I’ve really enjoyed reading Karl Vaters’ new book ‘Small Church Essentials’. You can find out a lot about Karl by reading his blog ‘Pivot‘ at ‘Christianity Today’ or checking out his website New Small Church.
I need to work my way through the book again and start implementing some of the many ideas I haven’t begun to practice yet. I thought blogging my way through it might help with that. So here’s the first post, on the Introduction (pp.9-13).
In the Intro Karl makes three statements about what small churches need in order to become great (hint: in Karl’s language, ‘Great’ does not automatically mean ‘bigger’):
- They have to believe they can be great.
- They have to see what a great small church looks like.
- They need resources designed for great small churches.
As I reflected on these questions I saw immediately that for me, as a small church pastor, point 2 is crucial. Church growth literature and denominational authorities tend to peddle visions of what a great large church looks like, but that’s not helpful for us small church pastors. We are the ones who believe that it is more than possible to have the kind of church life described in the letters of Paul in a small church than a large church. After all, for the first two or three Christian centuries the ‘house church’ was the norm – so everything essential to church life must be doable in a large living room!
My own pastoral vision is crucial here. Do I have a vision of what a great small church looks like? In this book Karl constantly comes back to the Great Commandments (‘Love God with all your heart and love your neighbour as yourself’) and the Great Commission (‘Go and make disciples of all nations…baptize them…teach them to obey everything I have commanded you’). I would add as foundational the Great Confession that Peter makes in the Gospels (‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God’). Our vision for small church greatness must focus on these essentials:
- Jesus is the Messiah (i.e. the king who sets us free), the Son of God.
- Jesus calls us to be his disciples, to make new disciples and to teach them to put his teaching and example into practice in daily life.
- Jesus calls us to love God with our whole heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love our neighbour as ourselves.
Small churches don’t have excess time, volunteer hours, and money. We need to focus on the things Jesus is calling us to do and not get distracted.
A bit further on in the introduction Karl talks about the stereotypes people have of small churches: they are…
- Threatened by change
- Filled with petty infighting and jealousies
- Not reaching their communities
- Poorly managed
- Settling for less
His comment is ‘That’s not a description of a small church; it’s a description of an unhealthy church’. There are plenty of small churches that are:
As I reflected on these two lists, it came to me once again that it’s probably a case of ‘as pastor, so church’. Which of these lists best describes me? Am I inward-focussed, threatened by change, absorbed by petty infighting and jealousies, not reaching my community, poor at time management, with a tendency to settle for less? Or am I friendly, outward-looking, missional, innovative, generous, and worshipful?
When I look at the first list, it’s the last two that convict me. I’m not a good time manager – I know it’s one of my greatest ministry weaknesses – and I really need to work on that, while not getting sucked into time management tools that work better for large churches (later in the book Karl outlines as very helpful ‘321’ planning system that works really well in small churches). And also I do tend to settle for less – ‘good enough’ – in myself and in church life – rather than pushing myself to be better and inspiring the church to be better too.
So my take-away work from the intro is:
- Have a clear picture of what greatness looks like in a small church (hint: it probably centres on the Great Confession, the Great Commission and the Great Commandments) and share this with others.
- Work on my time-management and planning skills.
- Instead of ‘settling for less’, develop a regular (weekly, monthly, yearly) discipline of asking ‘How could we do this better?’ (or, alternatively. ‘What could we do that would be better than this?’).