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Where are all the great small churches?

Would you know one if you saw one?

They exist. There’s no doubt about that. There are great small churches in every country, serving every ethnic group and in virtually every language. They worship in every imaginable liturgical style and they meet in every type of building – including no building at all.

But still, many people don’t realize that a church can be both small and great. That has to change. But there’s only one way to change it. We need a lot more great small churches.

We Can Do This

Good isn’t good enough any more. And it will be less acceptable with every passing year.

No more excuses. It’s time for small churches to be great churches.

No more excuses. It’s time for small churches to be great churches.

If that sounds intimidating, it doesn’t need to. Every church has everything it requires in order to achieve greatness right now. You don’t need to wait for permission, or even inspiration. We already have the Great Commandment and the Great Commission.

Here are five principles any small church can use to achieve greatness. Even if they never achieve bigness.

1. Know that Small Churches Can Be Great

Perhaps the biggest impediment to an explosion of great small churches around the world is small churches and pastors who don’t know they can be both small and great.

Greatness is not about achieving epic numerical growth. As I describe in The Grasshopper Myth, it’s not about numerical growth at all. Some of the most rewarding and kingdom-growing worship and ministry experiences I’ve ever had have been in very small groups, including very small churches.

That can be your church. You don’t need one more person, one more dollar or one more square foot of building to start being a great church.

Your small church can be great. You need to know it, believe it and act like it’s true. Because it is.

2. Don’t Try to Act Like a Big Church

People don’t come to a small church expecting a scaled-down version of a megachurch experience. They expect a great small church experience.

Yes, there are principles that all great churches hold in common. But a great small church is not a miniaturized version of a great megachurch.

A great small church won’t have parking lot attendants and professional signage leading families to hi-tech, age-segmented children’s ministries.

Mom and Dad aren’t going to be handed a cup of finely roasted cappuccino from a smiling barista in the church lobby, before being led into a thoroughly post-modern worship space with form-fitting seats.

The worship team won’t be playing original songs from their best-selling album to tightly choreographed lights and video. The pastor’s message won’t be backed by perfectly-timed, custom-made graphics and video clips.

There are a lot of great megachurches that have all that cool stuff. But that’s not what makes them great. And if small church pastors try to duplicate that on a small church budget, you will fail.

Yes, I said it. Fail. I know that sounds like lack of faith to some people, but it’s not. Because failing at those things isn’t even the worst of it. The saddest part is that the time and expense you’ll waste trying to be something you’re not great at will be taken from the things you can be great at.

Yes, keep the place clean and uncluttered. If you own a building, strip off the 1990’s wallpaper and slap a fresh coat of paint on the walls. Make sure everything and everyone are well prepared. But put your main efforts into people, not programs. Friendliness, not facilities. Worship, not entertainment.

Give people the space and time to meet with Jesus.

Then do something small church pastors can do that megachurch pastors can’t do – hang out in the lobby after the service. Build relationships. Pray with and for people. Tell dumb jokes. Hug, laugh and cry together. Be a church family.

That won’t lead you to greatness. That is greatness.

3. Discover What Your Church Can Be Great At

Every church is good at something. Most are good at several things. And any church can be great at something. Starting with the things they’re already good at.

Any church can be great at something. Starting with the things they’re already good at.

Years ago, our church discovered we were good at a couple things: 1) Training and sending people into ministry, and 2) Re-churching the de-churched. So we decided to work hard at becoming great at them.

1. To train people better, we offer very thorough, note-filled, bible-based sermons, an internship program, music classes, hands-on ministry experiences, and a lot of mentoring & counseling.

2. Knowing that we have a gift for reaching people who have fallen away from faith, we foster an atmosphere where people can ask the tough, doubt-filled questions they’ve carried for years. I acknowledge when the Bible says weird things. We let them explore faith, doubt and the Bible at their own pace. That takes longer than picking what some would call “low-hanging fruit”, but that’s okay. They’re worth the wait.

What we’re great at won’t be what your church is great at. You may not even know what you’re good at yet. So do what we did. Start doing the basic Bible stuff. Then experiment. See what works and what doesn’t.

We have ten failures to every success. So we toss the failures and keep the successes.

4. Refuse to Settle for Anything Less than Great

This may sound like the same kind of pressure we feel at some church growth seminars, so before you grab pitchforks and torches, let me tell you what I don’tmean.

I don’t mean that we should never do anything at a less-than-perfect level. There are times in every church when you have to do things you’re not good at or comfortable with, because they have to get done.

The key word here is “settle”. Do what you need to do. Including doing some things at a less-than-great level when needed. But never, Never, NEVER settle for “I guess that’s as good as we’ll ever get.”

Any church that feels like they’ve arrived at their peak then stays there, is settling. Settling is dying.

Any church that feels like they’ve arrived at their peak then stays there, is settling. Settling is dying.

Never settle. No matter how big or small the church is. Always be content with how God made you, but always strive for more of that. That may be the very definition of greatness.

5. Keep Doing What Your Church Is Great At

Great things take time.

In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell famously talks about the 10,000 hour rule. He cites very convincing evidence that no one ever becomes great at anything without putting 10,000 hours into it.

At 40 hours a week, that’s five years worth of full-time work. And in my experience, five years working well at what a church is good at is a bare minimum requirement for true greatness.

The hours alone won’t do it. Talent, gifting, circumstance and God’s will factor into that equation, too. But there’s no substitute for keeping at it. Day by day, week by week, year by year.

This is another reason for not allowing yourself to be diverted from what you and your church are called to be great at. Every hour you spend not doing what you’re supposed to do is an hour you’re not doing what you can be great at.

You and your church are great at something – or you can be. Stop trying to be like the megachurch you visited or read about. Don’t try to cut-and-paste anyone else’s template, including mine, onto your church.

Be who God called you to be. And be great at it.

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Cheryle Spicer

commented on Jul 14, 2016

I once went to a class at Wheaton for pastors who led small churches only to find out it was for attendees of 200 or less! We average 50 to 60! I guess we are a micro church. However, what I did learn was just what you have written about. Our church is a place of real love and everyone says they feel the Holy Spirit when they walk through the door. That is the foundation of a great church! Thank you for the encouragement.

Suresh Manoharan

commented on Jul 15, 2016

Thanks Brother Karl for a very practical article.Isaiah 55:8-9 says My thoughts are not like your our Lord's template for a "great" Church may not neccessarily be the one most people may have in mind(that of a megachhurch) but on the other hand(other things remaining constant like sound doctrine) is whether "all the members in it are crying together and rejoicing together "( Romans 12:15) such a Church exhibiting Christ-like love (John 13:34-35) would bear His seal of approval...,

Olumide Oluremi

commented on Aug 3, 2016

Our most common mistake is comparison, which is lack of understanding, 2 Cor. 10:12. Failing to stay true to our calling and assignment.

Jonathan Spurlock

commented on Apr 23, 2021

First, thank you for the confirmation that small is okay. Too many big churches seem to be calling the shots for everyone else and that is not necessarily the Lord's plan for every assembly. Second, you did give some good points. I am going to presume they are suggestions and not commands. There are parts of the text that do seem a bit more than exhortational, tending towards "do it my way". Third, I take issue with not settling for your “I guess that’s as good as we’ll ever get” statement. In some cases getting anyone to do anything is harder than raising the dead. It's my experience that if people are constantly told "you're not doing enough" they're going to give up. What, then, is the profit? Why not let people rise to their own understanding of the Lord's will, instead of trying to get more and more out of them? Finally, please, ease off on the repetition. Please ease off on the repetition. It's annoying and distracts from anything else you might have to say. In sum. it's great that you confirm that small churches have their place and their function. Thank you again that simply copying and pasting a big church's template or blueprints or whatever is a guaranteed formula for success. The important thing is to love God and make disciples. Oh that our Lord would give us a desire to do that.

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