Thriving Small Churches Are Content, Not Complacent

Dave Jacobs: "A small church measures success by how faithful they have been with what God has given them."

Explain the difference between small churches that are thriving as small churches, that are doing great ministry, that are really spiritually enriching their attendees and the community, from those that are flailing. Is the difference in programming, mindset, an understanding of the community or something else?

There can be many reasons why a small church can be thriving instead if flailing, just as there can be many reasons why a larger church can be thriving instead of flailing.

a. Thriving small churches are content without being complacent. They are ‘comfortable in their own skin’ and are not trying to be something they are not.

b. Thriving small churches focus on what they can do rather than what they can’t do. It’s been my experience that there is almost nothing a larger church can do that a small church cannot do, if the small church is willing to do it on a smaller scale.

c. Thriving small churches do a few things well. I compare this to the menus in restaurants. Some restaurants have three pages of menu with everything a person could ask for: breakfast, lunch, dinner. Out here on the West Coast we have a very popular fast food chain called In-N-Out Burger. All they offer is burgers, fries and drinks. On the company website they state their philosophy: “Give customers the freshest, highest quality foods you can buy and provide them with friendly service in a sparkling clean environment.” Thriving small churches have an ‘In-N-Out Burger’ mindset.

d. Thriving small churches are made up of people who are on the same page. The problem in many churches, whether they be small or large, is seldom a lack of vision but one of competing visions. The pastors of thriving small churches are constantly pounding into the minds of their people, who we are, what we do, how we will measure success.

How can small church pastors be encouraged? Many feel they’re just failed large church pastors, or that their churches are less than the large church down the street. Where does the right mindset begin?

Unfortunately our Christian culture defines success using three words: bigger, more and new. Therefore, if your church seems smaller, less or old, you are not viewed as successful. This cultural definition, of which few of us can escape, contributes to our discouragement. It is ingrained in all of us to want to be successful. I think our encouragement and contentedness is in direct proportion to the consistency and meaningfulness of our time alone with God. And once again, this is true for pastors of larger churches as well.

It’s sad but some pastors might have to look outside of their denomination or affiliation to find genuine encouragement. I am seeing more and more denominations reaching out to their smaller churches but they often, inadvertently, do it in a way that still makes the pastor of a small church feel like they’re being looked down on, like they are something that needs to be fixed, like they don’t quite measure up.

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How should small churches measure success?

Mother Teresa said, “God has not called us to be successful. God has called us to be faithful.” Paul said, “…it is required of stewards that one be found faithful.” (1 Cor. 4:2)

A small church measures success by how faithful they have been with what God has given them. If they have 20 members then they will strive to be the best 20-member church on the planet. The trick is to find ways to measure success that has very little to do with attendance numbers. A great exercise for pastors of smaller churches is to ask their leadership team, “How could we measure success if we couldn’t use numbers?”

There does come a point with small churches, however, where small really is too small to survive. So some degree or growth, or at least retention, is desirable and necessary. How do we walk that line between celebrating small and working hard not to be too small?

First we have to agree on the definition of ‘church.’ Next we have to agree upon a definition of ‘survive.’ In many countries, including our own, a group of eight people meeting in a home is regarded as a ‘church.’ At this size very little is needed to survive.

But if we think of ‘church’ solely through the lens of our westernized definition of ‘church’, i.e. a building, a full-time pastor, children’s ministry, worship team, small groups, staff, budget, etc., then viability does become an issue.

I often help pastors of smaller churches determine whether or not their congregation is ‘viable.’ To determine viability I ask the pastor the following questions:

1. Do you (the pastor and their spouse) have enough energy and motivation to continue if nothing changes?
2. Does your leadership team have enough energy and motivation to continue if nothings changes?
3. Does the church have enough resources (time, money, volunteers) to provide the most basic of ministries one would expect to find in a church?

Questions such as these often reveal something that is hard for the pastor to admit, which is, ‘Our church lacks viability.’ This doesn’t mean the church is not a church, (God loves them, they serve a purpose) just that theirs is not a viable church and it will probably never be anything other than what it currently is. More times than not, however, this means the church will suffer a slow and painful death. In my opinion there are many smaller churches like this in North America, and they need to be given ‘permission to die,’ but in a way that is honoring to Jesus and to the men and women who have invested so much in them over the years.

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I don’t believe that a church is necessarily intended to live forever.

Small churches just don’t have the resources to meet every single person’s needs who comes through their door or who is in their community. How should a small church go about deciding what to support and focus on, and what to ignore or pass off to someone else?

Smaller churches must be unapologetic about what they can’t offer people. I remember early on in one of my church plants, a family with teenagers visited, and after the service the mother came up and asked, “What do you have for my teenagers?” All I could answer was, “Me.” I think I was more satisfied with that answer than she was.

I liked that part of your question that asked, what should we ignore or pass off? The word ‘ignore’ has a lot of negative connotations attached to it. For me, in this context, it simply means that there are some things we will choose not to worry about at this time. Sometimes small churches can partner with larger churches or other organizations that have developed certain ministries or programs people are looking for. It’s true, if you point someone to the big church down the street so that their child has a youth group to go to and expect them to stay involved in your church, there is a real possibility that you will never see them again. We’ve got to be OK with this.

It all comes back to resources. What do we have to work with? What are the few things that we can do well? Capitalize on the strengths inherent in small churches rather than the perceived weaknesses.

From your experience, are you seeing younger people interested in a small church environment? The perception is that small churches are often filled with older generations and a more traditional worship style.

I think it’s difficult, if not impossible, to characterize young people and what attracts them to a particular church. I work with pastors of every denomination you could imagine, in all the regions across our country. What might attract and keep young people in one region often times does not have the same result in a different region. I work with many smaller churches that have a high percentage of young people. On the other hand, many of our smaller churches are filled predominately with older people. The problem with churches like this is not that they are mainly populated by ‘older people,’ as if ‘older’ is inherently of less value than ‘younger.’ The problem is when church members, regardless of age, are resistant to the changes often needed in churches to reach new people with the gospel. Resistance to change can be found in every size church.