Adding Side Doors to Your Church

The “front door” of your church is closing! The “front door” is the traditional way that a church connects with potential new members—through a visit to a worship service or to some other church event. Over the past 20 years, both the number of church visitors and the percentage of visitors to total attendance has been declining. Churches that depend on their front doors to connect with new people in the future simply will not grow.

Your Church Needs Side Doors
If you want to see your church not just survive but thrive, I suggest that you build some new doors—“side doors”— that will provide new ways to connect with people in your community.

A “side door” is a church-sponsored program, group, or activity in which a non-member can become involved and develop strong friendships with people in your church. A side door provides a place where your church members and non-members can develop relationships around something they share in common. Research clearly shows that it is “friendships with Christians” that accounts for over 80% of the people who come to Christ and the church.[i]

Here are just a few examples of churches that have developed side doors — for people who:
ride motorcycles • have children in the military • own RVs • are recent widowers • are newlyweds • enjoy reading books • are unemployed • suffer from chronic pain • have husbands in jail • are nominal Jews • have spouses who are not believers • are fishermen • are single mothers • want to get in better physical condition • wish to help homeless families • play softball • are interested in end-times • have a bed-ridden parent • are raising grandchildren • are moms with teenage daughters • need help managing their finances • enjoy scrap-booking • are children in blended families • have children with a learning disability • are married to men who travel frequently • enjoy radio controlled airplanes • are pregnant • are affected by homosexuality • struggle with chemical dependency • are empty-nesters • enjoy camping • are divorced with no children • have a family member diagnosed with cancer • are single dads • enjoy SCUBA diving • are hearing-impaired

And that’s just a start! In these examples (and there are hundreds more), the side doors enable members and non-members to develop friendships around their common interests.

Researcher Dr. Gary McIntosh observes that about 10% of the churches in the United States offer side doors in which “…most people who connected with the church made their first contact through a ministry other than the worship service.[ii]” We also know that only about 14% of churches in the U.S. are growing in worship attendance. I believe there is a strong correlation between “side-door churches” and growing churches.

When commenting on his growing congregation, Rev. Craig Williford says, “Our weekend services are vital. But the side door ministries produce more evangelism and bring far more new people into our church.[iii]

Getting Started
How can you build new side doors in your church—new groups, new classes, new activities where members and non-members can make friends?  Here’s how to get started:

  1. Find issues of passion in your members. Everyone cares deeply about something or, more likely, several things. Passion generally falls into one of two categories: recreational or developmental. The first, recreational, relates to how people like to spend their free time, and may range from raising artichokes to studying zoology. The second, developmental, relates to major life issues such as health, finances, relationships, or employment.
  1. Hold an “exploratory” meeting. If you find three or more people who share a particular interest, invite them to a brainstorming session to discuss whether your church might want to start a new ministry for people who share that passion. Put an announcement in the church bulletin and invite any interested members to the meeting. (Explain that participants are not being asked to “sign up” for the project, just to share their ideas and brainstorm possibilities.) Gather the group, perhaps over a meal, and explore the idea of starting such a ministry. Explain that a primary goal of the new ministry would be to build friendships with non-members through connecting around that common interest. If there is any enthusiasm for the idea, take the next step:
  1. Research other churches. Chances are good there are churches that have already developed a creative ministry in the area you are considering. If the brainstorming group (described above) is interested and willing, ask a few individuals to search the Internet for other churches that have a similar ministry.
  1. Dream. Ask yourselves the question, “What might such a ministry look like in our church five years from today?” If there is a spark of enthusiasm that might catch hold of a group of dreamers in your church, take the next step:
  1. Form a “Ministry Planning Team”. If you find at least three people who are willing to take the next steps in creating a new (side-door) ministry, download a copy of the free “Side Door Planning Guide” – available at wesleyan.org/sidedoor – and follow the directions in this 52-page guide.

Side doors are a great way for smaller churches to connect with new people. You don’t need a big building, a loud band, or master orator to build a successful side door. All you need are people who like to be with people they like to be with—namely, people with whom they share things in common. Take the first step (above) and see what happens. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

For more information, get the book Side Door by Charles Arn.


[i] See The Master’s Plan for Making Disciples by Charles Arn (Baker Books, 1998).
[ii] Gary McIntosh. Beyond the First Visit. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2006, p. 22.
[iii] Denver Seminary Magazine: Fall 2004. Sep 15, 2004. Emergent Dialogue.

Karl Vaters 5: Writing a Book for Small-Church Pastors

The following is from Chris Bolinger’s fall 2015 interview with Karl Vaters, whose 2012 book The Grasshopper Myth has led to a twice-weekly Christianity Today blog and frequent speaking engagements…in addition to his many responsibilities as the pastor of a church of around 200. That church is in what Vaters calls the Megachurch Central region of southern California, and emulating the church growth practices of his larger neighbors led him to doubt his abilities and even his calling as a pastor.

The complete interview is available in Today’s Vital Church, Volume 2.


Bolinger: Why did you write the book The Grasshopper Myth?

Vaters: I needed the book. (Laughs.) The first page of the book, the preface to the book, says that I wish that someone else had written this book 30 years ago, because I really could have used it then.

Six or seven years ago, I was in a staff meeting – with my one full-time staff member; all the rest were volunteers – when I heard these words fall out of my face, “We’ve got to stop thinking like a big church.” Every preacher knows that moment when you say something and, only after you’ve said it, you realize that you believe it. It was one of those moments. I had to pause and go, “Whoa! That’s right!” It was like I had heard someone else say it.

So I asked, “What does a healthy small church look like? How would we do that?” Nobody in the room, including me, had an answer. I walked out of that room shocked. 90% of the churches in the world are small, and nobody knows what a healthy small church looks like?

I started looking around to find help on how to do small church well, and I couldn’t find any. (I have found some since, but I couldn’t find it at the time, and it remains very, very rare.)

I had to figure out how to do it myself. My staff, my church, and I figured out how to do small church well. I started writing it down as we went along.

Bolinger: How long did it take you to compile the information? How long did you jot down notes?

Vaters: It took about two years. Over the course of two years, I compiled a lot of random scraps of paper, and Post-It notes, and the back of envelopes, and the back of napkins. I had a massive stack of stuff.

I took some of the ideas that I had compiled and presented them to our church leadership team at a leadership weekend retreat. My wife and my youth pastor, independently of each other, came to me after the presentation and said, “Oh, you’re previewing to us a book that you are going to write, aren’t you?”

I answered, “No. What are you talking about?”

They each said, “You’re writing a book, and this was your preview of the book to us.”

I had no idea what they were talking about. Finally, after an extended conversation with my wife, I said, “I’m not going to write a book on this! Who’s going to read a book from some small-church pastor about how to do small church? Nobody’s going to read that book.”

She replied, “Who’s going to write a book about doing small church well except someone who is doing small church well? And how many famous small-church pastors do you know?”

She was saying, “If not you, who? You have all of the information. You’ve written it all down. And you keep whining about how no one has written a book on this.” I think she told me to write the book primarily so that I would stop whining about it.

I decided to take a week. My parents had a cabin in the mountains, so I went there and attempted to start writing a book. The first three days were hell on earth. I couldn’t get the train started. It was awful.

I had coordinated some of the massive stack of ideas to create the presentation for the leadership team. But most of it was just sitting there randomly. In the middle of the third day, I said to myself, “I at least need to take all of these random scraps of paper and put them into the computer.” So I started typing my notes.

Each note was a shortened version of a longer story. As I typed a note, I would write out the whole story, and I would say, “Oh, wow! I got a full page out of that!” By the time I got all of those notes transcribed into my computer, the train was rolling and I couldn’t stop it.

The next four days, I was a writing fool. I couldn’t get it out fast enough. By the end of the week, I had nearly half of the rough draft written. Over the next two months, I wrote every spare minute I had. I’d wake up at 3 in the morning and write. I wrote three or four hours a day on average. At the end of those two months, I had a completed rough draft.

Bolinger: What then?

Vaters: I set it aside and tried not to think about it for the next three months.

Bolinger: Really?

Vaters: I had read Stephen King’s book On Writing. I can’t recommend it because of the language in it, but he stresses the point that, whenever he writes a rough draft, he lays it aside for a minimum of three months, ideally six months. He says that, when he comes back to it after that period of time, he is like a different person, and it is as if he is reading someone else’s writing, and he can edit it better.

I didn’t know what to do with my rough draft anyway. I knew that no publisher would take it. So I just let it sit.

After three months, I came back to it. My fear was that I would read it and say, “This is awful! What ravings of a lunatic is this?” But I found that Stephen King was right: it felt like I was reading someone else’s book. There were multiple times where I would stop and say, “Oh, that’s really good!” I was reading it as if someone else had written it for me. It was really strange.

Of course, there were other times where I would read something and say, “I’m not sure what that guy was trying to say there.” But the initial read was enough to tell me that I had something of value. So I started editing it.

Once I had my second draft, I started giving it to other people who are good with the English language, who are good writers, and who are in ministry. I gave it to about a dozen friends and family members, each of whom brought a different set of skills to it. For example, my wife is a good proofreader, and my son is a good editor.

My friends in ministry know ministry and know how some things are going to hit a small-church pastor. They sometimes would tell me to rephrase things because I sounded condescending or I didn’t explain something well enough.

Bolinger: You had poured your heart and soul into this. It was based on practices that you had developed on the job over the course of a few years. When you read it, you felt that it was good stuff that could be beneficial to other small-church pastors. Did you still feel that no one would buy it?

Vaters: I knew that it had an audience – 90% of the pastors in the world – but I didn’t think that I could get through to that audience. I was completely unknown outside my church and my circle of family and friends. Plus, when you consider what words sell products, at the bottom of that list are the words “small” and “church”. (Laughs.)

Even though the content of the book is valuable, I didn’t think that the book itself was marketable. So even after the book was complete, I sat on it.

My dad reminded me that we have a mutual friend who is a printer. My dad suggested that I have some copies of the book printed just so I had some copies.

I figured that, in my lifetime, I could sell 500 copies of the book for $10 apiece. If I spent $1,000 on marketing, then I could spend $4,000 to have the books printed. I called my friend the printer, told him about the book, and asked him if I could get 500 copies printed for $4,000. He responded that, for that cost, he could print 2,000 copies. So I gave him the go-ahead to print 2,000 copies.

While he was doing the printing, he called me and told me that I needed to print more.

I said, “What’s the matter? I thought that you said there is no minimum.”

He replied, “There’s no minimum, but I’ve been reading the book, and you’re going to need more copies.”

I said, “What do you mean?”

“It’s a good book.”

“Well, I wouldn’t be going through all of this hassle if I didn’t think the book was good. But I’ve been preaching good sermons for 30 years and can’t get more than 125 people in the room at a time. Quality is not a guarantee of an audience.”

I don’t think it was bragging. I had done the hard work, and I thought it was of value. But I didn’t think that many people would buy the book.

He said, “You don’t get it. This is that book. After a pastor reads it, he’ll buy 10 copies for his friends.”

I had had one other person, who had proofread the book, say something similar. He had told me that he would buy the first box of printed books.

At the time, I laughed. I told him that he didn’t need to do that.

He said, “I’m not doing it to support you. I’m doing it because I’m going to give them away. How many come in a box? 50?”

“Probably.”

“Okay, I’ll buy a box and give all of them away to my pastor friends. They need this.”

I didn’t believe him. And I didn’t believe the printer. So I told him to stick with the initial run of 2,000 books. I figured that I’d sell about 500, and the rest would sit in the garage for the rest of my life. That was the extent of my faith on how the book would fare.

Six months later, I called the printer and said, “You were right. I’ve sold 1,500 and need to do another run.” It was a real shock to me.

Of course, it didn’t happen on its own. I worked my tail off marketing the book. I started a blog, primarily to promote the book. I promoted it on Twitter and on Facebook. I read everything I could on marketing a book and followed the recommendations.

I worked as hard on marketing the book as I had worked on building a big church. I succeeded with the book. But when I had applied the same skills and the same effort over a much longer period of time to growing my church, I didn’t have the success. That’s an indication that building a big church is just that much harder than people think it is.

Bolinger: …Can you summarize the impact that [the book] has had on you and on the people, primarily the small-church pastors, who have read it?

Vaters: For me personally, just getting this stuff out of my brain and onto paper was a real cathartic experience. If I had never sold a single copy, then I still would have been grateful for the rest of my life that I wrote it. It needed to be written, for my own sake. That was a profound blessing.

For others, I have been amazed at the impact. It is literally daily now that I hear from people who have read the book, and now the blog. They contact me on Twitter, on Facebook, and via email, “snail mail”, texts, and phone calls. The primary thing that I hear from small-church pastors is, “Thank you! For the first time in my life, somebody has told me that I’m not a failure.” I have heard from dozens of pastors who have retired from the ministry, after pastoring healthy small churches for their entire ministry, who have told me, “I now can relax in my retirement knowing that I did well and that I was not a failure.”

The people who have the hardest time getting over the “small church thing” are the people who have been on staff at a large church – who have success building a ministry such as a youth group or a kids’ ministry, who have been a part of a big church that has grown, who have learned from the lead pastor – and who feel that they will have the same success when they take over a small church. The stats for them are the same as the stats for everybody else. 90% of them won’t build a church over 200, and over half of them flame out and fail completely.

They are devastated by it because their expectations were so high. They thought that they had done it before. They get so discouraged, thinking that they must be broken, they must be wrong. Or they start blaming the people at the small church.

I hear from these pastors who felt successful in big churches and like failures in small churches after they have read the book or the blog. They finally can relax. Some have told me that they can stop abusing the members of their small churches now because they no longer blame those members for the “failures”.

Bolinger: Tell us about NewSmallChurch.com. Why did you start the site? What’s there? How is it doing?

Vaters: I started the site because I wanted to sell my book and didn’t have any agents or publishers to sell it. I did some research and discovered that a blog is a good way to sell a product, particularly a book. I had a whole bunch of notes and ideas on small churches that didn’t fit into the book, and I was generating new stuff after the book was done, so I figured that I could express those ideas on a blog. I used Twitter and Facebook to promote it.

It took off almost immediately, much faster than I anticipated. It started gaining a pretty decent following. I don’t know what the subscriber list is now, but I think that it is around 5,000 or 6,000 subscribers, and it continues to increase, lately by 70 to 100 people per day in the last few weeks. I don’t know what happened recently, but it’s just exploding right now. It’s crazy. It gets 20,000 to 25,000 page views per month. For a blog on small churches, that’s pretty remarkable.

I’ve done the blog [since 2012]. [In the fall of 2014], it was noticed by an editor at Christianity Today. The editor got ahold of me and asked me if I would be a regular contributor to the printed version of the quarterly Leadership Journal (which no longer exists). I agreed.

A few months into that, they started talking to me about a new idea: they invited me to be a regular blogger. Whenever I write a blog post, it does not appear fully on NewSmallChurch.com; it appears at ChristianityToday.com/karl-vaters. The blog name is Pivot; the tagline is “innovative leadership from a small church perspective”.

The audience for Pivot is three or four times larger than the audience for NewSmallChurch.com. That indicates the audience that is out there. The editors told me that they value small churches and understand that small churches have not received the value or the press or the help that they deserve. The editors are thrilled to offer what they feel is quality content for small churches. I have the freedom to write whatever I want and post it directly to ChristianityToday.com without editorial filter. I’m blessed by that and, quite frankly, still intimidated by that. I thank God that He has allowed that, because it shows that there are people in the larger church leadership world who understand the value of small churches and want to help.

Director Starts Choir for Three Teens

by Chuck Snyder

A regular contributor to Small Church Central, Chuck has been a staff member at The Presbyterian Church in Coshocton, Ohio for nearly 40 years. His assignments there have included music ministry, Christian Education, and youth ministry.

In the spring of 2008, the “Three Musketeers” had a conversation with me after a final Crusaders Choir (grades 4-8) rehearsal at our church. Then eighth graders, Emma Brems, Kayla Cowden, and Alex Lawrence posed the question: “What choir can we sing in next year?”

Without much thought, I answered “You’d be welcome to sing in the Chancel Choir. We’ve often had high school students sing with us.” Emma, often the most vocal of the three, fired back, “We don’t want to sing in the Chancel Choir. We want our own choir.”

A little flabbergasted by her direct approach, I said honestly, “I don’t think there are enough high school students here to make that possible.” There wasn’t much of a response, but I saw the disappointment in their eyes.

I thought about it for several weeks, and at Alex’s confirmation party I grabbed a napkin and began to jot down the names of possible singers in our church. When I finished I was surprised to count the names of 22 high school students with whom I’d crossed paths over the years.

That fall I penned a short, carefully-worded letter describing the idea, and announcing a first rehearsal. I printed it on bright yellow paper, bought some matching envelopes, and with the name “Celebration Singers” in my head, purchased some colorful stamps that said “Celebrate!” I asked Ann Leppla if she would help as an accompanist, and when she answered with an enthusiastic “of course!” looked for some appropriate music. While I planned and worked for a successful result, I was not all that hopeful.

The day arrived, and after Chancel Choir rehearsal I walked out into the hall to see if anyone had come. To my amazement there were 11 bright-eyed high schoolers waiting—six ladies and five gentlemen. We had a great first rehearsal, and a sixth gentleman joined us the following week. A picture that captures that first–year miracle is in our choir room.

In early September of the following year, Emma and Kayla asked if they could also sing in the Chancel Choir. They thought we could “use the help.” Of course Alex joined, too.

Fast forward to the present: Celebration Singers is beginning its ninth season. 50 young musicians have sung with the group, and others have joined them for specific occasions. As long as they were in high school, the Three Musketeers helped spearhead the recruiting efforts, often drawing in friends who were not involved in another church. Thankfully, other young church members have taken on the recruiter roles in the years since, inviting their friends from other schools, churches, and musical groups to be part of Celebration Singers.

Since Celebration Singers only sings one Sunday a month (and rehearses two Wednesdays before that), it’s not a huge commitment. Inviting others gives us the “critical mass” necessary to let our kids share their gifts in this way, and provides that opportunity to others whose churches do not have a musical opportunity for their young members, as well as others teens who are not yet connected to a church. Over these years, 16 of our young members have invited 35 friends to join them. Talk about friendship evangelism!

Celebration Singers rehearsals continue to be joyful times each month, and the joy they have in sharing their song is contagious – in rehearsal as well as in Sunday worship.

Karl Vaters 4: Being an Effective Small-Church Pastor

The following is from Chris Bolinger’s fall 2015 interview with Karl Vaters, whose 2012 book The Grasshopper Myth has led to a twice-weekly Christianity Today blog and frequent speaking engagements…in addition to his many responsibilities as the pastor of a church of around 200. That church is in what Vaters calls the Megachurch Central region of southern California, and emulating the church growth practices of his larger neighbors led him to doubt his abilities and even his calling as a pastor.

The complete interview is available in Today’s Vital Church, Volume 2.


Bolinger: One of the reasons that I have sought a leadership role in small churches is because I and the vast majority of the congregation live in a world that is very different than the “church world”. We work in environments where most people are not Christians. Our kids are in dance class or on sports teams where most of the parents are not Christians. The pastor does his best to understand the world in which I live, but he is immersed in the “church world” and has a different frame of reference than I do. In a big church, all leadership roles are filled by staff people, and most of those staff people are immersed in the “church world”.

Vaters: I agree that there is a Christian “bubble” in which we have ensconced ourselves. Many church pastors live in the Christian “bubble” but don’t realize that they are in it. Our primary relationships are not just with other Christians but with other pastors. To get out of [the “bubble”], we have to start listening more than we talk and understand the reality of the lives of our congregation members. At Bible college and seminary, we are taught how to study the Gospel and how to share the Gospel. Everything is about output. We are never taught how to listen, how to discern the lives of our congregation members.

For example, we think that all Christians likes churchy things, that they are dying to get up early on Sunday morning and dress up in more formal clothes than are required where they work and sit in rows on hard seats and listen to somebody talk for half an hour to 45 minutes. We think that the evidence of how committed someone is to Christ is how much they want to go to church on Sunday. I am convinced that there is a massive market of Christians out there who just don’t want to jump through all of those churchy hoops and, if we gave them an alternative, they would take us up on it. That’s one of the reasons why I like small, quirky churches that don’t do things according to the normal pattern of things. Those churches give people alternatives that they don’t find elsewhere.

Bolinger: Small churches have more freedom and flexibility to innovate. They can take more chances, take more risks. And small-church pastors who don’t want to work 80-hour weeks are motivated to find laypeople who can help with leadership and offer a different perspective, and insight on a group of people in the congregation.

Vaters: Yes, we have the freedom and flexibility, but that is not our reputation. Our well-earned reputation is for being stuck in a tradition that they won’t let go of. Big churches often are more willing to innovate. Small churches really should be the innovators, should be more nimble.

Small churches that don’t change stay small.

Bolinger: What makes small-church pastors risk-averse? Have they tried things in the past and gotten burned?

Vaters: Some of them are just worn out. They’ve been beaten up for too long. They’re done. When you are hurt and exhausted, sometimes you just stop trying.

But I also think that, just as small churches attract control freaks in the congregation, they also attract control freaks in the pastorate. There are too many small-church pastors who think that it’s their job to control everyone’s life – from how often they show up at church to what they wear to the language that they use. They constantly police everyone as if they think that it’s their job to be everybody’s conscience or to get everyone to act just like them.

We need to disciple people to be more like Jesus, not more like us.

One thing to remember, however, is that we live in a ridiculously fast-paced world, and some people look to church as a place of stability. You have to give them that stability, and stability can cause a church to resist innovation. After all, we get together every Sunday to talk about a book that hasn’t changed for 2,000 years. We need to anchor ourselves to that book, but that should be the only thing to which we anchor ourselves. Everything else should be up for grabs. But many Christians are comfortable with lots of traditions that they feel shouldn’t change.

Bolinger: What is your advice for small-church pastors? Where should a small-church pastor start with moving his or her church in the right direction and making it more effective?

Vaters: The easiest thing for me to do is to mention certain aspects of my story that may be universal.

When I showed up at my church 23 years ago, there were 35 people there on a big Sunday, and the average age was late 60s. They had gone through a church split a year-and-a-half before. They had gone through five pastors in the previous 10 years. Nothing was working. They had almost voted to close the church and said that they would give one more pastor one last shot. I was that guy.

When I came in, I told them, “All I know to do is to try things until we see what works.” They said, “Okay, let’s do that.”

About six months in, after my fourth or fifth spectacular failure, I apologized for spending all this money on a particular thing that didn’t work. Partway through my apology, I was interrupted by one of the two lead deacons. He said, “Pastor, stop.”

I thought, “Oh, man, did I keep my packing boxes at home?”

He said, “I don’t know if I’m speaking for everybody else in the room, but I think I probably am, when I tell you that I’m just glad to see somebody trying some things. We give you permission to make mistakes.” There were nods all around the room.

I was blessed with that. Most church pastors are not. In most small churches, you have boards that are trying to restrict you. But most often, a board that will not allow its pastor to make a mistake are that way because it has had pastors that would not allow the board to make a mistake. We need to allow people to experiment and try things and fall down and not have it be fatal.

Too many pastors treat mistakes like sins and sins like mistakes. What I mean by that is this: When a sin is discovered, it needs to be exposed, it needs to be repented of, but we tend to shove it under the carpet and pretend it’s not there.

When a mistake is made, we don’t need to expose it and seek repentance or make anyone feel guilty; we simply need to ask, “How can we do that better next time?” And then we need to forget about it. But we reverse that.

I’ve talked to so many youth pastors who have had this experience. They’ll have a Youth Night. It will be a great event. They’ll draw double the number of kids. Some kids will come to know Christ as their Savior. It’s an amazing time, a real high. They come in the next morning, so excited to tell the pastor how great it was, and when they walk in the pastor greets them with a red face, yelling about how they didn’t lock the door or empty the garbage the previous night. Instantly, the youth pastor shuts up and doesn’t want to share the good news with the pastor anymore, because the pastor is more concerned with order than with encouraging.

I don’t want my guy leaving the place unlocked or leaving the garbage in the building, but I have a 10-minute rule. They will not hear anything negative in the first 10 minutes of seeing me, because I don’t want them to dread walking into the church or dread me walking into the church. In the first 10 minutes, they have the opportunity to tell me how the previous night was and went well.

The first half of every staff meeting is positive things. Tell me ministry stories. Tell me whom you met last Sunday who is new to the church. I want to start the meeting on a good note. I want to encourage those things. When we do get to the negatives, we get to them in a positive atmosphere, and people know that mistakes aren’t fatal. When a mistake happens, we say that we all thought it was a good idea and we determine if we can tweak it or if we should just not do it again.

One of the primary jobs of a lead pastor is to figure out how to say “yes” to people’s crazy ministry ideas. Our church is known for doing a lot of creative things; I don’t think that I have come up with one of them. I just like saying “yes”. Nine out of 10 of them have failed, but I have forgotten what those nine were. We just keep doing the one that worked.

I believe in the priesthood of believers. The body of Christ matters. The plumber in the second row has as much direct access to God and God’s creative ideas as I do, and I want to listen to that person.

In a small church, you can do that. In a bigger church, you can’t. In a bigger church, you can’t crowdsource everything. You can’t try every idea. You can’t have everybody pitching in and everybody’s ideas going. You have to narrow down the idea pool to that of a smaller group of people. You can’t function otherwise. In a small church, you can hear from everybody, and some of these folks have great ideas. And if an idea is half-baked, you can help them bake the other half.

Bolinger: Someone who is excited about an idea won’t just give you the idea but will work to make it happen.

Vaters: You know you’ve got buy-in. At big-church conferences, they often talk about finding a vision and then selling that vision. The biggest challenge always is in selling the vision to the congregation. Big-church pastors say that you have to repeat your vision until you are sick of hearing it and, by the time you are sick of hearing it, they are just beginning to get it. So you have to keep at it and at it and at it. But when someone has bought into a vision, you don’t need to keep selling it to them. If the vision comes from them – if it is something that God has put on their hearts – then your job is to help realize the vision, not sell them on it.

The Day of Pentecost was not God speaking [just] to Peter and Peter pulling in the 120 and telling them that the Holy Spirit had just fallen on him. The New Testament model is that the Holy Spirit fell on the entire group; Peter was just the spokesperson. The smaller your church, the more you can do that. I believe that the Holy Spirit waited for the group to work its way down to 120 so that the Holy Spirit could speak to the whole group at the same time and have the entire group respond as one.

Karl Vaters 3: Measuring Success in a Small Church

The following is from Chris Bolinger’s fall 2015 interview with Karl Vaters, whose 2012 book The Grasshopper Myth has led to a twice-weekly Christianity Today blog and frequent speaking engagements…in addition to his many responsibilities as the pastor of a church of around 200. That church is in what Vaters calls the Megachurch Central region of southern California, and emulating the church growth practices of his larger neighbors led him to doubt his abilities and even his calling as a pastor.

The complete interview is available in Today’s Vital Church, Volume 2.


Bolinger: In the book, you discuss how you struggled with a recommendation that you redefine success. Tell us about that.

Vaters: I was sitting in a Christian counselor’s office, getting some help, trying to figure out what was wrong with me and my church, why I was broken, and why I was mad at God. After I had spent a couple of sessions verbally assaulting this poor man with all of my frustrations, I asked, “What’s the answer? What do I need to do here?”

He responded, “My assessment immediately is that you need to figure out how to redefine success.”

When he said it, I wanted to punch him in the nose. What I thought he was saying was, “You’ve been trying to jump 10 feet. You can only jump eight, so lower the bar to eight, jump over that, and call that success.” That to me was the definition of redefining success. So I told him that.

He said, “That’s not what I’m saying. If numbers are on your left and success is on your right, then you’ve got to figure out what success looks like in a non-numerical way.”

I said, “What do you mean by that?”

He replied, “That’s what you need to figure out. I don’t have an answer for you. Everybody’s answer is different. But you’ve got to figure out what success looks like outside the numbers.”

Over a long period of time, we talked about it a lot. We got to the point where I discovered that, in the church, we don’t have a product to sell or a service to offer like a restaurant does or a book store does. We don’t have products on the shelves or tables to turn. Our “product”, for lack of a better name, is relationships. We are in the business of helping people love God and love others. That’s our “product” – it’s love.

Love is impossible to measure, so we use numbers as a substitute, to try to help us understand if we are helping people love God more and love others more. At a certain point, we have to understand that we will never be able to quantify that completely. There are some things that can help us, that can stand in as secondary substitutes, but we always have to realize that when we’re in the church numbers are always a substitute and never the final answer, because you cannot measure love.

Bolinger: One number that is easy to use is commitments to Christ, or baptisms of believers. In my church, we put a flower on the altar every Sunday when someone has come to Christ that previous week. But we don’t have any measure after that. You’ve come to saving faith – and that’s terrific! – but many people like me did that a long time ago, and we all need to be growing in our faith and deepening our relationships with God and with others. How do we measure that? How do we put flowers on the altar for that?

Vaters: I’ve never heard that idea: a flower on the altar for every person who gives his or her life to Christ. What a great way to acknowledge that! I think that’s fantastic. And numbers matter. We do need to keep track of things, because numbers can alert us to problems as well as give us indications of success. Numbers are helpful. They’re just not the entire package. We have to stop acting like numbers are the entire package.

It is critical for us to know the number of people who have made a first-time confession of Christ. The higher that is, the better. The number of baptisms: the higher that is, the better. The number of people who finish our discipleship courses: critical to know that; the higher, the better. Our attendance: critical to know that; the higher, the better.

But we have to realize that, when we’re counting conversions, what we’re really counting is how many people raised their hands or filled out a card – whatever your church’s process is. Not every one of those is a legitimate conversion. We can’t know which ones are and which ones are not – it’s God’s job to separate the sheep from the goats. Counting conversions is not a perfect accounting.

When people are baptized, we have to realize that it’s not an accurate count of every single person who actually became a disciple of Christ. It’s a count of how many people got baptized. A high percentage of them legitimately have become followers of Christ, but not every one. We don’t know which have and which haven’t, so the only number we can go with is the number of baptisms.

When people finish with a discipleship curriculum, all we can count is how many people finished the curriculum. We hope that a large percentage of them actually have been discipled, but the only thing for which we have an accurate number is those who finished the curriculum.

When we compare the number of people who got saved to the number of people who end their lives as fully devoted followers of Jesus, we know that there is massive drop-off. Our numbers are never completely accurate. They need to be kept, but we need to recognize that they are incomplete.

Bolinger: Let’s say that I am a small-church pastor at a church where all of the numbers, such as attendance or giving, are fairly flat. We feel that the church is healthy, and we feel that we are getting more effective, not less. We’re at an annual meeting or a board meeting. What are some measures or qualitative indications that we can use to demonstrate that we are, in fact, getting more effective at ministry and that there’s no cause for alarm?

Vaters: I did a blog post called “23 Non-Numerical Signs of a Healthy Church”. That’s a good starting point.

One important thing to note is demographics. A typical unhealthy church looks like its community used to look back when the church was founded or during the last successful pastorate. A healthy church looks demographically like the community that it is trying to reach. Another good sign of health is teams instead of committees. A committee talks about doing stuff; a team actually does stuff. A church that is heavy on committees and light on teams usually is an unhealthy church.

Karl Vaters 2: Thinking Like a Small-Church Pastor

The following is from Chris Bolinger’s fall 2015 interview with Karl Vaters, whose 2012 book The Grasshopper Myth has led to a twice-weekly Christianity Today blog and frequent speaking engagements…in addition to his many responsibilities as the pastor of a church of around 200. That church is in what Vaters calls the Megachurch Central region of southern California, and emulating the church growth practices of his larger neighbors led him to doubt his abilities and even his calling as a pastor.

The complete interview is available in Today’s Vital Church, Volume 2.


Bolinger: You are comfortable being identified as a small-church pastor, but it wasn’t always that way. Tell us about your journey.

Vaters: A little less than 10 years ago, I went through a really tough season of doubting my abilities, doubting my calling, doubting the validity of the church growth movement, and feeling really discouraged and frustrated. Through a long process of getting people to help me and, ultimately, to help me redefine success, I finally decided that I needed to figure out how to lead a small church that’s healthy.

90% of the churches in the world are under 200 [in attendance]. 80% are under 100. And yet we are often led to believe that, if our church is small or if it is not growing at the pace that we think it should grow, we’re broken.

The mantra for the church growth movement is: Think like a big church. Thinking like a big church nearly killed our church. It put a distance between me and the congregation. It had me doing ministry and administration for which I’m not built or gifted and that sucks my soul dry.

Bolinger: Why did you get swept up in the church growth movement? Has that happened to a lot of small-church pastors?

Vaters: I got swept up into it because I believe that the church should grow. I still believe that. I still want my church to grow. I’m not opposed to church growth; I’m absolutely pro church growth. Actual “real” church growth – not transfer growth – means people being saved, being rescued from hell into heaven, coming into the Kingdom of God. There are eternal lives at stake here. The church must grow because people need to be saved and brought through a redemptive relationship with Jesus.

It’s a logical thing. I’m in the business of church, the business of loving God, loving others, and bringing others into a relationship where they love God and love others. If I’m doing that well and people are being reached for Jesus, then there will be more people in front of me on Sunday morning. If that continues to happen – if my church is healthy and reaching the community and people are being saved – then my church will get bigger.

Conversely, if my church is not getting bigger, then I must be missing out on something about the Great Commission. So a growing church means a healthy church. All healthy things grow. That’s why I got caught up in it.

I think that most small-church pastors have bought into the same conclusion because it makes sense when you first hear it. If I’m reaching people for Jesus, then there will be more people in the church. If there are not more people in the church, then I must not be reaching people for Jesus. That makes sense until you start looking at reality. Can we really say that 90% of my peers in ministry are failures because 90% of the churches in the world are small?

I know too many pastors to think that 90% of the pastors out there are failures in ministry. Maybe 10% shouldn’t be in ministry, not 90%.

I went through a lot of trauma trying to sort all of that out, because I was working really hard to make my church grow and it wasn’t happening.

Bolinger: Tell us more about the downsides to you personally of thinking like a big church and acting like a big-church pastor.

Vaters: The “think like a big church” approach caused several problems.

The first problem for me occurred when my church did start getting bigger. For a while, we were drawing almost 400 people. When it got that big, I had to switch from pastoral mode to management mode, and I started operating completely out of my gifting, out of my skill set, and out of my personality type. I was miserable. I became an unhealthy pastor.

At conferences that talk about thinking like a big church, they talk about moving out of “shepherd mode” into “rancher mode”, or out of “pastoring mode” into “management mode”. Once you hit 200, you can’t minister to every single person individually. You have to have “under-shepherds” who do the ministry for you. That is absolutely true and absolutely a good thing to do. I am for that. But, when you do that and your church is only 100 people, you start distancing yourself from people.

Here’s an example. At conferences, they talk about how to do announcements in your worship service. They tell you that most churches do their announcements wrong. They get up and they give the youth group announcements, the men’s group announcements, the women’s group announcements, the kids’ group announcements. Every time they give one of those, they are leaving half or more of the church out. By the time they are done with the announcements, everyone is tuned out. The recommendation at the conference is that the only announcements you give on a Sunday morning are the ones that apply to absolutely everybody in the room. Tell them to read the bulletin for the rest.

I thought, “That makes sense. I don’t want to alienate people. I don’t want to bore them.” So I started following the recommendation. Here’s what I discovered: in a small church, if you tell a ministry director that you are not going to make his or her announcement, wear a cup, because you are going to get hurt. In a big church, the recommendation makes sense. But when you have 50 or 100 people in front of you on a Sunday, there is no reason not to make every announcement.

The person who made the recommendation at the conference comes out of a church of 3,000 people. In that kind of a church, there are so many people and so many programs that you have to trim back announcements. In a small church, there are different rules. There are only four announcements in a small church! You’re going to cut three of them because they don’t apply to the whole church?

So I made a change to announcements that pushed people away. I gave pastoral care responsibilities to others, and then people who were used to contacting me anytime couldn’t get ahold of their pastor. In a church of 100 people, when the pastor isn’t answering the phone, it seems like the pastor is being arrogant.

I nearly killed my healthy church by doing “big church” things before they were necessary. We have this idea that doing things in a “big church” way will make the church big. That’s backwards. When a church gets big, you do things in a “big church” way so that you don’t lose the gain. Behaving like a business manager instead of a pastor won’t help a church of 50 grow.

Stick to pastoring well, and raise disciples so that, if your church gets big, then you have people to whom you can hand stuff off.

Karl Vaters 1: Big Churches vs. Small Churches

The following is from Chris Bolinger’s fall 2015 interview with Karl Vaters, whose 2012 book The Grasshopper Myth has led to a twice-weekly Christianity Today blog and frequent speaking engagements…in addition to his many responsibilities as the pastor of a church of around 200. That church is in what Vaters calls the Megachurch Central region of southern California, and emulating the church growth practices of his larger neighbors led him to doubt his abilities and even his calling as a pastor.

The complete interview is available in Today’s Vital Church, Volume 2.


Vaters: For the past 23 years, I have been pastoring in Fountain Valley, California, which is eight miles south of Disneyland. It is in Orange County, which is “Megachurch Central”. In his book The Purpose Driven Church, Rick Warren wrote that he researched the best place in America to build a big church, and the result was Orange County, California.

Rick started here about six or seven years before I came here. He has built Saddleback Church. I have taken a church from 35 to not quite 200. If you’re not in Rick Warren’s back yard, then 35 to 200 is pretty good. But I’ve been at it for 23 years, and my church is in the place where people come to build megachurches. If you can’t build a megachurch here, then you can’t build one anywhere, and I haven’t been able to pull it off.

Bolinger: How far is Saddleback from your church, Cornerstone?

Vaters: A little over half an hour.

Bolinger: How many other large churches and megachurches are within a half hour or so?

Vaters: Maybe a couple hundred.

Bolinger: Wow! What area is served by your church? How far do people come to attend your church?

Vaters: Our town, Fountain Valley, has 55,000 people in it. We border five cities that are many times bigger than ours, including Huntington Beach, Costa Mesa, and Santa Ana, which is the county seat. Toward the beach, you have very wealthy people. Santa Ana is the second most ethnically diverse city in the nation – it’s an amazing melting pot – and most of Santa Ana is lower class and lower middle class. Westminster is almost entirely Asian, specifically Vietnamese. Every city and town is very different, so the area is an interesting conglomeration of people.

Our church draws 50% from Fountain Valley. The other 50% would be from a 15-minute drive outside the city.

Bolinger: I assume that at least some of the megachurches have satellite campuses that are closer to Fountain Valley than the main campuses are.

Vaters: Virtually every megachurch has satellite campuses.

Bolinger: So people in the Fountain Valley area who want to attend a megachurch – main campus or satellite campus – probably don’t have to drive very far. Have you lost people to megachurches?

Vaters: Absolutely. But 20-25% of our congregation used to attend megachurches. It’s probably an even exchange.

Bolinger: When someone who used to attend Cornerstone or another small church decides to head to Saddleback or another megachurch, what are the primary draws or reasons?

Vaters: I think that there are three primary reasons.

The first one is programs. Big churches have programs and resources that small churches can’t offer.

We just lost a fairly long-term couple in our church. They came to me this weekend, and they’re virtually in upheaval or trauma over leaving our church, but it’s because they’ve had massive life changes. They need particular programs for their new family situation that we simply aren’t at a size to offer. We can do more hands-on things than a megachurch can do, but there are certain aspects of this couple’s lives right now that require them to have a professional level of programming for their new family situation, and we just can’t offer that.

The big church has those types of programs, especially for blended families, where the husband and wife each have kids from their previous marriages and maybe kids that they have had in their new marriage. They have three groups of kids under their roof. One group of kids goes off to their dad’s every second week. Another group goes off to their mom’s every second week. The third group stays every week. One kid is in church every second Sunday, another is in church every other second Sunday, and a third is in church every Sunday. Sometimes, bigger churches are able to accommodate that better with schedules for Saturday night services or different options, maybe multiple nights, during the week for youth group.

The second reason is that, often, small churches lack the quality of large churches. Some churches are small because they stink. You can’t deny that reality. Thankfully, unhealthy things don’t grow. People who attend unhealthy churches eventually grow tired of them and don’t want to put up with them anymore. A big church has a guaranteed level of quality.

When I travel, I usually stay in chain hotels. Every now and then, I’ll find a unique hotel in a community, and I’ll read good reviews for it, and I’ll take the risk and stay there. And I may be treated to a place with a great personality. I wish that I could do that every time, but the problem is that I have been burned so many times that, especially if I am traveling on business, it is safer to go to a chain. I just want to know that my bed will be clean. I know that will be the case in a chain hotel. I don’t know that with the others. For a guarantee of quality, I’ll give up the personality.

A lot of people who have spent time in an unhealthy small church don’t want to take the risk of finding a good small church. They take the safe route and go to a big one.

The third reason is this: In a small church, people do get close to one another. The relationships are deeper. But that comes with a shadow side, which is that people hurt each other. Every one of us has people in our lives who have hurt us, relationships that we’ve had to cut off and abandon. If you are hurt by somebody in your small group at a big church, fine: switch small groups, and you never see him again, even though you’re in the same church. But if you are hurt by somebody in a small church, you’re going to see him every Sunday, and sometimes you just can’t do that anymore. There have been people at our church who have gotten divorced. They’ve had to flip a coin to see which one stays at Cornerstone and which one has to find a different church.

Bolinger: So Cornerstone has lost some people to megachurches in the area. But you mentioned that 20-25% of the current Cornerstone congregation used to attend megachurches, and the entire congregation certainly has plenty of megachurch options nearby. What draws people to a healthy small church, and what keeps them there, even in the Megachurch Capital of America?

Vaters: One is the personal relationships. In a small church, you can have a personal relationship with the pastor. One of the things that drives me nuts in the big-church conferences is when they tell you that you have to give up some of your pastoral role and become an administrator. If people complain that they don’t get to know the pastor anymore and can’t contact the pastor personally, you have to tell them that it’s not right to complain about that. I don’t buy that anymore. It’s not wrong for people to want to be pastored by their pastor.

I understand that, when a church grows to a certain size and the pastor can’t be available to every member, you have to train people and rely on “under-shepherds” for pastoral care. But there are a lot of people who feel the need to be pastored by their pastor. If the stats are correct, then over half of the Christians in the world feel that way. It’s important to them that they can get the pastor on the phone. When they’re sick, it’s not just a small group person who comes; it’s the pastor who shows up. When they’re getting married, the person who marries them is the pastor who has sat with them for pre-marriage counseling, not just someone who really doesn’t know them and has to have their names written in front of him even though they have attended the church for 10 years.

People want a personal connection with their spiritual leader. That’s not a bad thing for them to want.

Another thing that a small church offers is a shorter learning curve and more opportunities for people to make mistakes.

I have been the pastor at Cornerstone for 23 years. In the past six or seven years, we have been able to develop a really good worship team and a good system for training people to be a part of a strong worship team. Part of the reason for our success is that we have trained up our own young people.

Last Sunday, we had a drummer who has just turned 14. He has been drumming for us since he was 12. A pastor who visited us last Sunday asked, “How young is that drummer? He looks so young.” When I told him, he said, “Wow. He looks that young, but he is so good that I didn’t think he is that young.” If you didn’t look at him, then there is nothing about his drumming that would indicate that he is not a seasoned drummer.

Part of the reason that he got good fast is that, when he was 12, he was allowed to be on the platform [performing] in the main service. That forces you to get better fast. He was in our worship workshop, where people get trained in their instrument or their voice, and he was just getting to the point where he could drum for a few songs. The worship leader looked ahead on the calendar and realized that, in about three months, there would be a Sunday where every one of the regular drummers would be gone, and the 12-year-old would be the only option. She picked four easy songs and worked with him for a few months to get him ready for that Sunday.

I remember that Sunday. Half the church remembers that Sunday. His mom really remembers that Sunday! We sat there scared but beaming with pride that one of our kids was up there at 12 hitting the drums with the worship team. He had a little trouble keeping up, but he did well.

You can’t do that in a big church. And you shouldn’t do that in a big church. It’s not right in a church of 3,000 – to either the 12-year-old or to the 3,000 people or to the band – to have someone on the big stage who is still figuring it out. But in a small church you can do that – to give people the opportunity to learn as they go and make mistakes.

Another advantage of small churches is that people who have a leadership gift and want to be a part of leadership can do that. Their voice matters more in a small church.

The shadow side of that is that small churches tend to attract control freaks. Big churches tend to attract people who want to be anonymous, and small churches tend to attract control freaks. We’ve each got to protect against those extremes. Each size has its positives, and each size has a shadow side to its positives.

Promoting a Life-Changing Marriage Event

Is it possible for a small church to host a quality marriage event?

The answer is yes! I know what you probably are thinking because I’ve heard it all before and, as a pastor of small churches for almost two decades, I probably thought the same thing.

The reality is that, for an investment of less than $100, your church can host a first-class marriage event. How? I’ll provide all the details in my next article. If you can’t wait, then use the Contact page to indicate that you want to get in touch with me, and the Small Church Central staff will connect us via email. (I would hate to keep you awake at night wondering about this great opportunity!)

There actually is something even easier that your church can do at no cost to your church whatsoever. That is to promote the Weekend to Remember marriage getaway that FamilyLife hosts in approximately 75 cities around the U.S. every year. This event can have a life-changing impact on couples in your church and in your community.

By agreeing to promote a Weekend to Remember event, your church gets some benefits and perks:

  • When your church creates a group name, any couple that registers using that group name will save at least $100 off their registration.
  • As you promote and get couples signed up, it’s easy to earn free registrations that you can give to those in your church (or community) who can’t afford to pay for the marriage event themselves.
  • Your senior pastor and his or her spouse get a free event registration.

Who said that small churches can’t have a big impact? Please reach out (via the Contact page) so we can connect and talk more. I would love to help you as you desire to help others!

Connecting and Building Relationships through Lifetree Café: Part 2

The following is from a fall 2015 interview between Chris Bolinger of Revitalize Ministries and Craig Cable, the National Director of Lifetree Café. The complete interview is in Today’s Vital Church, Volume 2.

To read Part 1, click here.


Cable: We find that we should just say, “God, we’re going to have a room full of people, and we pray that You put the right people at the right tables for the right conversations, because they have been predestined to be here, and You know what is stirring in their hearts. We will sit back and enjoy and marvel at what You are about to do in the next hour.” If you come in with that mindset and relinquish control to the Holy Spirit, you’ll be amazed what happens.

Bolinger: This reminds me of our experiences in youth ministry. We found that the youth who asked the best questions were the “unchurched” kids. The “churched” kids didn’t ask a lot of questions and had the “right” answer to your questions. You have to provide an environment where the “unchurched” kids feel safe enough to ask real questions. We used to encourage our youth to write any question on a piece of paper, and we promised to give them an honest answer to any question, even an embarrassing personal question. It helped to break down barriers.

It seems to me that Lifetree Café has the potential to capture that type of youth group experience for adults. You can develop real relationships so that people are comfortable talking about real things. “I’ve always had this question.” “I’m really struggling with this.”

Does a Lifetree Café have elements of a youth group such as food and icebreakers and games? How long does it take for people who attend a Lifetree Café to get comfortable with sharing? I would think that it would take a while.

Cable: Let me debunk the myth that it takes people time to become comfortable enough in Lifetree to become transparent. That’s actually not true. We find that people are incredibly transparent from the first time they walk in. We liken it to riding an airplane. When you’re on a plane with a perfect stranger sitting next to you, you’ve got nothing to lose. If it were true that, the more time people spent together, the more transparent they became, then we would have churches that are filled with transparent people.

At Lifetree Café, people are incredibly transparent with where their struggles and pain are. You don’t have to guess what it’s about. They are coming for a specific topic that addresses the issue that they are dealing with. They dive into that.

As for having elements of a youth group, we recommend that every Lifetree has complementary snacks. People who have a snack in one hand and a cup of coffee (or water, or tea, or another drink) in the other are far more comfortable. It’s like when someone visits your home. You welcome them in, you tell them that you’re glad they’re there. It’s the nature of good hospitality. If you can show that type of hospitality, people feel comfortable, and they feel safe in opening up.

I’ve seen Lifetrees incredibly stunted in their conversations, and it’s because it’s not the right environment. They haven’t set the stage for transparency because the environment is sterile. And more of an impact on that is if we’re sterile, if we’re not transparent. If people sense that we’re guarded in having an honest conversation, then they’ll be guarded.

A Lifetree is all about fearless conversation. Your thoughts are welcome. Your doubts are welcome. Anything is fair game to talk about here. It’s a guided conversation in that we are focusing on a particular topic but, if in the midst of that if a conversation turns to a different thing, you don’t say, “Wait! I’m sorry that your husband died six months ago, but that’s not the topic here this evening.” If the conversation leads there, then the table conversation goes there.

The Lifetree experience starts with a fairly light, get-to-know-each-other question. As in youth ministry, it’s an icebreaker. It’s a way for you to build comfort and rapport around your people. We don’t have people walk in and join a table and say, “Welcome to Lifetree! What’s your deepest, darkest sin or secret? I’ll give you a few minutes to talk about that.” (Laughs.) It’s something more like, “What was the highlight of your week, and what was a lowlight of your week?” That’s a way to demonstrate that we’re going to practice conversation here. And through the experience, it goes deeper and deeper and deeper.

On a Sunday morning at a typical church, when the message ends, and even before the message ends, people are up out of their seats, and they’re already starting to leave. At Lifetree Café, part of the ministry is what we call After Words. When a Lifetree session ends, people won’t move from their seats for 20, 30, or 40 minutes. That’s because they’re continuing their conversations with the friends at their tables. Sometimes they’ve known these friends for years, and sometimes they have known them for an hour. That’s a true testament to our ministry, when we watch them continue that dialog.

As people critique Lifetree, they sometimes ask questions like, “Why didn’t you unpack the entire Gospel?” Well, for one thing, we have only an hour. But we don’t want the conversation to stop at Lifetree. That’s the head jump that the church has to make. It’s not about you, the church, and what you say.

People who cut their teeth in youth ministry have a much easier time with Lifetree Café. They get it. Others who get it quickly are pastors who are bivocational or who worked in the secular world before they moved into the ministry world. When they see Lifetree and who it’s for, they see themselves. They say, “Boy, I wish Lifetree had been there 20 years ago, when I went through my divorce.” They know what it would have meant to them when they needed that.

If you’ve lived insulated, and you’ve been marinated in a church culture, and you’ve never really experienced the real world, it’s hard for you to relate to the real-world formula or ethos of Lifetree.

Bolinger: …do you…offer training? How should I consult with Group to make sure that my Lifetree Café is running as well as it can?

Cable: We have found that, to do a successful Lifetree, you have to change how you approach doing ministry. It is the antithesis of how we have been trained and how we measure effectiveness. Statistically, you should be able to get the right answer 50% of the time. We discovered with Lifetree that, if we offered a church two choices for how to do Lifetree, the Lifetree way and the traditional church way, 95% of churches would gravitate toward the non-Lifetree way. They had to relearn behaviors and measure things differently. So training is essential.

But churches are very resistant to change. And they were resistant to the training.

Lifetree training is available online. It includes videos and best practices. Whereas before it was required, now it is suggested. We’ll let you make the most common and avoidable mistakes. We hope that the problems that a church encounters are not fatal because, the more people bump into challenges, the more open they are to coaching and development. We love those opportunities to be able to mentor them.

The churches that get it – who understand what they are trying to accomplish and the rhythm of Lifetree – find that Lifetree transforms their churches from the inside out. It’s amazing how transferable the Lifetree training is to other ministries. You will do youth ministry differently. You will do children’s ministry differently. You will do church differently. If they think that Lifetree is a little side ministry and the church is what matters, they will find after a year that they should be doing church like Lifetree. That’s exciting when that happens.

Bolinger: I wonder if house churches are attractive to some because they are more like a Lifetree than like a traditional church. Of course, a church has some elements that you don’t have in a Lifetree.

Cable: Let me clarify that every Lifetree episode, regardless of the topic, always has Scripture and always has a prayer. There’s always a faith “a-ha!”, regardless of whether it’s a light topic or a serious topic. It’s always very intentional. People talk about Lifetree Café as something radically new. It’s so new that it’s about 2,000 years old. There’s really nothing new here. We’re trying to bring it back to what it was all supposed to be about in the first place.

It doesn’t matter what type of church or ministry you are in – if you try to imitate “big church” in a small format, it’s not going to work. How many times have you been to a church plant where they have parking attendants and there are 12 cars? They’re following the wrong model.

Our culture is rejecting the congregational lecture/listener big church model. People are not moving away from Jesus. 30.5 million Americans have walked away from the institutional church, but they are pursuing a relationship with Jesus.

This will be the next chapter of my time at Group. We’re now saying, “How do we help and resource the church in the four walls of the building and outside the building?” The people in the building may say that it’s not church if people are sitting in a living room and talking about life and faith and where Jesus fits into that. It’s seen as “not church” because it misses the trappings or the ways that we measure what church should be. When I walk into a Lifetree and see the conversations of people coming to faith, I ask, “How is that different from the church?” If anything, I see that happening more outside the walls of the church than within the four walls.

Now, I hope that everyone hears me not knocking the four walls of the church. Keep doing what you’re doing. There are people whose needs are being met in the four walls, and that’s where their connections are. For people who gravitate toward an auditory learning style and are looking for that kind of community, the church serves that purpose. But an aircraft carrier can’t be our only method of transportation. We have to have different ways to engage people.

We’re not compromising the tenets of our faith. We are centered on Jesus, but how we do that can take a lot of different forms.

Bolinger: To use a mathematical term, what a church does within its four walls is necessary but not sufficient. It meets the needs of some people, so we shouldn’t stop doing it, but it’s not enough anymore. I’m not sure it ever was enough.

Let’s say that my relatively small church has 10 people who are excited about doing a Lifetree Café, but we’re not sure that the 10 of us can pull it off. Should we look for 10 more people at a church down the street? Or does it work best if a single church does it?

Cable: I would answer with a question: What would preclude the 10 of you from starting a Lifetree? Lifetree actually struggles in larger churches and can explode in a small church. Success has little to do with numbers.

One of the most successful Lifetrees, which is still operating today, started with six women and a minivan. It’s in Fort Dodge, Iowa. It’s a ministry called Cana. They use this ministry to connect with people in their community based on where their own hearts are, for the least of these. Their location was an abandoned space in a strip mall across the street from a women’s detention center. As women walked out of the gate with literally no options, they would walk into Cana. I can’t tell you how many ministries have been spawned out of that ministry: counseling ministries, art ministries, equestrian therapies…all born out of the hearts of six women who have a love for the Lord and a deep love for people who are hurting.

Bolinger: What are the costs to do a Lifetree? Let’s assume that we can find a venue that is free.

Cable: The content is $200 a month. Even with snacks and other expenses, a Lifetree will cost $300 to less than $500 a month total. Most Lifetrees operating outside of church buildings are in venues for which they are not being charged. Some utilize time in local restaurants or coffee houses when there are not many customers there. Some use community centers and YMCAs. Just go where people are gathering already.

When you use a restaurant or coffee shop, it actually helps the business owner. The more foot traffic you can bring in, the more people begin to patronize that establishment. It’s a win-win.

I’m just amazed at how God opens doors that you never thought would be opened. People support it with their presence or their funds. Having a church connection is no indication of success. You just need passionate people who see an opportunity to serve their community in this way. That Lifetree is unstoppable.

Connecting and Building Relationships through Lifetree Café: Part 1

The following is from a fall 2015 interview between Chris Bolinger of Revitalize Ministries and Craig Cable, the National Director of Lifetree Café. The complete interview is in Today’s Vital Church, Volume 2.


Cable: The concept of Lifetree Café was born out of some prayer meetings that started a few years before I joined Group. The prayer meetings were on how to help the church connect with people with whom the church currently is not connecting. Through those weekly breakfast prayer meetings, an idea began to form: what if we created a place where the church and culture could come together and connect and build relationships?

I still remember the day Thom [Schultz] pulled me into his office. It’s always a little intimidating when the founder of the organization wants to see you! He said, “I have this idea. It’s this thing called Lifetree Café.” He explained that it would be a place where Group would provide training and resources to enable a church to create this type of non-traditional worship experience. Thom felt that we have to help churches build bridges to their communities.

He asked me what I thought. I said that I really wasn’t necessarily crazy about the idea. (Laughs.) I was contextualizing it based on my experiences in ministry. It was very different than what I knew and, because of the foreignness of it, I couldn’t get my head around it.

Thom asked me to leave my position as Product Manager and accept the position of Lifetree Café National Director to help further develop this ministry. While I didn’t fully understand the concept, I knew and believed in Thom. If he felt that churches needed this, then I had complete confidence to step out into that unknown to help them.

We conducted our first Lifetree Café session back in November 2007. We had invited lots of friends and family to the inaugural launch. Nothing seemed to go right. In fact, the fire alarm went off twice during the one-hour experience, which was quite unpleasant for everyone. So we spent nearly two more years improving on the experience and determining our content development and training methodologies…

…we launched with seven Lifetree Cafés…Shortly after the launch, we added five more. Believe it or not, the second Lifetree Café to begin operating is still operating today in Eustice, Florida. It’s a real testament to these pioneers who believed in this concept.

Lifetree Café started as a way for churches to connect with their communities through thought-provoking topics that were delivered every week in spaces that resembled a coffee house. We chose a coffee house because it was familiar and felt safe to people to come. We weren’t asking them to step back into a congregational lecture format. It was highly relational, highly conversational. That’s how it began.

Bolinger: My immediate reaction is that it is a great concept but very different from anything that I have experienced in the “church world”. Do people struggle with doubts as to whether or not they actually can do a Lifetree Café and succeed with it? Now that it has been six or seven years since Lifetree Café was first developed, what have you learned? Is there a recipe for success? What are the best practices?

Cable: Chris, we’ve learned a lot…Today, while the Lifetree Café experience can be very consistent from one to another, it behaves more like a content subscription service. Churches can come in as they wish and start subscribing. They can leave if they wish and cancel the subscription.

The one thing that we have been unwavering on is that they can’t modify the experience itself. The Lifetree content is the Lifetree content. They can’t adapt it. We knew, and we’ve seen this first-hand, that it’s not about the leader. It’s about the learner. Lifetree Café creates an experience that helps the people in the room connect with each other and with Jesus. If a church had the ability to modify that content, it would dramatically impact the effectiveness of the experience. We’ve been very rigid at protecting that one-hour experience.

We test everything in our own operating Lifetree, which has been operating every week since 2007. Every week, our Lifetree is open to the community. The people who come from our community may not know that there are other Lifetrees operating around the country. All they know is that they come in and participate in our Lifetree Café experience. We’re not testing occasionally with a focus group. We’re doing this with real people every week.

Over the years, I have found that I can predict fairly early in a church’s Lifetree Café effort, with a fairly high level of accuracy, whether or not the Lifetree Café will be successful. I have launched hundreds of Lifetrees, and we have watched some of those well-intentioned Lifetrees wither and die. The common denominator that will determine a Lifetree’s success is what we call its natural RQ. IQ is intelligence quotient; RQ is a church’s relational quotient.

If a church wants and is willing to commit to being in relationship, not only with each other but also with its community, then that church is going to find every means possible to facilitate connecting in those relationships. When a Lifetree is in the hands of a church that has a naturally occurring RQ and a hunger to grow in relationship with its community, because the people of the church love their community, that Lifetree will flourish. They’ll see new people every week and make hundreds, if not thousands, of relational connections in their community. The Lifetree is just an extension of what God has wired them to be.

Lifetree Café is not the meal. If you believe that faith is a subject to learn, you are going to hold Lifetree Café responsible for something that it was never intended to be. We set the table, and we give a reason to join the table, but the “food” – the actual nourishment that is being given – is a relationship with Jesus Christ that they are going to experience through us.

A church will struggle with Lifetree if the church believes that Lifetree is about what is said from the front. People who come to Lifetree Café will discover Jesus and have an encounter with Jesus through us at the table. If a church has a low RQ, isn’t relational, is protective, is legalistic, is not filled with grace, is not willing to talk about tough subjects, is not hospitable, is guarded, then it will find itself dramatically stunted in building relationships.

It’s tragic, but it’s rare that I find a church that is relationally wired for the success of Lifetree. Lifetree has continued to grow year over year, but it grows at the speed of churches that recognize that Lifetree is an extension of where their passions and love are already.

Bolinger: Does a Lifetree Café have tables of four?

Cable: Yes. Think small and intimate. Most Lifetrees seat 40 to 50 people, never more than 50, at small, café-style tables seating four or in seating clusters of four. There is a host for the one-hour experience, with a video component as part of that experience. Typically, it’s someone’s story shared on film around a topic, and it invites people in the room to discuss the topic and share their own stories.

Topics range from personal need topics, such as loss or forgiveness or grief, to controversial topics, such as the gun debate, legalization of marijuana, or same-sex marriage. Lifetree doesn’t shy away from a topic. We want the faith community and culture in the community at large to come into a conversation. It is rare for a church to want to have that kind of fearless conversation, but those that do really see how powerful this experience can be.

We’re all about tearing down walls. Pastors often tell us that we should have said this or that in the materials. “We could have nailed that conversation and proved to them that they were wrong!” I always tell pastors, “I’m more interested in the relationship than in being right.” I can be right, but that doesn’t mean that we will foster a relationship. We are a place where grace abounds.

The seating arrangement and the topic are amenities. They have their form and their function, but if they are provided without grace, those conversations are going to be stifled.

Bolinger: Do you have someone from the church at each table?

Cable: That is a common question. It stems from the question, “Do you need a facilitator at each table, someone to guide the conversation or just to encourage dialog?” The answer is, “Yes and no.” The “yes” is that we want your people engaged in Lifetree Café because, not only will they get something out of it personally, but also it gives them a chance to share their story. Part of their story is their faith story…

We have this radical idea: trust the Holy Spirit. (Laughs.) I’m not trying to be flippant. We find that God puts the right people at the tables, much better than I can. I see this every single week in our Lifetree.

A couple of years ago, I was sitting at the table, and we were having a fairly benign conversation that went somewhere unexpected. One woman had recently lost her husband when he went out jogging and was hit and killed by a distracted driver like a block from their house. The accident had occurred just a few months prior to that evening. This was one of the first times that the woman had been out of the house with people since the accident.

The man sitting to my right had lost his father years earlier in a tragic murder. He was much farther along in the grief process. He was able to minister to the woman from a point of experience that I never have had. He explained how he had gotten through it, talked about how hard it had been, and empathized with the woman and what she was going through. He ministered to the woman in a way that I couldn’t.

While I could have been the table facilitator, the Holy Spirit had a very different plan. He planted those two people at the same table. That is radically different than what we do when we try to control it.