“So, what are you running these days?”
It’s the question all church leaders hear—and dread—usually at conferences or seminars, anywhere a bunch of Type A personalities have gathered to talk about ministry and their churches. Unfortunately, in our American church culture, the measurement of how successful you are as a person and as a pastor seems to rely on your answer to the question—that one telling number we define ourselves by.
I still remember a pastor I met five years ago. He had brought me in to lead an evangelistic meeting for a small church in his small Midwestern town. While I was there, I spent several days as a guest in the pastor’s home. In the late afternoons, he and I would sit on the family’s front porch and invariably people strolling by would stop to talk, often expressing their appreciation to the pastor for his counsel or encouragement. One morning, we walked into a nearby diner for breakfast and this personable preacher stopped at every table (I’m not exaggerating!) to talk and laugh with someone he knew.
This man and his family were making a profound impact on the people in their small community. But when the days’ meetings were over and we sat on that same porch in the quiet of the evening, the preacher’s gregarious voice grew soft and subdued as he talked about the discouragement he felt in his ministry. Many of his seminary classmates had gone on to serve much larger congregations. By comparison, he felt as if he’d failed. I sensed a similar feeling of inferiority among some members of his congregation.
This pastor and his church, for lack of a better phrase, suffered from low ministry self-esteem. In their thinking, because they weren’t big, they weren’t successful—or effective—or healthy.
And he’s not alone. I often hear friends from Bible College and fellow ministers say, “I just don’t feel like I’ve accomplished anything.” We’ve come to think the phrase “small church” inherently means defective or insufficient.
But as a pastor of a small church in Milan, Ind., I know this to be untrue. We run 100 people on a “good” Sunday, and I know we’ll never be a huge church. Milan has a population of 1,800, and that’s not going to change much. One day, I came to the conclusion that it’s OK. God is happy with us. He is pleased that this small church in this small community is being the salt and the light, all numbers—attendees, resources, programs, acres—aside. And when that occurred to me, I knew other small churches needed to hear this, as well.
According to Barna Research Group (barna.org), the average church in America has only 89 attendees. That doesn’t sound like much, but I’ve seen how 89 people, including my preacher friend and his family, can change the spiritual landscape around them. They loved the people in their church and community, and in return, the church and community loved them. Good things were happening in that Midwestern church and town.
All small churches are unique, so developing a one-size-fits-all solution to thriving is nearly impossible. In his book Effective Small Churches in the Twenty-First Century (Abingdon), Carl Dudley writes that the effectiveness of a small church does not lie in numbers—although yes, they can sometimes be important—but rather in the human relationships of those who attend.
“The challenge is always dependent upon people’s commitment to the church,” he says.
And here’s the good news: Many smaller churches across America are committed and thriving. They’re in the center of God’s will, making a difference in people’s lives. They may not be receiving a flood of new residents into their communities. They may not be welcoming scores of new visitors to their services. But for these congregations, it’s not about attendance. It’s about making good use of what they have. It’s about taking their hill—their community, no matter how small—for Christ.
In my 30 years as a pastor, I’ve learned specific principles for thriving in a small church that are outlined below. And over the next few pages, you’ll hear about and meet some small churches—Valley Open Bible Fellowship in Big Lake, Alaska; Hope Christian Church in inner-city Indianapolis; and Whipple Creek Community Church in Vancouver, Wash.—that are taking their own hill right where they are, not with grandiose attendance numbers, but with servant hearts.
Principle 1: Pray, pray and pray again.
Prayer is the most crucial—and easiest—step. It’s biblical, affordable and doable for any church.
At my church, we have special prayer sessions when we come together and just pray for our church, our ministry and outreach to the community. We ask God to bring us the people that will help us. We ask Him to help us with our unity, spirit and focus.
The size of your prayer group is irrelevant. Just make sure you meet regularly to ask great things of God and expect great things from Him. As pastors, we cannot underestimate the power of prayer to change lives—and churches.
Principle 2: Find a niche.
For Valley Open Bible Fellowship in Big Lake, Alaska, its niche is food. The church knows that many of its area’s 3,000 households are living without the basics—electricity, running water and food. So, every week, the church of 40 to 50 regular attendees provides a full-course meal from its 9- by-10-foot kitchen for some 60 unchurched people.
“We have a team of people that loves to cook. Another team collects food from local food banks and delivers it to the church,” says Pastor Ed Blocker. “We’ve found a way that we can meet our area’s needs. Our main focus as a church is just to be able to sit there and share a meal with them.”
Rather than tackling a number of projects that may deplete your resources and strain your budget, look for one thing your church can do well, and do it. Does your community lack a vibrant Christian youth group? Find parents and single adults in your church who are passionate about helping kids, and get behind them to develop the most dynamic youth group in town. If no one in your community is reaching out to people with special needs and their families, assume that responsibility.
Often, small churches can reach a segment of the community that would otherwise go untouched. Kathy, a member of my church, worked in a home for men with special needs. One Sunday, she invited Orla, a resident, to come with her to church. A couple in our congregation then volunteered to begin a Sunday school class for Orla, and today five men from the group home worship with us regularly. We’re the only church in town to provide such a ministry.
As one niche ministry takes off, don’t be afraid to start another. But keep your focus and concentrate on doing a few things well.
Principle 3: Plug people in.
Every church, regardless of size, has gifted people in its midst. Identifying their gifts and challenging them to use their abilities for Kingdom purposes takes time and work, but the results are worth the effort. In The Indispensable Guide for Smaller Churches (Pilgrim Press), author David Ray lists 30 unique characteristics of smaller churches, one being “Lay people are more important than the pastor.” If work is to get done in many smaller churches, he says, it all depends on volunteers.
Take the example of Whipple Creek Community Church in Vancouver, Wash. The 90-member church puts on a monthly production called “Electric Avenue,” with drama, music and games for its local families, emphasizing a specific virtue or moral.
But this only happens because the church capitalizes on its members’ talents, says Pastor Brett Aljets. Whipple Creek’s artists paint and design the backdrops, actors perform or help direct the production dramas, and vocalists sing and write lyrics.
The production is attracting not only the area’s unchurched, but also more willing volunteers. “We want to do drama well in order to attract drama people, and do music well to attract music people. Excellence attracts excellence,” says Aljets.
Pay attention to what the people in your church say about their professions, hobbies, recreation and other interests. Then use that information to help you identify their gifts and strengths. Help them get plugged into ministries that match their gifts and passions and give them the tools they need to do their work well. Encourage and honor them often—from the pulpit, in front of others in the church, in personal conversation and in your church publications. Smaller churches may not be in the position to hire additional staff members, but they can use their volunteers to great advantage.
Principle 4: Celebrate your victories.
Effective smaller churches celebrate every victory they achieve. If you want to elevate the excitement, enthusiasm and sense of purpose in your church, acknowledge your accomplishments. Did you end the year in the black? Celebrate. Did you decide to support a new missionary? Celebrate. Did someone come to Christ? You get the idea.
In Indianapolis, 225-member Hope Christian Church offers GED courses for its inner-city community where many lack full-time jobs. For each course graduate, the church hosts a graduation ceremony with all the fanfare of a high school graduation. The celebrations give the church volunteers and those they’ve helped tangible reasons to be thankful together. Friends and family feel appreciated for the contributions they made to help graduates, and the graduates feel loved and more inspired to help others in the future.
Some smaller churches assume they have little to celebrate. I believe that’s a matter of your perspective. Anything done for God is a big thing—and it should be celebrated. Celebrations generate enthusiasm. It has been said, “People love to go to church where people love to go to church.”
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