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.

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