How to Lead a Healthy Small Church
By Bella Simonetti
What comes to your mind when you hear about small churches?
If you’re a small church pastor, like Karl Vaters, you’ve probably heard many things. Vaters, who has been pastoring for 30 years, has heard many misconceptions from others when he tells them he pastors a small church.
“First and most common, when people hear that you pastor a small church, they often think, ‘If it’s small, they must be doing something wrong,’” said Karl Vaters. “Second is, people think if you’re in favor of small churches, then you’re settling for less. And this too is simply not true. I’m not interested in small churches being small, I’m interested in small churches being great.”
Churches are considered “small” when they have an average attendance below 200. This is where many authors and teachers get the concept of “the 200 barrier.” If you have ever been discouraged with your church attendance numbers, you’ve probably read a book or article on the subject.
Every pastor wants the church they lead to be successful. But the fallacy of “bigger is better” can leave many pastors of small churches feeling downright disappointed when they don’t see numerical growth.
If you’ve ever felt like you’ve failed in this way, Karl Vaters would kindly call to your attention that, “90% of churches around the world are under 200 people, and they’re not failures!” In fact, as Vaters points out, 200 may be bigger than the biggest church in town.
Advocating for small churches
To be clear, Karl Vaters is in no way bashing big churches. On the contrary, Vaters believes big churches and small churches are both great.
However, Vaters admits that small churches are not receiving the help they need to be healthy in their current state, at their current size. He believes small churches are pushed to grow in attendance before they can be healthy churches. But the reality is that small churches can be great and healthy in the place they are now.
So, to be of help to small church pastors, Vaters created a blog, newsmallchurch.com, with the sole purpose of encouraging, equipping, and connecting innovative small church leaders. He writes and posts articles three times a week.
“I started this blog, first of all, to give encouragement mainly because small church pastors feel like failures for not hitting numerical goals, and so on,” said Vaters. “The equipping part of the blog is to provide small church pastors with resources. And the connection part is to connect us all together to talk about our differences and similarities.”
Karl Vater’s inspiration for this unique platform came from his experience of being a small church pastor and dealing with the ups and downs of church growth.
God’s calling on Vater’s life
God’s calling to ministry comes differently for every pastor. For Vaters, you could say it runs in his family, as he is a third generation pastor. But he didn’t want to hear that when he was young.
“Growing up, other people saw the call to be a pastor on me, especially in my teen years,” Vater shares. “They would say things like, ‘You’re just like your father and grandfather.’ Granted, I have nothing but absolute respect for my father and grandfather, but no kid wants to be told they’ll end up in the family business.”
Hearing this from other adults in his life made Vaters want to push back. He looked for other interests in different types of careers, but nothing seemed to stick for him.
“I realized, in the majors I was seeking out, I kept running into problems because I couldn’t find what I really wanted to do. So, I made a deal with the Lord,” he laughed, “and I signed up for a speech class.”
At the time, Vaters was nervous about public speaking. In his “deal” with the Lord, he wanted to receive a sign, or confirmation, about whether or not he should be a pastor.
“I thought, you know, if I fail at public speaking, then I clearly shouldn’t be a pastor,” said Vaters. But as he stood in front of the crowd during his first public speech, he realized he wasn’t afraid, and instead found the gift came naturally to him. He was even approached by his speech teacher, who asked him to consider joining the school’s competitive speaking team. “At that point I thought, Okay, Lord, I get it,” he laughed again. The rest is history.
Explosive growth and collapse
Though Vaters was called to be a pastor, he didn’t think he was necessarily called to only be a small church pastor. He had a vision to turn a small church into a big church and to see attendance exponentially grow as the church reached the lost and broken. But it didn’t turn out that way for his church.
“I failed at building a big church,” he said frankly. “That’s where it started.” Vaters continued to share his journey.
“[Our church] started out with 30 people on a big Sunday and about a dozen on normal Sundays,” said Karl. But as the church grew, he began to see numbers grow to about 200. “And then, we did a big push for outreach, and we got to seeing 400 people at our church! We thought we’d start getting big at that point. But, once we hit 400, our numbers started dropping.”
In less than one year, Vaters saw the total attendance of his church drop from 400 to 100. And there were some days only 50 people showed up. There was no scandal in the church, and there was no split to explain the decrease in attendance.
“There were a handful of reasons why we shrunk,” Vaters explained. “We were just entertaining bored Christians, and we weren’t discipling people well.”
“Mostly, what I determined later on, as [our numbers] were exploding, I found that I was more miserable than any other time of my ministry.”
With such high attendance numbers, Vaters found himself going from being hands-on, to being a hands-off pastor. “You just can’t have a healthy, growing church when the pastor isn’t working within his gifting,” Vaters said.
With the sudden drop in attendance, Karl found himself feeling the weight of disappointment. “I kept thinking to myself, Has God failed me? But the reality was that no one failed me. I was just not happy or fulfilled in the big church setting.”
From his frustrations and disappointments, Vaters found himself searching for resources. But he couldn’t find the answers to his questions. So, with encouragement from his wife, he decided to write his first book.
“I wrote The Grasshopper Myth because I couldn’t find a book like it,” said Vaters. The title was inspired from Numbers 33. In Vater’s words, the idea of the grasshopper myth is the lie many small church leaders tell themselves. “We see big, bigger and megachurches popping up all over the place. Then when we look back at ourselves, we seem like grasshoppers ‘in our own eyes.’”
“The Grasshopper Myth is where I began,” said Vaters. “I went through my own frustrations and challenges as a small church pastor. I had a desire to see my church attendance numbers grow so I could pastor a big church. But it just never happened for me. It was discouraging. And I live in Orange County, California, so it’s not like there’s not a large population to draw from.”
From his experience, Vaters can testify of the many struggles that pastors of small churches face. “One of them is that we feel discouraged,” explained Vaters. “The second is that it’s really hard to find resources designed to help smaller churches. And third, quite frankly, is time. Most pastors of small churches are bi-vocational, or they are the only ones paid on the church’s staff.”
To help small church pastors get the resources they need, Karl Vaters traveled the country to talk with church leaders. Through sharing the frustrations and joys of pastoring a small church, Vaters turned his experience and lessons into a book, Small Church Essentials, in March 2018. This book provides insight into the differences between big and small churches and how pastors can lead them each of them well.
How to lead a healthy church
In addressing discouragement, Karl pointed out the fact the numbers of those attending a church wasn’t what really mattered, nor did those numbers define the success of a pastor.
“Jesus didn’t wake up this morning wondering who would come to your church’s doors,” said Vaters. “He’s not concerned about your numbers. He knows exactly who is in your church, what your budget looks like, and He knows if your building is too small or too big.”
“Jesus didn’t say, ‘You go build My church,’ no, He said, ‘I will build My church.’”
The effectiveness of a church shouldn’t have to be determined by its attendance, but rather how healthy a church is.
“Most of the time when we talk about healthy churches, we frame it in context of a big church. And we see big churches as being future-focused and not past-focused. They’re friendly, welcoming and open,” said Vaters.
As Vaters explains, most often, the health of a church is compared to that of a big church, or a megachurch. “We seldom look at small churches and think, ‘Are there small churches that are displaying those signs of health?’”
According to Vaters, if you want a healthy church, it’s not easy, but it is simple.
In a recent blog, Vaters wrote, “Do what the New Testament tells us to do. The Great Commandment: love God, love each other. The Great Commission: tell others about Jesus’ love for them. And make disciples.”
Start Your Small Church Today!Click Here
*To find encouragement, resources, and connection with other small church pastors, visit Karl Vater’s website, www.newsmallchurch.com. (Cover photo courtesy of NewSmallChurch.com.)
PHOTO COURTESY OF KARL VATERS.