After 19 years in ministry, I have pastored four small churches and have learned a lot. What is considered a small church? The Barna Group defines small churches as having a average weekend attendance of 100 or fewer adults.In some of my churches, if we had 100 attendees we would have been happy! There is a dilemma as to why our churches are decreasing in attendance, however, this article is not about to how to grow a small church into a large congregation. This article is to encourage pastors with small churches to think differently on their approach. I’ve spoken to a few pastors who have admitted that they have gone away from traditional evangelistic events to bring in new members. They have focused on a singular theme of healing the church where it is hurting, then moving on to new or traditional ways of growing.
Small Church Dilemma
As a pastor, our goal is to grow God’s kingdom. Often that gets connected with growth in numbers. We have goals that are suggested that we meet and if we don’t, it’s no fun reporting at the next Workers’ Meeting. In the Seventh-day Adventist Church, most pastors are assigned to a district or to a church. An assignment to a small church district can make or break a pastor. It’s not their church plant and often they are inheriting problems or success when they enter into a new mission. In two years, as a pastor, I have observed all that is going on with the church and why it continues to stay small. One church may only have 20 members and is run by one or two families. How the family feels about evangelism will determine how fast the church grows or how quickly the pastor falls into maintenance mode until the next move in a few years.
Some churches may have experienced a split, fight, or scandal and the new pastor has to be creative in bringing healing to the church before he or she can go into a full evangelistic prophecy series. And let’s be honest, doing a series when the church is hurting is more like a band-aid than the right treatment. Churches need time to heal and become healthy before they can grow in any way. I have found this problem to be national and I’ve been to enough growth workshops to know that I am not alone. However, I have learned some small essentials things in my pastoral journey and I would like to share with you as you read.
Church growth is not about numbers, it’s about creating a healthy church infrastructure. If you were to hold an evangelistic meeting and baptize a large number of people, what is next? Who is accountable for nurturing the new flock? What ministries do you have for them to get involved? How friendly are the members? Did the membership really want to grow? Do they want to increase and care for new believers? Surely the pastor can’t do it all, so is the church ready to be disciples when you grow?
My gym called one day and wanted to set up a free physical training appointment to promote their trainer program. I accepted and was eager to see how this trainer would kill me with extreme workout exercises that I was not ready for. When I arrived we sat down at the table and his first question was, “What do you want to get out of the training?” I have been through this routine and knew how to answer with I wanted to tone my body. He then devised a plan of action with a workout regime that fit what I could do and what would get me the best results. That stuck with me as I went back to my churches and continued to think of ways to get healthy results more than number results. Infrastructure has been my mode of operation. What is it that we do every week? What is consistent? What works? Who is the interest coordinator? Who is our audience? Why should they be here? Why are we here?
Karl Vaters, the author of Small Church Essentials suggests, “We can start seeing church health not as a means to growth, but as a means to effectiveness.” After reading this book it dawned on me to focus on a healthy church rather than a church with numbers. How can we refocus our attention on the health of the church rather than how many baptisms we have? the following questions may help. Does your church have a community presence? Is your church healthy? Have you healed from most dysfunctions? Can you see the church positively progressing in healthy relationships with each other and the people that visit?
Small churches can still be great! When healthy, they plan outings at the park, beach, and community together. When healthy, there is an atmosphere in the building when people come to visit. The preaching is better, the music gets better and the praise is lifted on high. Where love and respect abides, your church will be healthy and see organic growth. The small group of apostles had to first be in one accord (Acts 2:1) before they saw explosive results and even after that Paul met with churches in homes and other small venues. My encouragement to pastors with small churches is to pray that God heals, delivers and anoints your small concepts and build them to what He desires. You may find that God works better in your intimate setting at this point of your ministry.
Philip M. Wesley II is the pastor of the Emmanuel church in Providence, Rhode Island, and Mount Olive Church in New London, Connecticut