Most churches aren’t big.
Most churches say they want to grow.
Many pastors hope to serve at big or growing churches. Most pastors won’t.
It’s simply a matter of numbers in the United States: there aren’t that many megachurches. If you happen to be the pastor of one, you can sell a lot of books to pastors who want to get from here to there, even though – and this matters, stop multitasking and read this – the skill set for revitalizing a small church is very different from the skill set for growing a church from large to blockbuster ultra mega church. It’s like the difference between working for a small local struggling but beloved business vs being hired as a new executive for Microsoft.
I’ve actually been the pastor of a small church, so in that sense, I’m more of an expert than a person who has only been in staff positions or senior pastor positions of medium to large congregations. In fact, I was part-time, the church was located in a rural area in a small town that had been dying economically since the highway bypassed it, and it was my first church.
So what went right? (I could tell you stories of what went wrong and the specific razor-sharp edges of my own learning curves, but your time is valuable so we’ll save those for a rainy day.)
What went right at the little frontier church that will never be a blockbuster ultra mega church?
Several things: While I was there (three years), we made major property improvements and repairs, expanded Sunday morning discipleship opportunities, updated safety policies and procedures, added new members, engaged in new and different modes of outreach prior to what had been practiced previously, and I baptized (immersed, United Methodists – I immersed, by request) three teenagers who wanted to show their faith. And I only alienated one elderly woman, who stopped coming but forgave me in the end and requested I preach her funeral sermon (a big step, allowing me the definitive last word).
But why did it go right (except for the stories of what went wrong that we’re saving for a rainy day)?
I think these are helpful principles for any pastor of a small church (usually defined by being under 100 members, but my congregation was less than 50).
First, honestly assess your goal. If your goal is to become blockbuster ultra mega church, it needs retooling. First, because that’s really not what Christ called you to or why you got into ministry, and second, it’s statistically very unlikely. But if your goal is to faithfully worship and witness in your unique community to bring about its transformation, that, we can work with.
My tiny town had zero grocery stores and over ten churches. We couldn’t “compete” with the big prominent church on the edge of town (nor, might I remind you, are we called to). So what were the specific needs of our town, what were the specific passions and gifts of our church members, and how might they converge? When you have a limited budget and limited pool of (usually tired, burned out) volunteers, it is vital you keep harping on the truth that you are not called to be everything or do everything but to be something and to do something.
Second, be a missionary. Many pastors have favorite programs or approaches they like to put in place, and they cart those around like the boxes of books from seminary that they move from town to town. The problem is that especially with small towns and small congregations, many of those program ideas simply won’t fit or, just as bad, they disappear as soon as the new pastor comes with her or his ideas of How To Be Awesome the Biblical But Relevant But Inexpensive Way. It’s not good for the health of a congregation to constantly be adopting new but short-lived programming. The church will be there after you go, and you’re there to help invest in its long-term well-being…right?
Instead, utilize a basic missiological or anthropological perspective. The first year, you’re there as a learner, an observer, noting the basic community calendar, the prominence of the local school, big regional events, vacation and travel patterns, long-standing church activities, deeply held values and practices, etc. This was in starker contrast for me because I’d grown up in a completely different part of the country in a very different regional culture. I didn’t know anything about ranching, growing cotton, rodeos, kolaches, or bluebonnets. But if I wanted to serve (there’s that word again) the people in my spiritual care, then it was my job to watch, listen, and learn.
It doesn’t matter what your local context is – you may live in a small Pacific northwest fishing town or a California tech town or a Michigan hunting town or an Ohio manufacturing town or a Georgia peach-growing town or a New England lobstering town. The point is, notice it: what’s unique? Do most people work locally or commute to a bigger city? Is there a festival everyone leaves town for? What are most of the arrests in your county related to? Is there a problem in your town with stray animals, or high suicide rates at the local high school, or funding for a new wing of the hospital?
Because this is where your congregation’s giftedness and interest will intersect with your community. So let the town’s culture and the congregation’s personality guide you, not the latest program ideas from a pastor with a staff of a dozen working in a completely different region.
Third, work on your preaching skills. There’s a practical reason for this. Smaller churches have less programming throughout the week. Sunday mornings are the one time everyone gets together. It’s your chance to help keep vision and encouragement front and center; it’s your chance to help even out uneven preaching from the past (small churches are accustomed to taking whomever the Bishop appoints or whomever they can afford, and the quality of preaching that came before you might have left some huge gaps).
I’m not advocating personality-driven ministry, but whether you follow the lectionary or prepare a sermon series, keep preaching front and center in the way you spend your time. Record yourself with video or audio so you can note habits you haven’t been aware of. Listen to really good preachers – here’s a great example – and note how they approach the text, how they use illustrations or examples, how they pace their sermon, and what the takeaway is. You don’t have to mimic their style (and always cite or credit your content), but if you could focus on just one thing to improve about your verbal and nonverbal public communication, what would it be?
A couple of additional notes: Ministry is hard, no matter what size your congregation is. There will be good days and bad days. You need prayer partners if you’re in ministry, whether you’re serving in Zimbabwe or Chicago or Kansas. From the moment you begin as a church’s pastor, you need a couple of friends or family members or ideally both who you can email with occasional updates about ministry life and things pressing on your heart.
Also, and this is hard-won experience (though it helps if you’re a pastor’s kid), learn to discern whether a church is depressed, dysfunctional, or toxic. A depressed church can slowly and gently regain hope, vision, and purpose. A dysfunctional church can slowly and gently regain equilibrium, health, and momentum. A toxic church will be very difficult to survive, and in those very rare cases, be faithful, then move on.
And hey – you’re doing great. The ministry you’re doing is valuable. It’s making a difference. You’re not alone. And yes, there may be a dog under your church giving birth to puppies during worship service. But that’s something that blockbuster ultra mega pastor will never get to say.