Karl Vaters: When Small Is Just Right

Karl Vaters discusses ‘Small Church Essentials’ and why church growth is an incomplete way to measure church health.

Today I’m happy to welcome Karl Vaters to The Exchange. Karl has been a small church pastor for 30 years and currently leads Cornerstone Christian Fellowship in Fountain Valley, California. He writes about the value and needs of small churches for Christianity Today and is the founder of NewSmallChurch.com, a blog that encourages, connects and equips innovative small church pastors. Below I talk to him about his new book, Small Church Essentials.

How did you come to write Small Church Essentials?

Small churches are, by far, the most common expression of the gathered body of Christ. But they are highly undervalued and grossly under-resourced. I know because I’ve been pastoring in small churches for most of my ministry, including the small church I’ve been at for the last 25 years.

Despite the fact that we’re a healthy, vibrant, worshipping, missional church in very populated area, we’ve remained small.

That so-called ‘failure’ caused so much frustration and discouragement that I almost left the pastoral ministry. Then, a friend and counselor encouraged me to find ways of measuring church effectiveness beyond the numbers. That led me to write my first book, The Grasshopper Myth.

As I’ve continued to study, write, speak and have conversations with thousands of fellow small church pastors, I’ve gained a deeper understanding of how to do effective ministry within a small church context. The lessons from those interactions and my own experiences are the heartbeat of Small Church Essentials.

Why do you think it is so common for people to equate the size of a church with its level of health? Or as you put it, to filter everything through the “church growth lens.”

I think it’s based on some understandable, but faulty logic—namely, a healthy church will be fulfilling the Great Commission, which means it will grow numerically. That’s a reasonable theory. But any theory needs to be tested against reality. And when we do that, we discover that there are many churches who are fulfilling their role in the Great Commission without getting bigger for a wide variety of reasons.

How do you help pastors to shift their thinking from focusing on their church size to focusing on the health of their church?

Many pastors have given up in frustration after chasing the elusive goal of numerical success. But they’re not lazy. They just haven’t been given an alternative way of measuring success in ministry.

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When they hear that numerical increase is not the only measure of health and effectiveness, they want to learn more and they’re thrilled to make that shift.

If you’re not sure if your motivations are based on numbers rather than health and effectiveness, consider this question: If you knew that what your church is doing would bless people and grow the kingdom of God even though it wouldn’t put more people in your church, would you still do it? If so, the motivation is probably health, not numbers. If not …

Why is this book important for large church pastors?

When I started this ministry, I had three goals: (1) to encourage small church pastors, (2) to put resources into their hands and (3) to mainstream this message to the broader church leadership community.

Large churches are great! Most small church leaders want to work with our big church counterparts. But small churches and their leaders often feel isolated and ignored. It’s important for pastors of large churches not to forget what most of their peers are dealing with and to understand the differences in how small churches and big churches function. We can’t help them if we don’t understand their circumstances and their needs.

Will this encourage small church pastors?

I hope so. For too many years small church pastors have been treated more like we’re a problem to be fixed than an essential element of God’s overall strategy. It’s hard to feel encouraged with that drumbeat in the background.

Small Church Essentials is not about complaining or offering excuses. It’s about encouraging small churches to lean into our strengths for the advancement of Christ’s mission on earth. It’s debilitating when people insist that small churches must get bigger before we can be of value. My hope is that every church of every size will feel valued, encouraged and challenged to step up—not at some point in the future when we get bigger, but right here, right now at our current size.

What is unique and necessary about the small church perspective?

Small churches constitute 90 percent of congregations and half the body of Christ. The fact that we’ve spent so little time considering their needs and underutilizing their strengths is scandalous.

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We need small churches simply because there are a lot of people who worship, serve, learn, and minister better in a small church context than a big one. As Rick Warren says, “We need all kinds of church to reach all kinds of people.” And that includes all sizes. Big and small.

Why have you stopped using the term “church growth?”

The church growth movement has been an extraordinary blessing to the church. It has renewed an emphasis on outreach, church planting, the value of using accurate metrics and so much more.

But every good thing has unintended consequences. One of the unintended consequences of the church growth movement is that it’s made us over-reliant on numbers as not just one factor in determining church growth and health, but often the only factor.

Instead of striving for church growth, I encourage churches and pastors to work on increasing their capacity for effective ministry. Being effective is a better goal than getting bigger.

Can you share some stories of applying these small church essentials in the church that you pastor?

Several years ago, I told our church staff, “We have to stop thinking like a big church, because we’re not one.” Instead, we need to do ministry that’s appropriate for the size we are now, while developing systems for a church twice our size. Since doing that we’ve had a healthier church doing more effective ministry. It’s also helped us to renew our focus on the biblical command (I like to call it the “Pastoral Prime Directive”) of equipping the saints to do the work of ministry (Eph. 4:11–12).

An equipping church is an effective church, and that’s what we’re always striving to be.

Read more from Ed Stetzer »

Ed Stetzer, an Outreach magazine contributing editor, holds the Billy Graham distinguished chair of church, mission and evangelism at Wheaton College and the Wheaton Grad School, where he also oversees the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism. This article originally appeared on The Exchange.