Book Recommendation: Small Church Essentials: Field-Tested Principles for Leading a Healthy Congregation of under 250
Most books and podcasts on church strategy are written from the perspective of a big church leader. It’s easy to see why. Big church leaders have a platform. They’re successful. People want to hear what they have to say. We tend to equate size with success and so, if we want to be successful, we seek out those who have “made it.”
Karl Vaters is a small church pastor who has written this book specifically for small churches. In doing so, his advice often challenges some conventional wisdom of church growth books.
While this book covers a lot of ground. Here are five takeaways I got out of the book:
- The world needs both big and small churches.
Though written from a small church perspective, this is not an anti-big church book. Vaters praises God for big and small churches alike. Big churches can be healthy and effective or unhealthy and ineffective. The same is true for small churches.
Vaters isn’t interested in the comparison game. Both big and small churches have a role to play in the larger body of Christ. Those churches can play complementary roles. Vaters isn’t concerned about size, but about effectiveness: “We don’t need fewer big churches or fewer small churches – we need more healthy, active, passionate churches of all sizes, working together.”
- Small churches are different from Big churches, and that’s OK.
One of Vaters’ central theses is that a lot of advice given by big church leaders to small churches doesn’t work. Is that because small church pastors are lazy or ineffective? Is it because they’re not gifted or good leaders? Lots of small church pastors tell themselves this, but Vaters disagrees.
Big church principles don’t work in small churches because they just operate differently. Vaters’ explanation for this is the law of large numbers. The law of large numbers states that large groups are more predictable than small groups. “The smaller the group, the more the idiosyncrasies of individual people and the relationships between them come into play.”
Here’s one example: Because of this unpredictability, it can be harder for smaller churches to do long term planning. “The smaller the church, the less predictably it behaves, and the harder it is to plan for.” Small church plans are subject to significant change: “In a small church, the addition, subtraction, or change in plans of just one person or family can cause massive changes that you can never adequately prepare for.” That’s not to say that small churches should make long term plans, but that planning will end up looking differently than what is done in large churches.
If small church pastors try to just drop big church programs into their church, it may prove ineffective, or even detrimental, acting against the strengths of the small church. “The very systems that bring stability to big churches can make small churches seem cold and corporate, negating the main reason why most people attend a small church to begin with – the personal touch.”
- Church health matters more than Church size.
Here’s what happens: Small church pastors go to a conference, read a book, scan an article, or listen to a podcast promising church growth. The pastor does his best to put it into practice but, since it is only written from a big church perspective, it doesn’t work as expected. The pastor feels discouraged, assuming he is the problem. He either gives up or just moves on to the next big thing.
Vaters wants us to know that some “big church” principles are just not likely to work in small churches because they operate differently. He also wants us to know that simple numerical growth is the wrong goal.
Instead of seeking growth, churches should be seeking health. Vaters defines health as “increase[ing] our capacity for effective ministry.” Therefore, “instead of telling struggling churches to get bigger, let’s help them become healthy. If those churches grow as a result of their health, that’s great. If not? At east they’ll be healthy.”
After all, if a church is unhealthy, growth won’t help. “If something is broken, you can’t fix it by making it bigger.”
So how does a small church become an effective church? That’s what Vaters wants to answer, and that’s what this book is about.
- Vision casting matters less in small churches
Big and small churches will have different strategies and different priorities. A lot of church growth books put a major premium on crafting a vision statement and then consistently casting that vision to the church. Vaters sees value in having a vision statement, he just thinks its not that important for small churches.
He gives several reasons for this. First, we have already been given a “vision statement” from Jesus: “We’ve already been given the biggest, most audacious God-inspired vision of all… We have the Great Commandment and the Great Commission.”
Second, small church pastors need to focus on the clear command in Scripture on equipping the saints for ministry. “If the burden of having to find, cast, and promote a unique vision for the church was lifted from pastors’ shoulders, we would feel free to become the equippers we’re meant to be.”
Third, while in big churches a top-down approach to vision casting may be necessary, in small churches the preference should be for a bottom-up approach. Vaters doesn’t see many examples in Scripture of top-down vision casting. Instead, he argues that “a healthy small church on mission with God can and should be hearing God through various voices in the congregation.”
Pastors and congregations should be listening to God together and then get to work doing the ministry. Once a church understands its call (through actually doing ministry) then it can craft a mission statement. In this bottom-up, action-oriented approach, a vision/mission statement might still come, but it does later in the process. “In most small churches, a mission statement should be the last thing we do, not the first.”
- In small churches, relationships (and friendliness) are a priority
While Vaters doesn’t put a big priority on “vision casting” leadership, he does put a big priority on relationships. “Small churches live and die on the strength of their relationships.”
Why do people generally come to small churches? To find meaningful relationships. Why do people visit a small church? Because a friend invites them. How do people grow spiritually in small churches? Meaningful relationships (including mentoring relationships).
Guest friendliness also needs to be a priority. Yes, this matters in big churches as well, but often people expect a level of anonymity when they visit a large church. That’s not true for small churches. “Walking into a small church for the first time can be an act of great vulnerability.” But small churches are positioned well to do just this. You don’t need a lot of resources to be friendly to guests and foster meaningful relationships.
There’s a lot more that could be said, of course, but I hope you get the idea. I especially recommend this book for small church pastors and leaders. There are a few things in the book that I would push back on, but this book did what good books tend to do, it got me thinking about things through a new paradigm. I really appreciated Vaters’ small church insights.