Leading and Growing Small Churches, Part I

All The Great Churches Were At One Time Small...

"Don't be afraid of small beginnings, remember this whole thing started with a mouse."
- Walt Disney

Have you ever felt discouraged when you see a large and thriving church? You think "I'm working so hard, but my little church could never grow that big."

It's all relative to the size of your church. If you lead a church of 80 in attendance, and you look at a church of 500, you think: "That's beyond my reach." If you lead a church of 500, you may see a church of 3,000 and think: "That's beyond my reach." I have good news and bad news for you. The bad news is that it is beyond your ability. The good news is that it is not beyond God's ability. This is not a promise that you will lead a church of thousands, but a promise that with God, your church can grow.

Think of some of the great churches in the country. They all started small. Willow Creek, launched in 1975 by Bill Hybels, was birthed from a youth group. Saddleback Community Church in Southern California, led by Rick Warren, began in a living room in 1980. The Crystal Cathedral, located in Los Angeles and led by Robert Schuller, began in a drive-in theater in 1955 with little more than popcorn and a prayer!

We think of these churches and many others as huge. But the truth is that there are churches in South America, Africa, Korea and other countries that dwarf them. The point isn't how big your church is; it is whether or not it's growing. What matters is whether or not people's lives are being changed for all eternity according to the saving message of Jesus Christ.

I've said for many years that I would much rather be part of a church of 100 that is growing than a church of 1,000 that is not growing.

Part I and Part II of Leading and Growing Small Churches are dedicated to encouraging and guiding the thousands of faithful Christian leaders in whom God has entrusted something small, and have vision for something great.

Let's start by acknowledging that leading and growing a small church to health and vitality is a difficult process. But it is worth it. It's all in the potential. Whether the kindness of God and His favor grants you 200 or 2,000 isn't nearly as important as how many people come to Christ and mature in their faith.

It is a challenge to lead and grow a small church. Don't use that as an excuse. You can grow as a leader and God can do what you cannot. The good news is that all worthwhile things in life are tough. Think about the labor pains involved with giving birth to a new baby. My wife Patti has made it clear to me that no man could take such pain! No doubt she is right. But the creation of a little child is always worth it.

There are many difficulties in leading and growing a small church. I am highlighting only three. It is not my goal to state the obvious, and certainly not to discourage you, but instead to make clear the common struggle, and to let you know that you can overcome these issues. The next edition (Part II) of this article will focus on practical principles to lead and grow your church.

1. Limited Resources.

The lack of mature and contributing Christians.

I love the story of the early days Skyline Wesleyan Church in San Diego, California under its founding leader, Pastor Orval Butcher. Dr. Butcher would tell the story of needing to use nonbelievers to teach Sunday School. What a dilemma! There were no adults who knew Christ as Savior when the church first started, but loads of kids. But what a sense of humor God has. Kids were led through the scriptures and fell in love with Jesus thanks to the work of nonbelievers.

This is not the recommended methodology, but it gives you some freedom to get the job done. Just keep your eyes on the big picture. Go with what you've got and focus on the development of their maturity. While you may question whether the end justifies the means, you should be amazed by the results: many of Pastor Butcher's Sunday School teachers became Christians.

Modest financial support.

There is also a direct connection between how many people attend your church and how many dollars land in the plate on Sunday morning. No matter how much we spiritualize church ministry, money matters. Jesus knew this and had much to say about it in the New Testament.

Having limited financial resources does impact your church. The good news, however, is that while limited resources may slow you down, they cannot prevent you from growing. Develop a boldness about giving and tithing when speaking from the pulpit, as well as one on one. This is a particularly important point to emphasize to your leaders and it is non-negotiable for growing a healthy church.

This boldness is based on four things:

a. Biblical truth.
b. Personal conviction that results in practice.
c. Personal generosity.
d. An understanding that people want to give to a vision they believe in.

Insufficient facilities.

I certainly don't recommend raising your arms in surrender to space limitations, but unless you've figured out a way to defy the laws of physics, sooner or later this will impact your ministry.

There are many practical things you can do before you go into an expensive building program:

a. Go to multiple services and Sunday Schools.
b. Change from pews to chairs.
c. Rent nearby buildings.
d. Remodel and upgrade existing buildings.
e. Use multiple sites.

2. A History Of Being Small.

This hurdle is difficult to overcome in many churches. Local churches that have been small for many years find it very difficult to break out of established patterns.

To affect change usually requires a huge jump start, most commonly in the form of significant change. This change will often cost you some people. Every church is different in what needs to change, but I can promise you that if you do not change, you will not grow.

3. Untrained Lay Leaders.

This is often the case in a small church. There are usually several dedicated workers, along with a few faithful but undeveloped leaders.

Leadership development is too large a topic to include in this article, but if you've been reading The Pastor's Coach long, or learning from John Maxwell's material, you know that there is no shortage of leadership development tools. The key is to put them to use.

** The good news is that God is with you, and at work within you! **

If you lead a small church, let me encourage you. Thank you for hanging in there. I know it's not easy. But know that what you're doing matters. If you have been hurt or taken advantage of, I'm sorry for what you have endured. I've heard the stories and traveled to many of these churches, and it's true, little churches can be mean. But remember, they are still part of God's plan and you must never give up.

Remember your mission...found in Matthew 28:19-20:

"(19)Therefore go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, (20) teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely, I am with you always, even to the end of the age."

It's not a mistake that within your marching orders - the very purpose of your church - that Jesus reminds you He is with you always! He knows the road you must travel will not be easy, and promises to walk it with you.

Not only is God with you, but He is at work within you. It's wise to remember that it is not you nor your abilities that ultimately cause your church to grow. Your growth as a leader simply allows you to serve as a catalyst for God's blessings.

Recall with me Ephesians 3:20-21:
(20) Now to Him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to His power that is at work within us, (21) to Him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever!

You aren't doing something great for God; He's doing something great for you. This is a simple but important distinction. The irony is this - the more you declare your personal inability to make it happen and your dependency upon God, the more He is able to participate in the partnership He has with you and your church.

Thank God for the gifts and talents He has given you, but never forget that He is the true Author of all that goes well in your ministry. When you encounter a problem, remind God that the problem is His. When you need help, ask Him. He won't let you down. When things go well thank Him because without God's hand in your ministry there would be little to boast about. When it's all said and done at the end of the day, remember one of my very favorite quotes by Victor Hugo: "When you have done all that you can, go to bed. God is still up."

This article is used by permission from Dr. Dan Reiland's free monthly e-newsletter 'The Pastor's Coach' available at www.injoy.com. I hope this is helpful to you, the next edition of The Pastor's Coach will cover the topic of ministry values.