Karl Vaters: Small Church America—Revisited

A year or so before Karl Vaters’ meltdown, 650 people attended the Easter service at the Southern California church he pastors. At long last, he believed, success was headed Cornerstone Church’s way.

More than a decade earlier, in December 1992, Vaters moved his family from a small city just north of San Francisco to Orange County to take the reins of a church of less than 30, which had burned through five pastors in 10 years.

He arrived without pretension. He understood the church would take years to heal.

At the same time, saturated in church growth strategy, Vaters couldn’t help but see the potential. Within 45 miles of their new home bloomed massive congregations—Saddleback, Crystal Cathedral and Calvary Chapel, giants of number and legend.

Having labored over a decade with little or no growth, Vaters had seen an increase in church attendance from 200 to 400 in the 18 months previous to the Easter service.

But in less time than it took to double in size, the church tanked.

And so did Vaters.

In January 2006, speaking to his church of fewer than 100 people, he announced he would be absent for 40 days. Later that same Sunday, without a reason, he fired the music pastor, then disappeared into a deep funk.

“I was mad at the church, God and particularly myself,” Vaters says.

“I had gone through a near breakdown after trying, but failing, to see the kind of growth I had been promised was inevitable. I spent decades learning how to be a better pastor by applying every church growth method I could find.”

He was so angry with God, Vaters says, he asked other people to pray on his behalf. He didn’t want to talk to God just then.

Bingeing on reality TV, escapist novels and power hiking, Vaters considered quitting ministry. Due to a lack of any other marketable skill, he determined to work things out.

“I gave the counselor I was seeing all of my emotional garbage,” Vaters says. “When he told me I needed to find another way to define success, I wanted to punch him in the nose.”

Operating under the church growth strategy, Karl Vaters felt shame.

Since you can’t jump a 10-foot bar, let’s try 8 foot.

He believed, in every strand of his DNA, smaller was not the path of greatness. At the same time, on another couch, in front of his television, Vaters took note how celebrity chefs never once suggested making a failing restaurant bigger.


In seventh grade, Karl Vaters made it a point never to come to class early. “I figured if I got to class before the teacher showed up, someone would whack me.” Turned out to be true. One day, arriving early, young Karl received a whacking led by a bully and a team of fellow jocks. Granted, they used rolled-up newspapers, but it was a deeper pain he felt.

The son and grandson of pastors, Vaters, from a very early age, found a home in the church.

“In school and everywhere else, I was the nerd on the outside—too tall, too skinny and too academically inclined. In church, I fit. I loved participating in leadership. It just clicked. It had nothing to do with me being a preacher’s kid; it was just where my heart was drawn.”

As he moved toward a career in ministry, there was this one possible glitch: a terror of public speaking. 

Before giving his first speech to a junior college class, his prayer was a golden fleece: “Lord, if you want me to be a pastor, I will need some help with this one.”

Though shaking and sweating, he found an inexplicable calm. With humor and a hint of swagger, he delivered a five-minute speech on Thanksgiving in Canada, his homeland.

The teacher’s encouraging notes ended with “See me about competitive speech.” Vaters counted three red underlines.


When Vaters interviewed for the job as senior pastor of Cornerstone, a tiny dying church in Orange County, California, he was unimpressed with the board’s pitch:

* The church split a year-and-a-half ago.
* We have had had five senior pastors in 10 years.
* The last pastor was here for 18 months.
* The most recent youth and music pastors also left.
* On a good Sunday, 30 people might show up.
* If it weren’t for owning a preschool, we probably couldn’t pay the bills.

There was a pause in the room before a final call to action: “Will you help us give it one final try?”

Steeped in church growth strategy, with a church located in the mecca of megachurches, Vaters told himself even the giants had to start somewhere; and no better place, he believed, than Orange County, California.

Southern California people don’t go to church, but when they do, they go big, Vaters thought. Orange County was the place many churches went to grow big.


Early on in his new role as senior pastor, Vaters met Gary Garcia, a 19-year-old kid who had stepped in to help with youth ministry after the church split. Gary asked, “Do you want to get together and pray for the church?”

When Vaters joyfully agreed, it set in motion a relationship critical to the development and future of the church. At least once a week, the two men sat down together to talk about ministry and life. What was going well? What needed improvement? How do the youth fit into the mission of the church?

How are you doing?

After a short time of mentoring, Gary began to build a team of youth leaders and mentor each one of them. Within two months, Vaters named Gary the youth pastor.

In the early years of ministry both pastors worked together to help heal a wounded church.

“Because the church was so bruised, it took us years to heal,” Vaters says.

“We had potlucks, read Scripture and just got to know one another. As we worshiped together, we began to ask, ‘What does it mean to be the church?’”

Seven years later, Vaters told Gary he believed the church was finally healthy. When asked how he knew, Vaters said, “You know when you work under the hood of a car all day, and then finally the engine turns over?” With Gary’s head nodding in agreement, Vaters said, “That’s how I know.”


As Cornerstone focused on health, Vaters began to slowly move the church out.

“Being healthy is not enough,” he says. “You can eat a healthy mushroom that will kill you. We were healthy, but we weren’t health-ful to anyone else.”

In 1996, Vaters started walking up to random cafeteria tables at a denominational college nearby, awkwardly asking: “Can I sit with you guys?” Over time, he and the students were jamming together five tables to squeeze in everyone.

Through this relationship, students began to come to Cornerstone. Vaters first mentored the freshmen, and when they became seniors, they mentored the freshmen.

All of a sudden, one Sunday the church had 50 to 60 people. The next Sunday, 120 people—half college students, half aging congregation—a hybrid of energy and wisdom that would slowly change the church’s culture.

By the time of the denomination’s annual regional conference in 2003, Cornerstone had grown to 200, and Vaters hoped to end a cycle of failure.

Each year, he heard church growth experts cite the same statistics: 90 percent of our churches are under 200, and 80 percent of our churches are under 100. Each year, all the people gave the same reaction: “Oh, no!” Folllowed by: “What now?”

Each year, Vaters did his level best with new church growth tools.

Each year, he failed to make necessary fixes.

Each year, he would think, The failure has to be mine, right?

Suspecting even bigger numbers were just around the corner, Vaters returned to employ a church growth imperative: Find more space. After renting a much larger multipurpose room at a local junior high that summer, Cornerstone doubled in size by the end of 2004.

When the numbers unexpectedly collapsed even more quickly, Vaters told his counselor he didn’t know what to count on anymore.


In February 2006, three days before his scheduled return from a 40-day absence, Vaters received a phone call: “The board would like to meet with you Saturday.”

Vaters thought he might be fired.

When he nervously walked into the meeting, everyone hugged him, saying, “Do you need more time? We will gladly give you more, if you need it.”

Vaters thanked them for his time away and told them what he was thinking: “If I stay on task with growing a bigger church, I am heading for a huge moral failure and a lot of hurt. I am certain of it. If damaged people damage people, imagine what a damaged leader might do.”

They told him they knew about his firing of the music pastor. Vaters repented and honored their request to pursue reconciliation.

Together, they agreed a new definition for success was needed.

Blown away by the church’s love for him, Vaters could see an alternative slowly coming into focus. Through such a gracious return, he saw the beauty of a healthy church.

“No one added to my burden,” Vaters recalls. “They all helped lighten it.”


As Vaters began to view success through the lens of health, he saw how the quest for numbers had blinded and frustrated him.

“I drove myself crazy, nearly killed a good church and came close to leaving the ministry because we were not growing big,” Vaters says. “With the help of some great people, I refocused, and do you know what I found? A wonderful, healthy, vibrant, loving, missional, outward-reaching church.

Knowing his giant dream had to die for a better one, Vaters posed a central question to his leaders:

“If we are going to stay small, how do we make small great?”

Numerous Google searches mostly yielded little or bad information. In the reigning church growth paradigm, small church health was an oxymoron. If a church was small, contemporary literature framed it as a problem in need of a fix: Grow bigger. On rare occasions, Vaters would stumble onto something valuable and joke about a pig finding another truffle deep down in the dirt.

Here is one example: According to a study by George Barna on 320,000 Protestant churches:

* 60 percent have an attendance of fewer than 100
* 88 percent fewer than 200
* 95 percent under 350

In other words, only 5 percent of pastors can expect to lead a church with more than 350 members.

If that is true, Vaters wondered, “Why teach ministry students only big church skills? Why are resources for growing a healthy small church so few? Why doesn’t someone write a book about this?”

One day, years into the church’s transition, his wife responded, “What’s keeping you from writing a book?”

He began counting out the reasons: No name. No money. No agent. No platform. No publisher.

Just as he imagined an end to that kind of magical thinking, his wife asked, “Who is going to a write a book about the small church other than a small church pastor?”

Vaters found her argument compelling.

In 2011, having started writing the book The Grasshopper Myth: Big Churches, Small Churches and the Small Thinking That Divides Us, he called a friend who was a printer, and said, “I think, in my lifetime, I could sell 500 books at $10 apiece. How many copies would $4,000 get me?”

His friend, cutting him a deal, said, “Two thousand copies.”

In his mind, Vaters saw himself dusting stacks of books in the garage every spring.

After 14,000 copies of the book sold, Moody Press gave him an advance to write a second book, the recently released Small Church Essentials: Field-Tested Principles for Leading a Healthy Congregation Under 250.

Vaters attributes any success as an author to his readers—a widespread community of small church leaders also digging deep for any truffles to be discovered.


In both books, Vaters strings together research truffles with his own hands-on, real-life experience of leading Cornerstone from crisis to health. Vaters’ purpose was not to fight for the superiority of the small or large church, but instead examine—and empower—their unique strengths.

In Small Church Essentials, Vaters writes, “All the arguments we have about church size are about personal preferences. Apples and oranges. One person likes the array of opportunities, technical excellence and crowd exhilaration of a big church. Another person likes the intimacy, the relationships and access to the pastor that a small church offers.”

Not every healthy church gets big. Not every big church is healthy. Both big and small churches play a critical and unique role in kingdom work.

Problems arise, Vaters believes, when the church ignores the differences between big and small. “The differences between the 20,000-member church and my 100-member church were far greater than I had imagined,” Vaters says.

“On average,” he writes, “one-third of big-church principles can be applied in a church of 200 and about one-fourth in a church of 100 or fewer.”


In his initial work to catalyze his church’s health, Vaters found a quote from Max De Pree—former CEO of Herman Miller—helpful: “The first responsibility of leadership is to define reality.”

As he looked back on the personal and church crashes, he knew he had to face—and define—a new reality.

“Our church was most unhealthy when we were the biggest,” Vaters says.

“I made the shift from shepherding pastor to management. I was miserable because, bottom line, I’m not called to manage systems; I’m called to pastor people.”

Even the growth itself, doubling to 400 in 18 months, betrayed Vaters’ heart for the lost. As growth spurted, baptisms did not.

In addition to making him miserable in a role he was not gifted to do, the drive for numbers shifted a central church principle. When 650 people attended the 2004 Easter service, Vaters’ calculated the church’s next move based on a church growth formula: Easter attendance = regular attendance in two years.

When Vaters hired staff for the anticipated growth, he believes the focus subtly shifted from equipping people to drawing a crowd.

In Small Church Essentials, Vaters writes, “Growing bigger requires massive shifts in thinking, action and strategy—not just for the pastor, but for the church leadership and congregation.”

He goes on to contrast essential ingredients for the small and big church.

* Great Commandment
* Great Commission

* Great Commandment
* Great Commission
* A large surrounding population
* Skilled fundraisers and deep pockets
* Massive facilities and lots of land
* Teams of architects, designers and contractors
* A culture that doesn’t persecute Christians
* A cooperative city government
* Lack of opposition from neighbors
* A vast array of leaders with a variety of gifts

In the slow process of killing his giant dream, Vaters explored an alternative:

Instead of insisting on numerical growth, what if we did the hard work of helping small churches discover what they are good at, then encouraging and resourcing them to do that ministry well? Not in an imagined future of growing a big church, but thriving as a small church now.


When Vaters took an inventory of what Cornerstone did well, he was not surprised:

* Bringing the de-churched back into the church
* Finding the forgotten
* Mentoring and equipping
* Sending people out into ministry

“If these are the things we do well,” Vaters encouraged his church, “let’s do them more intentionally and see if we can become great at them.”

In terms of defining mission, Vaters believes the small church has remarkable flexibility.

“Don’t worry about having a more specific plan, mission statement or goal yet. Do what every church is called to do—namely, the Great Commandment and Great Commission. Love God, love people, teach the Word, share your faith, take care of the needy, then pay attention to where your arrows hit.”


Vaters shares the story of where one of those arrows hit for Cornerstone.

More than a decade after he began to mentor a few college students, one of the senior leaders called city hall and said, “If there is anything our church can do, here’s my number.”

Into the mix of an aging and wise congregation, the college students had brought energy and vision, helping to move the church out into the community. Cornerstone’s reputation, over the years, went from bad to good.

One day in September 2010, city hall called with a request: “Could you clean a house for us?” More than 30 people from Cornerstone showed up to help. The woman, hit with multiple violations of city health codes, faced eviction from her home. Joining with some of the woman’s neighbors, they worked the entire day to clean the filth from the house of a habitual hoarder. The woman was saved from eviction.</P

One of her neighbors, Joan, was so impressed she brought her family to Cornerstone the next day. A short time later, each one of them was saved as well.


A small church, Vaters has come to believe, possesses unparalleled abilities to create and nourish life-changing relationships.

In a large church, a vision descends from leadership.
In a small church, a vision springs up from each person.

A pastor from a small church, Vaters believes, should never say, “I want you to work for the church to fulfill my vision.” Instead, they should flip the script: “Let us help you discover and empower God’s vision for your life.”

“I have experienced the profound joy of being an equipping pastor to help find and fulfill God’s call on each one of their lives,” Vaters says. “We have people all over the world in active ministry because they got their start at Cornerstone.”

At the same time, he acknowledges the church’s strength—sending people out into ministry—also comes with a cost: “We often lose people we have invested years into just when they become great.” In the land of giants, he’s more than OK with that.

The way Vaters now has it figured, no one loses when the kingdom advances.


Just after celebrating his 25th anniversary at Cornerstone in 2017, Karl Vaters—as was his habit—met with Gary Garcia, his youth pastor for the same number of years. They talked about life and ministry before Garcia blurted out: “I feel like I am being called to pastor Cornerstone.”

In the silence that followed, he added: “But I don’t want you not to pastor.”

When they thought about it together, Karl had been surprised—nearly overwhelmed—by writing and speaking engagements on behalf of small churches around the world. Cornerstone was entering another season of transition, from an emphasis on fellowship to outreach, and everyone knew Gary was the guy with the zeal and gift for moving out into the community. If Gary became the senior pastor and Karl held onto his role as teaching pastor, both would operate more in the center of their gifting.

When Gary asked, “How do we make this happen?” Karl responded, “I don’t know; we will figure it out together.”

Rob Wilkins, an Outreach magazine contributing writer, is the founder and creative lead for Fuse Media in Asheville, North Carolina.

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