A while back I was contacted by Jessica Hanewinckel who is the associate editor of Outreach Magazine. She explained that she was putting together an article for their upcoming Small Church America issue and wanted to ask me some questions. I thought you might be interested in my answers.
Jessica: Explain the difference between small churches that are thriving as small churches, that are doing great ministry, that are really spiritually enriching their attenders and the community, from those that are flailing. Is the difference in programming, mindset, an understanding of the community, something else?
Dave: There can be many reasons why a small church can be thriving instead of flailing, just as there can be many reasons why a larger church can be thriving instead of flailing.
a. Thriving small churches are content without being complacent. They are ‘comfortable in their own skin’ and are not trying to be something they are not, i.e. a large church.
b. Thriving small churches focus on what they can do rather than what they can’t do. It’s been my experience that there is almost nothing a larger church can do that a small church cannot do, if the small church is willing to do it on a smaller scale.
c. Thriving small churches do a few things well. I compare this to the menus in restaurants. Some restaurants have three pages of menu with everything a person could ask for: breakfast, lunch, dinner. Out here on the west coast we have a very popular fast food chain called In-N-Out Burger. All they offer is burgers, fries, and drinks. On the company website they state their philosophy: “Give customers the freshest, highest quality foods you can buy and provide them with friendly service in a sparkling clean environment.” Thriving small churches have an ‘In-N-Out Burger’ mindset.
d. Thriving small churches are made up of people who are on the same page. The problem in many churches, whether they be small or large, is seldom a lack of vision, but one of competing visions. The pastors of thriving small churches are constantly pounding into the minds of their people: who we are, what we do, how we will measure success.
Jessica: How can small church pastors be encouraged? Many feel they’re just failed large church pastors, or that their churches are less than the large church down the street. Where does the right mindset begin?
Dave: Unfortunately our Christian culture defines success using three words: bigger, more, and new. Therefore, if your church seems smaller, less, or old, you are not viewed as successful. This cultural definition, of which few of us can escape, contributes to our discouragement. It is ingrained in all of us to want to be successful. I think our encouragement and contentedness is in direct proportion to the consistency and meaningfulness of our time alone with God. And once again, this is true for pastors of larger churches as well.
It’s sad but some pastors might have to look outside of their denomination or affiliation to find genuine encouragement. I am seeing more and more denominations reaching out to their smaller churches but they often, inadvertently, do it in a way that still makes the pastor of a small church feel like they’re being looked down on, like they are something that needs to be fixed, like they don’t quite measure up.
Jessica: How should small churches measure success?
Dave: Mother Teresa said, “God has not called us to be successful. God has called us to be faithful.” Paul said, “…it is required of stewards that one be found faithful.” (I Cor. 4:2)
A small church measures success by how faithful they have been with what God has given them. If they have 20 members then they will strive to be the best 20-member church on the planet. The trick is to find ways to measure success that has very little to do with ‘attendance-numbers.’ A great exercise for pastors of smaller churches is to ask their leadership team, “How could we measure success if we couldn’t use numbers?”