Small can be strategic, and numerical growth doesn’t necessarily validate a ministry.

This interview between Karl Vaters and Jeff McLain, originally appeared in the Beacon Magazine as Mistakes Were Made (Part 6): In How We’ve Done Church — Challenges and Encouragement for Small Churches. Through this link the article can be read in its original format and context from July 1, 2022.

“Integrity is the new competence.” Karl Vaters challenged me with this statement as we conversed about the strange new season we’re in as the church. This is an era in which too many churches have been built around personalities, and destruction has abounded. Large, effective ministries have been lost in seconds.

Karl gently reminds us that the church needs to shift from teaching skills to developing integrity and character. In fact, he suggests that churches double down on discipleship, especially around character. Almost all issues the church faces today result from a breakdown in discipleship. It’s also encouraging to see how people are looking for community in ways they didn’t recognize before.

Small can be strategic, and numerical growth doesn’t necessarily validate a ministry.

For the past decade, Karl has been deeply invested in the discipleship of pastors, especially those serving in smaller churches. Karl has authored four books: The Grasshopper Myth, Small Church Essentials, 100 Days to a Healthier Church, and The Church Recovery Guide. His upcoming book explores how the church has been trapped by the love for quantitative metrics; a problem that originated with churches in America. It’s yet another expression of the discipleship and integrity issues.

When Karl graduated from Bible college in 1991, colleges and seminaries were not yet overtaken by church growth and its strategizing quantitative metrics. A few years later, church growth became their major focus. But this focus on church growth had unintended consequences. The strategies were not reproducible.

Karl’s journey into “church growth” ended tragically. His church imploded! This failure led him to study and learn what makes for healthy and effective churches. As he came to understand that health and effectiveness aren’t necessarily defined by numbers, he experienced new life in his congregation, a church he still pastors 30 years later.

This failure and discovery is what has led Karl to his passionate interest in encouraging and resourcing smaller churches. He finds there is now a growing appreciation for smaller churches. Small can be strategic, and numerical growth doesn’t necessarily validate a ministry. Yet, Karl says this paradigm shift still has room to grow. The majority of resources are still developed for larger churches. As we shared about this topic Karl offered three challenges to the smaller church:

  1. We must stop looking backwards. Too many churches want to go back to what was. We want everyone back in the room and programs back the way they were.

  2. We must see the last two years as a graduate level course on leadership. The last few years have offered many examples on what not to do as a leader. We must be willing to learn from these experiences and not quickly forget and move on.

  3. We must face the loss of cultural Christianity. Pre-COVID, many attended church because of the expectation and tradition of cultural Christianity. Thankfully, passionate followers of Jesus are returning to church and redefining ministry.

In our conversation, Karl also offered three encouragements to the smaller church:

  1. People are recognizing the need for community. This is a need smaller churches meet well through practices of fellowship. Even larger churches are attempting to reshape themselves with secondary events to meet this need.

  2. We already have the resources we need. In a time where many large churches are developing smaller events and venues to meet the needs of people, small churches are already in a space to meet people where they are.

  3. New things are working, so don’t rush back inside the building. Many smaller churches adapted to the pressures of COVID-19, and found ways to be an effective church outside their buildings. Don’t rush back inside the building or to your old ways.

Karl said that ideally smaller churches need to simply focus on doing the stuff that Jesus did. While such a sentiment may feel overly simplistic or idealistic, he reflected on how throughout the past forty years the church has been introduced to a lot of new processes, systems, methods, and toys. Most of those advancements have been highly transformative for the mission of the local church, but some have sadly distracted us from the greatest commandment and commission. 

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