more conservative than ever by liberals. Anyone who tries to occupy a middle ground gets shot at by both sides.
We act as if this is new problem when it clearly is not. The apostle Paul wrote regularly about this in his letters. In responding to those who wanted to take advantage of God’s grace by living as they wanted then wrapping themselves in the banner of grace as a protection, Paul wrote in Romans 6:1-4, “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.” We are to enjoy life in God’s grace; but we enjoy it by living the new life he has called us to. We live in liberty but are not to be libertines.
The other extreme says that God’s grace demands we keep all the religious law God established. Paul answers this claim in Galatians 5:1-6, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit we eagerly await by faith the righteousness for which we hope. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” We have been granted freedom from the yoke of slavery. We are free to live the new life he has called us to. We live in liberty, not slavery.
So if we are to avoid these extremes, how are we to live? Is there a middle ground? Sort of, but I prefer not to think of it as a moderate position. I prefer to think of it as the best of both worlds. We have liberty and are not “bound” by the law. This is God’s grace. There is forgiveness when we fall. This is God’s grace. Jesus made it clear he would not abolish the law (Matthew 5:17-20). This is also God’s grace.
So, the law is still valid. We are not “bound” by the law. We live in liberty. How do all these truths work together? I believe the answer is in Galatians 5:13-18, “You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other. So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.” If we walk by the Spirit, we will fulfill the law. Don’t work to keep the law, keep the one command to love your neighbor and the law will have been kept!
I try to invite a lot of people to our church. I don’t do this because I want a large church. I really don’t care if our church becomes large or not, but that is a different subject. I invite a lot of people to our church so they have one more opportunity to spend time around people who love Jesus and they have one more opportunity to have the truth of the Word of God spoken into their lives.
Not long ago when inviting someone to our church, they asked me what kind of church it is. This person clarified that they were asking about style rather than denomination. This person wanted to know how formal we dressed and what style of music we sang and what kind of rituals we preformed. I honestly did not know how to answer.
I tried to explain what things are like here. I talked about how we are a group of broken people who are trying to follow Jesus. I explained that we don’t have a set liturgy. I described our music as an eclectic mix of songs we sing to honor the one who created us then re-created us. I told stories of changed lives and struggles. I am sure I did not paint a very flattering picture, but it was honest.
If your idea of quirky is to play games with foundational biblical theology – that’s not quirky, that’s heresy. Quirky churches don’t change the things that matter – they cling for dear life to them.
If your idea of quirky is trying to be cool and relevant – nope, not that either. The cool kids don’t do quirky. They do cool. Cool is overrated.
Quirky churches aren’t stuck in old, dry, irrelevant ruts, either. Genuinely following Jesus will always keep us from that.
So quirky churches don’t mess with the fundamentals. And they don’t worry about passing fads. They’re not chasing culturally relevance. But they are contextually real. Quirky churches are the ones that dare to do the bible stuff in a way that works for them and the people God is calling them to reach. No matter how strange it looks to everyone else.
This means we will not always look like the other churches in town. That is not necessarily a bad thing! It may also make your church a little difficult to describe. It’s alright; you will survive without a label. What it will make you is real!
My heart’s desire as a pastor is to be bold with the truth. I pray God gives me the freedom to change plans and programs that are not working, but not to change simply for the sake of change. Most of all, I want to be honest and real. I want the people God puts under my teaching to know the real me. I realize it will not always be pretty or pleasant. I want the members of my church to be equally genuine and real. The community around us can spot a fake or a salesman a mile away. If we are honest about our past and honest about our present, people will trust us – and Jesus – with their future.
Hi. My name is John and I am a small church pastor.
There. I finally said it. What a relief!
Over the past few months, I have been reflecting a lot on the many ways I am a failure as a pastor. I have been the pastor of New Beginnings in Bryan, Texas for about 16 months. In that time I have managed to grow the church from about 45 down to about 30 (on a pretty strong Sunday). After several years of operating a “Fall Festival”, this year there will be none. Oh yeah, I almost forgot, we don’t have Sunday school for anyone except the older members. I am pretty sure we won’t make the “Outreach 100” anytime soon!
I know—and I think I have always known—that there is far more to growing a church than numbers. But over the past few months I have begun to realize just how unimportant numbers really are. Don’t get me wrong; we count attendance every Sunday. Metrics are important. You have to know how many bulletins to print and communion cups to fill. I just don’t let numbers become my barometer for spiritual health.
Rather than focus on numbers, God has recently given me a hunger for overall spiritual health, both for the individuals who are part of New Beginnings and for the corporate body as well. This has renewed my passion for pastoring the local church.
New Beginnings will likely never be a large church. In fact, I am pretty sure I don’t even want that anymore. I would rather see us grow to a level of health and numbers where we are consistently sending people out into ministry. I dream of sending about a third of my church out to plant another local church in our area. I want to stay in the category that church growth experts call a “small church”.
I want to spend some time having a conversation about ministry in small churches. I would like for you to be part of that conversation.
Hi. My name is John and I am a small church pastor.
Will you leave a comment telling me about your church? Is your church a small church? Let’s talk about some of the joys and challenges of ministry in the small church context! (I want to say a special “Thank You” to Karl Vaters at newsmallchurch.com. You are doing a good work! Thanks for your transparency, encouragement, and practical help to your fellow small church pastors.)