Jim Powell began his ministry leading a church of 50 people, which isn't bad if you consider the fact that the town only had a population of 100. Today Powell pastors Richwoods Christian Church, a multisite congregation in Peoria, Illinois. But he's never lost his passion for small churches. Powell founded the 95 Network, which aims to equip the 95 percent of churches in the United States with fewer than 800 members. Recently, Powell stopped by the offices of Leadership Journal. Over deep dish pizza we talked about his desire to equip small church pastors and why he believes healthy doesn't always mean bigger.
It's a little odd to see someone who's leading a large church, champion small churches. What's behind that passion?
It comes from my background of leading a small church and then coming to a church of 65 people. I spent six-and-a-half hard years before breaking the 300-person barrier. I wouldn't go back and do that again unless God spoke to me in an audible voice. It's much easier to take a church from 500 to 1,500 than it is to take a church from 65 to 400. And because I'm not an outlier and I didn't blow through it in one year, there's a greater sense of compassion and burden for those churches. The struggle that I have, though, is that as our church has grown, I find I'm losing my voice in some ways to small churches. But the people you pour into know your heart. They continue to listen and are seeing good things happen.
What are some metrics of health for a church, beyond numerical growth?
When I talk to pastors, I ask, "Do you know what you're called to do?" If you can define your calling and you have wrestled with the Lord—not just come up with a vision statement that you got after reading a book—and feel this is really what God's called your church to do, then you have a standard by which to determine true success. You can then measure yourself against what God's calling your church to do.
Must small churches pick one thing and focus on doing it well?
I think one of the strengths of small churches is that they are flexible. Sometimes a smaller church allows you to wear many hats and try different things. So I don't think it has to be one thing. But again, it goes back to the leadership having a clear sense of calling. My biggest frustration with small churches is that many haven't really taken the time to wrestle with the Lord and ask, "What is God calling our church to be? What is our voice in this world?" Once you have that direction, you don't have to justify yourself.
Is growth a good goal?
I don't think it's wrong to desire to see growth, but the goal should be health. If God's called your church to be 150 people, there's nothing wrong with that. Just be the healthiest church you can be. Setting numeric goals can be dangerous. If we're not careful, we can be driven to merely reach our numbers. Numeric goals can limit what God wants to do. We think we've made it just because we reach our goals. Scripture is pretty clear that God is the one who gives the growth. Our focus should be on faithfulness and obedience to our calling, and let God take care of what he does through that.
As you've worked with pastors in the 95 percent, what is the relational cost they have to pay to encourage a church to grow spiritually and numerically?
The relational cost is high, because in a small church you're more of one body. The people have a much closer relationship with the pastor. So when there is discontent, frustrations, problems, it's much more personal.
Many pastors of smaller churches also suffer from a sense of isolation. They have small staffs, or no staff, so it's easy to feel alone. It's hard to have courage when you feel like you're alone.
Just because you have that one person in your board meeting who's trying to stop you, that doesn't mean you're wrong. You need people around you who will say, "You're not alone. You're not crazy. This may work or may fail, but if this is where God's leading you, you need to take action."
Copyright © 2013 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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