New Small Church is not about putting others down for having opinions that are different than mine. And I’m not a fan of stirring up controversy for the sake of controversy.
But I’m going to walk close to that line in this post. Stick with me, though. By the end, I hope you’ll agree that I stay on the right side of it.
Here’s the issue.
My church and I have just been insulted by a well-known minister in a blog post that’s being read and believed by thousands of people. And he insulted many of you and your churches, too.
No, we weren’t mentioned by name. So let me back up for a moment and explain what’s going on.
In 2010, a well-known minister wrote a post about why some churches don’t grow. Lately, it’s been reposted on other websites and passed around a lot.
(UPDATE: In an earlier version of this post, I mentioned the name of the minister in question. I have come to believe that was a poor decision on my part, since it made the post feel more adversarial than I intended. The insult from him was unintentional, after all. If you click on the title below or read through the comments, you’ll see his name. But, by removing his name from this post, I hope to make it more about the content of his post and feel less like an attack on him.)
Here’s the outline:
1. The Vision is not Clear
2. The Focus is On Trying to Please Everyone
3. Passionless Leadership
4. Manufacturing Energy
5. Lack of Prayer
6. Unwillingness to Take Risks
7. Disobedience to the Scriptures
8. Selfish Attitudes
According to the author, since my church isn’t growing, that list describes me and my congregation!
He also assumes that it describes thousands of other Small Churches and their pastors. Churches he’s never visited. Pastors he’s never met.
Does he really think our lack of numerical growth is proof that we are prayerless, passionless, unfocused, disobedient and selfish?
I hope not. Because if he does, he’s wrong. Hurtfully wrong.
I can state unequivocally, that his list does not describe me. And, with even greater certainty, it does not describe the people in my church. And it’s just as wrong about hundreds of thousands of other passionate, prayerful, risk-taking, godly, sacrificially hard-working pastors and churches whose numbers don’t change much from year to year.
Not Trying to Stir the Pot
I’ve never met the pastor who wrote this post, and I don’t think he’s a bad guy. If I thought he was, I’d ignore this list. Haters don’t merit my attention.
It’s because he’s a good guy, a faithful minister and an influential Christian leader, that this list needs to be questioned.
And no, I haven’t tried to approach him according to the guidelines of Matthew 18. They don’t apply here for many reasons, including that there’s no sin involved. But mostly because this isn’t about him. Or me. It’s about this publicly published and popular list and the attitudes behind it. Public list. Public response. That’s all.
So Why Isn’t My Church Growing?
In the 20-plus years I’ve been pastoring my current church, the attendance has averaged from 35 to almost 400. But it hasn’t been an upward trajectory. It started at 35, but it currently sits at about 200, and has been there for several years.
If you think you know why my church used to average almost 400, but now runs 200 – you don’t. And if you think I’m upset at those numbers … wrong again.
My church is healthier at 200 than it was at 400. And it has greater community and worldwide impact now, too.
How can that be? Don’t all healthy things grow? Yes they do, but not necessarily numerically.
As I wrote in The Grasshopper Myth…
Yes, all healthy things grow. But growth is never as simple as older equals taller or healthy equals bigger.
A pea will never be the size of a pumpkin and a rose won’t ever reach the height of a redwood no matter how much you water them, fertilize them or teach them redwood growth principles. It’s just not in their nature.
All healthy, living things reach their optimal size at maturity, then they grow in different ways from that point on.
What if that principle applied to churches? I have come to believe it does. If the church is one body with many parts, isn’t it possible, even likely, that the body of Christ needs churches of all sizes?
There are plenty of reasons for lack of numerical growth that have nothing to do with wrong attitudes, sin or disobedience.
Ninety percent of churches have less than 200 people. Most will have less than 200 next year. And the year after that. That’s just reality. And it’s a necessity. We need both big and Small Churches to get the job done.
Unintentional Insults are Still Painful
I don’t believe the author intended for his list to cause pain to good, faithful ministers and churches. But it does.
So, to this author and those who have reposted it, I have a question. Do you really believe that list – in whole or in part – applies to 90% of your colleagues in ministry? I don’t think you do. But do you realize that’s how it comes across?
I’ve read lists like this for years, usually as the skeleton of a lesson at a church growth conference. I admired and believed the people who taught them. And even though I didn’t feel like I was making any of those mistakes, the church I served stayed small, so I figured I must be messing up somewhere, right? Plus, there’s always room for improvement.
So I’d go back home and take personal inventory, trying to find where my hidden sin was. I’d double up on prayer, redefine the vision… do whatever I needed to do. But the church stayed small.
I became so obsessed with trying to correct problems and repent for sins that I’d been told applied to me, I nearly ruined my ministry and my church. The unresolved guilt and the constant pressure to perform at a higher rate became overwhelming and debilitating.
Not any more.
I’ve come to realize, as the pastor of a healthy, vibrant, outward-focused Small Church, that I’m not wrong. And my church sure isn’t wrong. Lists like this are wrong.
In The Grasshopper Myth, I wrote a chapter entitled “Don’t Despise the Size” in which I chronicle other stories in which similar attitudes are expressed, and how debilitating they are to faithful, prayerful Small Churches and their leaders. I also caution Small Church proponents not to throw the bile at big churches and their pastors either.
The truth is, we’ve all seen these 8 attitudes in pastors of big, numerically growing churches, too. I’ve actually heard megachurch bashers tell me that’s why megachurches got so big! But it’s just as wrongheaded to assign those attitudes to mega-fast, mega-growth as it is to say that Small Churches stay small because of them.
Yes, those attitudes will eventually, sometimes immediately, cause a church to stop growing. But lack of growth isn’t evidence that those attitudes exist. Yet that is never explained in the article. And it needs to be.
There’s an old saying (one I’m not very fond of, actually) that asks why it is that Christians are guilty of shooting their wounded. That’s what lists like this do.
They don’t unite the body, they divide it.
Consider Your Audience
It’s a basic premise of good communication to consider the audience you’re speaking to. This list completely misses that principle.
Who did the author write this list for?
- The lazy pastor isn’t reading it
- The disobedient pastor will ignore it
- The faithful, but struggling pastor feels hurt by it
- The healthy Small Church pastor doesn’t need it
That list may sound great if you’re ministering in a big, growing church. But if you’re pastoring a small one, it’s just painful.
- It doesn’t help, it hurts
- It doesn’t motivate, it demoralizes
- It doesn’t inspire, it demeans
- It doesn’t unite, it divides
There’s a part of me that wonders, are lists like this just about pastors of large, growing churches assuring themselves that they’re not guilty of those attitudes because they have the numbers to back it up? I don’t think that’s the conscious intention, but that possibility needs to be considered.
There’s a Better Way
It’s time we stopped equating health with size in the body of Christ.
Here’s a simple idea that could have made all this unnecessary. The next time anyone gets inspired to write a list about wrong attitudes that can keep a church from being all that God wants it to be, just change two words.
Don’t name it “8 Reasons Some Churches Don’t Grow.” Name it “8 Reasons Some Churches Aren’t Healthy.”
The list won’t change, but it will be more accurate. Then good ministers of large and Small Churches all around the world can read it, be challenged by it and say “amen” to it.
A Word of Encouragement
To my fellow Small Church pastors, I ask you to take one last look at that list. If you’re guilty of any of the attitudes on it, start fixing them now. They will kill your church. (This applies to big church pastors, too.)
But if you’re not guilty, don’t feel guilty. Set that list aside and don’t worry about it again. You’re not a failure. Your small size and lack of numerical growth is proof of nothing. Absolutely nothing.
Small is not a sin.
Stay faithful. Keep running the race. Do what you’re called to do. Be who you’re called to be.
So what do you think? Have you ever been made to feel “less than” by well-intentioned advice about your church or ministry? How did you handle it? And how did I handle it in this post? Did I go too far? Not far enough?
We want to hear from you. Yes, you!
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