Podcast Episode 33, 48 min
Leveraging the Strengths of Your Small Church, with Ron Klassen (Ep 33)
Ron Klassen talks about seeing the unique nature of the small church, not as a problem to be solved, but as a strength to leverage.

Ron Klassen: If there is a healthy relational dynamic between a pastor and his congregation, then his preaching is going to be more highly regarded.

Karl Vaters: Hi, I'm Karl Vaters, and I'm a small church pastor, and welcome to Can This Work in a Small Church. My guest this episode is Ron Klassen. He's with RHMA, the Rural Home Missionary Association. He's also the author of a new book, Maximize: Leveraging the Strengths of Your Small Church, which I received an advanced copy of, and I highly recommend to you.

In this conversation, Ron and I talk about seeing the unique nature of the small church not as a problem to be solved, but as a strength to exploit. If you are in a small church and especially if you're minister in a small town or rural area, this episode has a lot for you. Also, if you're a church leader who oversees pastors and churches in small towns, you'll get a lot from our conversation. And don't forget to stick around when the interview is done. I'll come back with an overview of the content, and an answer to the question: Can this work in a small church?

Welcome to Ron Klassen. Really appreciate you being with us today, Ron.

Ron Klassen: Thank you. Happy to be with you.

Karl Vaters: You are with RHMA, and what does RHMA stand for?

Ron Klassen: It stands for Rural Home Missionary Association. Quite a mouthful, so we usually just call ourselves RHMA.

Karl Vaters: What do you do there? What is RHMA all about?

Ron Klassen: I serve as the Executive Director. Our mission is to plant and strengthen churches in small towns.

Karl Vaters: Okay, great. So you are right in the sweet spot of what this ministry is all about. Small churches, small towns. That's really what we're all about. And I wanted to interview you because you sent me a copy of your book, Maximize: Leveraging the Strengths of your Small Church, and I read it and really, really enjoyed it and wanted people to know and hear about this. Is the book out or is it out due soon? What's the publishing date on that?

Ron Klassen: So it will be officially released in August, but we do have some pre-release copies that we can make available if people write to us here at RHMA.

Karl Vaters: Okay. We're recording this for our listeners in May. We put a whole bunch of episodes together in advance. So by the time this comes out, it may actually be available probably for pre-publication anyway, so look for that and we will put all the links in the show notes for either the pre-publication or the publication of it by the time you are hearing this. So let me start by asking you, what inspired you to write a book about small church ministry?

Ron Klassen: It's been quite a journey. I grew up in Phoenix. My background was big church, and following seminary I found myself as a solo pastor in a very small church. It was quite different. My knee jerk reaction, I think almost instinctive, was to try to fix our small church. I put that word fix in quotes.

Karl Vaters: Yeah, I could hear the quotes in your voice.

Ron Klassen: Yeah, exactly. So in my mind, fixing my small church was to make it as much like a big church as possible. If not in size, at least we would try to act like one. I think I did that in part because that's what I knew. But I also think that I was probably a bit prideful, had a biggest, better kind of mentality. And as time went along, actually didn't take a lot of time, I came to realize that no matter how hard I tried if our measurement standard was going to be doing things in a big church way, we were going to fall short by quite a bit. Fortunately, members of my congregation were patient with me, they were forgiving. They gently nudged me in a different direction, and I began to do things in a way that would better fit our small church context and culture. And then I would say at the same time, I've heard many pastors lament that they just couldn't do things as good as big churches, or they couldn't compete with big churches that perhaps might be down the road a ways. So some of them were down on their situations, they were kind of discouraged. And as I'd look at their situation and look what they were doing there, I thought, This is a good place, I really don't know that you need to be feeling this way. And I would say, as I continued to observe and interact with churches and pastors, I began to do some reading. I started to lead some seminars.

Then we came to a red letter day, I guess, in my life and ministry. It started when I was helping my daughter, my grade school age daughter at the time, with a homework project. It was in honor of Martin Luther King Day, and she was supposed to write a brief essay about something that she had a dream for. As she was doing that, I asked myself the question: What is my dream, what would I like to see happen. And I put together this answer to that question. Let me just read it to you. I said, I have a dream. I envision small churches all across the country that are not trying to imitate large churches, but study themselves and their communities, and then prayerfully design ministries uniquely suited for their size, place, and time. So that was probably more than 20 years ago. All together, it's been like a 40-year journey. A few years ago, I just thought I'd really like to put some of this journey into writing, and that's how the book came to be.

Karl Vaters: Wow, there's so many parallels in that story to mine, and I know to a whole lot of our listeners. From the whole idea of fixing the church that probably wasn't broken, it was just small, but we just assumed that small equaled broken, and that the solution was, treat it like a big church, which never works. It's like your feet are small, let's get them in some big shoes. And no, big shoes on small feet don't fit; let's get some shoes that fit the size of your feet. I love that. And that you came to this realization a long time before me, and have been doing this for such a long time. Really grateful for that.

So again, the title of your book is Maximize. The subtitle is Leveraging the Strengths of Your Small Church, which is really the topic we wanna be talking about in this podcast today. We want to leverage the strengths of our small church. Not act like the big church, not compete against the big church. We’'re together in this in the body of Christ, big and small together, but there are strengths of the small church. And I love the word leverage because it implies that we're going to have an impact that is larger than our size, because that's what leverage does. That's the whole idea of the lever in the fulcrum, is that by using that, you're going to have an impact bigger than your own weight.

Let's get into the book, cuz there's so much good stuff in it. Chapter four has an intriguing title for me: The Most Noteworthy Strength of the Healthy Small Church. So let's just jump right into it. What is that strength? What is the most noteworthy strength of the healthy small church?

Ron Klassen: So I think if you talk to small church people, inevitably they'll talk about how they just love being together as a church. And if you ask them more specifically what they like, they'll talk about their church being friendly, they'll talk about how they care for each other in their church. And if they talk about their pastor, inevitably, they may not mention first his preaching. That doesn't mean they don't appreciate his preaching, but they're probably more likely to talk about how their pastor mixes with people, how he was there for them in a difficult time, how he's friendly. And so I would say that the most noteworthy strength of a healthy small church is that it is personal and relational. And I think that's a bit of a contrast to bigger churches. Real often, if you talk to big church people, attenders, about what they like about their church, they might talk about their three different worship services, their recently completed building, a wide array of programs that they have for seniors and disabled. It's a bit of a difference in how big church and small church people view their situations.

I like to point people to the scriptures, and I think the scriptures have so much to say about relationships being key for us as believers. The two greatest commands are highly relational. Love God, love one another. There's a plethora of relational texts in the New Testament. The New Testament often compares relationships in the church with relationships that we have as families. I did a quick count,I think there's 231 times in the New Testament where church members are referred to as brothers and sisters in Christ, family. And that speaks so highly of relationships. And then I think most notable is the fact that God set the example from eternity past. He is three persons in perfect relationship with each other. He desired to dwell with his created people, and we see this going all the way back to Genesis where he wanted to dwell with Adam and Eve. And we see it continuing in the tabernacle and in the temple. That's what our Lord was known for. You track with Him through the gospels and you find that He is constantly with people, constantly relating to people. And as we think about small churches, it just seems so fitting that the relational strength is such a great thing, and it's something that we should maximize, I think, as small church attenders.

Karl Vaters: Yeah. In the church in general, obviously, relationships is what we're all about. Our entire mission is to help people come into relationship and then to deepen their relationship with Christ, and then also to come into and deepen our relationship with each other. Big churches know that and do it usually through the smaller groups. So they'll have the teaching and worship on Sunday, and then they'll have the fellowship times, but it has to be at a separate time during the week because you can't have the closeness and the intimacy when you're in the room with a thousand people. That's not a bag on the big church, that's just simply the nature of numbers and healthy, big churches know that, which is why they push small groups and ministry teams. I like to say in the small church we get one stop shopping. On a Sunday morning, you can get great teaching, great worship and the fellowship part of it as well. And that's a big reason a lot of people come to that. Because they also want to have a relationship, an actual, knowing first name basis, relationship with their pastor. That's not necessary for everybody. There's a lot of people in big churches that get pastored in their small groups. That's great. But I agree with you. I think that is, without question, the most noteworthy strength of the small church is that there is a relational aspect that includes the pastor within that relational aspect. Whereas in the bigger church, there is a necessary distance to the pastor simply because the capacity is limited to how many people they can know. So again, it's not a bag on them, but it's just simply the nature of it.

I did notice as you were going through it, you've got this word exploit with an exclamation point. You use it multiple times. So what does that mean in the context of the local church ministry? You use it a bunch so we probably can't go through the whole list of all the things we should exploit, but what do you mean when you say… What should the local church ministry, what should we in the small church be exploiting?

Ron Klassen: Yeah, I use that word in a very positive way in the book. There's a bit of a back story to it. One of the things that we do here at RHMA is we partner with a number of seminaries in providing training for students who anticipate going into small church ministry, and often that ministry is in smaller communities as well. It's just a natural entry point for pastors as they graduate from seminary. And one of the things we do in our classes is what we call cultural immersion experiences. So we're not just in seats in the classroom, but we actually get out and we rub shoulders with people out in some of the rural communities surrounding us here where we're located in Illinois.

One of the things that we would do, one of the most inspiring things, is take our students to a little town called Hopedale. 857 people in Hopedale, and Hopedale is an amazing little town. It has a medical complex in that town that is thriving. People regularly drive by what's considered to be the major downstate hospital in Illinois, located in Peoria, go 30 minutes down the road to this small hospital and clinic and lots of other things in Hopedale.

Karl Vaters: Wow.

Ron Klassen: For many years, the COO of Hopedale was a fellow by the name of Mark Rossi - he just recently retired - and he would graciously take us on a tour of the whole complex. It was contagious as we did so, in a good way. It's a medical complex, but Mark, just how he shared and how he viewed things was very contagious to us as classes as we would come visit him. And inevitably somewhere on the tour, Mark would say, We exploit the fact that we are small and rural. So he would say, we don't apologize for it, we make full use of it. We capitalize on the fact that we are small. And they'll put it in their marketing kinds of instruments, on their website, whatever. And then at some point in the tour, there would be the absolute clincher of it all. He would take us inside a patient room. In every room there were huge windows, and outside that room was a rural landscape. It was just such a peaceful and healing kind of way. That was exploiting the fact that they were small and rural.

I thought, man, that is so transferable to small church ministry. Too often, I think, instead of exploiting, we tend to see our weaknesses, our limitations. We tend to apologize for what we don't have. And it just reinforces the fact that we need to focus on our strengths rather than our weaknesses in small church ministry. And as I've traveled the country, I've seen there's so much to exploit when it comes to small churches. And Karl, I'll tip my hand to you. You said it really, really well. In one of your books, you said, Small size is not a problem that needs to be solved, but a strategic advantage that God wants us to use. And I have quoted that in many, many places, and appreciate that perspective.

Karl Vaters: Thank you. I love that. What a great story of that hospital. That's extraordinary. And what's interesting is, so here we are, we're small churches and we've been fed this idea and we feed this idea into our own hearts that that is a problem to fix. So what you're saying is, let's move away from seeing it as a problem, and let's not even bring it from being a problem to just simply being like a neutral quality. Let’s, in fact, find the positives in that and exploit it. There are aspects to being a small church, and there are aspects to being in a small town as that hospital proves, that clinic proves, that not only should we not be apologizing for, and not only should we not have to adapt to, but in fact, we can be leading because of those things. Quite often, the thing we perceive as our greatest weakness is in fact our greatest strength, if we just simply change our perception and adapt our behavior to a new perception of that reality. I think that's spectacular.

There's so much in your book. I want to hit on a couple quick things from, basically, just from a couple of your chapter titles. And the premise of your book is that small churches have strengths that they often downplay, but that instead of downplaying them, we need to maximize them. I think that story you just told is a great example of that. So let's take a look at a couple of the chapters.

Chapter six is entitled, Make Relationships a Higher Priority Than Programs and Planning. This of course is one of my bugaboo’s too. I'm constantly talking about this. I think we've addressed that a little bit, but have you got a little bit of advice for our listeners about how to make relationships a higher priority than programs and planning in our small churches?

Ron Klassen: Yeah, I think again, this is kind of reflection on my early days in small church ministry. It's very easy for us as pastors, I think, to think that a real church is gonna have all kinds of programs. And so my early approach to pastoral ministry in a small church was to try to create a bunch of programs instead of just allowing people to minister to each other more organically, more naturally, which is what happens when you're in a context of social intimacy and you know each other and you care for each other. Now, I'm not saying that all programs are bad. I think there are lots of good programs, and I think even small churches can have programs. For a number of years, my early days here at RHMA, I was the Awana commander in my church. Awana is a program. I'm not an anti-program guy. But I think it's easy in our orientation, our pastoral orientation, to develop programs instead of taking time to see how things happen, maybe more organically. And if things aren't happening organically, then maybe we need to create some program or something, but that shouldn't be our kneejerk reaction, not something that we just rush to doing.

Karl Vaters: Yeah. On this idea of program and planning and also budgeting, it was a year or two ago that I read maybe the most recent article, and that happened regularly about finances and how take a look at your budget and X number, X amount of money in your finances, if it's not for outreach, then you probably ought to fix your problem. And I looked around and I go, there are some small churches out there, virtually their entire budget goes towards paying a pastor's salary who still has to work bivocationally in order to make ends meet, and paying the rent on the facility. But if you actually take a look at what happens organically in outreach, without a budget attached to it, they're actually having great impact. In big churches, the budget is far more representative of their value system. And in small churches, the budget is often not at all representative of their value system, cuz so much of the main mission of the church happens organically and off budget and outside of the planning system. We've gotta think bigger than simply what do we have on the calendar and what is in our budget. What actual ministry is happening through the members of the church is really where the whole rubber reads the road.

Ron Klassen: Wow, that's such great insight. I'm reminded of a pastor of a small town church, small church. Very effective in outreach, and he said, I encourage our people, we don't need to just be adding a bunch of stuff - and that's the way he said it - to our ministry, we just need to baptize what we're already doing and let that be our outreach. And so he would just say, if you're a hunter, well, go hunting with a nonbeliever; if you're into crafting, why, bring a nonbeliever into the mix and craft together with that unbeliever. There's so many things we do in life that would be very easy for us to bring an unbeliever into the mix, and it's not that we need to do a bunch of different things or start a program to do these things, we just need to be intentional as we're doing life, to make sure that we have an outreach orientation. A church planter that I know, I asked him, So what's the most effective thing you do for outreach? And he said, I take my dog on walks. And he meets people.

Karl Vaters: Yep, absolutely. It doesn't need to be as complicated as we've made it. It really doesn't. And in fact, it's far more effective when it happens organically like that. I just have friends and some of them don't know Jesus and so when I'm with them, I try to be an example of Christ. And when spiritual things come up, then we get to have a conversation and I get to share some more of my faith with them. And that is most of the time far more effective way of actually reaching people for Jesus than a lot of the programs we do.

And now a short break to talk about something else. If you like the content you're hearing, here are two things you can do for us. First, forward this podcast to a friend. Second, consider becoming a financial supporter through Patreon, Venmo, or PayPal. Just go to Karvaters.com/support. For as little as $3 a month, you can help us put these resources into the hands of the ministries that need them the most. Our support link is in the show notes.

Let's jump to another one here. Chapter seven is about Maximizing Intergenerational Relationships. What is the intergenerational strength of the small church that we need to maximize?

Ron Klassen: Yeah, I think that there's an unofficial rule of thumb that the bigger a church gets, the more likelihood there is that they're going to be segregating their congregation by ages, have more age focused ministries. That's very difficult for us to replicate in small church ministry. We just can't come close to doing what they do in big churches. And I think sadly, often in small churches, it's more for practical reasons than theological reasons that we don't segregate by ages. It's because we just don't have the ability to segregate, or we don't have enough people to have all these different age kind of focused ministries. But when you think about it, intergenerational is very biblical. Families, we mentioned earlier. If you go to a family reunion, you’ve got people there of all ages. In fact, you may be the only person there that's your age. So the word picture of a church being like a family really says a lot about intergenerational ministry.

But I think even beyond that, intergenerational ministry could be very beneficial to everyone. Just think about what the young have to offer to the old, and what the old have to offer to the young. It's a shame when there's not that cross pollination that's taking place because we're separating everybody out by ages when we enter a church building on Sunday morning, or throughout the week even. And I would just suggest that more than just practical, like we don't have a choice, we have to be intergenerational cuz we're small, I just would like to suggest that maybe we should be missional about that in our small churches. That we should be more intentional about doing intergenerational ministry. That should be a guiding principle for us as a church and not just a default position because we feel like we can't do any better.

Karl Vaters: Perhaps we should exploit it.

Ron Klassen: Hey, that's a good word. But I think we have to be it in practice, so we need to be somewhat intentional. I don't think intergenerational ministry just means grandpa is sitting next to his grandkid in the church service. That's part of it, certainly, but I think it's good for us to design worship services in such a way that it’s kind of a tapestry of all ages that are ministered to, and that are ministering in the worship service, and certainly other ministries of the church as well. We just do well to be intentional, missional about how we might be intergenerational in our focus.

Karl Vaters: I'm more and more convinced as time goes along that the whole dividing the church up by age ranges was a boomer thing. It was really one generation that set it up, but we so ensconced this in place that it's now the way everything does. If millennials were to be the ones who started churches or Gen Z coming along were to be the ones who started it and didn't have the boomer structures already in place, I cannot imagine this generation deciding to separate by age the moment they get to church. I think they would intentionally do it a different way if the structure wasn't already in place for that. And in the small church, like you say, we tend to get there not because of we've made a theological decision, but because… In fact, I was consulting with a very large children's ministry group a couple years ago, because they were trying to figure out how to help small churches better. And I said, One of your challenges is right now, you've got a boys group and you've got a girls group, and you've got either three or four different age divisions on the boys' side and on the girls' side, and you need two adults in each one of those divisions. Which means to do the structure you've got set up, you need to have 16 adults in place to oversee these eight groups of four age groups in two genders. And I said, Most small churches you're talking, don't have 16 kids let alone 16 adults to watch over the kids. And then their question was, But how do we do this if we've got adults and kids, and you only got one adult watching over five kids and you've got them all these five different age ranges, what do you do? And I said, In small churches, we teach the older kids to watch over the younger kids. And you could have seen their heads blow off the top of their skulls. That concept of mentoring the older kids to take care of the younger kids rather than simply running the program that they had written for a multi-generational big church, was completely foreign to them, but they did get it, they were hearing. And the value of intergenerational of the older teaching the younger all the way through is something that, again, it happens organically in a church. But I love that you're saying it isn't just a matter of grandpa sitting next to grandchild in the church, we have to be intentional about how we approach that.

Let's do one other chapter. We've covered a whole bunch of things that kind of touch onto a lot of it. But in chapter 11, you talk about maximizing your congregation's relational bent with your preaching. So let's talk about that specifically, because this is a question I do get every once in a while, when I talk about that we need to integrate discipleship, for instance, into everything we do, including our preaching. We need to make sure that we're equipping God's people rather than just teaching them. And I regularly get questions about, but how do I do that with the preaching? Because we've been taught, most of us in seminary, how to parse the Greek and how to structure the sermon, but we are not really taught about how to make it practical in some of these ways. So how do we maximize the congregation's relational bent with your preaching?

Ron Klassen: It’s such an important thing for us to think about as pastors. In the book I reference a study that was done about how important the pastor's relational bent is when it comes to his preaching. A study was done of where some professors listened to a bunch of sermons, and they ranked 12 preachers about equal in their ability to preach. Then they went to their congregations, the 12 congregations, and they did a survey just to get an evaluation of their pastors’ preaching, and they found anything but equal in their evaluation. And the bottom line result of the study was that in a context of social intimacy, in a small church context, if there's a healthy relational dynamic between a pastor and his congregation, then his preaching is going to be more highly regarded. And if that isn't there, they probably won't think as highly of his preaching.

I take real heart from that, really encouraged, because I'm not that great of a preacher, certainly not in the elite category that you almost have to be if you're in a larger church. I'm kind of average when it comes to preaching. But if I have a healthy relational dynamic between me and my congregation, my preaching very well could have just as much impact as say somebody who is much more gifted than me. So it just again underscores the importance of that relational dynamic between pastor and congregation.

And then I just think in our preaching itself, certainly when we know our people, we're able to speak into their situations. We understand what's going on in their lives, our preaching can be much more individualized, it could be much more intimate as we think about our congregation. Now, again, a big difference. In a big church a pastor is preaching to a sea of people that he may not even know their first names, but in a smaller church, a pastor knows his people. Now, I think a caution here is that we have to be careful about preaching to people, individuals. It would be very easy for us as we're studying a text as part of our sermon preparation to be thinking, Wow, how providential is this? And you say, I see Joe in this text, this text is speaking to him. And so you fall to that…

Karl Vaters: And his marriage problems that we talked about. In private thought, should not tell anybody.

Ron Klassen: Exactly. And so you fall into that temptation to actually preach to Joe on that Sunday. So there is a downside that we need to be very careful about. We don't wanna preach at anyone when we're preparing our sermons. But I do think we need to be intergenerational with our preaching. There's a real temptation to preach to people just like us in our season of life.

I'm reminded of Haddon Robinson. I think in one of his books he said, When I'm preparing a message, I like to think of about a half a dozen people sitting across from my desk, people in different stages of life, and they're all asking the question: So what is this text gonna say to me? And that's part of effective preaching in an intergenerational context.

I think we can be informal, much more informal with our preaching. Kind of one of my pet peeves is when preachers sound preachy when they're preaching instead of maybe more conversational. More like you're talking to your family than talking to a huge audience or whatever. So you're just kind of folksy, you're spontaneous, you're more conversational. And I would even go so far as to encourage maybe some who are listening to allow for some participation from the congregation in your preaching. So there were times when our text was on a topic that someone in my congregation was going through and I would just simply give them a call and say, Would you like to talk to us for a couple of minutes about how the Lord is working in your life in light of what you're going through. Or at the end of my sermons, I would often allow a time for congregational interaction where we just discussed. This was just part of our small church worship service on Sunday morning. Or even during halfway through the sermon I might just pause and ask a question and allow people to respond. So again, much more like a family, just being together and talking together and doing life together. I think that can happen even with our preaching. And when you think about it, that's how our Lord did it when He preached.

Karl Vaters: Yeah, he did

Ron Klassen: So often he was conversational, told stories. He would put a kid on his lap, he would draw in the sand and everybody would look around, look over his shoulder. It was very much informal and interactive. And I think all of those things can be stuff that we incorporate in our preaching on Sunday mornings.

Karl Vaters: Absolutely. I love the idea of adding those different things to the tool belt. Because there were times also, of course we all are aware, sermon on the Mount and so on, where there's a whole lot of red ink where nobody responded, but that wasn't the typical way that Jesus communicated with people. It was more back and forth. So he did both, we should be open to doing both, especially when we're in a context where it's available. For sure.

Before we get to the lightning round, I think it was in chapter two and in the epilogue, you came back to the church in Colossae. As a pastor who preaches and someone who loves God's word, as I know our listeners are as well, I was really struck with how you used that church which I hadn't spent a lot of time studying. I'm familiar obviously with the book of Colossians, but you brought out some things about that town and that church that really were very helpful for me. So why is that town and why is that church such a great example for leaders of small churches and in small towns? Give us a couple minutes on that before we get to the lightning round.

Ron Klassen: Yeah. So indebted to Les Lofquist, who is a professor at Shepherd Seminary in North Carolina. First helped me with my thought processes on this, and I've spent a lot of time developing that over the years. But the church at Colossae was located in the smallest town of all the churches that Paul wrote to, so it was a small town church. And we also know that it was a house church. It met in Philemon’s house, for instance, we find in the book of Philemon. He was a prominent resident of Colossae. It's just so striking if you have that in your mind as you're reading Colossians, just the kind of things that leap off the pages. I find in Colossae just a really healthy small church. I find that Paul has nothing but commendation for this church in contrast to some other churches that he wrote. He talks about the healthy relationships in this church, early on in chapter one. He talks about the faithful leader of the Colossian church, maybe the head elder, maybe what we would think of today as a pastor. He gives five qualities of this faithful leader, all of them found in the book of Colossians. Very encouraging, I think, for small church pastors to reflect on those qualities and apply them to their lives, knowing that the scriptures tell us that we'll be rewarded for our faithfulness. Well done, good and faithful servant. You can be just as faithful in a small church as you can in a church of any size anywhere else. And we also see that a real theme, an emphasis of the book is on maturity, on being able to be complete, the word that is sometimes translated perfect. Not in the absolute sense, but that we can be mature and that this is attainable. Even though the church was small, even though it had few resources, few people, not a disadvantage at all.

As I came to this realization, I've come to Colossians chapter one, verse 28, which I think would be a great theme verse almost for any small church out there. It says, “Him we proclaim…that we may present everyone mature in Christ.” Maturity in Christ can be attained every bit as much in a small church as in a much larger church context, and we find this validated in the letter that Paul wrote to the small church in Colossae.

Karl Vaters: Wonderful. Wonderful, thank you for that. I'd love to go more into Colossae, because that was one of my favorite parts of the book, how it opened and closed that way. So I really encourage people, if you get Ron's book, which I highly recommend, that's something you can even preach from. Anytime I can get sermon material, I'm always grateful for that too.

Let's get to the lightning ground though. We've got some questions we want to run by you. First of all, what are the biggest changes you've seen in your field of ministry in the last few years, and how have you adapted to it?

Ron Klassen: I would say the biggest change is a huge encouragement to me, and that is that God in recent years here, and Karl, you're a part of this, has been raising the profile of small church ministry, and in my world, also small town, small church ministry. There have been a number of books written on small church ministry in recent years. When I began 40 years ago, I had half a dozen books on my shelf. I've got a couple of shelves worth of books now on small church ministry, just really edifying, good stuff. There's all kinds of articles and blogs, and yes, podcasts and other things on small church ministry conferences. RHMA itself, we host several small town pastors conferences, seminars, websites. It's just really, really encouraging to see this surge of interest in activity and ministry that is being focused on small church ministry all across the country. How have we adapted or responded? We embrace it. We are so thankful for it. I am so thankful for you, Karl, for your ministry and for a number of others that are really speaking into this kind of ministry all across our country.

Karl Vaters: Thank you. Yeah, I'm seeing that too. My shelf has grown in the last few years. Because when I first started, I wrote my book because I couldn't find my book, couldn't find very many at all. And there are more and more including your new one coming out, so that's great.

Second one, what free resource, like an app or website perhaps, has helped you lately that you'd recommend for small church ministry?

Ron Klassen: I assume that you want me to say something besides your own.

Karl Vaters: Yes, I would.

Ron Klassen: You have spoken so much into my life and ministry. I would say probably the Rural Matters Institute. Their Facebook page is incredibly helpful. This is a ministry of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College. Ed Stetzer heads this up, and one of their ministries is the Rural Matters Institute. As part of this Institute, they have a Facebook page that is really kind of a gathering place of all things rural and all things small church. So the Rural Matters Institute, you can go to their Facebook page and you can be introduced to all kinds of helpful things.

Karl Vaters: Yeah, it's a great resource. What's the best piece of ministry advice you've ever received?

Ron Klassen: So I would say I received it from one of the early books that I read. One of almost the only books that I read on small church ministry when I was just getting started. David Ray wrote really quite prolifically on small church ministry. I think he wrote at least three books many years ago. Somehow I stumbled on his books. In his books he talks about the importance of developing a small theology. A small theology. I think the best advice that I could give anybody, and I take this from David Ray, is that we develop a robust small theology, a theology of the small. And I've been on kind of a 40-year quest of developing that kind of theology. Years ago it began with just my regular Bible reading. I usually read through the whole Bible in a year, and I decided that I wanted to take a year and try to read the Bible through small church, small place kind of ministry. Now, I had to try to be careful. I didn't want to impose something on the text that wasn't there, but I wanted to see what the Bible has to say about small things, small places, small churches. And it was absolutely inspiring. It's really, I would say more than anything else, what has kept me going in small place ministry is a robust, small theology. So I would highly encourage that.

Karl Vaters: You could do a lot of highlighting in a read through like that, I would imagine.

Ron Klassen: Absolutely.

Karl Vaters: All right, last question. What's the funniest or weirdest thing you've ever seen in church?

Ron Klassen: I would say it happened in my first church. And again, just think of the contrast between being a big church city guy going to a very rural, primarily a ranching community. So when it came time to baptize, I looked around, we didn't have a baptistry in our church and I wondered how do we do this. Well, I found out that how we do this is with a cattle watering tank. So one of the ranchers brought in a watering tank, which cattle would normally drink out of. I think this was a clean, new one, so it hadn't been used for cattle. But talk about cross-cultural for a guy like me coming from the city and finding myself baptizing new believers in a watering tank. One time we did it, it was kind of cold outside. So this same rancher, who was a Jack of all trades guy, he actually rigged up a heater that he put under the tank, like a stove burner.

Karl Vaters: Oh, wow.

Ron Klassen: I'm pretty sure it wouldn't have passed any kind of building code or whatever. But the warmest place for that morning was in the water. So that was quite an experience.

Karl Vaters: Have you ever felt like a lobster, that might be the closest to it that I can know. Hey, how can people find you online if they'd like to follow up with you on anything?

Ron Klassen: Yeah, you can just go to our website, rhma.org, and you'll find all kinds of stuff there and that'll lead you to other places as well.

Karl Vaters: Terrific. Hey Ron, I really appreciate it. I highly recommend your book to our listeners. I hope they find it, I hope they read it, get some benefit out of it as much as I have already, and I really appreciate your time with us today.

Ron Klassen: Thank you. And the best place to get the book is from us right now until it's actually released in August. So just go to our website, you can order it off of there or you can send an email to info@rhma.org. Great to be with you, Karl. I so appreciate you and your ministry.

Karl Vaters: Thanks. We'll put all of that in the show notes too, folks. So you can get it straight from there, including his recommendation from Rural Matters Institute, we'll put that in the show notes as well. Thanks again, Ron.

Ron Klassen: Thank you.

Karl Vaters: It's not often I get to talk with someone who has dedicated over 30 years to encouraging and resourcing small and rural churches like Ron has. I love how his story starts. Like so many of ours, he was attempting to use big church rinciples in a small context and it just doesn't fit most of the time. But I love even more how quickly he saw the problem for what it was and how he adapted to working correctly within his context instead.

So can this work in a small church? This one's obvious, isn't it? Of course it can. Here are a handful of my immediate takeaways. There are a whole bunch more than these, of course. First of all, small churches have unique ministry gifts that shouldn't be seen as problems to fix, but as positives to exploit.

Secondly, the relational aspect of small churches is something that we need to lean into, not shy away from. As Ron says, it has the side benefit, it will even make you come across as a better preacher, and we can all use that help, can't we?

Third, there's a lot of great ministry in small churches that happens off book and outside the organized programs. Don't discount that, don't shy away from it, lean into it. Don't worry that you may not have a budget for certain things like outreach. If the outreach is already being done off budget and off program, just baptize what's already happening.

And finally don't take intergenerational relationship for granted. It's one of the great aspects of the small church. But as Ron said, it's not enough that grandpa and grandchild are sitting together in church, we have to be intentional about how we foster the great strengths of intergenerational relationships.

There's so much more to this, of course. So if you know of a small town or rural church leader who could use this encouragement and these ideas pass this episode along to them. And be sure to pick up Ron's book, Maximize: Leveraging the Strengths of Your Small Church. You'll be able to find a link in the show notes.

If you'd like to support this ministry with a one time gift or monthly donation and help put these resources into the hands of the ministries that need them the most, check out our support link in the show notes. Would you like a transcript of this episode? It will be available within a few days of the podcast air date at christianitytoday.com/Karlvaters. You can find the link in the show notes.

This episode was produced by Veronica Beaver, edited by Phil Vaters. The original theme music was written and performed by Jack Wilkins of jackwilkinsmusic.com. The podcast logo was created by Solomon Joy of joyetic.com. And me, I'm Karl Vaters and I'm a small church pastor

Pivot is a part of CT's Blog Forum. Support the work of CT. Subscribe and get one year free.
The views of the blogger do not necessarily reflect those of Christianity Today.

Join in the conversation about this post on Facebook.

Recent Posts

Read More from Karl

Follow Christianity Today

Free Newsletters