Being small does not mean that something is broken. But if something is broken, you can’t fix it by making it bigger.
Those principles were reinforced for me recently in a surprisingly unlikely place. Reality TV.
On their TV shows, Kitchen Nightmares and Restaurant: Impossible, Gordon Ramsay and Robert Irvine attempt to turn struggling restaurants around. The principles they use are time-tested and valid, even if the theatrics are staged (allegedly). But I’ve noticed one thing missing from every episode:
They never tell a struggling restaurant owner that the restaurant needs to be bigger.
Instead, they apply a set of principles to help small, struggling restaurants become small, successful restaurants. These restaurant experts have figured out something that church leaders often forget.
Bigger fixes nothing.
When healthy small churches grow, they become healthy big churches. When unhealthy small churches grow, they become unhealthy big churches. So instead of telling struggling churches to get bigger, let’s help them become healthy.
If those churches grow as a result of their health, that’s great! If not? At least they’ll be healthy.
If your church is small and struggling, these principles might be your lifeline. If your church is small and healthy, they can strengthen what you’re already doing.
1. Simplify the Menu
IN A RESTAURANT, THIS MEANS: Stop trying to emulate the vast menu choices of the big restaurants. Small restaurants can’t keep that many ingredients in stock, so the quality suffers. It’s better to have fewer choices on a smaller menu, suited to the strengths of the chef. The costs go down, the items are always available, and the quality goes up.
Less is more.
IN A CHURCH, THIS MEANS: Stop trying to emulate the menu of ministries offered by big churches. It’s better to have fewer choices, suited to the gifts of the pastor and volunteers, meeting specific, current needs of the church members and the surrounding community.
The budget drops, the ministries you keep are better, and everyone’s church experience is more positive.
Less is more.
2. Cook Fresh and Local
RESTAURANT: Stop re-heating frozen food in the microwave. People eat at restaurants to get an experience they can’t get at home. If your restaurant is on the coast, buy fresh fish. In dairy country? Feature local cheeses.
CHURCH: Stop preaching downloaded sermons from other preachers. If you found it online, so can the congregation. People want to hear your take on God’s Word, not a re-heated sermon from someone else.
There’s only one way to do that. Spend time in God’s Word. Hear what God is saying to your heart, not just for a sermon, but for you.
Keep it local – what's God saying to those of us right here?
Keep it fresh – what’s God saying to you right now?
3. Ask for Help
RESTAURANT: Before any episode can begin, someone at a struggling restaurant has to get tired of failure and send an email. That off-the-air cry for help may be the hardest step of all. But no one succeeds without it.
CHURCH: Jesus said “the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” But pastors can be among the most stubborn, prideful people on the planet.
Pastors have to stop trying to do everything alone, and ask for help. Then keep asking until help arrives. One request is never enough.
Then (here’s the key) be humble and listen to their advice. Especially the advice you like the least. That's usually what we need to hear the most.
4. Work Smarter, Not Harder
RESTAURANT: Laziness is seldom the problem at a failing restaurant. Here are a few ways Ramsay and Irvine help failing restaurants work smarter:
- Delegate and Verify – Find good people, train them well, and follow up on them.
- Manage Your Money – Know what you’re paying for food, staffing, utilities, and so on.
- Greet the Guests – It’s easier to keep current customers happy than to find new ones.
CHURCH: There may be no harder-working person than the small church pastor. But most of us don’t work as smart as we need to. Partly because no one has told us what it means to work smarter in a small church.
- Delegate and Verify – Most churches have good people who want to help, but they don’t step up because they haven’t been trained. We need to train them, follow up on them, then learn from the follow-up to tweak future training.
- Manage Your Money – Know what you’re paying for everything. Put accounting principles and accountability standards in place. You can’t afford not to. It’s basic stewardship.
- Greet the Guests – There’s a lot of work to do in a small church, and not enough time for any of it. But don’t neglect the people. In a small church, they expect their pastor to be a hands-on caregiver. If that personal touch goes missing, they will, too.
5. Clean and Repair
RESTAURANT: Filthy kitchens, rotting food, thread-bare carpets, cockroaches, rats and decades-old décor are the norm for failing restaurants. The excuses are always the same. We don’t have the time or money to keep things up.
And the answer is always the same. How much money does soap cost? How much time does clean-up take if you do it regularly?
CHURCH: Even most dying churches don’t have filthy facilities. If yours are, take care of it immediately. But for old, dying churches, the biggest facility issue isn’t usually dirt, it’s clutter and décor.
I’m no style maven, but when you drive by many dying churches, you can tell immediately what era it was built in ... and that it hasn’t been updated since.
Walk in the building and suspicions get confirmed. Worn-out pews from the ‘70s sit on purple carpet from the ‘80s, surrounded by mauve curtains and foil wallpaper from the ‘90s, accented by fake plants from the turn of the millennium.
These are not quick fixes. I know. My church had a red brick façade from the ‘80s until just four years ago. One of the very big differences between your church and a TV show is that no one is going to show up with thousands of dollars to renovate everything overnight.
But if you own a building, start with what you can do for free or cheap. Clean and de-clutter. Pull weeds, scrub the floors, toss the fake flowers and pastel artwork. Remove curtains to let the light in. Strip the wallpaper and paint the walls. Once you start, you might be surprised at the talent, time, and money people will be willing to invest in it.
6. Do What No One Else Is Doing
RESTAURANT: Don’t be the 75th pizza place in a two-mile radius. Be the only gourmet burger café. Then offer those burgers with unique style and great customer service. Not everyone will like them, but those who love them will tell their friends.
CHURCH: Do you know what makes your church unique? Do you know what makes the other churches in your neighborhood unique? Until you know those two facts, it’s possible everyone is duplicating each other. No, we’re not competitors, but we shouldn’t be duplicators, either.
Look around your neighborhood. What do people need that no one is providing? Look at your church. What do you do well? Now match those up.
It may take some time to figure it out. It took about seven years to start getting a handle on it at my church. But it’s time well spent.
7. Rediscover Your Passion
RESTAURANT: The best restaurant owners aren’t the ones who fall in love with a restaurant location, or who have dreams of being their own boss. They’re the ones who love to cook. Who have to cook. The ones who find great joy in making people happy by feeding them delicious food.
One reason restaurants fail is when owners either obsess over, or ignore the maintenance issues. When that happens, the central focus is taken away from cooking epic food for grateful customers.
CHURCH: Great pastors don’t obsess over their building (or lack of a building), their title or their status.
Great pastors love Jesus and love people. Never sacrifice that for anything less.
If you’ve been overtaken by maintenance issues after either obsessing over them or ignoring them, there’s one thing you need to do above all else.
Fall in love with Jesus and his people again.
If you’re having a tough time re-kindling that first love, remember what it was like when you started in ministry. How much you loved Jesus and his people. Then start doing that again.
Don’t wait for the feelings. Feelings follow actions.
A church with a pastor who loves Jesus and loves people is a place others want to be part of. And it just might make you fall in love with being a pastor again.
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