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I spent a lot of years trying to unstick a church that wasn’t stuck.

I thought it was stuck because it wasn’t getting bigger. And I’d been told in virtually every church leadership conference and book that if my church wasn’t growing numerically, we were stuck.

I didn’t want to pastor a stuck church.

I still don’t.

So I went to all the conferences on how to get unstuck. I read all the books. I applied all the principles.

None of them worked.

Pastors of fast-growing churches are always writing helpful blog posts with lists of all the things churches must be doing wrong if we’re not experiencing numerical growth. So I read a ton of blog posts listing 10 Ways to Get Your Church Unstuck, then applied those principles to my church.

They didn’t work either.

So I prayed longer and harder.

Nada.

Then I starting reading stories of pastors and churches that stopped trying to grow, but just implemented the principles of church health. As soon as they did that, without trying to help God grow the church—boom!—the church started growing like crazy.

So I relaxed and stopped worrying about church growth. Our church worked on getting healthy instead and…

Nah, that didn’t grow the church either.

Finally, I left the modern church-growth movement behind and went back to the source. I read, re-read, preached and taught about the growth of the church in the book of Acts.

Still nothing.

The Question No One Told Me To Ask

Then I looked at my church again.

And I asked myself a question none of the conferences, books and blog posts ever suggested.

“If I took numerical growth off the table, would I call this church a healthy church?” 

The answer was surprisingly obvious.

Yes. 

The church I pastor is one of the healthiest churches I know.

Which led to a follow-up question.

“If a church is healthy in every way but numerical growth, is it really stuck?”

No.

It turns out my church wasn’t stuck at all. It was just small.

And if that’s the case—if a Small Church can be a healthy church—then maybe numerical growth isn’t the be-all, end-all sign of health we’ve made it out to be.

Maybe a healthy Small Church is an OK thing to be.

And, as I soon discovered, a healthy church that keeps working on health, gets even healthier.

Have You Asked That Question?

What about your church?

Have you been spinning in the same never-ending cycle of frustration I was?

Have you been trying to unstick a church that might not be stuck?

Is it possible your church isn’t stuck? Just small?

If you’re not sure, I encourage you to learn from my mistakes and do what I should have done all along. Look at your church and ask the question I finally got around to asking.

If you took numerical growth off the table, would your church be considered unhealthy?

If it’s unhealthy, get to work on fixing that, regardless of growth.

If it’s healthy, quit beating yourself and your church up for not getting bigger. That may not be what God is calling you to be.

Yes, you read that right. God may not be calling your church to grow numerically. Despite what we’ve been told, individual congregational growth is not a biblical mandate.

If a church is healthy, but not getting bigger, then it’s not stuck. It’s just small.

Is Your Church Healthy?

So, if we take numerical growth off the table, what are the signs of a healthy church?

Isn’t it strange that we even have to ask that question? Any church leader should know the signs of a healthy church, no matter what size it is. But we’ve been so inundated with a grow, grow, grow approach to church health, it may take a reboot of our heads, hearts and spirits to start looking at church health through a lens other than numerical growth.

I’ve taken a look at some non-numerical aspects of church health in previous posts. Here are a few of them:

a. The Essential First Step to Having a Healthy Small Church

b. The Elements of a Healthy Small Church – And the Hidden Agenda that Can Kill It

c. Finally, a Definitive List of Every Essential Element for an Effective Church

If you want other ideas about how to assess church health, apart from numbers, here’s an idea. Do a Google search for “signs of a healthy church” or something like that. Then read some of the thousands of blog posts that come up. As you go through those lists (it’s always a list) ignore any points that have to do with numerical growth and pay close attention to everything else.

Is your church doing all or most of those non-numerical signs of health?

Then you have a healthy church.

You’re not stuck. You’re just small.

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Richard Scotland

commented on Jun 4, 2014

YES!!!! We can get far too hung up on numbers, small and healthy is better than big/unhealthy.

Don Workman

commented on Jun 4, 2014

Thank you. I finally came to grips with the same when I realized "it's my job to be faithful and God's job to be fruitful." What joy and fulfillment to know that a healthy church is a noble life calling. Kind of reminds me of many Puritan pastors in another era.

Karl Vaters

commented on Jun 4, 2014

You're welcome, Don. We all need to be faithful where we are without sitting on our hands. Being small is never an excuse for settling for less. Faithfulness, as you have pointed out, is the key.

Trudy White

commented on Jun 4, 2014

Thank you for the encouragement. I've struggled to be content with the size of our church because, as you said, those around me are always taking numerical growth as a sign of a healthy church. Our congregation is a healthy congregation and I appreciate the encouragement to simply relax, be faithful, continue to do as the Lord leads and stop trying to make numerical growth happen. It will as the Lord allows or not.

Rob Tennant

commented on Jun 4, 2014

Our church has new members through birth, baptism, and people moving every year single year. We have many new people every year. We are pretty much the same size as when I first came 8 years ago. How is it that we have so many new people yet never grow numerically? We are in a university town. Grad students come, join, graduate, then move on. This is our context. I don't perceive us as small, but we aren't getting bigger either. And I am not worried about it. We ranged from 120-150 when I started and we are still at that number weekly.

Karl Vaters

commented on Jun 4, 2014

That sounds very familiar, Rob. We have a bunch of college students that come through our church, too. We invest a lot into them and they bless us while they're with us. Then they leave to bless the kingdom of God in other churches all around the world. It may not grow OUR church (numerically, anyway), but it sure does grow THE church.

Rob Tennant

commented on Jun 4, 2014

I have simple, three-step formula for our church. (1) Safe - we are safe place for people to come as they are; (2) New - once people come, they meet Christ are made new, as new creations; (3) Sent - having been made new, we are sent into the world in His name. Some are sent to return next Sunday; some are sent and we won't see them again until we are in the eternal kingdom after the resurrection. Safe. New. Sent. We are a welcoming church, a transforming church, a sending church. Everything we do is based on this.

Tee Nalo

commented on Jun 4, 2014

Wonderful insight sir God bless you

Tee Nalo

commented on Jun 4, 2014

Wonderful insight sir God bless you

Rodney Shanner

commented on Jun 4, 2014

But Karl, what is your response to the Church Growth movement people/experts who declare that the #1 evidence of a healthy church is attendance/conversion growth backed up by their references to the growth of the Church recorded in Acts?

Karl Vaters

commented on Jun 6, 2014

Great question, Rodney. Certainly numbers matter as long as they are conversions. I believe 10,000 people spread out over 100 churches is no less valuable to the kingdom than 10,000 people concentrated in one church. In fact, there's a growing body of evidence showing that there are are higher rates of conversion, church plants and calls to ministry per capita from Small Churches than from big ones. As to the book of Acts, 3,000 souls were saved on one day, which many say make a megachurch. But Acts states that these people came from at least 17 different regions of the world and/or languages. Presumably, they went home afterwards in very small groups to form their own church bodies (likely small ones). And even the large group that stayed behind in Jerusalem met, both in the temple courts (big church) and from house to house (small church). The large church to Small Church ratio in Acts was probably similar to what it is today.

David Evans

commented on Jun 4, 2014

Rodney, I would say to them - put the emphasis where the Book of Acts does. THE LORD ADDED daily to the church those who were being saved. If he doesn't add for some reason what can we do? Thanks Karl for one of the most encouraging articles in this series for ages?

David Evans

commented on Jun 4, 2014

Rodney, I would say to them - put the emphasis where the Book of Acts does. THE LORD ADDED daily to the church those who were being saved. If he doesn't add for some reason what can we do? Thanks Karl for one of the most encouraging articles in this series for ages?

William Howard

commented on Jun 4, 2014

I agree, too much effort given to numerical growth. Nothing wrong with it, but, we need to keep the main thing - the main thing. More bodies in the seats = more tithes, more offerings, more benevolence. Nothing wrong here either, but are we preaching church or Jesus? Church doesn't save, Jesus saves. Good points, however, I believe a Pastor IS necessary. All through scripture we see that God's people have always been under and accountable to a God given leader.

Karl Vaters

commented on Jun 6, 2014

Thanks for the comment, William. But if we're keeping the main thing the main thing, that's about salvation, not just benevolence. Plus, in the places where the church is growing fastest and impacting their communities the greatest (Latin America and China, for instance) it's more through the multiplication of Small Churches than an increase in megachurch sizes. Both are good, but bigger congregational size isn't the only evidence of God's work being done.

Suresh Manoharan

commented on Jun 5, 2014

Dear Brother Karl, Thanks for the insightful article borne out of experience of walking with the Lord. Each Church in God's sight is like "little" Israel where "from Dan to Beersheba" a) the members' hearts are right towards Him and b) there is an outworking of Psalm 133. These traits by themselves are evangelistic tools (John 13:35) of a powerful kind rather than words. Of course words do matter but nothing quite like love for God and love for one another to draw people to the Lord.

Joseph Puleo

commented on Jun 5, 2014

I have been here 8plus years when I goe here the church was dtruggling from a split and had only 35 members. Today we have grown to 80 and stil growing at a slow pace which is fine. I never counted members as a way to increase this church I simply preached the Holy Spirit that H e would increase in the people as they opened their heart to Him. We are not a large church but we are big in the Spirit and the individual growth has been super great. That is where I am at with growth within the church and let God add the increse. Paul and Appolis planted and watered and let God add the increase as He sees fit.

Joseph Puleo

commented on Jun 5, 2014

sorry about the miss spelling

Eva Barber

commented on Jun 5, 2014

I am so grateful and appreciative for this message today. I feel like I can breathe now. For far too long I have been bound by this type of thinking. Well, today I cab truly say that I am released and there is no conflict in my soul. Thankvyiy so much for this message and sharing yiur lufe experience. Thank you and thank you again

Karl Vaters

commented on Jun 6, 2014

I'm touched by your comment, Eva. And so happy my words could bless you this way.

Dayo Akintunde

commented on Jun 6, 2014

Thanks a lot Karl Vaters for this article. It is encouraging and comforting. Many church leaders are discouraged and frustrated because their churches are not growing in numbers; this of course is after they have done everything humanly possible to grow the church. Due to the frustration, some had closed their churches and became "emergency Evangelists". Thanks again for the write-up! Blessings!

Alexander Drysdale Lay Preacher Uca Australia

commented on Jun 8, 2014

Thank you, Karl. I have wondered if I am doing things wrong. There are about a dozen churches I visit on a regular basis and they are all small. One has not had a regular minister for fourteen years and it is healthy and lively and a good turnout on a Sunday is 18 yes 18 parishoners.

Harold Krause

commented on Jan 10, 2016

Thank you Karl, Just what the doctor ordered. We are going to have a great service today ... although we always had but today my mind is free to know I do have a small healthy church. They show up for prayer, bible study, some Sundays (LOL), but have a big heart when it's time to give to the ones in need. We will continue lift up Jesus, and let Him send who he ordains to be there. "Not by my power, nor by my might, but by the spirit of the Lord" ....

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