Why Small Churches Have To Think Big
When it comes to growing your church, what you don’t know can hurt you … and it can negatively affect you, your career, and your family in ways too many former pastors could not even begin to imagine.
Don’t get stuck doubting your creativity or abilities. Know what your strengths are and play to them.
I believe the first, and possibly the greatest, mistake we, as church-going people make is to take for granted the effectiveness of the “small” church. Size is the unspoken measuring stick all churches use to see how they stack up to the “competition.” We hate to use that word – competition – but, oftentimes, the only reason we’re taking a look at another congregation is because we want to do what they’re doing … just a little bit better. We want a few more members so we can mark ourselves as the more effective church – neglecting to realize that size has nothing to do with kingdom impact.
In my experience, I have been blessed to work with churches of differing sizes, styles, and denominations. I love to see how each church handles their own unique challenges. From stage layouts, pastoral preferences, and finances, no two churches are the same. Yet, as church staff, we find ourselves looking over the fence at what the church up the street is doing; many times becoming discouraged. The internet has intensified this by giving us the ability to see what churches across the country, and around the world, are doing. It’s a hard place. I struggle with it more times than I’d like. Unfortunately, instead of playing to our strengths and embracing what makes our church unique – what our congregation loves about us – we pour money, time, and energy into trying to create something we’re not.
We all do it, watching online services of other churches and searching stage design websites for inspiration. But how do we translate an idea that was implemented at a church of 1,000 when we only have 100 members? We have to first acknowledge what our capabilities are. Some churches are blessed with an extremely creative drama team, some with incredible musical talents, and others with dynamic preachers. But not all churches can provide all of these things, and that’s OK.
One of the biggest hurdles small churches have to jump is the issue of manpower. The average small church’s staff will most likely include the following pastors: senior, administrative, family ministry, and worship. The worship pastor in these churches has to wear many hats: leading the praise band, overseeing the production/tech ministry, directing the choir, and working with drama. With so much on their plate, effective programming may seem to slide, and suddenly a church service can sometimes feel like a vaudeville act. I can say by experience, that it is hard for not only small churches and especially big churches have problems with finding people that want to serve our Lord. This is something that can put a strain on the brothers and sisters that are serving because, more is expected from them, for the reason that their is not enough help.
So, let me say this, before you decide to dip your toes into the waters of church transformation or take a stab at church resurection, here are some things every pastor should know about church growth.
- Let’s start with the easy one – the “duh!” that no pastor should fall for. When it comes to growing a church, there are no shortcuts, no magic bullets, and no prescribed combination of programs, and it’s neither simple nor easy. Anyone who tells you otherwise has some sort of snake oil to sell you, they’re pulling your leg, or they’re hopelessly naive (or hoping that you are).
- Growing A Church Is Difficult, Taxing, Time-Consuming Work. You may not have to put in seventy hours a week, but you are going to have to put in blood, sweat, and tears. You’ll have to navigate those in your congregation who already demand your time and attention and balance that with the reality that you have to spend significant time in the unchurched world with unchurched people and be intentional about having spiritually fruitful conversations.
- Growing Your Church Means Putting Your Job On The Line. It’s risky. Here’s reality: if you double your attendance, there will be conflict – largely because the existing leaders will realize they’re about to lose control. We call that textbook… it always happens. Many former pastors share about the time when they grew their church… and in so doing, lost their jobs.
- Is It Really All About Numbers. I know that’s hard to hear, but how will you know if your church is growing if you’re not counting? You have to count attendance in worship and in small groups. You have to count income and outgo and per capita giving. But as important as those are, there are other more important numbers that growing churches count. In the order of importance, those numbers are…
- Adult baptisms
- Weekly first-time visitors
- Weekly first-time visitors who match your target group
- First-time visitors who return
- First-time visitors who match your target group who return.
If you measure what’s important you’ll see growth.
- An effective church growth strategy starts with the heart. If your church leaders have a heart for reaching the community for Jesus Christ then they’ll find the stomach for the conflict that will inevitably erupt. There’s a difference between knowing the church needs to grow and having a “heart” – a passion – for that growth. Almost everyone in a church agrees that their church needs to grow, but few are willing to put up with the changes necessary for that growth. That’s why the heart is so important – a passionate, willing heart is able to put personal preferences aside for the sake of reaching people for Jesus.
- Church growth will test your leadership ability. The first test of your leadership is whether or not you can create a conflagration of passion for your church growth vision. If you can’t do that, the chances of a successful church growth campaign falls to zero.
I have visited churches where it was like a show instead of sermon. I have seen many church services include elements that should never have been there. Usually they are things that one of the leaders found funny, or thought provoking that week. It very well may be an emotional piece, but at the end of the service there has been no common thread bringing it all together. We need to keep it simple and remember to let Gods’ Word do it’s job and plant a seed in the hearts of those that are their to worship.
Every church, no matter the size, needs to have a “content gatekeeper;” a programming director that can say “No. We’re not going to show the a funny video on Good Friday.”
This idea of a well-executed weekend service is really what we’re longing for when we watch other churches. It’s the small details, done well, that can have the biggest impact. But many times we don’t know “how the sausage is made.” At my church we sometimes drive ourselves crazy rehearsing, but that craziness is completely worth it because the payoff is always so great. Practicing exactly how we want it done in the service ingrains the details into our brains, helping us pull off what seems to be an effortless service. I know that sounds elementary, and maybe too good to be true, but too often I see rehearsals being treated as a social time or approached with a lack of engagement. Rehearsing a service exactly as it should be executed on Sunday morning — with transitions, announcements, and videos — may seem trivial, but when we’re tasked with creating an atmosphere for our congregation to worship in, the particulars matter. By perfecting each element ahead of time we can help prevent the distractions that cause disengagement.
My advice to all churches, big and small, is to still surf the internet for those stimulating ideas that can be adapted to inspire the heart of your church. Don’t get stuck doubting your creativity or abilities. Know what your strengths are and play to them. I have sat in countless planning meetings where we spend hours working on new and creative ideas, only to walk away from them because we can’t “pull it off.” Instead of altering the seemingly impossible ideas to accommodate what our teams (and budget) can handle and produce with quality, we think and discuss how cool said idea is until it finally gives way. I am not talking about the request for pyrotechnics that seems to be brought up at every meeting, but the simple things — the things we are afraid of trying because they’re new.
Take risks, be creative. The key is not to “wing it,” but to be intentional about each and every element that is put into a service. Ultimately, we aren’t in ministry to give the church a great show, but to provide an atmosphere of worship that helps the congregation connect with Christ.
Growing a church isn’t for the faint of heart. It’s hard work. And you’re pretty much putting it all on the line. Jesus said to count the cost before following him… it’s no less important to count the cost before you launch a church growth strategy. If it is in Gods’ plan then it will be a work in progress and we need to remember that it will be in His time and not ours.