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.

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