LEADERSHIP AND GROWTH OF SMALL CHURCHES: PART I
All The Great Churches Were At One Time Small…
“Don’t be afraid of small beginnings; remember this whole thing started with a mouse.”
Have you ever felt discouraged when you see a large and thriving church? You think “I’m working so hard, but my little church could never grow that big.”
It’s all relative to the size of your church. If you lead a church of 80 in attendance and you look at a church of 500, you think: “That’s beyond my reach.” If you lead a church of 500, you may see a church of 3,000 and think: “That’s beyond my reach.” I have good news and bad news for you. The bad news is that it is beyond your ability. The good news is that it is not beyond God’s ability. This is not a promise that you will lead a church of thousands, but a promise that with God, your church can grow.
Think of some of the great churches in the country. They all started small. Willow Creek, launched in 1975 by Bill Hybels, was birthed from a youth group. Saddleback Community Church in Southern California, led by Rick Warren, began in a living room in 1980. The Crystal Cathedral, located in Los Angeles and led by Robert Schuller, began in a drive-in theater in 1955 with little more than popcorn and a prayer!
We think of these churches and many others as huge. But the truth is that there are churches in South America, Africa, Korea and other countries that dwarf them. The point isn’t how big your church is; it is whether or not it’s growing. What matters is whether or not people’s lives are being changed for all eternity according to the saving message of Jesus Christ.
I’ve said for many times that I would much rather be part of a church of 100 that is growing than a church of 1,000 that is not growing.
Part I and Part II of Leading and Growing Small Churches are dedicated to encouraging and guiding the thousands of faithful Christian leaders in whom God has entrusted something small, and have vision for something great.
Let’s start by acknowledging that leading and growing a small church to health and vitality is a difficult process. But it is worth it. It’s all in the potential. Whether the kindness of God and His favor grants you 200 or 2,000 isn’t nearly as important as how many people come to Christ and mature in their faith.
It is a challenge to lead and grow a small church. Don’t use that as an excuse. You can grow as a leader and God can do what you cannot. The good news is that all worthwhile things in life are tough. Think about the labor pains involved with giving birth to a new baby. My wife Anna has made it clear to me that no man could take such pain! No doubt she is right. But the creation of a little child is always worth it.
There are many difficulties in leading and growing a small church. I am highlighting only three. It is not my goal to state the obvious, and certainly not to discourage you, but instead to make clear the common struggle, and to let you know that you can overcome these issues. The next chapter (Part II) of this book will focus on practical principles to lead and grow your church.
1. Limited Resources.
The lack of mature and contributing Christians:
I love the story of the early days Skyline Wesleyan Church in San Diego, California under its founding leader, Pastor Orval Butcher. Dr. Butcher would tell the story of needing to use nonbelievers to teach Sunday school. What a dilemma! There were no adults who knew Christ as Savior when the church first started, but loads of kids. But what a sense of humor God has. Kids were led through the scriptures and fell in love with Jesus thanks to the work of nonbelievers.
This is not the recommended methodology, but it gives you some freedom to get the job done. Just keep your eyes on the big picture. Go with what you’ve got and focus on the development of their maturity. While you may question whether the end justifies the means, you should be amazed by the results: many of Pastor Butcher’s Sunday school teachers became Christians.
Modest financial support:
There is also a direct connection between how many people attend your church and how many dollars land in the plate on Sunday morning. No matter how much we spiritualize church ministry, money matters. Jesus knew this and had much to say about it in the New Testament.
Having limited financial resources does impact your church. The good news, however, is that while limited resources may slow you down, they cannot prevent you from growing. Develop boldness about giving and tithing when speaking from the pulpit, as well as one on one. This is a particularly important point to emphasize to your leaders and it is non-negotiable for growing a healthy church.
This boldness is based on four things:
a. Biblical truth.
b. Personal conviction that results in practice.
c. Personal generosity.
d. An understanding that people want to give to a vision they believe in.
I certainly don’t recommend raising your arms in surrender to space limitations, but unless you’ve figured out a way to defy the laws of physics, sooner or later this will impact your ministry.
There are many practical things you can do before you go into an expensive building program:
a. Go to multiple services and Sunday Schools.
b. Change from pews to chairs.
c. Rent nearby buildings.
d. Remodel and upgrade existing buildings.
e. Use multiple sites.
2. A History of Being Small.
This hurdle is difficult to overcome in many churches. Local churches that have been small for many years find it very difficult to break out of established patterns.
To affect change usually requires a huge jump start, most commonly in the form of significant change. This change will often cost you some people. Every church is different in what needs to change, but I can promise you that if you do not change, you will not grow.
3. Untrained Leaders.
This is often the case in a small church. There are usually several dedicated workers, along with a few faithful but undeveloped leaders.
Leadership development is too large a topic to include in this chapter, but if you’ve been reading The Pastor’s Coach long, or learning from John Maxwell’s material, you know that there is no shortage of leadership development tools. The key is to put them to use.
* The good news is that God is with you, and at work within you!
If you lead a small church, let me encourage you. Thank you for hanging in there. I know it’s not easy. But know that what you’re doing matters. If you have been hurt or taken advantage of, I’m sorry for what you have endured. I’ve heard the stories and traveled to many of these churches, and it’s true, little churches can be mean. But remember, they are still part of God’s plan and you must never give up.
Remember your mission…found in Matthew 28:19-20:
“(19)Therefore go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, (20) teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”
It’s not a mistake that within your marching orders – the very purpose of your church – that Jesus reminds you He is with you always! He knows the road you must travel will not be easy, and promises to walk it with you.
Not only is God with you, but He is at work within you. It’s wise to remember that it is not you nor your abilities that ultimately cause your church to grow. Your growth as a leader simply allows you to serve as a catalyst for God’s blessings.
Recall with me Ephesians 3:20-21: (20); Now to Him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to His power that is at work within us, (21) to Him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever!
You aren’t doing something great for God; He’s doing something great for you. This is a simple but important distinction. The irony is this – the more you declare your personal inability to make it happen and your dependency upon God, the more He is able to participate in the partnership He has with you and your church.
Thank God for the gifts and talents He has given you, but never forget that He is the true Author of all that goes well in your ministry. When you encounter a problem, remind God that the problem is His. When you need help, ask Him; He won’t let you down. When things go well thank Him because without God’s hand in your ministry there would be little to boast about; When it’s all said and done at the end of the day, remember one of my very favorite quotes by Victor Hugo: “When you have done all that you can, go to bed. God is still up.”
LEADERSHIP AND GROWTH OF SMALL CHURCHES: PART II
All the Great Churches Were At One Time Small…
In the last edition, we addressed the realities of leading and growing a small church; it is difficult. But the good news is that all great churches started small and God is with you. In this article, I’ll address the more practical issues of leading your church forward. You will quickly see that growing a healthy church has very little to do with the right programs. It’s largely about you as the leader, your vision and the people’s response. That’s where it all gets complicated. If it wasn’t for people, this church thing would be a snap! Lead your church forward…
1. Make sure your thinking and attitude are right.
I know people can be flaky, uncommitted and downright difficult. But if you allow yourself to think that way, you will be frustrated much of the time and place a lid on your growth as a leader. Rather than thinking how uncommitted your people are, focus on how you can become a better leader. That kind of thinking will serve you well. Here are some ideas to help shape your thinking.
Small isn’t bad and large isn’t good; the key is health that results in growth.
A church that averages 80 attendees that grows to 105 attendees over the span of a year is healthier than a church that has plateaued at 1,000 attendees. It’s not all about numbers, but numbers always tell a story. The book of Acts is very deliberate in its usage of numbers, but the numbers were always connected to a representation of life change – not another event where nickels and noses are counted.
The following are good questions to reflect upon. Be as honest as you choose.
What discourages you the most?
A low attendance on Sunday
No one getting saved for a week
A low offering
What encourages you the most?
Everything being calm and comfortable
Having an increasing number of people involved in volunteer ministry and growing spiritually
Everyone being happy with you
What keeps you awake at night?
A vote not going the way you wanted
Great Commission problems
As a leader, you most prefer that people:
In each of the four sets, the middle or second choice is the choice most likely to serve you well as a leader. The first and third choices are not necessarily wrong, but they do not generally indicate right thinking as a leader.
Do not shift blame or make excuses; take responsibility.
You are not a victim of circumstances. You are a merchant of hope. You are an agent of change. You are a leader of God’s people. Circumstances may be tough, but you are not captive to them. Focus on solutions, not problems. Tackle one thing at a time, and remember God is on your side. This is starting to sound a little preachy, but I don’t mean to come across that way. I want to encourage you. I know that in my own leadership, whenever I start blaming others, it never helps. It’s only when I take responsibility as the leader to ask myself what I need to do to bring about healthy change that progress is made. That’s not always easy, but it’s always right.
Strive always to be grateful for the ministry in which God has placed you.
Perhaps you’re in a very small church, in a small town, or rural setting. Maybe God has placed you in a tall-steeple church downtown that is in decline. Or you could be in one of those churches that seem to go through pastors about every two years. While you may have days when you don’t feel grateful, remember it’s God’s church you serve, and it’s truly a privilege. Paul sang while in prison; you can at least whistle a few measures where you are! Invest yourself 100% in the ministry you are in, and serve like you will be there permanently. If God should move you, so be it; but until then, thank God for the opportunity to be part of His plan.
2. Understand what is not essential to leading and growing a healthy church.
It’s true that no one wants to follow a dull leader, but most of the sturdiest churches are not built by superstar-type leaders. The truth about most superstar-type leaders is that much of what happens and nearly all decision-making is connected directly to them. This stifles a church from becoming healthy. When such a leader leaves, and the church falls into rapid decline, it’s a sure sign that it was not healthy.
The church of the 21st century wants and needs not powerful leaders with all the answers, but spiritual leaders who can help people connect with God, and who also understand how to think strategically. A leader who is a strategic thinker focuses more on moving the church forward as an organization than attracting the members to him or herself. This still requires you to be the best leader you possibly can be and a good communicator, but it doesn’t require an ability to mesmerize the people.
The absence of mistakes as a leader:
Wow, this is good news for me, how about you? I make mistakes. Do you? That question isn’t as flip as it may sound. Some leaders make no mistakes! They are the leaders who are doing nothing, take no risks, and try nothing new. They preach on Sunday and visit during the week. They may be Godly people, but they aren’t leading. Leaders make mistakes – lots of mistakes – and big ones at that. But they don’t make the same mistake twice.
The right programs:
It’s not about programs; it’s about process. Programs can be helpful, but your ministry will not rise or fall on which program(s) you choose. Your ministry will rise or fall on leadership. Good leaders make average programs successful. Poor leaders make great programs ineffective.
In my travels as a consultant, I have observed that large, fast-growing, and healthy churches are making their ministries leaner, not adding to them. In contrast, the smaller churches have more going on. More stuff doesn’t make your church better. In fact, it weakens it. You can’t do everything, so focus only on the things that drive the Great Commission forward. It will take great courage to cut nonessential ministries, but you must. Remember, good is the enemy of great. Don’t look for bad ministries to cut; look for the ministries that are not absolutely essential. Be tough! Think through the short list of what is essential and do those things well.
3. Make sure your vision is clear.
This can’t be overemphasized. Do you know where you are headed? Do you communicate it clearly, creatively, consistently, and with conviction? What does a win look like? Is your congregation unified in this vision? Do everything within your sphere of influence to fight against just doing church from Sunday to Sunday. Know what God has called you to accomplish.
The following are seven key questions to help you test the strength of your vision.
Does your congregation live it? (Does it matter?)
Do your ministries match and support it?
Do the staff and/or key leaders reflect it?
Does the Bible affirm it?
Does the Senior Pastor stick to it?
Does the budget back it?
Are your plans to build in alignment with it?
If you are unclear on your unique vision, then for now, stay fiercely focused on the Great Commission stated in Matthew 28:19-20.
4. Identify, gather and develop four groups of people. In each of these groups, about five people are all that are needed to begin with.
The first group is your zealots. They are not necessarily key influencers, but they are fired up and eager to do whatever needs to be done.
These are your prayer warriors – people who earnestly pray and pray much. They really know how to get a hold of God and truly intercede on behalf of you and the church.
These are the key leaders who will come alongside you to help you carry the leadership load. Don’t waste them! Use them wisely. Don’t put them over, for example, the fellowship committee or the communion preparation team. Use them in areas of highest people productivity such as evangelism, discipleship, teaching, and small groups.
Developing them is the key. I highly recommend John Maxwell’s material on leadership. You probably don’t have time to design and write your own stuff, so find good material that you can use. Pour your time into your sermons, evangelism, prayer, and developing your leaders.
The inviters are your evangelists. They are the people who have a heart for the lost and are naturals at cultivating relationships with the unchurched and inviting new people to church. Be a cheerleader for these people! You may not have many of them in your church, but God places at least a few in every church. It’s your job as the leader to identify who they are and encourage them.
5. Cultivate a culture of volunteer ministry.
Much has been said on this topic, and I won’t go into detail now. But I do want to encourage you in your efforts to empower your people to use their spiritual gifts for meaningful ministry. If you are in a church where they still believe “the pastor does the ministry – that’s why we pay him,” don’t despair. I know that can be discouraging, but don’t give up and don’t lose hope. Start by educating your people. It may take a long time, but stick with it. Take them to the appropriate passages in Ephesians 4, Romans 12 and Acts 6. Those are good places to start. Use good resources. I recommend Sue Mallory’s book, The Equipping Church. Start small, train a few, and stick to the truth that Scripture teaches. Your job is not to do the ministry, but to equip others to do it.
In all of this, don’t go for the quick fix or expect overnight results. It will take time to develop yourself as a leader, process change, strengthen evangelism, fire up prayer, and particularly, develop and equip your leaders. Don’t lose heart! Just take it one day and one person at a time.
6. Establish a mentoring relationship.
The small church, though exciting and full of potential, can feel lonely at times for the pastor. You don’t have a large staff or may not have any staff at all. You have unanswered questions and don’t know who to turn to.
Don’t travel the road of leadership alone. Find a mentor. My first recommendation to you is very practical and realistic. Find a pastor with whom you can connect and respect of a church at least twice the size of yours within a couple of hours driving distance. Ask for some time – not a lot of time, but perhaps a lunch every six to eight weeks. When you meet, come well-prepared with specific questions and buy the lunch! The advantage is the low cost, close proximity, and personal connection.
Another option that is worth your financial investment is the John Maxwell Leadership Coaching Process that Conrad Lowe (a long-time friend and associate of John Maxwell) and his team offers. Every two weeks for one year, a veteran church leader mentors you for 30 minutes via the phone on your agenda covering your issues.
This has been a long article but hopefully helpful to you as the leader of a small church. If you feel overwhelmed with this material, let me close with the three most important things for you to focus on (besides your Sunday morning service, which I know you are already putting your energy into):
These three things will give you your highest return. Do them well and the results will speak for themselves.
LEADERSHIP AND GROWING A SMALL CHURCH PART III
How can we grow a small church? In spite of the huge ministries and churches we see on television, the majority of churches in the United States have under one hundred members. The following tips apply to really small, struggling churches, as well as average size churches that have reached a plateau. Pasturing small churches can be a challenge, but there are a few simple things you can do to help your church grow.
Be passionate. If we are going to grow our church, we must be passionate about the ministry. Those in the Bible who accomplished great things were passionate and committed men and women. Elijah was passionate and unafraid when he confronted Ahab, the king (1 Kings 17-19). As a result, he saw a nation touched by God’s power. Let’s be passionate men and women of God. Our ministry will be the better for it.
Pray. We must be men and women of prayer. No great work has ever been accomplished for God outside of much time in earnest prayer. It was said of Jesus, “And in the morning, rising up a great while before day, he went out, and departed into a solitary place, and there prayed” (Mark 1:35 KJV). It was also said of the early church, “These all with one mind were continually devoting themselves to prayer along with the women” (Acts 1:14 NASB).
I must qualify this somewhat. My spiritual overseer in the ministry, the late Dr. Paul E. Paino, frequently said, “Great preaching and great praying alone will not build great churches.” Some of the greatest preachers and most committed prayer warriors continue to pastor small struggling churches. It takes more. God may move and bring us people, but it’s up to us to keep them.
Structure. You can pray and God may bring people into your church but if you don’t structure for growth you will never keep them. Much of a pastor’s time should be devoted to praying on how the Holy Spirit would have him structure and restructure the church. We must constantly structure and restructure to allow for continued growth and to maintain growth that has taken place. You must change the way your church is structured at every level or plateau of growth you experience. This is one of the reasons God has placed you where you are. Paul told Titus, “For this reason I left you in Crete, that you should set in order the things that are lacking” (Titus 1:5).
You should constantly be in prayer about how you may need to structure and restructure the classes (Sunday school and/or children’s church) in your church. As you grow this will need to take place in order to maintain the growth God brings your way; This needs to take place at every level or plateau of growth you experience. You should also be constantly praying and brain storming on how you should set in order every aspect of the church.
This includes your leadership (elders and deacons) and who is put in charge of different areas and responsibilities of ministry. All things in the church must be subject to change as the need arises. Frequently, trouble comes our way to force us to change and restructure the church as is seen in Acts 6:1-7. New structure and delegated responsibility allowed for continued growth in the New Testament church. It also allowed for pressure to be alleviated from the Apostles (or you as pastor) and allowed them to prioritize their ministry.
Meeting places. Make sure your facilities and meeting places are up to par. No matter what type of building you have, make sure it looks the best it possibly can. Paint and cleaning supplies do wonders for both the inside and outside – and always keep up on the grounds. People’s first impression of your facility will make all the difference in the world. It may very well determine whether they come back the second time or not.
Advertise. Use media and publications in your area to let others know about your ministry. Almost all towns and cities have some sort of news outlets that offer free public service announcements and news releases. It’s foolish not to take advantage of them.
When pastoring I’ve always used local news outlets for nearly everything we had going on. Even if it’s as small as a pitch-in dinner, VBS, a special meeting, or a concert; let people know about it. Write up some general information, explain your event or activity thoroughly, and then take it to the local paper. You can also mail a condensed version of the announcement to your local radio or TV stations. If promoting a concert or guest speaker, always submit a picture with your news release. They will usually include a small photo if they have room, and a picture will help bring attention to your ad.
Signs and church information; Make sure your signs and displays are clear and accurate. For example, make sure Sunday school and service times are clearly listed, especially if you have multiple services. If service times are not accurate, it can be very confusing to guests and newcomers. Also, make sure relevant information is kept up-to-date on marquis, Internet advertisements (denominational information if it applies), websites, brochures, letterhead, business cards, and other ministry materials.
Accessibility; Pastors, we must be accessible. Make sure your contact information is displayed clearly so people can reach you. Preferably, you should hold regular office hours so people will know how and when to reach you at the church – so they won’t have to call you at home (unless it’s an emergency). If you are bi-vocational, or live a distance from the church, make sure you have a local number where you can be reached. The church should at least provide a cell phone with a local number for their pastor. If you are pastoring a church that is an hour away from your home, forward the church phone to your home.
Think and act big. The Bible says, “As he thinketh in his heart, so is he” (Proverbs 23:7 KJV). If you are going to grow your church, you must think and act as if it is larger than it is.
Be consistent. If you have certain time schedules for your services, make sure you keep them. When pastoring I would never cancel a service for fear that someone who has been thinking about checking out our church might come for a visit and find we were not there.
I remember one time in particular, there was a city-wide crusade going on and they wanted all the churches in the area to cancel their mid-week service for the crusade. I refused to cancel our service because someone who needed our ministry might show up on that particular night. The evangelist asked me why I was not conforming to their wishes. I was familiar with a large church he used to minister at, and asked him if he thought they would cancel their service if they were in the same situation. He immediately said no, he was sure they would not. I responded, and then neither will we.
Be punctual. If you tell someone you are going to meet them at such and such a time – be there when you said you would. If you have meetings listed or advertised at a certain time, you must start at those times. Frequently, people get in the habit of arriving late to church. If they arrive late and find the service has already started, it will teach them to be on time. On the other hand, if visitors come at a certain time because it is advertised as such, only to find that the service is delayed, they will not be punctual the next time (if they come back at all).
Pursue excellence. Paul wrote, “That ye may approve things that are excellent” (Philippians 1:10 KJV). We must be the best we can in all that we do. We must be professional in appearance, the best we can be at preaching and teaching, how we order and conduct the service, the worship, etc. Think of what you have seen when attending a small church as compared to what you see when visiting a large church. You wouldn’t expect to visit a large church and see the order of service, worship, timeliness or so on conducted in a haphazard manner would you? Of course you wouldn’t. If a small church expects to grow it should do no less.
Visitors; Visitors are very important to the growth of your church. For each visitor, make sure you…
• Welcome them. It’s important for all visitors to feel welcomed, cared for, and accepted (Romans 15:7), but not embarrassed. Visitors should never be put on the spot or feel like they are on display.
• Get visitor’s personal information. Make sure you fill out a card or sheet with each visitor’s basic contact information. What is normally used is a visitor’s card requesting information such as name, mailing address, phone number (home and cell), and email address.
• Contact them. It’s imperative that visitors be contacted. A letter should be sent to them first thing Monday morning thanking them for visiting your church. If the pastor doesn’t have time, someone should be designated to send the letter out for him (in his name). By the end of the week, the visitor should be contacted by phone as well. I usually waited until Thursday so they had time to receive the letter I sent earlier in the week. If they are open, a home visit can be good.
Visitation and follow up. The sheep or congregation need to be visited and followed up on as well. If a member of the congregation misses two or three weeks in a row, they should be called or visited. We never know what they may be going through. Jesus stressed the importance of this in Luke 15 with three illustrations: the lost sheep, coin and son.
I would rather have people complain because we loved them too much than because no one ever called them when they left. If someone leaves to attend another church, you should let them go. If they have strayed from the body, we must go after them.
Regular visitation is needed as well. A phone call doesn’t take that much time. Set apart a regular time to call people to see how they are doing, pray with them, and show them you care. You’ll be amazed by the results. As the church grows, this can also be delegated to the leadership.
I also usually called everyone on our mailing list for special events and services we were having. I would go through our entire mailing list of everyone who had ever visited the church and remind them of what was going on and secure their commitment to be in attendance. As a result, we usually had a good turnout and the people (as well as myself) were encouraged. A good turnout to a special service always helps strengthen and encourage the body.
Special events; Have as many special events as you can. I always tried to have something going on at least every four to six weeks. In case you haven’t noticed, larger churches tend to have things happening regularly – which draws attention to your church. In the churches I’ve pastored, I’ve had families visit our church and tell me they came because they noticed things going on at the church. Again, always advertise all of your special events.
When planning special events, don’t have preachers only – diversify. Have different kinds or types of speakers, testimonies, musicians, music groups, and anything you can think of. Use your imagination – have regular brain storming sessions with your leaders. People are attracted by different things. Use various types of events to attract people. I like to use music because it attracts people who may not come hear a person speak. We used everything from quartets to Christian rock styles. One pastor I know, who had built a large church from nothing, once said, “We do some carnal things to get people in the church because people are carnal (he didn’t mean sinful things). Once we get them we can work the carnality out of them.”