Home » All Resources » Articles on Church Growth »

I know more about getting smaller churches to grow than larger ones. I pastored three of them, and only the first of the three did not grow—I was fresh out of college, untrained, inexperienced, and clueless about what I was doing. The next two grew well, and even though I remained at each only some three years, one almost doubled and the other nearly tripled in attendance and ministries.

By using the word “grow,” I do not mean in numbers for numbers’ sake. I do not subscribe to the fallacy that bigness is good and small churches are failures. What I mean by “grow” is reaching people with the gospel of Jesus Christ. For example, if you are located in a town that is losing population and your church manages to stay the same size, you're probably “growing” (i.e., reaching new people for the Lord). In addition, any church—large or small—that does not place a high value on evangelism and outreach to the unchurched can’t expect to grow…period. But countless articles and books have been written on that subject. Now, after working for years among hundreds of small congregations, I speak here to the subtle growth barriers that tend to go unnoticed or unaddressed in stagnant churches.

I send these observations forth hoping to plant some seed in the imagination of a pastor or other leader who will be used of the Lord to do great things in a small church. The "ten reasons" that follow are not necessarily in the order of importance or prevalence, and there are probably other reasons individual churches might not be growing, simply because no two churches are alike. But this is the way they occurred to me, and the order seems right.

1. Wanting to stay small.

"We like our church just the way it is now." While this attitude usually goes unspoken—it might not even be recognized by its carriers—it's widespread in many churches. The proof of it is seen in how the leaders and congregation reject new ideas and freeze out new people.

The process of rejecting newcomers is a subtle one, never as overt as snubbing them. They will be greeted and chatted with and handed a printed bulletin. But they will still be excluded: "Bob's class is meeting this week over at Tom and Edna's. Come and bring a covered dish." "The youth will have a fellowship tonight at Eddie Joe's. We're serving pizza and you don't want to miss it." Unless you know who Bob, Tom, Edna, and Eddie Joe are and where they live, you're out of luck.

Pastors who want to include newcomers and first-timers should use full names from the pulpit. This allows newcomers to learn who people are. "I'll ask Bob Evans to come to the pulpit and lead us in prayer." "For those who need directions to Eddie Joe Finham's house for the youth fellowship, he's the guy with the crewcut wearing the purple shirt. Raise your hand, Eddie Joe. He has printed directions to give you."

No one can promise that just because a church wants to grow, it will. However, I can guarantee you that if it doesn't, it won't.

2. A quick turnover of pastors.

A retired pastor who served his last church some 30 years was supplying for a small congregation south of New Orleans. He told me of a discovery he made: "On Sunday afternoon, I had several hours to kill before the evening service. In the church office, I was reading their history and discovered that in their nearly 50 years of existence, they've had 22 pastors." He was aghast. "Think of that. If they had around six months between pastors, that means the average tenure was less than two years." He was quiet a moment, then said, "They didn't have pastors. They just had preachers."

It takes at least a couple of years for a pastor to become the real deal for a church—a pastor in more than name only, one who has earned the right to lead the congregation. With larger churches, the time period is more like six years.

Again, no one will promise you that keeping a pastor a long time guarantees the church will grow. But I can assure you that having a succession of short-term pastors will prevent it from growing as surely as if you had taken a vote from the congregation to reject all expansion.

3. Domination by a few strong members.

The process by which a man (it's almost always a man) becomes a church “boss” is subtle and rarely, if ever, the result of a hostile takeover.

Say the pastor of a small church leaves for another town. The pastorless congregation looks within its membership for leaders to rise up and "take care of things" until a new pastor arrives. So two or three faithful and mature (we assume) members are chosen. They do their job well. If the next pastor leaves after an unusually short tenure for whatever reason, the congregation resorts to the fallback position: They enlist the services of those same two or three mature—and now experienced—leaders.

That's how it happens that one of them—or possibly all of them—begin to make important decisions for the body, and everything works out. When the new pastor arrives, they let him know that for anything he needs to know, he should call on them. The pastor quickly sees that these men have set themselves up as a layer of authority between the hired man (the preacher) and the congregation.

These “bosses” explain that they are protecting the congregation. "We don't like to upset them with matters like this." "These things are better off handled by just a few." Pity the young idealistic pastor who walks into that church unsuspecting that they lie in wait to—ahem—"give direction to his ministry." Or, as one said to me, "We thought you would like to have some help in pastoring this church."

Such self-appointed church bosses tend to frustrate the pastor's initiatives, block his bold ventures, and control his tendencies to want the church to act on (gasp!) something he calls faith! Result: The church stays small. No normal family coming into the community would want to join such a church.

The remedy: The congregation must see that key lay positions in the church rotate, that no one stays chairman of deacons for thirty years or church treasurer for a generation. Members of the congregation should feel free to respectfully ask questions about why decisions are made. Church bosses cannot stand the light of day shown on their activities (“They wouldn’t understand”), even though they convince themselves what they are doing is in the interest of the congregation. Read about Diotrephes in the little epistle of III John. He "loves to have the pre-eminence."

4. Not trusting the leaders.

Interestingly, the opposite phenomenon often occurs with the same result. I've seen this phenomenon occur in small churches (and never in large ones) at the monthly business meetings. In the small-and-determined-to-stay-small church, discussion centers on why 35 cents was spent on call-forwarding and $2.00 on paper for the office. Leaders and pastors alike are always frustrated that the congregation doesn't trust them with $20.00, let alone $200.00.

The determined-to-stay-small church is far more concerned about the dollars and cents in the offering plate than about the lost souls in the community. This church would never step out in faith and do something bold to reach the lost and unchurched, and if they did, unless their mindset changed, they would then harass their leaders into the grave demanding an accounting of every dime spent. Instead, small churches should elect good leaders and—within reason, as mentioned earlier—trust these leaders to do their work.

5. Inferiority complex.

I was a seminary student when called to my second pastorate, a church which had been stuck at 40 in attendance for years. I discovered that small churches often are stymied by inferiority complexes. "We can't do anything because we're small. We don't have lots of money like the big churches in town." So, they set small goals and ask little from their members.

One day, I was visiting in the First Baptist Church of a nearby community. In no way was it what we would call large, but it was three or four times the size of mine. The pastor and I were chatting about some program or other. He said to me, "My people won't attempt anything like that. They’ll say, 'We're not large like the First Baptist Church of New Orleans.'"

That's when it hit me: Feelings of inferiority can be found in any size church. I wouldn't be surprised if the members of FBC-New Orleans were excusing themselves for their inaction by saying, "We're not Bellevue in Memphis or the FBC of Dallas."

The remedy is to put one's eyes on Jesus Christ and ask, "Lord, what do you want us to do?" Peter said, "Lord, what about John here? What do you want him to do?" Our Lord said—and thus set a wonderful pattern for all of us for the rest of time—"What is that to you? You follow me!"

Want your church to reach people and expand and grow? Get your eyes off what others are doing. Many of them, to tell the truth, are declining at a rate so fast it can hardly be measured. You do not want to take your cues from them. Ask the Lord, "What would you have us to do?" Then do it.

6. No plan.

The typical, stagnant small church is small in ways other than numbers. They tend to be small in vision, in programs, in outreach, and in just about everything else. Perhaps worst of all, they have small plans. Or no plans at all.

The church with no plan—that is, no specific direction for what they are trying to do and become—will content itself with plodding along, going through the motions of "all churches everywhere." They have Sunday School and worship services and a few committees. Once in a while, they will schedule a fellowship dinner or a revival. But ask the leadership, "What is your vision for this church?" and you will receive blank stares for an answer.

When Peter and John were threatened by the religious authorities who warned them to stop preaching Jesus, they returned to the congregation to let them know of this development. Immediately, everyone dropped to their knees and began praying. Notice the heart of their prayer, what they requested: "Now Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to...(what? How they finished this is how we know their plan, their chief focus)...to speak your word with great boldness." (Acts 4:29) When the Holy Spirit filled that room, the disciples "were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly" (v. 31). Clearly, this means they spoke it into the community, the world around them, and not just to one another.

A number of leaders have shared with me why they think so many small churches do not grow: "They need to focus on the two or three things they do best—not try to be everything to everyone." Some churches need to focus on children's ministry, others on youth or young adults, young families, or even the oldsters. Some will focus on teaching, others on ministry in the community, some on jail and prison ministries, and some on music or women's or men's work. This is not to say that the church should shut down everything else to do one or two things. Rather, they will want to keep doing the basics, but throw their energies and resources, their promotions and prayers and plans, into enlarging and honing two or three ministries they feel the Lord has uniquely called them into.

7. Bad health.

Anyone who has spent time in more than a few churches can see that some are just unhealthy. And by that, we do not mean they are small—they are sick. You can be small and healthy; behold the hummingbird.

An unhealthy church is known more by what it does than by a list of characteristics and attributes. A church that runs its preachers off every year or two is unhealthy. A church that is constantly bickering is unhealthy. A church that cannot make a simple decision like choosing the color of the carpet, adopting the next year's budget, or accepting changes in an order of worship may be unhealthy.

So, what is a healthy church? Entire libraries could be filled with books written on the healthy church, and consultants abound ready to assist congregations toward that purpose. But Romans 12 is God's blueprint for a healthy church: Verses 1-2 call for each individual to make a personal commitment to Christ ("present your bodies as a living sacrifice"); verses 3-8 call for each one to find his/her place of service where they can use their spiritual gifts; and verse 9 through the end of the chapter describes the relationships within a healthy, loving fellowship of believers.

Show me a congregation where members are wholeheartedly committed to Jesus Christ, each is using (or learning to use) their God-given spiritual gifts in the Lord's service, and their fellowship is sweet and active—and I'll show you a healthy church.

8. Lousy fellowship.

This overlaps with the last point, but it deserves a spot by itself. For my money, the best thing a church has to offer individuals and families in the community—other than the saving gospel itself—is a place they will be loved and welcomed and made part of an active, healthy family. It's what we mean by "fellowship."

There are ways to tell if the fellowship in your church is unhealthy: Visitors are basically ignored, even resented in some areas. No one follows up with visitors to let them know they are wanted or to give information on the church. There's no attempt to get people to visit your church in the first place. Everything is orderly in the worship service, but it's the same order you've used since forever. The singing is lifeless, and any departure from the norm is verboten. A new hymn or chorus, a different kind of musical instrument, a testimony here, an interview there, a short drama or video—no sir, not in our church. There's no laughter, nothing spontaneous. The invitation time is tacked on, lifeless, and without any response—ever. The prayers are stale and filled with platitudes.

When the Old Testament prophets called on God's people to "break up the fallow ground"—Hosea 10:12 and Jeremiah 4:3—they wanted to see evidence of brokenness, a willingness to change, a desire to bear new fruit. Fallow ground is soil that has laid unproductive for several seasons. The hard crust requires a deep-turning plow to open it up, and even then the soil may require more preparatory work before it is productive.

A church with poor fellowship is not failing to have enough socials and dinners. The church is failing in the most basic of area of discipleship: a failure to love. Jesus said, "By this shall all men know you are my disciples, that you love one another" (John 13:35).

The disciple who is close to Christ loves the brethren. As such, a congregation that is unloving toward one another may be said to be far removed from the Lord and in a backslidden state. It's a simple deduction. "Draw near to the Lord and He will draw near to you" (James 4:8).

9. A state of neglect permeates the church.

Not always, but often, a dying church shows signs of its weakening condition by the disrepair of its buildings and the neglect of its appearance. The interior walls haven't been painted in years and bear the collective fingerprints of a generation of children. The carpet is threadbare, the piano's keys stick, the pulpit chairs need reupholstering, and the outside sign is so ugly it would be an improvement if someone knocked it down.

Dying churches do not tend to their business. They let problems fester and divisions go unaddressed. Listen closely and you will hear a leader speak those infamous words: "These things have a way of working themselves out." And so they do nothing, and the church trudges on toward the grave. No one gets saved, no one joins, people drift away, the community becomes less and less aware of the existence of that little church, and the remaining members complain that people just don't love the Lord the way they used to.

10. No prayer.

It's tempting to make a little joke here and say, "Such churches do not have a prayer," but they could if they chose to. When King Saul was bemoaning the woes that had descended upon him as a result of his rebellion against God, one of his chief complaints was that God no longer heard his prayer. "He inquired of the Lord, but the Lord did not answer..." (I Samuel 28:6) Luke tells us, "Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show themthat they should always pray and not give up" (Luke 18:1). Pray or quit. Those seem to be the alternatives.

Want to give your congregation a little test, pastor? Next Sunday, call for your people to meet you at the altar for a time of prayer. Do not beg them or cajole them. Just announce it, then walk there yourself, kneel, and begin praying. See if anyone joins you. Notice who comes and pay close attention to who does not. It won't tell you everything you'd like to know about your church, but it will say a lot.

A friend on Facebook requested prayer for his new ministry. When I asked him about it, he responded privately that in addition to pastoring his church, he was working for the state convention in his region. He said, "Almost all our churches in this part of the state are dying. We have buildings that were constructed for hundreds now running 15 or 20." The plan, he said, is to get systems in place to re-evangelize those regions as the old-line churches die off. I hope they don't wait until those churches actually close their doors; a lifeless church can take a long time to give up the ghost.

The best solution would be for those stagnant, dying congregations to awaken and get serious about becoming vibrant again. This would mean taking the unprecedented step of doing whatever it takes to re-establish their witness and presence in the community. Unfortunately, in almost every case I know personally, this doesn’t happen. The leaders would rather see their church disappear from the earth than to do anything new or different.

That is as sad a sentence as I've written in a long time.

Let us pray. "Father, we do like our routines and ruts. Forgive us for limiting you by asking you to adapt to us instead of the other way around. Lord, in the words of the old hymn and the older Psalm, 'Wilt thou not revive us again that thy people may rejoice in Thee?’ We ask this for Jesus sake. Amen." (Psalm 85:6)

I agree with all 10 of Joe's reasons a church stays small, but I have also noticed another reason I learned about years ago. Church growth experts refer to this problem as "the single cell church." This is a small group, usually around 50 or less, who insist that everything must be done by the whole group, and that sub-dividing into smaller groups is somehow immoral. Most growing churches discover that creating new groups provides more opportunities for growth. Growing churches have a lot of groups and aren't afraid to make new ones on a regular basis. Stagnating churches detest the concept of starting new groups as though new groups would somehow be disloyal to the body as a whole. The bulk of non growing churches are single cell groups by design, and, sadly, they shoot themselves in the foot while thinking they are promoting better fellowship by using the single call concept.
Hellen Akinyi Ajwalah
April 3, 2014
This article just floored me with its aptness to my own situation. I fellowship in the Anglican church in a rural congregation. Situated in Kenya, Africa, mainstream churches have faced alot of challenges due to some of the points I have seen in this article,especially when it comes to 'tradition' or 'this is how we have always done things'. Most young people find it hard to fit and move away from the church. Again I had to take a step backwards and ask myself whether I belonged to the group which is 'prominent in the church and hindering church growth' I do not ever want my pastor to think he has to check with me first before he makes any decision affecting the church. I overheard him this last Sunday telling a guest preacher that in his church, there are a few people he has to listen to. I printed a copy of this article and gave it to him since he is not technologically able. My hope is that he reads it and with God's guidance, he will be able to make decisions according to the leading of the Holy spirit of God and not according to the wishes of people he pastors. I really enjoy being a member of our congregation and most of all I enjoy praising God with my voice. God bless you for this article.
Good article, approached with compassion. Just a question: would you consider a small church, congregation of 40 or so, that has maintained about the same number of people for years, but different groups of people over a period of say, 50 years; is doing something right or not? I grew up in a small church and everyone says: "They will die out." My home church has been around a lot longer than the church I pastor now with 3 times as many people. It has never died out. Just wondering if we credit pastors with teaching generations of folk, a few at the time, as compared with teaching one generation, hundreds or thousands at the time.
Jb Bryant
March 28, 2014
I have yet to read an article or book on small church development that is as practical, insightful, true-to-life, and still faithful to the Bible's message as this. Thank you so much, brother McKeever!
Ramon Arroyo
March 27, 2014
Good article, have experience some of the issues in the article, the power plays and special groups that form bonds and become like a church gang, they don't think they are doing any harm and think they love God and the church. I'm curious with the comments that were made in 2010, any updates from the Pastors is now 2014. All Pastors sounded hopeful. I like to know how the Pastors that were let go are doing. I'm on medical leave and probably not return to my former denomination and praying for healing so I can get back to ministry and would not be afraid to take on a small congregation. God's blessings to all the faithful Pastors and their families. My son graduated from Seminary and is looking/praying for a church ministry, I pray for him, knowing that he will be facing a difficult but blessed task/mission.
Justin Krieg
March 27, 2014
Good article. There are so many variables that the options are nearly endless. I appreciate the varied personal experiences from current pastors. That helps a great deal when one can step outside of their own situation and realize that all things ministerial are anything but "cut and dried". That being said, I'd like to present a situation that has caused some small churches to close and some 100-250 member congregations to drop to 50-60. The culprit--"church plants". These "church plants" are admittedly coercing families and individuals to leave their "boring" "traditional" church and come have "fun" at our new facility. I know, I know I've heard the come back, " well if the new church has something they like better then maybe that should tell you that you need to change some things at your church." If the church is dead then so be it. If they are cold or stagnant, then they have good reason to leave. But what if the reasons they leave are more shallow than this. What if it's " my friend kept inviting me ". Or "they have a cool playground." Are we to blame if we don't have a state of the art audio video production team? Are we slacking because our children's area doesn't have a jungle gym? The reality is many many people especially teens and young adults are choosing the new church in town because it is exactly that... The new church in town.
Dale C
March 27, 2014
Incredibly helpful information. Thank you so much!!
German Bonilla
March 27, 2014
Thank You for this article, is a blessing.
Janis Walton
March 27, 2014
All good points. We've seen all those things at one time or another. And I like how you pointed out that sometimes small is not stagnent. There are those who believe that all small churches are unhealthy. For our little church now, it's not the church health that keeps it small, they are passionate about reaching our community. They come out for prayer every week. The fellowship is dynamic. But the community is hostile to the gospel. Prayer is focused on breaking the bonds of oppression and on God moving in the hearts of resistant people. We are convinced He is doing that and that it will come. And we are the faithful few, the one and only church in a town of 2000 begging God for it to happen. Good words about church health. Thank you!
Dale C
March 27, 2014
Have you considered a corporate fast? It's the first thing that I would suggest to all members of your work. Keeping fasting (periodic of course) until God responds. He will if the fasting is His "chosen" one. John Piper wrote an excellent book on this called, A Hunger for God.
Richard Scotland
March 27, 2014
Powerful article, full of insight. Thanks.
Charles Bavier
March 27, 2014
Thanks Pastor Joe for such an insightful and great article. After 40 some years of Pastoral Ministry I have witnessed the very 10 points you make why small churches stay small. I would add that God works in small churches just like in large churches. Just as Chris stated it seems God sometimes seems to will that a small church stay small and still Minister to it's congregation and community. I must run now but would like to add later a couple more insights I have gained over the years of being a Pastor.
Charles Bavier
March 27, 2014
Thanks Pastor Joe for such an insightful and great article. After 40 some years of Pastoral Ministry I have witnessed the very 10 points you make why small churches stay small. I would add that God works in small churches just like in large churches. Just as Chris stated it seems God sometimes seems to will that a small church stay small and still Minister to it's congregation and community.
Minister Angela Woodard
April 24, 2013
Thank you so much for this article. I am about to take over a small church. The members have grown up and moved away. Its only a handful left. I know its going to take a lot of hard work, but I'm ready for the challenge. Although there are quite a few churches here, there are still a lot of unchurched here. So I will be getting out beating the pavement so to speak. But I am excited. For I know if I work hard, fast, and pray God will do the increase. Your advice is right on time. Pray for me. Once again thank you so much!!!
Jim Ressegieu
April 18, 2013
My heart goes out to Linda Morris (#6). I too pastor a small church (30-35 on a Sunday), "young adults" are those under 65, a dozen or so in nursing homes or assisted living. You are serving in a very small town and my suggestions all have food as a means to gather people together: where do they have coffee in the morning or afternoon? If people don't join with others for coffee they are sitting alone in their homes--if they aren't going anyplace how about inviting people in for coffee in the morning--coffee, cookies, tables and chairs, ask a couple of folks to plug in the pot and clean up when people are finished. Maybe once a week you might have a lunch--again, some folks might be hungry not only for food but fellowship--make your own sandwiches with cold cuts and cheese slices (people can help each other with making them) sloppy joes are easy to make, coffee, iced tea, prep time is minutes, serve on paper/plastic and clean-up is simple. At 75 many folks don't cook much--is there a place that delivers pizza close by? Once a month after worship have a pizza party--again, a chance for fellowship and food for those who are hungry. And above all...love them. When I came to my church 9 years ago and I preached during my interview weekend, when we drove out of town I said to my wife, "That church needs a hug!" And that's what I've been doing--several who were in church that weekend are now in a nursing home but we started a cd ministry with some very simple cd players. One lady really loves them--she told me while visiting her that if she's listening and gets tired she can "just shut you off!" All the best with your special ministry!
Mark Pittman
April 18, 2013
Joe, are we trying to tend and fertilize a lemon tree to grow grapes? We might do all these 10 things and grow a group. But if we don't love then we are nothing. Jesus gives us few commands. Beside those "ordinance" items, there is a repeat of loving God with all you've got and are. Then we have the redefining of love in saying "love like I love." Then there is "The Great Commission," the practical produce of the other commands. This is a core piece of what we receive as salvation. His love poured out into our hearts. Jesus says that the banner we will fly and the uniform we will wear is his Love. At the root of churches not growing is the truth that they are not full of those called to follow Jesus. We are calling people to follow the current, most fashionable expressions of religion. As we have been warned, these expressions might have the form of religion, but have no power. John understood writing that if we say we love God but hate our neighbors we are liars. We kid no one more than ourselves. Paul said that love tops off our spiritual garments and holds them together. Of the gifts he says, "The greatest of these is love." The power which is missing is the Power given with the words, "You will be witnesses" and "As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you." We do not produce lasting fruit because we do not love like Jesus. This Love comes only from following Jesus; from believing not only on Jesus, but actually believing Jesus. Jesus commands what is possible if we remain in/with him. As church goers today, we are rarely able to love each other, let alone the world. Can one be a disciple of Jesus, one to whom he has sent the Spirit and the gifts and COMFORTABLY (without experiencing the discipline that comes to those the Lord loves) not bear fruit and bear witness? If one believes that what Jesus bought us with his blood is not his Life, but an easy escape from post mortem consequence of sin, then I suppose so. But Jesus said the one who remains in Him WILL bear much fruit.
John Willis
April 18, 2013
Good article. Thank you for putting this out there. Now- who's compiling the "Top Ten Excuses Used By Some Small Churches That Stay Small"?
Tim Tallent
April 18, 2013
Here's another reason your church may stay small: YOU PREACH THE GOSPEL WITHOUT COMPROMISE AND REFUSE TO APPEAL TO THE FLESH IN ORDER TO ATTRACT PEOPLE. Give me a small group of The Elect any day over a multitude of un-regenerates. Jeremiah was VERY faithful...and his "church" was VERY small.
Joshua Speights
April 18, 2013
Another reason is location. If a small church is located on a bumpy rock road in a rural area it will be difficult to attract members. Family usually evangelize family and if someone commits it is because of family, but because of the location it won't grow because people do not want to ruin their autos trying to get to church.
Great insight Steve; I can think of a specific pastor where this is exactly the case.
Steve Miller of Village Church
April 17, 2013
May I suggest that another primary reason that churches tend to stay small is because they select senior/lead pastors who have a primary gift of SHEPHERDING rather than TEACHING. Shepherding pastors who are caregivers tend to invest themselves in people to the limit of their time and strength. Hence their churches are limited to the scope of the pastor's abilities. Based on size studies, people are drawn to churches that have clear and excellent pulpit teaching ministries and whose pastors then supplement themselves with elders/deacons who are shepherds. If a church is open to growth and is willing to cover the rest of the bases that are mentioned in this article, then hire teaching pastors who are proven and gifted TEACHERS.
Dale C
March 27, 2014
Excellent point Steve. Also, if the pastor is not a good teacher of the Word, and just dryly presents facts and such, people will not grow and will not likely stay. If the people aren't developing, neither will the church. http://tinyurl.com/mgf2cyo and http://tinyurl.com/kddvqg5 and http://tinyurl.com/mocmf2r and http://tinyurl.com/meqj8jg.
All of this has merit, serious merit, my experience growing smaller churches is very similar to this. I will offer just one caveat in the discussion. Sometimes small churches stay small because that's God's will for them. They aren't unhealthy, they have faith, they have vision, and for one reason or another, against all of their best efforts, God's plan for that local fellowship seems to be simply a faithful local fellowship.
All of this has merit, serious merit, my experience growing smaller churches is very similar to this. I will offer just one caveat in the discussion. Sometimes small churches stay small because that's God's will for them. They aren't unhealthy, they have faith, they have vision, and for one reason or another, against all of their best efforts, God's plan for that local fellowship seems to be simply a faithful local fellowship.
As usual, very informative and a blessing. Thanks Joe!
Tom Gutierrez
March 10, 2010
Thank you for this article. Having pastored our church since it's inception for the last 7 years and a steady 70 strong attendance on Sundays I have seen these issues in a quite a few churches. Personally dealing with cultural perspectives has been a challenge in our case yet still dealing with a few you brought to light that we can relate to. I am so enticed to do the prayer invitation this coming Sunday. Thanks again.
Jason Martin of Ntcog
March 7, 2010
While I will agree with some of the things said in this article. There other reason/s why some small churches remain small. One such reason is that the commmunity that the church is a part of is not in a developed area - transportation, schooling, basic infastructure, opportunities. I pastor a church in a small community with two other churches . one having 1 member (basically closed) and the other 4. we have a membership of just over 50 but the community is quickly losing the youths due to migration in order to maximize their opportunites/potential. Thus the church becomes depleted over a period of time.
Walter Zimmer
March 2, 2010
Pastors, as a layman I feel your pain and your elation as both seem to be a part of your appointed position. My heart aches when I read of a church going from 250 to 30 for surely there is something sinister at work. Having served in many capacities over the years several things stand out which Joe McKeever has so diligently addressed. The strength of the few can stifle the efforts of many. You must be bold in using their influence and redirecting it toward service rather than as the self-appointed church counselor. Deacons and elders have a great responsibility to our Lord’s commands, but not as being your “Boss”. It seems to me such behavior is born out of the church business meetings where the few control the affairs of the church. A velvet glove of your control will do wonders in keeping the peace. As I read Acts, it seems to me that deacons were established to “serve” and not control. Find yourselves a few good people who are willing to serve the Lord. Confide in and allow them to share your burdens. Be bold and spirited and rid yourself of those man-made rules that demonize the church. Perhaps mostly importantly ask God's people to pray for you. I constantly worry that my behavior is always appropriate - never wanting to be a negative influence; always doing my best by word or deed to strengthen my shepherd and trying to make the best of what we have for our Lord's honor and glory.
Dale C
March 27, 2014
Yes! The influential ones need to have a servant's heart. They will never think of becoming a person of authority and always prefer others, always! Pride, desire for power and influence (control), or fame are sinister. If the Lord answers my prayer and allows me to pastor a small church, (yes that's specifically what I'm asking for) this article and the comments will very helpful to me. Lord, here am I, send me!! Please! Ooo, ooo, pick me, pick me!!
Steven Myers of Living Way
February 20, 2010
Great article...I re-read it with my wife this evening. We have just been appointed to a small congregation of 50 and can already identify some of the issues raised in the article. Navigating the initial changes and instilling hope for a future are our primary concerns. We are trying to fan the flames of "real" fellowship. Generally, there has been a renewed hope and sense of excitement. We had our first salvation in five years last Sunday. I will be sharing the article at our leadership meeting on March 6th and hope it will spark good conversation.
Dale C
March 27, 2014
Amen Steven! Go get 'em!
Jim Kilson of Lane Christian Church
February 19, 2010
Excellent insights into the issues that smaller churches face. Having served as a pastor for three small, albeit healthy churches this article was a timely reminder of the issues that we who pastor smaller congregations will face. I also agree with Jeff Strite about the proposed # 11 "sin in the camp." I found this article so timely to my currenty ministry situation I've already shared it with my leadership team. Thanks Joe!
Philip Hester of Moores Hill Church Of Christ
February 17, 2010
Phil Hester Great article. I am in the process of leaving a small church, reasons are many, a few that I have to admit I probably caused. One that I will share: I had a motorcycle accident in Nov. (lucky to be alive) while recovering and on medication, a couple in the church "tells" me I will be doing a wedding (couple is living together and the mother of the bride has not attended for over 15 years). I started a battle of not wanting to lower my standards but willing to do the wedding if the couple would go through counceling. In the process I am forced (by a deacon) to backoff and the church gets another preacher to do the wedding. I am now being told that I am running off people from the church and asks to resign. Jeff Strite's statement is right on - if there is sin in the camp it's hard for God to bless. AND its hard to work with "christians" who turn their head to "knowing" sin. To be honest I am tried of fighting this. I seek your prayers in what and where to go next.
Richard Hertsel
February 16, 2010
Thank you for this article....right to the heart of the matter.
This is a helpful article for pastors and churches. I also agree that there can be a lot of health in smaller churches. I used to obsess over attendance and still think about it some, but attendance does not compare to the passion and joy for seeing one life changed in a small group, over coffee, or in a small church. Our focus should not be so much about making big churches, but spiritual giants. I enjoy large churches, but God is working in many ways large and small.
Thanks for this excellent article! There is a lot of truth in this article. I would like to see some more reasons in the next article. Thank you!
Gerald Woodward
February 15, 2010
One issue I haven't heard anyone address is often the pastor just can't handle more than a few people. They have serious control issues and must keep the congregation small enough for them to control.. I grew up in a small church. We would have a revival and church attendance grew to over 100. The pastor was with a legalistic organization. He would quickly find the young people and others not "doing what they should." There were the chastizements or refusing to let people participate because they had broken some rule. Yes rules that Jesus had nothing to do with. Finally people would just give up and leave. When the church was back down to around 60 things were okay. The cycle would start all over again with another revival. Yes, then it was prudent to see how many people could be offended or forced out in other ways. Sadly the pastor was my dad and he never caught on or ignored his unhealthy need to contol.
Dale C
March 27, 2014
Yep, 1. Those who like to control and be in control are often psychopathic in other ways too. It all adds up to a bad situation. This kind of "sin in the camp" is self-defeating for sure. If you find yourself in such a church, run. Check out the traits of a CEO, which is the #1 profession for having psychopaths in that spot. Scary. The pastor in some ways is a CEO.
Grady Phillips
February 15, 2010
This article is inspiring although I am pastoring a church that is small ,we are searching for ways to reach out and grow . This church is an old church and was established in 1948 and has had 6 or 7 pastors ,but has faced a problem with the economy an d many businesses closing but I still believe that God has us here for such a time as this.
David Wilson
February 15, 2010
interesting and points made are true of churches and can be hinderences. but there are also a couple things that need to be understood if a pastor is not going to be on a guilt trip because his congregation isn't like the mega church down the street. 1. there are many smaller churches that are very healthy and doing all the right things and have new people coming in as well as others moving on. and yet each church has a ceiling or a plateau if you will. i have been a pastor for 12 years and seen people depressed because they can't break the100, 200 or the 600 barrier or the 800 barrier or the 1200 barrier and so on. Their are two factors at work here which most church growth experts won't talk about because i don't think it will sell a lot of books. 1st is that of God's sovereignty in the size of your church. you may be at a certain threshold for a reason. he knows you better than you know yourself and may want you at a certain size. consider Gideons army of 300 that took on the midianites. the second is, and i know this will run against the grain of a lot of church growth cheerleaders, but there is no such thing as uniformity or equality when it comes to God given charisma and leadership. John Maxwell hints at this as the "law of the Lid" you can beat your head against the wall with doing every methodology, you can develop your leadership the best you can and come up with an awesome congregation that is reaching people for Christ. But most of us will hit this ceiling and than have people come and go. and that is o.k. it's what you do with the people you have for the time you have them. I am not against trying to break barriers but i have just seen too many focus on this and it has broken them instead. what do you think is better leading a smaller church, fulfilling the great commission and enjoying what you do and finishing the race or burning out from over-acheiver-itis. The church growth movement has sold a lot of materials but all that i have seen is mostly transfer growth. why is it that the church is growing by millions in Africa, South america, Southeast Asia and other places but here in america we can't even keep up with the population growth and yet we have all this resource on growing churches? think about it.
Peter Wolczuk
February 15, 2010
Your Comments A wonderful and inspiring article but, I ask myself, can there be more? But first, about #9. Lousy Fellowship. When I joined the congregation where I currently worship the members headed downstairs for coffee and snacks for about 45 minutes after the service and, all who could helped with cleanup. There was a basket for donations to cover coffee costs and snacks were brought from home kitchens. This seemed like a long time practice to me because of my newness until someone commented how they had recently started it because the members didn't really know each other. While this fellowship wasn't about sharing faith; the fellowship fostered a basis for those who had need. But, what else? How am I inspired to add? From #7 "...each one to find his/her place of service..." Something which I've encountered in unions, community bodies (ie PTA) as well as churches. A common need is volunteer work and a common concern is that, all too often 90% of that work is done by 10% of the people. My knee jerk reaction was to buy into the guilt trip. Either taking it on if I didn't contribute or, passing it on if I did contribute. Then I recalled an incident in my past. Perhaps the realization was gifted when I became ready for it. A non church body had the same situation and those of us who gave much of our time would, sometimes, gripe and feed each other's resentments. Then one leader retired and a new one stepped up. He'd been a construction superintendant most of his life and knew the value of everyone's shared productivity. He put out a call for volunteers to lighten the load and promised to oppose the tendency to regard new volunteers as "easy targets" and to look for other new ones for other tasks. Trust came slowly but members gradually stepped to the plate and he blocked the tendency to give them more, more and still more. Those who had been active recalled having many jobs dumped on us if we accepted one and, how we in then had done the same to others. It had worked in the short term and was easy. The volunteer is willing and vulnerable but, others would see their task load grow and their time for themselves and their families dwindle and avoid service work. As trust grew (slowly) more and more members became willing. I had so often fallen into the common trap of taking the easy way out by dumping overwork on others until I saw the benefits of the more difficult task of gaining and maintaining trust. I'll admit that the significance of this may be exaggerated in my mind because it's new and shiny to me but, it's probably worth a look at. Currently, I look at how to approach my fellow parishoners without finger pointing or the like. I am certain that your prayers would help me.
Evan Price of The Door
February 15, 2010
The key to any church growing is vision. Without a vision God's people will surely perish. There must be a thurst for world evangelism. This starts in our own neighborhoods and then should continue into the nations of the world. We must impart a vision to win the world for Jesus, as He commanded. If we will do this people will respond. We have sent out over 100 couples all over the world on full support, to build churches and preach the gospel.
Keith Gibbons of First Christian
February 15, 2010
I Great article! I was just asked to leave a congregation that could have been the case study for the article. I took the position knowing the obstacles, but firmly believed that the way to break the cycle of decline was to firmly plant my feet and stay the course. After 12 years and some progress, those in a dominant position decided that they wants things to say the say... thus the cycle continues!!
Ramon Arroyo
March 27, 2014
I'm sorry Keith is now 4 years later, how are you? Were you able to move on and find a church? It is a very painful experience and many Pastors leave ministry because they feel shame or guilt when in most cases is not their fault. My prayers are with you and family.
I also appreciated this article, Joe. We've just built a new building (well, we've been in it for a year) and are coming to realize that while we are a small church that is "growing" (maintaining membership in a declining population) we are not expanding the impact of the gospel into the community in the way we prayed and imagined as we were building. As I pass this article along to various leaders, my hope is that they will see within it, as I do, a number of action steps (especially number ten) that are within reach of us. Thanks for bringing this list together.
Robert Mcclinton
February 15, 2010
Great article, I plan to share this information with my congregation.
Linda Morris
February 15, 2010
I Pastor a very small church, 57 members, 13 avg. attendance. The church is in a town of 70 people with only 5 children. The other denomination closed their doors about 5 years ago. the avg. age of our members is 75. They say they are dying, they make a joke about not closing thier doors until the last funeral is done! I am really having trouble getting them to do anything. I started a prayer shawl ministry that has been wonderful. There are 3 ladies making shawls and have supplied a cancer center with over 40 shawls since just before Thanksgiving. But, beyond this I don't know what to do. Thank you for the article. It has given me some hope for this small elderly church. God Bless
Ramon Arroyo
March 27, 2014
Pastor Linda, congratulations, your church membership is probably 85 of the town. The Shawl ministry is wonderful, how about the people receiving the shawls, are you reaching out to them spiritually? It's now 2014 so your average age would 79, still young by todays standards. Can you give us an update? Blessings.
Laurel Cummins
February 15, 2010
Thanks for this article. I have just taken up my very first pastoral appointment in a small church that has gone from 250 people ten years ago to about 30 today. There was trouble and strife, about 170 people just quit all at once and it's gone downhill ever since. But this article has confirmed for me several things. Late last year, God gave me a plan for the next 2-3 years, which includes Romans 12 and the gospel of John (especially the 7 miracles of Christ) for our Scriptural focus this year; our themes are "extending community - hope, health and harvest". We are evaluating and rejuvenating our focus in mission and prayer. We will look to our responsibilities as sowers (into our own lives, the life of the church and the community) and trust God for the harvest. I just wanted to say that your article has been a great confirmation that God has laid out this path for us to follow and so many of the points you make are relevant to us. People are hopeful for the first time in years and starting to step up again. And we had 2 new people walk into church yesterday! Thanks for the encouragement and inspiration. God bless!
Mitchell Hutchins
February 15, 2010
Thanks for the insights in this article. I pastor a small church and have observed some of these issues. I have some work to do. I covet your prayers.
As usual, McKeever has excellent insights, but I'd like to add one more: sin in the camp. It's hard for God to bless a church which allows immorality to be ignored.
Joe Mckeever
February 15, 2010
When I die, they will put on my headstone: "SermonCentral used his stuff." It doesn't get any better than this. Thanks, Ron and Toni. I'm honored.
James Corbett
February 15, 2010
This is a great article that reveals some truthful things that we often don't want to face. While the truth can somtimes be painful, facing truth is necessary for postive change. Let's grow! Thanks.

Join the discussion

  |  Forgot password?