Posted in Ministry

Small Church vs Big Church (size or health?)


This is a guest post from Karl Vaters. Karl has passion for serving churches…specifically, “small churches.” I’ve really enjoyed his writing, and help he provides church leaders. Much of his content applies to ministers no matter their church size, but he’s committed to encouraging the small church. From the New Small Church website:

Small Churches make up 80% – 90% of the known churches in the world, but are the subject of probably less than 1% of the books and blogs about how to do church ministry. Small Churches are no better and no worse than churches of any other size. But they have been the most neglected, especially when it comes to pastoral training.
New Small Church wants to help fill that gap. We exist to encourage, connect and equip innovative Small church leaders.

You’ll benefit from Karl’s thoughts on:

All things grow – but not all growth is healthy

About 200 people attend the church I pastor on a typical Sunday. It used to be 400.

It’s a better church now than it was then.

I know, pastors aren’t supposed to say things like that. We’re not even supposed to admit that things like that are possible.

But it’s true.

I’ve been pastoring my church for 22 years. When I arrived, there were about 35 people attending. They were very discouraged after going through five pastors in ten years and drifting from their high attendance of about 250 during that decade. They had debated closing the church entirely.

In my first decade of pastoring the church, we grew to a healthy 200 people or so.

Giddy with my modest success, I decided to kick things into high gear. I was going to implement all the church growth strategies I’d been reading about and break through the 200 barrier.

It worked. Within two years, we had doubled to about 400 people. But we became an unhealthy church in the process.

Before the push, I’d been working with people and within my gifting as a pastor. During the push, my attention shifted. People became numbers. Attendance mattered more than relationships. I became empty. And the church became unhealthy.

Almost none of the growth was from conversions. It was virtually all transfer growth. We weren’t discipling new believers, we were entertaining bored Christians.

Then the church started to shrink. Fast.

I don’t know how small it got down to. Because I stopped counting. But it was probably somewhere in the low 100s. Not only had we lost those we’d gained, we lost a lot of the original folks, too.

There are a lot of reasons why the church collapsed and nearly folded. But the main one was this. The pursuit of numbers made us sick. And sick things start to die.

I’m grateful that our sickness was evident in our shrinking numbers. It forced us to deal with the problems. Some churches start dying internally, but keep getting bigger externally, so they don’t see their sickness. No, not all of them. Not even most of them. But some of them. Including mine.

Through that process, I learned several painful lessons. I’m grateful for every one of them.

Here are a few:

  • A healthy small church is better than an unhealthy big church
  • Every number may be a person, but people aren’t numbers
  • All healthy things grow, but not all growth is healthy

Eventually, we corrected the downward slide. We put God’s Word and God’s people first again.

Today, we’re as healthy as any church of any size anywhere. We’re loving, outward-reaching and discipleship-oriented.

We’ve grown to 200. We may get bigger than that. We may not. Either way, we’ll stay healthy and keep growing, learning, discipling and sending.

Yes, a church can be better at 200 than at 400.

Because, bigger isn’t better. Smaller isn’t better. Only better is better.

Read more about Karl and check his out book, The Grasshopper Myth.


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My Top Five Blog Posts for Readers

I’ve now been blogging a year. Below are the posts that received the most views, or based on feedback from readers, were the most helpful in providing practical takeaways for everyday church leadership.

Thanks for being a reader.

The hardest thing a leader has to say—the last 2%

Succession planning for pastors (an interview with the Village Church)

Coping with church leader jealously syndrome

How to present a compelling budget

Hiring ministers and avoiding nepotism

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The Minister Disconnect – An Interview with Eric Geiger

Until Eric Geiger’s move to Lifeway  just over two years ago, Eric had spent his career serving as a minister in the local church. With God’s blessing clearly evident on the work Eric was doing, he most recently served as an executive and teaching pastor at Christ Fellowship in the Miami area.

Now Eric ministers to ministers as a Lifeway Vice-President, and leads its Church Resources Division. Through that role, his influence in leadership, speaking, and writing has reached  evangelical Christians serving churches, both as paid staff and volunteers.

Eric has not given up his love for or service to the local church since being at Lifeway. He  continues to serve the local church in interim and volunteer roles. However, a new position, outside of the day-to-day work of local church ministry has provided Eric a different perspective. Once having the perspective of a church minister, now he has one more similar to a church members’ view of the church and its ministers.

I recently interviewed Eric about the misunderstandings that ministers and church members have of each other and what advice Eric has on how each group can better understand each other, for the purpose of working more synergistically.

My questions are in bold, followed by his responses:

Now that you’ve stepped away from full-time local church leadership, has your perspective changed regarding church leadership?

In some sense, my perspective has changed because I interact more regularly with local expressions of the body of Christ in more locations than I did while serving exclusively in one church. Through that lens, I see more and more how each church is unique because the local communities are unique and diverse. At the same time, I also have more firmly realized that many issues are not unique at all. For example:

  • People need the gospel preached to their hearts continually.
  • Churches must develop their leaders or the body won’t be as mature as she should be.
  • Healthy leaders lead healthy churches.
  • Churches must move people to participate with one another in community, not just merely attend and associate with one another.

So I have a sense that churches are unique in some ways and a stronger view that many important aspects of church life are not unique at all.

How are ministers often misread or misrepresented by members within the church?

I don’t think it is possible to know fully the burden that ministers carry—a blessed burden, but a burden nonetheless—unless you have served as a minister. Because of that, I think some church members at every church will saddle the ministers with expectations that are completely unrealistic and unhealthy.

What do church ministers most often misread or misunderstand about church members?

As I interact with people who don’t see me as “a pastor at that church,” I realize more and more how little the average person who attends church thinks about church throughout the week.

The implication for me in this observation is that church leaders are wise to give simple and clear direction about what the church is about and where the church is headed. Over-communicate the important things. People are bombarded with a plethora of messages, so give clarity of mission and clarity of direction.

What advice would you give ministers to help them better understand the average person in the church?

Smell like sheep. Be among people.


What are the biggest needs of church ministry leaders?

Training is going to be a continually increasing need for church leaders, for at least two reasons:

(1) Churches are more frequently hiring from within the church. They are hiring people who have not served in full-time ministry before and have not received formal ministerial education. These churches will need to develop leadership development pathways for the new staff members they bring on the team.

(2) Ministry is becoming more and more specific in terms of the needs that people in the congregations face, and many ministers have no specific training around the new challenges facing churches today.

Healthy churches will not only have trained ministers, but they will have trained ministers who excel in training all of God’s people for ministry (Ephesians 4:11-13).

I am grateful for Eric’s time and wisdom, and if by chance you don’t know about Eric, his books, read his blog or follow him by Twitter, I highly recommend that you do–you won’t be disappointed.


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