By Karl Vaters on May 26, 2022
Different sizes of churches serve different functions. And they face different challenges.
Small churches are not just smaller versions of big churches.
Every size has value, but different sizes serve different functions in the body of Christ. They also have different challenges and they tend to make different kinds of mistakes.
Here are 5 mistakes that are more likely to be made by small churches than by big ones. The smaller, the more susceptible they are.
(For the other side of this equation, check out 5 Mistakes More Likely To Be Made By Big Churches Than Small Churches.)
1. Holding On To Stale Traditions
Some traditions strengthen a church, some weaken a church.
And some traditions that used to strengthen us will eventually weaken us if we hold onto them past their sell-by date.
Some churches need to ask themselves a very serious question. Namely, ‘what’s more important to us? Holding onto traditions that are killing our church, or letting go of some traditions to save the church?’
No, I’m not talking about biblical principles. Without those, we don’t get to call ourselves a church. But anything other than those need to be held lightly, and sometimes not at all.
2. Poor, Or Nonexistent Planning
Not long ago, I was chatting with the pastor of a dying church. He was excited about his plans to revitalize it, so I asked him to send me an outline of those plans. What did he send me? A six-month calendar of committee meetings.
Certainly, getting the planning team in the room for regular times of prayer, strategizing and assessment is a very valuable part of the process. But having more meetings is a poor substitute for having a plan.
Another pastor in a similar situation sent me a list of sermon series. Preaching in series can be very helpful. I’ve done it for years. But we can’t confuse a sermon series with a revitalization plan any more than meetings are. They may be elements of a plan, but they can’t be the plan.
On a recent, very helpful Thom Rainer podcast about replanting dead or dying churches, Mark Clifton said that churches in crisis “generally value the process of decision over the outcome of decision.” Healthy churches prioritize outcomes.
A plan includes a roadmap for how to get from where you are now to a better, more desirable future. Certainly that plan will change as circumstances change, so the ability to adapt and change needs to be built into the plan. But, to repeat the old cliché, those who fail to plan, plan to fail.
3. Not Enough Assessment Or Evaluation
The smaller the church, the harder it is to gauge effectiveness by numbers.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t or shouldn’t evaluate our effectiveness in some way.
After Jesus sent out the 72, he gathered them together and asked how their mission went. Then he told them how to evaluate their effectiveness (Luke 10).
Every time we do any ministry, we need to gather the leadership to assess
- What went right
- What went wrong
- Why it went right or wrong, and
- What we can do to improve it the next time.
I know, when things are really bad, that can be painful. But it is essential.
4. Too Much Inward Focus
Many dying churches are doing so because of many years of obvious, intense conflict.
But some churches are surprised that they’re dying because the people who remain are often having a great time with each other.
“The preaching is great, the worship is vibrant and the fellowship is so deep,” they’ll often say. But it often only feels like that to those who already belong.
In a previous post, I made a statement that many readers took me to task for. But I stand by it. Here it is again. “If your church isn't willing to be changed by the unbelievers who come to your church, they won't come.”
In a smaller group each person has a greater impact.
Yes, we need to be willing to allow them to change us, not just expect us to change them. In fact, the smaller the church, the more this is true, because in a smaller group each person has a greater impact.
If we aren’t willing to listen and adapt our methods (but not our core theology, of course) based on the changing needs of the community around us, we will be seen as increasingly cold, distant and irrelevant to them.
No, the church must never abandon the saints who built and support it (a challenge I’ll address in the companion article about mistakes big churches tend to make), but if all we’re doing is a holy huddle, we’ve stopped being a light in the darkness.
5. Depending On The Pastor Instead Of Making Disciples
The smaller the church, the more we need to fight against the expectation that the pastor is supposed to do ministry for the members. Instead, we must follow the biblical mandate to equip the members to do the work of ministry (Ephesians 4:11-12).
No church can survive if its ministry doesn’t grow beyond the capacity of the pastor. We need to expand our ministry base by equipping and involving everyone.
For more about this, check out The Best Way To Avoid Pastor Burnout? Equip The Saints.
What This List Does Not Mean
Before concluding, I want to be sure no reader goes away thinking anything that I do not intend to say by this list, specifically these five possible misunderstandings.
First, this list is not exhaustive. No list can be.
Second, none of these errors is inevitable, no matter how small the church is.
Third, these are not necessarily the reasons a church stays small. So, if your church is small and not committing any of these mistakes, that’s great!
Numerical growth is not the goal. Health is.
Fourth, fixing these errors may not bring numerical growth. There are plenty of healthy, missional, strategic small churches that have none of these issues, but still find that their greatest contribution to Christ and his church comes in a smaller package.
Numerical growth is not the goal. Health is. Sometimes that health will produce numerical growth, sometimes not.
Finally, big churches aren’t perfect. They may not tend towards these errors, but they do have their own sets of challenges.
I take a look at some of those in my companion post, 5 Mistakes More Likely To Be Made By Big Churches Than Small Churches.
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