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How A New Generation Is Changing What Quality Looks Like In A Thriving Small Church

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Millennials are not the church of tomorrow. They’re raising families in and outside of our churches right now.

Mostly outside of them.

Unfortunately, some people have written off the current generation spiritually. That is a mistake – for the church and for them.

Millennials, Gen Y, and whatever we name the generation that follows them (Coronials?) are raising the stakes on discussions of

  • Spiritual life
  • Sexuality
  • Community
  • Workplace power dynamics
  • Economic and environmental responsibility
  • Racial reconciliation
  • Gender identity

and more.

These are all vitally important issues that the Bible addresses and that thoughtful Christians have talked about for 2,000 years.

As such, current generations are seeking dialogue about the very topics that healthy small churches should be good at, in an atmosphere of genuine relationships and intimate worship. Sadly, this is not our reputation.

But it’s not too late to change. If we’re willing to engage in biblically-based conversations about the vital issues, we can bring about the greatest opportunity for small church ministry in 2,000 years.

But this opportunity comes with one big condition.

Current generations won’t give up quality to gain intimacy.

And they shouldn’t have to.

Not Their Parents’ Church

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that current generations have the same needs people have always had. Needs that include a desire to worship something (someone) bigger than themselves, and to do so with others who are also seeking for meaning.

In other words, church.

But they’re not being drawn to the kinds of churches their parents built. Many of them don’t want a big Sunday morning stage show as much as they want genuine intimacy and relationships.

Because of this need, new generations are willing take a peek at the small church alternative. But they’re used to a high-quality experience in everything and they won’t settle for less.

Thankfully, for those who lead small churches, that’s not as intimidating as it sounds.

Quality = Health

Small church doesn’t mean cheap, shoddy, lazy or low-quality. At least it shouldn’t.

Too often, quality has meant excess for my generation (Boomers). We love glitz. Over-the-top. Bling. What the New Testament calls “adornment”. (1 Peter 3:3-4)

(Interesting, isn’t it, that a lot of ministries properly reject the sin of immodesty but they have no problem with the flip-side sin of adornment? Some even revel in it as evidence of God’s blessing.)

Quality for a small church can be summed up in one word.


It starts by getting the basics right.

  • Real-world Bible teaching
  • Genuine relationships
  • Practical ministry opportunities
  • Helpful conversations about important issues
  • And sincere, passionate worship

The good news is, your church doesn’t have to be big to do any of that.

Do New Generations Even Care About God?

Here’s how I addressed this question in my book, The Grasshopper Myth.

In They Like Jesus but Not the Church, Dan Kimball relates some of the feelings new generations of non-believers have about Jesus and the church. The main result is reflected in the title, of course, but other findings were interesting too.

One young woman expressed her desire for a church that was smaller and more intimate. As she so beautifully put it, “Make church a book club with soul.” She’s not alone in that longing.

Another unchurched friend of Kimball’s told him, “… I think the meetings should be smaller. Every once in a while a big meeting is cool, but not as the norm.”

Yet another asked, “Didn’t Jesus spend most of his time in smaller settings, with smaller groups? … I bet that is where they learned the most from him, not when he was in the masses with larger crowds.”

Some of what younger generations want and need from the church has nothing to do with the style of the worship band. Many of them just don’t like the corporate vibe of a bigger church. What speaks to their heart can only happen in a smaller setting.

– from The Grasshopper Myth: Chapter 8 – Small Church, Big Vision

Small groups, small churches and “book clubs with soul” (I just love that last one).

What’s going on here? Can we really take these anecdotal stories as an indication of a trend? I think so. Because the evidence is coming in to back it up.

In a recent poll, the highly-respected Pew Forum found what everyone has suspected. Millennials attend church less often than their parents. But it also included this important caveat. “Among Millennials who are affiliated with a religion, however, the intensity of their religious affiliation is as strong today as among previous generations when they were young.” (emphasis theirs)

So fewer Millennials attend religious services, but the faith of those who do is as strong as ever. And that dedication is likely to grow, as it typically does when you find yourself in the minority.

Which means what? Everyone has their own interpretation, of course. Here’s mine.

It’s Time to Lead

Churches follow trends as much as anyone. Usually about 20 years behind.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. We can lead.

Not in a “look how cool they are” way, or a “look how smart they are” way. But in a “look how they love one another” way.

There’s no better place to express or sense that kind of love-leadership than in a small church.

Megachurches won’t disappear, despite all the predictions to the contrary. I hope they don’t. Instead, alongside megachurches I see a growing hunger for healthy, high-quality, innovative small churches to meet the needs of upcoming generations.

If small churches can provide opportunities for genuine relationships with God and each other, in a thriving church with practical ministry to the surrounding community, we can be the vanguard of a new church movement. But it really won’t be a new movement. It will be the oldest one of all.

Since the day of Pentecost, thriving small churches have been the way the majority of Christians have done church. They’ve just stayed under the radar for 2,000 years.

Now may be their turn to come out of the shadows.

It’s about time.

This article originally appeared here.

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Karl is the author of four books and has been in pastoral ministry for almost 40 years. He is the teaching pastor of Cornerstone Christian Fellowship, a healthy small church in Orange County, California, where he has ministered for over 27 years with his wife, Shelley. Karl’s heart is to help pastors of small churches find the resources to lead well and to capitalize on the unique advantages that come with pastoring a small church. Karl produces resources for Helping Small Churches Thrive at KarlVaters.com, and has created S.P.A.R.K. Online (Small-Church Pastors Adapt & Recover Kit), which is updated regularly with new resources to help small churches deal with issues related to the COVID-19 crisis and aftermath.