By Karl Vaters
Being small does not mean that something is broken. If something is broken, you can’t fix it by making it bigger. This was reinforced for me in a surprisingly unlikely place.
During my near-burnout season, I spent way too much time watching reality TV, especially fixer-upper shows where a restaurant or hotel expert goes into a struggling business to help turn it around.
Of course, reality TV is anything but real, but as a spiritually and emotionally deflated pastor trying to lead a struggling church, I watched episode after episode hoping to find a morsel of help. (No, I’m not proud of it, and I don’t recommend it.)
Eventually, I noticed that when these so-called experts went into failing businesses, they would take note of how hard it was to find the building, how badly it was cleaned, or how poorly the employees had been trained. But there was one thing they never did: they never walked into a failing establishment and declared, “I see what your problem is. This store isn’t big enough!”
Not once. In fact, they often did the opposite. They’d tell a harried hotelier who was trying to run too many rooms and a restaurant and a spa to close the two businesses he was bad at so he could concentrate on doing the one thing he was good at. They would tear up a failing restaurant’s 20-page, 120-item menu and replace it with a single-page, five-item menu with one style of food that no one else in the neighborhood was serving.
They applied a set of principles to help small, struggling restaurants, hotels, or stores to become small, successful restaurants, hotels, or stores. These reality TV experts figured out something that church leaders often miss: 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.
We’re so obsessed with big things that we’ve convinced ourselves numerical growth is the answer to our problems.
- Economy in trouble? Don’t fix the underlying dysfunction, pour more money into it.
- Kids in trouble? Don’t discipline them, give them more stuff.
- Church in trouble? Don’t change the way we do ministry. Get more people in here.
Here’s a tragic example of the damage such faulty logic can cause.
A friend of mine used to attend a very large, very good church. The church hit some serious problems a few years ago, not by the fault of its leadership, but because of denominational and legal decisions that were out of their control. This struggle cost them a lot of members and money; then they lost the church building they’d met in for generations.
For several years they gathered in buildings that other churches graciously offered them, but they were located in neighborhoods miles away from where most of their congregation lived and available only at off-times of the week. That’s business-as-usual in a start-up church, but this wasn’t a start-up. They were one of the oldest churches in their area.
A few months into this, I asked my friend what plan the pastor had for the next phase of the church’s life.
“Get to a thousand.”
“What?” I responded.
“The pastor’s plan is to grow the church back up to a thousand people. Then they’ll have enough of a giving base to buy a new church building and enough departments and ministries to stand on their own again.”
I waited for my friend to crack a smile and say “just kidding,” but he didn’t.
“But that’s not a plan,” I said.
“I know,” he responded. “I tried to tell the pastor that. He wouldn’t hear me.”
“Then that church is over,” I said to my friend, with genuine sorrow. “They might as well close their doors now. Getting bigger isn’t a plan. It’s not a goal, and it sure isn’t a solution to their problems.”
Most church growth proponents agree that getting bigger is not a plan or a solution, yet too many of us still see it as a goal. Because of that mentality, too many struggling pastors leave church growth conferences thinking bigger is a plan and a solution too. Why wouldn’t they?
They’ve spent several days in the awesome facilities of a booming church. The facility is proof that this stuff works, and they want that kind of success for their church too.
The problem is, we’ve been wowed by the small handful of extreme success stories, but we’re turning a blind eye to the tens of thousands of churches that have tried the same methods without producing the promised results, often wasting a lot of money, time, energy, and relational capital in the process.
Once, in a now-infamous moment at a church leadership conference, church researcher Ed Stetzer asked the assembled pastors to take a look at the extraordinarily impressive facilities of the megachurch in which they were sitting. “This is like ministry pornography for you,” he told them.
“It’s an unrealistic depiction of an experience you’re never going to have that distracts you from the real and glorious thing.” Then he cautioned them, that “this unrealistic dream doesn’t let you . . . love the people you’re with right now instead of seeing them as kind of a stepping-stone to something.”
What would my plan be if I was the pastor of my friend’s troubled church? I have no idea. But I do know that I’d work very hard to find a plan, and getting bigger wouldn’t be it.
Instead of pushing for numerical growth, I’d ask questions like: “What kinds of ministry can we do while we’re this size?,” “What if we never get the church building of our dreams or any church building at all?,” “What can we learn from other churches that don’t have a building?,” and “What would happen if we saw this change not as a problem, but as an opportunity to do church in a way we’ve never even imagined?”
KARL VATERS (@KarlVaters) has been a small church pastor for thirty years. He is the author of The Grasshopper Myth: Big Churches, Small Churches, and the Small Thinking that Divides Us.
Adapted from Small Church Essentials: Field-Tested Principles for Leading a Healthy Congregation of under 250 by Karl Vaters (©2018). Published by Moody Publishers. Used by permission.