Talking and writing about healthy small churches is a revolutionary idea. It shouldn’t be, but it is. And it probably will be for a while.
But dents are being made. Let me tell you about some that are happening now.
This fall, I’ve been invited to teach about small church principles at conferences from Idaho to Maryland, from Michigan to Florida, and many places in between. (Click here for an updated schedule for 2017).
Having a small church pastor teach healthy small church principles at pastoral conferences is such a new idea that some people don’t quite know what to make of it.
For instance, a couple years ago I was asked to conduct a breakout session for Exponential West – a church planters’ conference. This was an experiment for all of us. Exponential had never featured a session specifically for small church leaders and I had just started speaking and writing about it. I’ll always be grateful that they gave me and this idea a chance – and I’ll be with them again this year.
I titled my talk, What to Do Before You Break Through: Leadership and Decision-Making In Churches Under the 200 Barrier. I’m not a fan of the term 200 barrier, but I felt this terminology would speak to frustrated church planters.
You’re Teaching What?
As the first few pastors started filtering in to the breakout room, I greeted them.
Several of them pointed to the title of my talk in the brochure and asked the question I was expecting. “So this is about how to get a small church healthy, then break through the 200 barrier?”
“Yes to the first part,” I answered. “No to the second part.”
That always got a curious look.
“We’re going to talk about having a healthy small church,” I answered. “There’s a lot of great material about how to get bigger, but I’ve never been able to pull that off, so I’ll be speaking from my own experience – pastoring a small church to health and effectiveness, even if it never becomes big.”
“Our church has gone from stuck and sick to healthy and missional. We’re discipling and sending people into ministry. And we’re doing it in a very small building with what is still considered a small church attendance. If your church is small, I think this session will give you something you can use.”
One pastor responded with “Good! It’s about time!” and sat down ready for the session. Others weren’t quite so sure.
With some, I could see the wheels turning. “So…my church has been stuck under 200 (or 20, 50, 100…) for a few years. Will this session help me?”
“It depends what kind of help you want,” I responded. “If you’re looking for ways to get bigger, no. But if you want to get unstuck and healthy, stick around.”
After that explanation, some sat at a table, their curiosity piqued. Others left the room looking for a different breakout, shaking their heads. I think I saw a couple eyerolls, too.
Lessons from Small Churches for Small Churches
By the time the session began, I was pleasantly surprised to have a full house – over 150 pastors. That says nothing about me (no one in the room had ever heard my name before that session), but it told me that there’s a greater hunger for teaching about healthy small churches than most church leaders realize.
I started as I always do with “Hi, I’m Karl and I’m a small church pastor.” That always gets a few smiles and chuckles – along with a chorus of “Hi, Karl!” coming back at me.
Then I told them that, although I’ve been a small church pastor for over 25 years, I didn’t know I was a small church pastor until the last few years. Until then, I thought I was a big church pastor who hadn’t arrived yet.
That line had heads nodding all around the room. So many of us know that feeling, don’t we?
I went on to tell some of my story and the lessons I and our church have learned through it.
A Good Day for Small Churches
At the end of the session I hung around and chatted again. Some of the pastors who were skeptical before the session thanked me for giving them a nudge towards a perspective shift.
Some had tears in their eyes as they left wordlessly. Others shared stories of joy and pain that I promised I wouldn’t tell anyone else.
All-in-all, it was a good morning for small churches, their pastors and church health. And it’s been repeated scores of times in the four years since then in conferences all over the country and the world. (Again, if you’re interested to know if one is coming to you soon, check out the link at the top of this post.)
Of all the responses I heard that day, the one that made me smile the widest was from one of the pastors who said he didn’t get what I was talking about before the session started. He had come to the conference discouraged and beaten down, wondering if he ought to close the church because it hadn’t reached the numerical levels he had been all-but-promised.
After the session, he shook my hand, nodded his head with tears in his eyes and said five words. “Thanks. I get it now.”
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