the shape of leadership

Small Church Essentials | Book Review

Leading a healthy congregation of under 250

George P Wood on March 22, 2018


Your church is big enough,” writes Karl Vaters in Small Church Essentials. “Right now. Today, at its current size.”

Vaters’ statement goes against the grain of what many ministers have been taught, explicitly and implicitly, about church growth. “A healthy church will grow numerically,” they’ve been taught in so many words. “If yours isn’t growing, you’re doing something wrong. Here’s how to break the ____ barrier” (fill in the blank with a large number).

The intent of this teaching is good, of course. Church growth aims at increasing a church’s size by increasing the number of people it wins to Christ. And church-growth ideas have been successfully implemented at a number of churches, which have grown exponentially.

But not all churches. Not even most churches. Indeed, despite the intent, the effect of church-growth teaching can be demoralizing to small-church pastors who implement it with little or no resulting growth. That’s certainly how Vaters felt after implementing church-growth programs at his church for many years with no appreciable change in size.

Things came to a head when he heard a denominational leader state that 80 percent of that denomination’s churches were under 200 in weekly attendance, and 90 percent were under 100.

“I knew the expected response to the statistic should be, ‘Our church is small too. Oh no!’ But something inside me broke that day,” writes Vaters.

His immediate response was defensive and a bit cynical: “Our church is small, so what?” But as weeks passed, he realized that “so what?” was not an agenda. While planning an upcoming church event, the thought hit him: “Our church is small, now what?” That was a game-changer, an epiphany.

Leading a small church requires different ways of thinking about and practicing ministry.

It led Vaters to a new understanding of a growing church, epitomized in this sentence: “We are always striving to increase our capacity for effective ministry.” Any church can do this, at any size.

Of course, capacity for effective ministry is going to look different at small churches than at big churches. Why? Because of the Law of Large Numbers: “The bigger the group, the more predictably they behave. The smaller the group, the less predictably they behave.”

So, for example, leading a big church requires a pastor to focus on systems and processes. Those systems and processes move people from the large-group experience on Sunday to a small-group experience at midweek. A small church is already a small group, however. Instead of focusing on systems and processes, a small-church pastor leads by personal relationship.

Here’s another example: In a big church, discipleship typically takes place using a curriculum model. (Think of Rick Warren’s baseball diamond analogy here.) When a church needs to train large numbers of people, this systems-oriented approach works well. But a mentoring model works better in a small church precisely because it leverages the value of personal relationship.

I could cite other examples of how the Law of Large Numbers shapes leadership in big and small churches, but I think you get Vaters’ basic point. Leading a small church requires different ways of thinking about and practicing ministry than leading a big church. Not better or worse, mind you, just different.

Small Church Essentials isn’t anti-big church by any stretch of the imagination. By the same token, though, it’s not uncritically pro-small church.

“Small churches are not a problem, a virtue, or an excuse,” Vaters writes.

“Jesus calls every church and every church leader for a purpose,” he concludes, “and He equips us with everything we need to accomplish that purpose.”

Regardless of size.

If you’re a small-church pastor who wants to increase your own capacity and your church’s capacity for effective ministry, I highly recommend this hopeful, helpful book.

Book Reviewed

Karl Vaters, Small Church Essentials: Field-Tested Principles for Leading a Healthy Congregation of Under 250 (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2018).

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