A Thriving Small Church Honors the Past Without Living in It

“The small church cannot be viewed as a stepping stone to a large church ministry.”

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?

One of the challenges in older small churches is the way they respond to the past. The wise pastor finds a way to honor the past without living in the past. He gives the people a passion for the future. A small church that is growing has a passion that you do not see in struggling churches. The people see a genuine future. I tell my congregation that I believe the best days of our ministry are in front of us. The day I no longer believe our best days are ahead is the day I will resign and move on to another ministry. I think too many pastors have stopped believing the best days are coming, and they have moved from being a shepherd to being a hireling. Their ministries are paying the price. A good shepherd is leading the people toward the next green pasture and is not allowing the sheep to stay in one place too long.

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?

The small church cannot be viewed as a stepping stone to a large church ministry. It has to be viewed as reaching the top of the mountain. I went from a multi-staff church to a rural ministry. Years later I was offered the opportunity to work in a larger ministry in a big city. After some soul searching, I talked to the senior pastor, and I remember telling him I felt it would be step down to go from a small church pastor to a large church pastor. I told him about the influence I had in my community and explained that he was not offering me the same impact on the community. At that point, I knew a rural ministry was my calling, and I would consider anything else a lower calling. I do not say this lightly. Any chance I get to talk to older pastors of large and small churches, I always ask about their favorite ministry. Every pastor tells me the same story. They talk about a small church they pastored where they loved the people and the people loved them.

How should small churches measure success?

I measure my success by influence and faithfulness.

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Influence. Coming from larger ministries, I had adopted the mindset of measuring our success by numbers in attendance. I came to understand the importance of measuring ministry by influence. When Christ ministered, you often found him ministering in the outlying areas. Very few times did you find Christ ministering in large cities. It has even been suggested he went to the big cities only when he had to. Jesus found greater impact in the smaller towns and villages of his day. I have found the same to be true of ministry in our area. The pastor who has a church of 5,000 in a town of 500,000 people ministers to 1 percent of his community. A church of 50 people in a town of 2,000 reaches 2.5 percent of his community every week. If his church grows to 100, then he reaches 5 percent of his community every week. The city ministry would have to see 12,500-25,000 in attendance to have the same impact. Ironically, the small town pastor is the real megachurch pastor. At pastor conventions, I usually rattle the cage of my large church friends by letting them know my influence in the community and allow them to do the math for themselves.

Faithfulness. Smaller church ministries tend to be more conservative. They have watched pastors come and go. The people realize they will probably outlast you as well, so they are hesitant to give you their trust until you have passed the test of time. They need to be assured that “their” church is your church. I realized this when I started talking about where I will be buried. The cemetery my wife and I plan to be buried in is about three miles from the church where I have now served for more than 21 years (or more than 100 in pastor years). They know this church is my church too.

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?

An old proverb says it best: “When the horse is dead, dismount.”

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?

It is amazing to me that large churches try to mimic small churches by focus on small group ministry, while smaller churches try to emulate large church programs. I think H. B. London said it best when he said, “Bloom where you are planted.” Instead of trying to be what you are not, know what you do well and do it well. Too many pastors try to adapt to the new family who shows up on Sunday because they need the numbers. As a pastor, I know who we are as a church and what we do well. I do not excuse or apologize for who we are. I know what we do, why we do it and how we do ministry. I try to find out what they need and then be honest with them about how we can minster to them. If we cannot meet their specific needs, then I help them find a church to meet their needs.

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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 we are seeing a new opportunity for smaller church ministries. We live in a world where bigger is considered better. But the tide is starting to change, and you are now seeing a focus on smaller niche markets. Even the behemoth Walmart is starting to move away from the “super centers” and building smaller neighborhood markets. Many places are now focusing on their products being “local” as a way to attract and keep customers.

The younger generation is a paradox. While they love their technology, many are also going “old school” in the same area. We are watching a resurgence in LP’s instead of just iPods. Young people are actually wanting to embrace some of the “old paths,” so I think we have a unique opportunity. It will take the wisdom of Solomon to navigate the days ahead, but I see the future as an opportunity to correct a church that has separated the generations with its programs. The beauty of the small church is that it forces people to look at others outside of their age group. It forces everyone to see the church as a whole instead of its isolated parts.