Karl Vaters: De-Size the Church

As Told to Jessica Hanewinckel

Where did our obsession with “bigness” in relationship to church size come from? It’s a relatively new thing. And yet, when you pastor within a culture that is obsessed with bigness, you don’t even recognize the water you’re swimming in. The Church Growth Movement has been around for about 40 years. We now have enough distance from it and enough time in it to be able to step back and make a proper assessment of it.

I’m absolutely in favor of church growth. I think the church is going to grow because Jesus said he would build his church, and Jesus knows what he’s doing. But we’ve become obsessed with bigness and individual congregations. If we are simply getting bigger churches, that’s not church growth; that’s Christian consolidation. Legitimate church growth is happening globally where Christians are actually growing as a percentage of the population, in places like South America, Africa and in many parts of Asia.

There is really no right church size. We shouldn’t be using size as the primary determiner of whether a church is healthy. When we say a church is doing well, we assume that means the numbers are up. Not only is that not the only determiner of health, it’s not the best determiner.

We are in the middle of what could conservatively be called an epidemic of burnout among pastors. I’m convinced that our obsession with bigness is the main but least-understood contributing factor to pastoral failure, to burnout, to frustration, to feelings of inferiority, to resignations, and to all other forms of dysfunction and ill health. If it is not the primary contributing factor, it’s the least-acknowledged one. 

If we don’t recognize how bigness has contributed to our dysfunction, then we can’t deal with it properly. If I’m constantly being told that my church is failing if it’s not getting bigger, then that weighs upon hearts and shoulders to a degree that we don’t fully understand. But if we can let pastors know that the size of their church is not something for them to feel burdened by, but simply a tool for them to work with, then that is one less burden. 

We’ve got this picture that somehow bigger fixes things. But bigger doesn’t fix anything. In fact, bigger fixes nothing. If you take a small, unhealthy church and all you do is make it bigger, now you’ve got a big, unhealthy church. Now, if you make that small, unhealthy church healthy, even if it doesn’t get bigger, healthy is better. 

Small is not a problem to fix—it is the normal state for most churches in the world. You can lose with bigger. You can’t lose with healthier. And healthier doesn’t inevitably lead to bigger. If we can lay that myth aside, then we can move forward with healthier pastors, churches, communities, and better ways to reach them.

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Karl Vaters
Karl Vatershttp://karlvaters.com

Karl Vaters is the teaching pastor at Cornerstone Christian Fellowship in Fountain Valley, California. His latest book is De-Sizing the Church: How Church Growth Became a Science, Then an Obsession, and What’s Next (Moody).