Today’s post is excerpt from an interview I did for the July/August 2013 “Small Church America” issue of Outreach magazine. You can also find a short excerpt of a different part of the interview on their website.
Between the two excerpts, you can read about 50% of the entire interview online. For the rest of it, click here to buy the magazine. It’s well worth getting, since it includes a lot of other great articles, interviews and ideas about what it means to pastor a healthy Small Church.
My thanks goes to Outreach Magazine editor Brian Orme for the opportunity, and to Roxanne Wieman who conducted and edited the interview in a way that kept true to my voice, but made me sound smarter than I am.
– Karl Vaters
You’ve insisted that many small-church pastors’ feeling of inferiority are self-inflicted perceptions. However, there are certainly some cultural influences that hold sway as well. What are some of the church growth myths you’ve been told that affected your self-esteem as a small-church pastor?
I couldn’t admit to myself that I was a small-church pastor because I believed being a small-church pastor was a bad thing. At virtually every minister’s conference I had been to, I heard, “If your church isn’t growing, here’s what the problem is, here’s how to fix the problem.”
I never heard, “Here’s what you can do while you’re small” or “Here’s what you can do because you’re small.” That just never came up. It was always and completely about grow, grow, grow. So if my church isn’t growing, there must be something wrong with me.
I think that’s the main thing for most small-church pastors. If 85 percent of American churches have fewer than 200 people in them, does that mean 85 percent of us don’t know what we’re doing? [That we] are failing God, failing our communities, failing our churches?
I refuse to believe that. I know too many ministers, too many small-church pastors, who are passionate about serving God, who are passionate about reaching their communities and who are doing it well. I simply am not going to brand 85 percent of pastors as failures because their churches aren’t getting bigger.
How do you resist culture’s insistence to measure success? Even just personally, how do you resist attaching your identity to numbers?
There’s an old saying: “It would be amazing how much we could do if we didn’t care who got the credit.” I think that’s the shift that needs to take place in most of our hearts. We need to think kingdom growth first and our own local church growth second.
We also have to understand how God made us and be OK with it. I have become comfortable with the understanding that while I’ve been commanded to evangelize – as all believers – I have not been given the gift of evangelism. I am not going to bring thousands of people to a first-time relationship with Jesus. That isn’t the nature of the gifting God has given me.
But I have been given the gifts of leadership, of teaching my congregation. We have trained up, given experience to and sent out hundreds of younger and older people who have gone on to other places, who have gone on the mission field, who have gone on to another church, who have been hired by another ministry, who have benefited the kingdom of God. It simply didn’t change the numbers inside my building.
So if I contribute to the growth of the kingdom – even if that means people are going to be sitting in the seats at other churches – I have to be OK with that. If I’m only going to minister to people because I know they’re going to sit in my church, then I’m not going to be the benefit to the kingdom that I can be. I think we all need to have more of that mindset, a kingdom mindset.
Larger churches often have the pressure of needing to be all the things to all people. Do you think one benefit of a small church is going able to identify what their strength is and become really good at that one thing?
One of the reasons many small churches aren’t as successful as they could be is because they, too, are trying to be all things to all people. But the smaller you are, the less you’re able to do that.
When you’re massive, you can have 10 different venues with 10 different music styles, and every night of the week you can have five different small groups helping recovery and divorcees and single parents, you name it. But in a small church, you can’t do all that.
In a small church, you’ve got to spend some time understanding why God put us on this corner, in this community, in this city. If we were to disappear tomorrow, what would be gone from this city? And then you hone in on doing that.
But instead, we read the books or go to conferences and hear what the latest thing is. We adopt what someone else is doing rather than finding out what’s unique about us. It’s when you find your unique gifting and operate on that, then the church comes alive.
The amazing thing is that’s exactly what pastors teach their people every Sunday: discover your gift, operate within your gifting. The person who opens up the doors and cleans up afterward is just as powerful as the pastor preaching in the pulpit.
But then after we teach that, we go home and get depressed because there were only 35 people listening to me saying that message, and there were 3,500 people listening to the message at the church down the street. Well, let’s take a dose of our own medicine. Let’s hear our own preaching and understand that the pastor teaching to 35 people who grew in Christ that day is just as valuable to the kingdom of God as the pastor who spoke to 3,500 people that day.
What are some of the practical ways a church can recognize their unique giftings? What’s the spiritual gift assessment for a small church?
One of the tools I’ve encouraged small-church pastors to use recently is to go back in their archives and find [out] about the founders of the church. Churches are not started by sticks-in-the-mud; churches are started by visionaries.
Even in a small church that’s been small for the last 50 years, if you look back far enough, you’ll find a vision that will really spark things in your heart. Then you can say, “Hey, wait a minute, they had this great ideas, why don’t we continue it?” so some of it is going to be found in the history of the church.
Some of it is going to be found by looking around your community and asking what the community needs that isn’t being provided. Some of it is going to be based on the current gifting of the people in the congregation.
So what historically are you called to do, what does the community need today and what are you good at? Look at those three things, and you can usually find something that becomes uniquely you. No one else has your combination of those three things.
So what do you think? Are you and your church thinking kingdom growth first?
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