Podcast Episode 001, 39 min
Can A Small Church Be An Effective Church? (Podcast Transcript) EP 001

Yes, small churches can be strong, healthy and effective. In this opening episode, Karl Vaters looks at the three main issues that must be in place in order for that to happen.

1. Realize you can be effective

2. Discover how small churches function differently from big churches

3. Understand and use the unique DNA of your small church for God’s glory

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Ep 001: Podcast Transcript

Pastoring a small church is a specialty. And it's worth doing well.

Hi, I'm Karl, and I'm a small church pastor and welcome to the first full episode of Can This Work In A Small Church? our brand new podcast where we're going to be looking at church leadership issues from a small church perspective. It's not necessarily going to be all about small churches, but it will all be coming from a small church perspective because well, small churches just do ministry, in some ways, very differently than our big church friends.

And yes, big churches are our friends, but they're just simply different. We look at things in different ways and we're going to be exploring that over these episodes together. Some of the episodes we'll have guests, some of them like this one today will be me talking about issues that affect small church leadership and trying to figure out how to do things from a small church context. So let's begin today by telling you a little bit about me and where this podcast is coming from. If you've never heard of me before, and you're wondering—who is this guy and why does he think he has anything to say about small churches?—let's walk through that together.

Today's question is going to be this: can a small church be an effective church?

I'm going to tell you the answer right up front: yes. The answer is yes, small churches can be strong. They can be healthy. They can be effective. They can be mission-minded.

And in this session, we're going to take a look at the three issues that you need to understand to be able to do that. And they are this. First of all, you need to realize that you can be effective even as a small church. Nothing can be effective if you don't think you can be effective. Secondly, we need to discover how small churches function differently, big churches. That's going to be a major focus of this entire podcast series, let alone this episode. And then thirdly, we need to understand and use the unique DNA of every small church for God's glory. So those are the three things we'll be looking at today to answer the question, "can a small church be an effective church?"

So first of all, I introduced this by saying, “hi, I'm Karl, and I'm a small church pastor”, which is how I'm going to introduce every episode. This is also the title of the first chapter of my first book, The Grasshopper Myth. So why do I introduce myself that way? Let's talk about it a little bit and let's start by telling you my story.

My name is Karl Vaters. I'm actually a third generation pastor and I've been in ministry for over 40 years. For the first few years I was an associate pastor at a couple of churches, and then I was the lead pastor at three different churches. And I had three very, very different experiences. So almost any experience that you've had in a small church, I've probably got something pretty close to parallel.

Let me walk you through the three of them. First church that my wife and I pastored was a tiny little chapel in the redwoods on the coast of California. All of my ministry years have been in California. So if you live outside California, you're just going to have to forgive me for that because well Jesus says you have to, that's just the way it is.

So, I was on the coast of California and we were in the middle of the redwoods. In fact, the church itself was called Redwood Christian Center. Our little church was so deep into the thick redwoods, that if you drove into our church parking lot at noon on a sunny California day, your automatic headlights would go on.There were parts of the church that never saw sun, because it was so deep into the woods. We had a wonderful four years there.

We were able to bring health and a mission-mindedness to the church, but we were having young kids at the time and it came to the point where we realized the amount of time we would need to put into this church to move it forward was more than we could afford to take away from our small but growing family. So we felt like the Lord was calling us from there. So it was a wonderful time, but it was a short period of time. And it was a time of building.

We then went to another congregation still in the San Francisco Bay Area of California. And there we had what I have to count as the longest 20 months of our ministry. It was a real challenge. In less than two years, we felt like we got beaten up in a whole lot of ways. Some of it was because it was a challenging church with difficulties. They had already had a church split or two. Some of it was because I was naive and young and didn't really understand things and made a whole bunch of mistakes.

But the bottom line was that at the end of 20 months, not only were we ready to leave the church, but I was almost ready to leave ministry. Really, really close. And it was like, okay, Lord, I'm going to give this one last shot. And if it doesn't work this last time, you're going to have to show me something else to do with my life.

At that point, we found a small church in Southern California in Orange County. And we went there and that church had actually been through five pastors in the previous 10 years before I'd been there. So as I told them when I came, you really haven't had a pastor in a decade. You've had a series of extended guest speakers.

So, they were a hurting church. I was a hurting pastor. We were a hurting family and it should not have worked. Everything about that was wrong. Everybody was hurting. Everybody was bruised and damaged. And usually, you know, like the saying goes “hurt people hurt people.” But somehow this hurting church and this hurting pastor and family were able to just hug each other.

And for the first six or seven years, we just did that. We came to a small church that on a big Sunday had about 30 people. There were some Sundays where we only had a dozen or so. Back then we did Sunday night services and there were Sunday night service services when there were just two or three of us in the room.

It was sad and it was difficult and it was challenging, but they were ready for change. They were ready to do anything they needed to do to bring health and rejuvenation to that church again. And so the Lord worked with them and with us and at about the six or seven year point we were running about 75 people there, just so you have a numerical marker. But more importantly than that, our church was healthy. In fact, I can very clearly remember, one day after having spent a work day at the church, I went out and I sat in my car. And as I sat in my car, I was looking out the windshield at the church building and all of a sudden it hit me: I'm looking at a healthy church.

And because I was looking at the church through the windshield of my car, over the hood of my car, all of a sudden this metaphor hit me. I thought, man, I feel like I've been under the hood of this church for seven years now and trying to get the thing running. And now the thing is running and now it's healthy. And now I'm sitting in the driver's seat. I'm the pastor of the church. I'm sitting in the driver's seat of this church. And I don't know where to take it. What do you do with a healthy church? I didn't know how to pastor a healthy church. I hadn't pastored a healthy church in a decade and they hadn't been a healthy church in two decades.

So I actually went to the church leadership and I told them this scenario. Here we are. We're healthy. We're good now. And they looked around and went, oh yeah, you're right. How did that happen?

And so I asked them, what do we do then with a healthy church? And together we realized what we have to do now is we have to move from being a healthy church to becoming a healthful church.

The difference between healthy and healthful is something that I talk about in my first book, The Grasshopper Myth. It’s this: a healthy thing is healthy unto itself. A healthful thing is healthy to others. As an example, there are healthy mushrooms that are fully everything that mushroom ought to be, but they're not healthful to me. They're actually poisonous to me.

So, we need to be healthy. That is, the church itself needs to be strong and what we need to be, but then we also need to bring health to the community around us. And so we realized, you know what, let's do that. Let's now start reaching out. We hadn't been doing it for six or seven years because we weren't healthy. You couldn't invite people into a hospital that has an infection running through it and that's kind of where we were. But the Lord helped us through worship and through fellowship and through discipleship to become a church that could now bring health to the community. So we started doing that and over the next seven or eight years the Lord helped us to become healthy as well as healthful to the community around us.

At about the 15 year point, we were running about 200 people. So of course that's when all the church growth conferences started calling me up and going, hey, we want you to come and teach us how you grew a church from 30 to 200 in just 15 years. Yeah, if you think I got those calls, no. That growth was taking too long.

Here's the deal. I'm going to establish this right upfront. If you're coming to this podcast for quick answers to questions, you are in the wrong place. Hard questions and hard challenges usually take a long time to find healing. I tend to do things with a slow, steady pace, rather than quick, fast answers. This is going to be about principles and not about promises.

Nevertheless, we were at a large size. We were at about 200 then, and we have a very, very small building. At 200 people, we were filling the place twice and we were overfilling our parking lot both times. And so I looked around and I found a venue. I actually found one of the local junior high schools. And on Sunday mornings we rented their cafe-gymna-tora-librarium, that’s just that all-purpose room that just about every junior high or middle school in America seems to have. And every Sunday a faithful group of people moved everything over. All of our audio equipment, all of our stuff, and we had church there. And in the next two years we grew from 200 to almost 400 on a Sunday morning because we had a bigger facility. It was really something that season. We thought we were going to continue to grow bigger. Then all of a sudden it kind of stalled out for a few months. We held at 400 and then it started going in reverse.

And I didn't know why. I can tell you this. In two years we grew from 200 to 400, then in less than a year we shrunk down to . . . actually I can't tell you how small we shrunk down to. Because it's fun to count when you're growing! But when you're shrinking that fast, you don’t want to know the numbers. I didn't want to know. I told them I don't want to look at the numbers anymore, but I can tell you this. We were under 100. There were some Sundays when we were under 50, yet less than a year before that we'd been at 400 and there'd been no scandal. And there had been no split.

And my head was really spinning, I didn't know what had gone on. And my whole being was just screaming. What have I done wrong? The good news was we fit back in our tiny little church building again. We've been there ever since. So the question at that point was what's going on? What have I done wrong? How do I fix this? And at that point I actually went to counseling.

I found a local counselor who had been a pastor for 20 years. So he could talk shorthand to me. We didn't have to explain a lot of things to each other. And I sat down with him and after a couple sessions, just kind of unloading my heart to him. I looked at him and said, “what am I supposed to do here?”

And he said, “Karl, you've got to figure out how to redefine success in ministry.”

That'll probably be the topic of an upcoming podcast: how do we redefine success in ministry? When he first said that to me, I thought “You're telling me that I'm trying to jump a 10-foot bar, but I can only jump an 8-foot bar. So lower the bar to eight feet, jump over that, and call it success.” I said, “that's not success. That's cheating.” And he says, “that's not what I'm talking about.”

And then he said a phrase that changed my life. He said, “you have to figure out how to define success in ministry without numbers attached to it.”

And I had no idea what that meant. I told him so, and he said, “yeah, I don't know what that means either, but we have to figure it out together.”

So I had to figure out in a very difficult season of ministry, how a small church could become an effective church. And so that's what we're going to be talking about today.

Now, before we jump into the three points that I mentioned earlier, I have one more thing we need to clarify, especially for those of you who may be listening for the first time, or if you've been listening for a while and decided what's the premise of this podcast? Let's go back to the first episode.

If so, welcome back to the first episode of the podcast. It probably sounds different than what you're used to listening to. Hopefully it gets better over time as we do this more. But if you are wondering what this podcast is about, one of the questions is going to be well, how do you define “small church?”

Small, obviously, is a subjective term. Well, here's how I define a small church. There are two very distinct types of small churches. There's the church of 50 give or take 50 and there's the church of 150 give or take 50. If you're at a church of 20 and you just heard me say that a church of 50 give or take 50 is also considered small, which means that a church of 200 is considered small you may have just rolled your eyes and gone, then this guy has no idea my context. Hang in there. Listen for a little bit. It'll get better.

Here's the deal. There are very, very big differences between the church of 50 give or take 50 and the church of 150 give or take 50. I know that. I've pastored both for extended periods of time. Very big differences. But the reason they are all still considered small is that pastoring a church of 20 and pastoring a church of 200 have more similarities than pastoring a church of 200 has with pastoring a church of 500.

There's a thing that happens at about 200, they call it “the 200 barrier,” not a term I like typically because it implies that something's wrong under 200 and there's nothing wrong under 200. But nevertheless at about 200 things really change for the simple reason that at 200 or so, nobody, no matter how good you are at names and no matter how thorough you are, nobody can pastor everybody personally, at that point. You can't even know everybody's names at that point.

So you have to shift the way you pastor. You simply have to. So if that's the case, then we have to look at it and go, okay, so there are more similarities between a church of 200 and a church of 20 in the way they're pastored than there are once you get past 200 again. Again, there are very big distinctions between a church of 50 give or take 50 and a church of 150, give or take 50. I know that, but as we go through this podcast and then all of my speaking and writing for this ministry, I try to do whatever I can to acknowledge the universality, the things that are similar between those two types of small churches, rather than talking about the things that are different. Although at times we will make those distinctions because they are very distinct. Whether you're in a church of 20 or 200, a church of 50 give or take 50 as we like to put it or a church of 150, give or take 50, this podcast is for you.

So let's get back to the question that we asked at the beginning and we'll go through the answers together. Can a small church be an effective church? Yes. First of all, number one, you have to realize that your small church can be an effective church. It is impossible to have an effective church if you don't know that your church can be effective.

This was the problem that I had for the first few years of pastoring. I came up just as the church growth movement was becoming the main way that pastors were taught. And everything about the church growth movement was no matter what size you are, you not only can be bigger, but the feeling was, you must be bigger. You're supposed to get bigger. And not only that, but if you don't get bigger, there must be something wrong with you.

So, if you have to get bigger then the implication is, if you're smaller, you can't be as effective as you are when you're bigger. And the smaller you are, the less effective you are. And at some point you must be small enough that you can't be effective.

That was what I labored under for years. Every conference, every book, every teaching that I got about church leadership for a couple decades told me here's how your church gets bigger and getting bigger is proof that your church is being effective and being obedient to the call of Jesus, quite frankly.

And so I thought, well, that must mean that there's something wrong with me. My church, if it’s small and if something's wrong, then obviously it must be that it has to get bigger. A small church cannot be an effective church. That is simply untrue.

That's why the title of my first book was called The Grasshopper Myth. It comes from the book of Numbers, chapter 13. The 12 spies go into the land and ten of them come back with the report. “There are giants in the land. And we seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes. And we looked the same to them.”

I saw a grasshopper in my mirror as a pastor for decades. There were giants in my land. I live in Orange County, California with giant megachurches all around me. And I felt like a grasshopper. Not because they made me feel like a grasshopper, but because I felt like a grasshopper in my own eyes.

First of all, I didn't think my small church could be effective. That was the message I got from the church growth principles. Most of which is my fault by mishearing it, some of which I also believe is implied in the message that they bring. And that's part of the, you know, some of the controversy we'll probably tackle as in upcoming episodes as well. So I had to get to the point where I realized I had to redefine success in ministry. And I had to realize that my small church, at whatever size it is, can be an effective church. And that's something we all have to come to grips with whatever size your church is right now.

Here's the deal. Jesus did not wake up this morning depressed by the size of your church. You may have, but he did not.

Now, for all my theologically precise friends, I get it. Jesus has not had to wake up in the 2000 years since he ascended into heaven, it's a figure of speech. Get used to it. I'll use a lot of them here.

But Jesus is not upset by the size of your church. He knows exactly how big or how small it is. He knows every person you have. He knows every dollar you've got. He knows about every square footage of your facility or your complete lack of facility. And that does not change his mission to any one of us that we are supposed to fulfill The Great Commandment and The Great Commission. Your church can be an effective church at fulfilling The Great Commandment and The Great Commission at two people, just as much as a church can be at 200 or at 2000 or at 20,000.

Your small church can be an effective church. That is an absolute, basic premise that everything in this ministry is about from this podcast to the books I write to the articles that I write to the conferences that I speak at. Your small church can be effective. Don't you ever let anybody lie to you and tell you that it can't be including the person looking at you in your mirror.

Your church can be an effective church, no matter what size it is.

Now here's something that's also happening in recent years that I think is also very encouraging. We have new generations now that are not looking for the big things that previous generations, particularly in my generation, the boomer generation, looked for. The boomer generation wanted everything bigger. But the millennials and gen Z and others coming after us—sorry, gen X, I didn't mean to skip you guys over—but the new generations that are coming up, they are not looking for size. They're not looking for quantity. They're looking for quality. So people will come to small churches, but they won't give up quality to do so.

Now that sounds like a difficult sentence for a lot of small churches. People will come into small churches? Yay! But they won't give up quality to do so? Oh no! That leaves me in trouble! No, that does not leave your church in trouble because here's another truth. Quality looks different in a small church than in a big church.

The quality of a big church is obvious to the eye. The size of it makes it obvious to the eye, right? So they've got a parking lot with attendants and they've got maybe little golf carts bringing you into the main sanctuary if you're in a super mega church. And, you know, age divided Sunday school classrooms and departments and maybe the band on stage is singing songs that they wrote and are on their latest album.

Right? All of these marks of quality are very visible to the eye. When you walk into the average small church, the marks of quality may not be as visible to the naked eye, but they're still there. And here's why. Because they're a different type of quality, not a different level, not a lower level, but quality simply looks different in a small church than in a big church.

So, how? What does quality look like in a small church? And how is it different from the quality that's more visible to the eye in a big church? Well, that gets us to point number two.

Point number one, realize your small church can be an effective church. Secondly, discover how small churches function differently from big churches. This is, again, a huge principle behind all the ministry that I do. And especially behind this particular podcast, we have to discover how small churches function differently from a big church. That's why the title of this podcast is Can This Work In A Small Church?

Because we look at things happening in a big church and we think, well, that's how it works in a big church. I don't have multiple departments. I don't have multiple staff members. I don't even have full-time pay for myself as the lead pastor. We don't even own a building.

Right? You've got all those issues. So we hear things from a big church perspective about how to do things and we go, I don't even know if I can do that in a small church. And there will be some things that we need to ask the question and go, how can it work in a small church? And if so, how do we do that? In order to do that, we have to do point number two. We have to discover how small churches function differently from big churches.

This first became really evident to me in a moment not long after I had come out of that counseling period that I talked to you about where I was really feeling down. And I was beginning to get healthy again and beginning to recognize, yes, we can redefine success in ministry and yes, a small church can be a healthy church. And I was sitting with some of our volunteers one day and we were talking through where we were going to go next as a church. And I started talking about getting the numbers up again. And I stopped myself in the middle of it and I thought, okay, that's it. And I looked at everybody in the room and I went, “we’ve got to stop thinking like a big church.”

And there was this look of, like, stunned on everybody's faces, including from me. I was like, oh, that came out of my mouth because you know, the mantra of the church growth movement for several years was “if you want to be a big church, you have to think like a big church.” And so that was what everybody was trying to do. You're a small church? Think like a big church.

And so I said to the group, to our church leaders, “we've got to stop thinking like a big church.” And then I said, “and here's why, because we're not one. Why are we thinking like a big church when we're a small church? Instead of thinking like a big church, we need to think like a healthy, small church because that's what we are. And what does that look like? What does it mean to be a healthy small church? What does that look like? And how is that different from being a healthy big church?”

And we had to figure that out because I couldn't find it anywhere where that was written down or where people were teaching about that. So we had to figure it out for ourselves and I'm continuing to figure that out. And as I figure it out, I pass it along to you.

So what does a healthy, small church look like? That's what we want to look like. In order to understand that, we need to understand a couple of principles. First of all, we do need to understand that many big church principles simply don't translate well into a small church context. There's an overlap. And when I do this visually, I put together a Venn diagram, two circles on the left. You've got the big church circle on the left and on the right, you've got the small church circle and there's an overlap. And the bigger a church is the more there is an overlap and the smaller church is the less overlap there is in that Venn diagram.

It's pretty simple. There's always an overlap because there are always things that churches of any size have in common. That's what, that's what makes us church. Right? But when you're smaller, you have less overlap with our big church brothers and sisters and friends. And so there's less we can learn from them.

And the challenge was that for a whole lot of years, I didn't know that there was this small overlap and that there were these distinctions between the two. And if I had known it, I wouldn't have known how to filter the difference between the two. And that's a big part of what we'll be going over in this podcast as well.

How do we filter even the things that we hear from a big church context into our small church context, so we can continue to learn, even from our big church friends just as, hopefully, they’ll be able to learn from us as well?

Many big church principles simply don't translate well into a small church context. And one of the primary reasons for that is this. And here's a big principle that I'm probably going to come back to regularly on this podcast. It's something that's called the law of large numbers. The law of large numbers is a sociological phenomenon that states that the bigger the crowd is, the more predictably it behaves.

This is how every polling company, for instance, works. Anytime a polling company goes out and surveys a group of people, if they do it correctly, if they ask the right questions of the right demographic mix, then they have to have a third ingredient. They have to have a minimum sample size in order for the survey to be valid.

Once you've got a minimum sample size, that is, a large enough crowd of people, then all you have to do is add zeros because the bigger the crowd is the more predictably they behave. So if you survey, you know, 10,000 people, then you can just add a couple zeros and it'll be the same for a hundred thousand or the same for a million if you've asked the right questions of the right demographic mix. You can do that if you survey 10,000 people. It doesn't work if you only serve 50 people. The small group skews the numbers too much.

So it's the same way with big churches. Big churches can share principles with each other. And it works virtually universally across big churches because their systems, their programs and the things they put in place have to function in similar ways once you hit certain sizes. But in small churches, you can walk into any small church in America or around the world and you don't know what kind of thing you're going to get when you walk into it. So there are a lot of big church principles that, while they transfer back and forth between big churches, they don't necessarily transfer into a small church context.

And we need to be aware of that because I made the mistake for a lot of years of going to big church conferences and hearing what they said and trying to take all of it home and trying to Institute all of it in my smaller congregation. And most of it didn't work because my size was just so different from theirs and the context didn't translate over.

It's not that what they're teaching in big church conferences is wrong. It's simply in a different circle than I live in. It’s a different context. And a big part of that, again, is because they have a big crowd. And so, if one church of a thousand figures something out and they tell another pastor of a church of a thousand, it's likely to work in that church of a thousand. And then a church of 50 tries it and it doesn't work and they think, oh, there must be something wrong with the way you did it in your church of 50. No, probably not. It probably simply doesn't translate well to the smaller context because we're not above that minimum sample size.

Okay? So, there is a difference in the way big churches function to the way small churches function. We need to understand that there is a difference and here's one of the big differences. I'm actually going to do it in a three-part statement here.

First of all, big churches tend to prioritize processes and systems and programs. I talk about this in my book, Small Church Essentials if you want more information on that. Big churches prioritize process systems and programs. I am not saying that that's what's important to big churches. That's now what I'm saying. What I'm saying is because of their size, they need to give a higher priority to processes and systems and programs. Because if you're trying to manage the flow of thousands of people on a Sunday, and you don't have great processes and systems and programs in place, it will all fall to pieces.

On the other side of it, small churches tend to prioritize relationships, culture, and history. Relationships, culture, and history. Now, again, that doesn't mean that process, systems ,and programs aren't important in small churches. They are, but they aren't as important and they don't take as much of our time in leadership as relationships, culture, and history.

Now relationships and culture and history also matter in big churches, but they aren't as high a priority as they're in small churches.

Let me walk you through why, first of all, small churches prioritize relationships. When I ask people who attend small churches why they attend small churches, the number one answer is always relational. One, “the pastor knows my name.” Two, “if I'm gone, they miss me.” It's all relational.

In fact, when I have small church pastors who ask me “what kind of curriculum do you recommend for discipleship?” My answer is always the same: “Whatever works for you.”

Now, how can I be so nonchalant about an important answer to such an important question? Well, it's simply this: in a smaller congregation, discipleship is not about curriculum. Discipleship is about relationship. It should be done through mentoring. Curriculum can help to supplement the mentoring, but it's going to be relational. And in a small church, the pastor can often be a part of the relational aspect of discipleship. Whereas in a big church, they have to create mentoring relationships in small groups. And the pastor is often disconnected from most of the mentoring discipleship that's happening.

That's not bad. As long as mentoring discipleship is happening, it doesn't have to be done by the lead pastor in a healthy church. But if the lead pastor has a call to be hands-on in the mentoring, then a small church environment is where that's going to happen because of the relationships. So relationships are a key in small churches.

Secondly, culture is a key in small churches. There's been a lot of conversation in the last few years about culture in church leadership and understandably so. It's really important. In fact, it goes back to a saying that's been, I think, attributed to Peter Drucker, but I can't find where he actually said it. It's one of those sayings that who knows where it came from really, but the saying is this: culture eats strategy for breakfast. And what that means is: no matter how good your strategy is, no matter how good your vision statement is, no matter how big your mission is, if you try to do it in a bad culture, it will not work.

So what do we mean by culture? We don't mean, well, one church is formal and others are informal. One church is traditional and other churches are contemporary. Those are styles. Those are surface. We're talking beneath the surface. Culture is this: culture is the unstated rules that govern everything a church does.

So whenever a church member says something like, well, that's just the way we do it here. That's a statement of culture. Anytime a church member goes, oh, that won't work in our church, that's a statement of culture. It's the unwritten set of rules that governs everything a church does. Now, what you're hearing about culture from the big church standpoint is this: that in a church, the pastor and the leaders should set the culture. And they are right in a big church context.

That's not how it works in a small church context. I'm going to give you a quick overview of how it works in the small church context, and we'll go deeper into this in a future podcast. In a small church context, here's how culture works. The smaller your church is, the more this is applicable. The older your church is the more, this is applicable and the younger or newer the pastor is in the church, the more this is applicable.

Here's how it works in a small church. One, you have to know the culture. You have to understand the culture of the church. Two, you have to show them that you appreciate the culture of the church, or at least show them the aspects of the culture that you appreciate. And only after you understand the culture and you show them what you appreciate about the culture, step three is this: then they will give you limited permission to participate with them in moving the culture forward. That's how it works in a smaller congregation. And again, the younger you are, or the new, where you are to the church, the older the church is, and the older, the demographic of the people in the church is, the more that is true.

Again, that's something we'll talk about more in a future podcast, but the culture really matters in a small church and the culture is changed differently in a small church than a big church. And then thirdly, history matters a lot in a small church. Small towns have long memories. And so do small churches, whether they're in small towns or big cities. History is different in a big church. In a big church, they're making history. Their history doesn't have nearly as much a hold on them. And it's not as big a factor in the decisions they make in bigger churches. But in a small church, your history is a big factor in how you make decisions.

There's a lot of people in small churches that look back and go, oh, we wish it was like the good old days, or whatever. The bottom line is, we ‘ve got to move it ahead to where people realize these are the good old days, but it can really be a challenge.

So if you are in a small church, you need to know, you need to understand, you need to appreciate the culture and the history, and you need to move into relationships. Again, we'll get into all of those in more detail in future podcasts, but that gives you a starting idea of some of the key differences between big churches and small churches.

So to recap where we are so far, we've already established that first of all, if you want your small church to be an effective church, you need to realize your small church can be an effective church. Secondly, we need to discover how small churches function differently from big churches. And then let's get to the third and final point.

And that's this: then you can understand and use the unique DNA of your small church for God's glory. We talked in the last point about the law of large numbers: that the larger the group is, the more predictably it behaves. There is a flip side to that. If the larger the group is the more predictably, it behaves, then the smaller the crowd is the more impact each person has.

And that impact can be both for good and for bad. Right? There are instances in a small congregation as I've talked to small church pastors, and they're like, I'm leaving this church. It’s just too hard. I can't do this anymore. The church is against me. My next question is always this: name the people.

Usually the answer is what are you talking about?

[I say], “Name the people who are actually problems in your church. I don't know the church. You're not gossiping because I don't know these people's names.”

And when they start naming them at about two or three people, the naming tends to stop. I've never had somebody named more than five, six, or seven people.

And obviously in a church of 20 or 30, if you've got five, six or seven, that's a huge majority. But if you're in a church of 50, and “the whole church is against you” and you can really only actually name three or four names, the whole church isn't against you. It's just simply that in a smaller congregation, a couple individuals can really change everything.

The smaller the crowd is the more impact each person has for good and for bad. So that's an example of the bad, right? You can show up on a Sunday and have one person completely derail your Sunday morning. You can have one person completely derail the unity of your church. You can have one person who is so difficult in your congregation that you feel like you want to leave ministry entirely from just one or two people.

That's the impact people have in a smaller church. So we have to deal with that differently. Now there are people like that in big churches, too. But it doesn't have the impact because it's really hard to impact a crowd of hundreds or thousands of people. But can you impact a crowd of 50 give or take 50? Yeah. One or two people can impact a lot.

Now the flip side of that and the positive of it is that's also the case for impacting things for the good. There are people who are in your church who could be going to the megachurch across town. And they're in your church. Why? Probably one of the reasons is—the main reason is going to be relational. It almost always is. But one of the other main reasons is probably going to be because they can have a better impact there and for positive reasons, right? They've got, uh, they've got a talent, they've got a skill, they've got a gifting. They've got a calling that simply doesn't work as well in a big church context, as it works in a small church context.

So we need to recognize what those gifts are, what those callings are, what those skills are, that they may be small church specific. And just because a skill, a gifting, or a calling is small church specific doesn't mean that that calling or that gifting or that skill is lesser. It's simply right for a small church context and not for a big church context.

We need to always remember the distinction there. All right. Well, we've got more, we'll be discussing in future podcasts, but for now, let me leave you with this thought.

Pastoring a small church is not a penalty for doing something wrong. For years, I kind of thought that it was if you'd actually said those words to me. Yeah, no, I don't actually think it's a penalty. And yet when you look at it, we, you know, they have to church isn't growing. How many pastors are asking, what are we doing wrong? Lord, what am I doing wrong? You may not be doing anything wrong. That may simply be the context where your ministry works best as pastoring.

A small church is not a penalty for doing something wrong. So what is it? A small church is a specialty. And it's worth doing well. That's what we'll be concentrating on in this podcast. As we move forward, we're going to talk about the specialty of pastoring and leading ministering and worshiping within a small church context.

And we're not going to try to get you out of the small church context to get your church to grow bigger. If that's your interest, there's a ton of podcasts and books and conferences out there to help grow your church to the next numerical level. That's great. I'm glad they're out there, but that's not what this is about.

This is about how do we lean into the specialty of leading, worshiping and ministering in a small church context? And how do we do it well?

Thanks for listening. I hope you come back for future podcasts.

This episode of Can This Work In A Small Church? was produced by Veronica Beaver and edited by Jack Wilkins. Original theme music was written and performed by Jack Wilkins. And a transcript is available at the Pivot Blog at https://www.christianitytoday.com/karl-vaters/. All of that information and more can be found in the show notes.

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June 16, 2021

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