The Astonishing Power of Small Churches

The following is taken from the blog posts of Karl Vaters in Christianity Today - Sept/Oct 2016.

The Astonishing Power of Small Churches: Over One Billion Served [Part 1]

This is the first in a five-part series that will dramatically alter the way we see small churches and their kingdom potential.

More than one billion people choose to worship Jesus in small churches. Yes, you read that right. One billion plus. This has massive implications for the church, the world and how small churches see their role in the kingdom of God. So many implications, that I’ll be writing about them in a five-part series, starting today.

A Perspective Shift for Small Churches

According to the very reputable Pew Forum, there are more than 2.2 billion Christians in the world. Almost one-third of the world’s population


Over half of them are involved in churches with less than 250 people in them. (In America, that number is 350, but it’s much lower worldwide, though exact stats are hard to find.) If you’re a small church pastor who’s been doubting your value in the kingdom of God, it’s time for a massive shift in perspective.

God has placed an awesome responsibility into our hands. Small church pastors oversee the spiritual lives of over one billion people!

Numbers That Matter

I don’t do a lot of number-crunching. But there are some numbers that matter. Numbers in my church don’t matter as much as I wish they did. Especially in the developed world. Let’s face it – most of the people in your church and mine came from another church. Net loss/gain for the body of Christ? Zero.

But when we’re talking about the church, not just about your church or my church, things change dramatically. Every person who comes into the church is another soul going to heaven and rescued from hell. Frankly, I don’t care if they’re in my church, your church, a small church, a house church or a megachurch. I’m just grateful – literally, eternally grateful – that they’re in any church that preaches the good news of Jesus and helps them live it.

Those are numbers that matter. And fully half of those numbers are in small churches.

Small Churches: A Mistake? Or a Divine Strategy?

This is impoortant, because too many small churches and their pastors have been made to feel insignificant when their annual numbers don’t go up as dramatically as we’re told they should.

We’re often left with the impression that small churches are a problem to be fixed, merely because they are small.

But if small churches are a problem to be fixed, let’s take that premise to its logical conclusion, given the stats we’ve just seen. Do we really think that over one billion of our fellow believers are mistaken because they’ve chosen to worship and serve God in smaller congregations?

They’re not mistaken at all.

It’s time to stop treating small churches, the pastors who lead them and the people who worship God in them as inadequate, as failures, as problems to be fixed or as obstacles to be overcome. (If you sense a little anger or frustration in this, it comes mostly from my own history of underestimating the value of my church and my ministry in it, merely because it’s small.)

The world is filled with small churches. This is not because of human weakness, lack of prayer, poor methodology or limited vision. Put simply, small churches are not a problem. They are an essential element in a divine strategy. A strategy God has been utilizing for the last 2,000 years. A strategy I didn’t see until very recently.

What is that strategy? You can get a glimpse of it in my next post, The Astonishing Power of Small Churches: Strategic Placement.

Copyright © 2016 by the author or Christianity Today. By Karl Vaters. 09-26-16

The Astonishing Power of Small Churches: Strategic Placement [Part 2]

Small churches may be the most overlooked, under-appreciated and underutilized asset on earth. But it doesn’t have to stay that way.

Over one billion people choose to worship Jesus in small churches. But the astonishing power of small churches is not just about the numbers. It’s about strategic placement.

This is where our small size becomes our advantage. Small churches have found their way into every corner of the world.

Laws don’t stop us, distance can’t limit us, and lack of funds won’t discourage us. In places where Christianity is illegal, our size makes us invisible. Where people have no transportation, our size makes us accessible. Where land is expensive, our size makes us affordable.

Small churches are not a mistake to be fixed or an obstacle to overcome. We may be God’s greatest tool to reach the world. Especially when we join forces with our big- and megachurch brothers and sisters.

“Where’s Waldo?” Has Nothing on Small Churches

Small churches may exist in more places on earth than any other group of people.

Let’s start with religious groups. Most religions and Christian denominations exist predominantly within the region where they were birthed. But the body of Christ is everywhere. And no aspect of Christianity is found in more places than small churches.

  • Small churches are spread more evenly around the globe than Buddhists, Hindus, Jews or Muslims. More than Baptists, Methodists, Pentecostals or Catholics.

  • Small churches also exist in more places than any man-made product. We dot the world’s landscape more widely than Starbucks, McDonald’s, or even Coca-Cola. Yes, there are many places on earth where you can’t buy a Coke, but you can go to a small church – even if it’s illegal to do so.

  • Small churches reach into more segments of human society than communism, capitalism, democracy or Hollywood.

It’s been said that the world is flat, mainly because of the widespread use of computers. And to a large extent, that’s true. But Apple and Microsoft only wish they were in as many places as small churches.

The Adaptability of Small Churches

The Gospel of Jesus is more culturally adaptable than any ideology, religion or philosophy that has ever existed. (Truth tends to do that). And when it’s packaged in a small church, that adaptability becomes universal.

While our big- and megachurch friends are doing great things for God, they tend to be clumped in a handful of places around the globe. But small churches can be found on every continent, in every nation and among every ethnicity. They are at home in every language and culture, among every age group, every socio-economic status, to fit every taste and style.

People gather in small churches to celebrate their greatest joys and find solace in their deepest sorrows. They mark our emotional and spiritual milestones including our births and our deaths, our weddings and our coming of age.

More people have found salvation, discipleship and ministry opportunities in small churches than anywhere else in history.

Poised for Greatness and Goodness

Imagine what any country, company or army would give to have over one billion people scattered into every nook and cranny across the face of the earth in groups averaging 25 to 35 people. (The average church in the world is 75-80, so the average small church is probably around 25-35).

Yes, small churches have problems – every church does. But our size isn’t one of them.

How have we missed this simple truth? Is it because we didn’t plan it ourselves? This is God’s doing. It’s time we caught up to that fact.

Small churches are the most overlooked, under-appreciated and underutilized asset on earth. Including by those of us who are in them. But it doesn’t have to stay that way. Small churches are poised to be the greatest force for good that the world has ever seen.

It’s time to turn us loose.

How? I take a look at that in my next post, The Astonishing Power of Small Churches: Fan the Flame.

Copyright © 2016 by the author or Christianity Today. By Karl Vaters

The Astonishing Power of Small Churches: Fan the Flame [Part 3]

Let’s encourage, connect and equip innovative small church leaders as each one plays their part.

How can we activate the astonishing power of small churches?

As we’ve already seen in the previous two posts in this series, over one billion people worship Jesus in small churches tucked into every corner of the globe.

  • What could we possibly do to light the fuse that would allow us to tap into this astonishing potential?

  • How would we structure it?

  • What should we tell them to do? And who can we call upon to lead it?

We wouldn’t, we shouldn’t and we can’t.

We don’t need to light the fuse. It has been lit already.

This is something God has done. He did it without us creating a plan for it. And he did it mostly without our cooperation.

He did it with many of us fighting it every step of the way – including me, until recently.

The quickest way to kill it would be to put a person, a blue-ribbon panel or (God forbid) a committee in charge of it. While we’ve been obsessed with building large congregations, God has been planting small churches like spiritual seeds in thirsty ground, into every possible furrow on earth. Alongside our big church brothers and sisters, not competing with them.

We’ve only begun to recognize this phenomenon, let alone appreciate or utilize it.

But there are two principles we can adopt that would help fan this flicker into a flame:

1. Support Small Churches

Small churches need to be

  • Supported

  • Valued

  • Resourced

  • Networked

  • Celebrated

And maybe most of all…

  • Noticed for the contributions we make to the kingdom of God

Let’s refuse to buy the lie that size is an accurate measure of the health or strength of a congregation. It’s not. Small churches need our prayers and support, not our condescending ideas about how to “fix” what isn’t wrong.

Let’s encourage, connect and equip innovative small church leaders as each one plays their part in this extraordinary work – starting by recognizing just how extraordinary the work is.

2. Stay Out of God’s Way

Let’s try not to mess up what God is doing this time, shall we? This is the one concern I have as I work to point out the value of small churches. I pray that, by bringing this extraordinary work of God to light, we won’t be tempted to overstep our place and mess this up by trying to help God out.

The history of the church is filled with examples of our bewildering capacity to mess up what God has started. And the massive flood of small churches throughout the world is definitely something God has started.


Maybe the best thing we can do for small churches is to listen to their pastors, leaders and congregations about how we can work with them.

Learn from them instead of condescending to them.

How Did We Miss This?

The biggest mystery, to my mind at least, is how so many of us have completely missed what God has been doing through small churches. Not one statistic I’ve mentioned in this series is obscure or even disputed. Not the percentage of large to small churches, the number of people in them, their worldwide spread, or their importance in people’s lives. But, until I cobbled them all together, I never saw small churches this way. I’m guessing you’d say the same.

Copyright © 2016 by the author or Christianity Today. By Karl Vaters. 09-30-16

The Astonishing Power of Small Churches: Three Reasons We’ve Missed This [Part 4]

The stubborn, historical persistence of small churches is something God has done without our noticing it, and in spite of the fact that many of us have fought against it.

How can one billion people be doing something without the world standing up to take notice?

More specifically, how can one billion people be doing something within a very narrowly defined niche, and the leaders in that niche not value it? But that’s what has happened in the church world.

Over one billion people choose to worship Jesus in small churches. Yet virtually every book on how to do church implies that this is a problem to be fixed, rather than an opportunity to take advantage of.

Small Is Not a Theological Error

Why are we trying to tell one billion people they’re doing church wrong just because their churches are small?

Imagine if there were one billion people who preferred adding a tablespoon of cream to their Coca-Cola

every day. Would Coke’s board of directors launch a campaign to convince them they were drinking Coca-Cola the wrong way? Or would they scramble as fast as possible to mix, package and market “Creamy Coke”?

Numbers don’t make something right (oh, the irony). So if worshiping God in a small church was selfish, ineffective or theologically flawed, we’d be correct in telling them they’re doing it wrong. But they’re not wrong.

As I say in The Grasshopper Myth, “Wanting to worship and serve God in a small church is not a theological error or a personality deficit. It’s time we stopped treating it as though it was.”

How have we missed this?

I believe there are several reasons why we haven’t seen what God is doing around the world in small churches. Here are three:

1. We Didn’t Do It

The megachurch movement came about through careful and prayerful study, planning, hard work, assessment and follow-through. There are innumerable books, seminars, conferences and classes on megachurch principles.

But small churches just keep chugging along without conferences, classes or seminars – and with very few books or websites on how to do it. Why the difference between the two? As I mentioned in my previous post in this series, the stubborn, historical persistence of small churches is something God has done without our noticing it, and in spite of the fact that many of us have fought against it.

Jesus is building his church. And he’s using all sizes and styles to do it.

He didn’t ask for our plans to start it, he doesn’t need our permission to continue it, and he won’t require the approval of a denominational committee to complete it. God doesn’t need to get in line with what we’re doing. We need to get in line with what he’s doing.

When we don’t plan it, manage it or tie a neat bow on the end of it, most of us don’t notice it. We notice when another church is big, and we whine when our church is small.

It’s time to pay attention to what God is doing in his church – and to discover our part in it.

2. Big Crowds Stroke Our Ego

A couple times in my life I’ve spoken to a crowd of over 1,000 people. It’s quite a buzz.

I can’t imagine the charge people get out of standing in front of tens of thousands of people who came specifically to hear what they have to say on a regular basis. I’m not saying that every megachurch pastor is an egotist. The truth is, I know some small church pastors whose egos could be a float in the Macy’s parade. But, let’s not pretend that crowds don’t have a tendency to stroke our ego.

This is one of the reasons I have great admiration for megachurch pastors who are able to keep a humble spirit. Not all of them are able to handle it. I don’t know if I could.

Big things get noticed. Small things get missed. And we all want to be noticed, don’t we?

3. We’ve Misdefined Church

We are the church.

The New Testament writers could not have been more clear about this.But too often we’ve defined the church as a building. Even if we know better theologically, that’s what we do in practice.When the church is too closely linked to the building, church growth means more people in the building. Or buying more land to build bigger buildings.

But when we really get the idea that healthy churches can happen with as few as 2 or 3 of us, we can see that church growth includes the multiplication of groups of 2-3, 20-30 or 200-300. And yes, 2,000-3,000 and 20,000-30,000.

Jesus was fine with 2 or 3. We need to stop belittling churches with 10 to 100 times that many people.

Copyright © 2016 by the author or Christianity Today. By Karl Vaters. 10-03-16

The Astonishing Power of Small Churches: Looking Ahead [Part 5]

Small churches are a vital component of the most powerful force for goodness the world has ever seen.

Imagine how different the world would look, if

  • over billion people

  • transformed by the gospel of Jesus

  • strategically placed by the hand of God

  • in groups averaging 30 or so

  • tucked into every corner of the world

decided to really say “yes” to God.

Small churches are a vital component of the most powerful force for goodness the world has ever seen – the gospel of Jesus lived in and through his body, the church.

We don’t need to build one more church building, gather for any more seminars or devise a new strategy in order to be ready for the greatest movement in history. Even though all of those are great.

We just need to say “yes” to Jesus.

But what is Jesus asking us to say “yes” to?

There Is No Secret Sauce

We have to quit looking for some secret ingredient that will make our churches bigger and better.

Instead, I have this book I’d like to recommend to you. It’s often bound in leather. You may have one within arm’s reach. There’s probably a copy of it on the computer or smart phone you’re using to read this blog post.

It’s called the Bible. Everything we need to know is in there. It’s not a secret. We need to do the Bible stuff.

Love God, Love Others, That’s All

When Jesus was asked what we need to do to please God, he had a simple answer. Love God. Love others. That’s all. (Matthew 22:36-40)

There are places on earth without a doctor, a school or fresh water, but there’s a small church. And where there’s a small church, doctors, schools and fresh water always follow very close behind. In fact, most missionaries start a school, dig a well and/or open a medical clinic before they break ground on a church building.

Why? Because of Jesus’ command. Love God. Love others. That’s all. That’s why the church has always grown among the poor.When we do the Bible stuff first, the world gets better. And people’s hearts bend towards Jesus a little more.

Think Goodness, Not Greatness

The disciples wanted Jesus to use his powers of persuasion to win a debate over religion and politics. Jesus put a child on his knee.

The disciples wanted Jesus to leverage his time by impressing influencers.

Jesus wasted his time on a prostitute who wanted to wash his feet with her hair.

We’ve all met the high-powered leader who looks over our shoulder for the next, more important person, while he shakes our hand.

  • Jesus was never that guy. He never leveraged people. He just loved them.

  • Jesus never saw people as a means to get greater things done. He didn’t see them as a way to build his church. He told them they are the church.

  • Jesus saw every individual as the greatest place in which he could invest his time. And that’s how he continues to change the world. One person at a time.

Let’s take care of who and what God gave us. Recognize the greatness in smallness. Know that the people God gave you is the church he wants you to pastor.

It’s inconceivable that a movement begun by Jesus could ever proceed by any other means.

Let’s shower the world with tangible proof of God’s love. One person at a time.

There’s no better place to do that than in a healthy church. Big or small.

Copyright © 2016 by the author or Christianity Today. By Karl Vaters. 10-05-16

What Does a Healthy Small Church Look Like?

by Karl Vaters

Small churches can be healthy churches. But how can we know if they’re healthy without the numerical growth to prove it?

If you want to find answers, we need to ask the right questions. A couple weeks ago I spoke to about 60 church leaders in six sessions at a 48 hour conference. To start one session, I asked them the question in the title of this post: What does a healthy small church look like?

They took some time at their tables to discuss this, then each table reported their results. Here are their responses – in no particular order. Several of the points were mentioned by multiple tables.

The Characteristics of a Healthy Small Church

  • Christ-centered

  • Bible-based

  • Ministers to people inside and outside the church

  • Stays true to the purposes of the gospel

  • Makes disciples

  • Works through conflict in healthy ways

  • Welcomes new people

  • Listens to people

  • Values everyone

  • Gives the glory to Jesus

  • Ministers those who are absent

  • Combines old traditions with new ideas to make new traditions

  • Follows the Great Commission and Great Commandment

  • Visible in the community

  • Practices good stewardship

  • Stays on mission

  • Expresses evident love

  • Prays together

  • Has respect between the pastor and congregation

  • Is reaching the next generation

  • Is spiritually and biblically healthy

  • Is knowing and growing in God’s Word

  • Has high engagement of its membership

  • Values mission over survival

  • Friendly

  • Adaptable and teachable

  • Passionate

  • Theologically sound

  • Generous

  • Clear about their identity

  • Practices the spiritual disciplines

  • Worshipful

  • Open to new possibilities

  • And more

That’s a good list! And, even though it’s a long one, it’s not a complete one. We just ran out of time. After writing it down, we talked about it. There were several things about it that we all noticed right away. I hope they encourage you as much as they encouraged us.

Six Lessons About Health

1. It’s not about numbers

While all the churches represented would love to grow and reach more people, the numerical growth of a local congregation is not an essential element of church health. As long as we’re contributing to the growth of the church, that’s what matters.

2. None of them were about events or programs

Filling up the calendar was not even a consideration.

3. It’s not pastor-dependent

No one said anything like “the pastor needs to preach well, have a good grasp of theology, visit the sick” and so on.A healthy church makes, activates and behaves like disciples instead of expecting all the ministry to be done by the pastor.

4. A church can be healthy with limited resources

None of the items are dependent on having more money, people or facilities. Any church of any size can do this.

5. Health looks the same in churches of any size

Whether your church is big or small, growing, shrinking or static, this list needs to be considered. We have a lot more in common than we think.

6. The list is big, but doable

Normally, a list of that size would feel overwhelming. There’s so much to do!

But, with the specter of increased numbers, programs, pastoral skill and resources removed, this is not an intimidating list. It’s an encouraging one. Instead of telling us to work harder, get smarter and figure out what’s relevant, this list of healthy church characteristics reminds us that our entire calling is to lean more on Jesus and draw people to him.

Health Outside the Numbers

It’s possible to get a good sense of whether-or-not a church is healthy without relying on spreadsheets or having certain programs in place.

Like the Fruit of the Spirit, this list is not dependent on our hard work, but on staying close to Jesus, walking in the Spirit, teaching the Word and loving people in Jesus’ name.

For some people, the fact that there are no numbers attached to this list is frustrating. I get that. An objective baseline of measurement can be reassuring, and in many situations, it and can help us see past our own biases.

Numbers can help us understand some things about the health of a church. But they’re not the only thing.

Too much reliance on numbers can be like counting the brushstrokes on a Monet. Sometimes you need to step back and see the bigger picture. Enjoy the beauty. Gasp at the wonder. And remember that the most important things in life can’t be measured numerically.

Including a healthy church.

Copyright © 2016 by the author or Christianity Today.

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