Reaching Teens through Video Production: Part 3

This three-part series is a set of (lightly edited) excerpts from the book Today’s Vital Church, Volume 1.
Part 1
Part 2


The Importance of Collaboration and Co-Creation
In a follow-up article, Fuller Youth Institute asked two questions:

  1. Why is co-creating media “the core of authenticity” for young people?
  2. What are some ways that leaders can use collaborative media projects?

Let’s start with the importance of having youth co-create media.

Many young people want to do more than just watch media. They want to interact with media. They want to produce their own content. Teens use things they enjoy as a jumping-off point from which they create and share media like fan-fiction, music videos, animated .gif memes, and so on.

Teens in a youth group or, really, any group often are more eager to talk about their groups than about their own personal beliefs. Many teens also are more comfortable with showing, rather than telling, adults what their groups are like.

Many teens also like the process of creating something with a group of teens. “Creative” meetings often include fascinating conversations among teens as they wrestle with why something is meaningful and how to present it to an audience. Media-making projects in a youth group or other church setting encourage young people to think about their relationship with the church, and experiences with youth group, as part of their own individual identities. Youth and youth leaders can discuss sharing a collective identity—which is an important part of what church is all about.

How should a church co-create with youth? Here are some ideas:

  1. Encourage or challenge groups of youth to tell a story that they share.
  2. Produce fun promotional videos for upcoming youth group events and projects (for youth to invite their friends) and for church-wide events and projects.
  3. Teach classes for older members on how to stay connected using digital technology and social media—including things like sharing photos, video chats, a Facebook “How To,” and explaining some of the most popular apps.
  4. Co-create a series of audio or video podcasts in which pastors answer young peoples’ questions about Christianity.
  5. Collaborate on presentations for holidays and church anniversaries in which young people interview older members about their experiences, and assist with digitally preserving archival materials like old bulletins, photos, and so on.
  6. Curate multimedia content such as videos, graphics, and playlists to accompany other content like sermons, lessons, and devotionals.
  7. Generate ideas for new ways to share prayer requests digitally.

One other thing to which the article alludes is that some youth, after they are involved in producing videos, will “rise to the top” in terms of talents and passion in the area of video production. When that happens, it is very important for the church to give those teens further opportunities to explore their giftedness. One approach is to give the talented youth a leadership role in promoting church events on social media, including raising awareness (and funds) for service projects and missions.

Here are some other ideas for youth-created videos:

  • Showcase the talents of some of the youth, including:
    • Video-related talents such as script-writing, acting, directing, and editing
    • Other talents, such as performing music
  • Have a contest where groups of youth compete with each other for fabulous prizes or just for bragging rights, until the next contest
  • Present opinions and start discussions on just about any topic, including deep subjects such as what Christians believe and some of the challenges of being a Christian as a teen

Tapping into Gifts and Passions
Some youth are especially gifted and talented in the area of video production. Some of them may know it already, but others discover their gifts and talents because they have been able to produce videos as a part of youth group meetings and events or in other areas of church life. The more your church encourages youth to express themselves through video, the more the gifted youth will discover those gifts and, most importantly, the more those youth will want to use their gifts for the Kingdom.

In 2014, the website TakeLessons.com, which strives to help students find their passion, announced its first scholarship competition. To compete, a student had to submit a response to this question: If you could earn a living doing what you love most, what would it be, and how would it change the world? Describe the specific goals you would set to make that dream a reality.

Here is the short essay that Nicole from Hastings, Michigan wrote in response:

I love Jesus Christ most in my life. I love studying Him and His word, sitting down for a cup of coffee with someone to talk about Jesus. I love singing to Him, and talking to Him.

I already know preaching is not my calling. However, I do have a gift with technology, specifically video production. My favorite video projects are for the church, either the youth group or the main service.

I would love to produce videos about Jesus. A big, distant dream for me is to travel the world and make videos for an organization such as World Vision or Compassion International. Maybe someday God will call me to that line of work.

For now, I am still doing what I love by living with and for Jesus, talking about Him with others and helping them grow in Christ, and producing videos for the church. Each video I have made for the church has helped at least one person come closer to Jesus, or at least raise some questions and/or encouragement.

All I want to do is point people to Jesus. I can do that from behind the scenes but still capture their attention with the message of Christ. If I can never make money using my gift of video production, I will still be serving the church by producing videos in my free time because that is what I love. I love it too much to let the lack of financial compensation get in the way.

Reaching Teens through Video Production: Part 2

This three-part series is a set of (lightly edited) excerpts from the book Today’s Vital Church, Volume 1.


Results of Research
After that conversation [with Shane Sooter — see Part 1], I did research on how churches are using video production to reach youth. What I found is that:

  • Reaching youth through video production is something that any church of any size in any location can do.
  • It’s an approach that works well for many of today’s youth, including those who have little or no interest in participating in a youth group.
  • It gives many teens an easy way to invite their friends to participate in an activity that those friends already are doing, many of them on an almost daily basis. The only difference is that, this time, the activity happens to be at a church with a church youth group.

Let’s take a look at the role of social media in the lives of today’s youth and why it is so important for churches to engage youth through media, specifically by enabling and encouraging youth to produce media, especially videos, as a part of the life of the church.

Teens and Social Media
I gleaned a lot of information on teens and social media from the February 2014 article “Social Media 101”.

According to the May 2013 Pew Internet & American Life Project’s “Report on Teens, Social Media, and Privacy”, nearly 80% of teens use some form of social media, and over half of all teens visit social sites at least daily.

While nearly all teen social media users say they have a Facebook profile, and four out of five say that Facebook is the social site they use most often, it appears that Facebook’s teen appeal is fading, in part because there are too many adults on the site.

Twitter use is picking up among teens, with one in four now using Twitter, as compared to only one in six adults. Teens like the Twitter limit of 140 characters per post because it allows for less “drama” than Facebook, with its long posts and endless comments.

Teens with iPods and smartphones often use those devices to take pictures and record short videos, so those teens are attracted to social media sites where they can share their pics and videos with friends, see what their friends have posted, and interact. Facebook and Twitter support the posting of pictures and videos, but teens increasingly are turning to social media sites that specialize in visual media, such as the older YouTube, Vimeo, and Flickr and the newer Instagram, Snapchat, and Vine.

Teens enjoy social media because it is entertaining, allows them to express their creativity and ideas, and enables them to connect and interact with other teens. Because many teens are visually oriented, pictures and videos allow for creative expression that words alone cannot.

The Fuller Youth Institute interviewed Danah Boyd, author of the book It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens. Boyd is a Principal Researcher at Microsoft, a Professor at New York University, and a Fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Fortune magazine calls her “the reigning expert on how young people use the Internet.” Here are some excerpts from that interview, where “DB:” prefaces a quote from Danah Boyd, and “FYI:” prefaces a quote from the Fuller Youth Institute.

DB: Teens turn to technology because it’s the one way that they have to connect with their friends in a culture in which we’ve placed heavy restrictions on teens’ mobility and social opportunities.

It is important to put technology into perspective. We used to be afraid of novels because we were worried that youth would disappear into fantasy worlds and be unable to connect. We feared radio, television, comic books. Each new media is feared, but the fears themselves aren’t that different. The key is to appreciate how hard it is for young people to navigate this world and appreciate their commitment to figuring it out. New technologies are part of that…I’d like us to step away from fretting over technology and focus on the love and attention that teens need from us.

Tips for Youth Leaders and Churches

DB: Youth leaders should not focus on technology but should help young people work through the struggles that are shaped by their age, status, and position in society. Adult youth leaders should enter teens’ networked lives when they’re invited to do so and be respectful of what they find. Technology is not the center of teens’ lives. It’s simply that which mirrors and magnifies everyday life. The church can and often does provide teens with a critical support structure, and this is very important.

FYI: A lot of churches and ministries have been trying to integrate social media into both their marketing and outreach, and their teaching curriculum materials for young people. Are there any best practices you might recommend with regards to using it more effectively in either of those respects? Any common pitfalls leaders should avoid?

DB: I get why folks want to use social media to market to youth, but youth want social media to be their own. Valuable marketing occurs when youth pull on something that’s created by ministries and make it their own, not when it’s simply broadcast out. Thus, my advice would be to focus on creating media that teens can appropriate, remix, or otherwise engage in and see what clicks based on what they choose to share. But above all else, don’t try to be “cool” by directly targeting youth. Work with youth to co-create this stuff. That is the core of authenticity for them.


In Part 3, we take a closer look at the benefits of having teens collaborate on media creation.

Reaching Teens through Video Production: Part 1

This three-part series is a set of (lightly edited) excerpts from the book Today’s Vital Church, Volume 1.


According to a 2004 Barna Group study, nearly two-thirds of U.S. Christians accept Jesus before reaching the age of 18. Winning students to Christ is great for the Kingdom, and it also can lead to the parents of youth getting involved, or more involved, in the life of a church. When parents and youth are active in a church, that church attracts other families.

Working with teens can be rewarding, but it is widely regarded as the most challenging of all church ministries. Today’s youth are, for the most part, extraordinarily busy. A typical school day consists of seven hours of academics followed by several hours of an after-school activity such as sports, music, drama, a club, or an after-school job. Dinner, homework, and family activities round out the day. Weekends often are equally busy, especially for youth who are involved in club sports, which often involve weekend tournaments nearly year-round.

When they aren’t involved in an activity, most of today’s youth are on their smartphones. They interact electronically with dozens or even hundreds of online “friends”, some but not all of whom are true friends in real life. They watch countless videos and share even more photos and videos, some of which they have taken or created. They are entertained, amused, and informed on a six-inch screen.

To engage with youth and win them to Christ, a church needs at least a few adults – the more, the better – who are committed to youth work. Ideally, these adults should have spiritual maturity, a heart for youth, a great deal of patience, a commitment of at least several years, and the ability to relate to youth. That’s a tall order! Younger adults often can relate well to youth but may lack spiritual maturity, whereas older adults may lack the patience required or be viewed by youth as “out of touch”.

A Brief Exchange with Shane Sooter
When I spoke with Shane Sooter, the founder of City on a Hill Productions in Louisville, Kentucky, about how churches can use media, our conversation turned to how to reach youth through media.

Bolinger: Back in the day, when I was a little younger and you were a little younger, often we would look to the youth. “Hey! We’re going to do a drama! We’re going to do a play!” Who do you get to do it? You get the youth, right? First of all, the youth are probably bored. But you’re going to have some talented youth who say, “Sure, I’ll get up and do that. I enjoy doing that.” You may have to strong-arm some of the others, but usually you can find enough who are talented and willing to do it, and they’d feel really good about it. On those rare occasions where you did it, the congregation was wowed because they got the Gospel presented in a completely different way. Everybody patted the youth on the back and then, a year later, you did it again.

Now, these kids are doing this all the time. At my kids’ school, they actually have video production classes that they can take. There are clubs in different schools and, a lot of times, even without any structure, kids are getting together and doing it themselves. One of my kids, my son, what did he want for Christmas last year? He wanted a green screen. What kid asks for a green screen?

Actually, my kid is not unique. These kids are everywhere these days, because this is their world. They are seeing this all the time. Their friends are producing videos. Why can’t I do that, too? Hey, I can do that on my iPad, or my iPod.

I think that this is something that churches can tap into. This is the way to bring more youth into the church. I’m not suggesting that they’re going to find Christ through video, but this is a common interest. Some of the younger folks in the church already enjoy this, and they are much more willing to invite their friends to make a video than to have a worship service.

I think this is something that can get momentum in a church and, as long as it’s given direction, the outcome of this can be used in worship services. It can be used in youth group. It can be used across the board. It can be put on the church’s website.

Sooter: And there are so many good things that does. It brings young people into the life of the church. It reminds the older generation of the value of youth. It empowers them and makes them feel like part of the life of the church rather than these loud people that we keep over in a separate room or a separate building.

I do think that the kids can use it as evangelism because there so many kids who are interested in that sort of thing. “Come to my church. We’re making a movie tonight.” That’s great. I agree totally.


In Part 2, we look at the impact of social media on teens and why church youth leaders should try to co-create media with teens.

Casting Our Cares on the Next Generation

Leading a university church puts me in an unusual situation, since few of my folks grew up in this congregation and few will stay. As I meet with young adults, many of them college students, one-on-one and hear their stories, it’s surprising how often their spiritual struggles stem from painful experiences at previous churches. I spend a surprising amount of time helping them imagine themselves in the church of the future.

It’s made me wonder: what stories will these young folks tell when they graduate and move on to other congregations? What will our congregation contribute to their spiritual story? Will they tell of ways we added to their burden or gave them wings?

Let me share with you a few of the stories I’m hearing:

  • Yesterday I met with a young man who is now estranged from his Christian family and friends because he confessed he had doubts and needed help figuring out how his faith relates to his life.
  • This week I met with a young woman who had been let go from a ministry because her personality wasn’t enough like the personality of the ministry’s founder.
  • Last week I met with a young couple whose church plant was suddenly defunded because their way of doing ministry in the inner city didn’t look exactly like the way the supporting church does ministry in the suburbs.
  • Two weeks ago I met with a young woman who has been excluded from her home church because she is asking questions about politics and wondering if there is only one way to vote as a follower of Jesus.

It’s good for us to acknowledge that we are in a time of upheaval, both in the broader culture and in the church. Those in their teens and twenties are wrestling with questions we never had to face at their age. How will we help them navigate this phase with their faith intact?

It may begin with a little soul-searching. What if we gathered our congregational leaders and took some time to talk through these questions?

  1. What has changed in the church and culture since we were in our teens and twenties?
  2. Are we anxious about the future? If so, how? How are we anxious about the future of our own congregation? Of the faith around the country or the world?
  3. How can we pray about those anxieties we’re feeling? Do we trust that ultimately the Lord is at work in the world, even in all the upheaval? How has he allowed the Gospel to go forward in times of upheaval in the past? What is his part in guiding his Church? What is the part he calls us to do? How can we partner with him in leading his Church through these changes?
  4. Is there any way that we burden our young folks with our anxieties about the future? Do we take it personally when their faith doesn’t look like ours?
  5. How can we create a safe place for them to wrestle and explore? How can we ask open-ended questions? For example, instead of giving tests of faith like “Do you believe (x doctrine)?” or “If you believe (x), then you can’t be a Christian”, ask questions like, “What is it like to be a Christian in your generation?” and “How can we be a support to you?”

The turning from childhood to adulthood is hard at any time. But when everything around you is also changing, it’s an even greater challenge. In times of great change young people need the older generation to be a stable, comforting presence in their lives. How can we be that for them for the sake of their own development and for the sake of the future church?

Hosting an Event that Improves Marriages…for $100

True or False?

  • I have people in my church who are married.
  • At least some of these people could work on making their marriages stronger.
  • At least some of these people are struggling in their marriages.
  • I am currently counseling or meeting with at least one couple who are having marital issues.

If you answered True to at least one of these questions, then you should consider hosting a marriage conference to help:

  • The people in your church who are married
  • The married friends and relatives of people in your church

Struggling couples will benefit greatly from this conference. But not all struggling couples want to admit that they are struggling. The good news is that you don’t have to position the event as something just for struggling couples, because all married couples will benefit from it. By calling the event a “marriage strengthening conference”, you’ll attract a wider audience, including folks who are struggling but don’t want to labelled as such.

In my last article, I mentioned that it is possible to host a first-class marriage event at your church for as little as $100. Here are the highlights of the event:

  • It runs on Friday evening and all day Saturday
  • It offers proven, world-class instruction and exercises that will strengthen the marriages of all who attend
  • No one at your church has to do any of the teaching

It’s an Art of Marriage event, with all of the instruction on video through FamilyLife. By purchasing the video leader kit for $99 – or even borrowing it if you know someone who already has it – your church can host a marriage conference that everyone who attends will love and will be talking about for months and years to come!

There are a total of six sessions, where dozens of top-notch speakers present the Biblical principles of marriage. It is engaging, comical, and challenging, all at the same time. During the course of the weekend, couples also complete three projects. No other marriage resource enables you to host such a high-quality marriage event so easily and for such a small cost.

But wait…there’s more! I am also one of 14 trained ministry advisors who works for FamilyLife, and I would love to come alongside of you to offer free coaching, encouragement, and prayer, as you plan and facilitate this event at your church.

Please feel free to reach out (via the contact page) so we can connect and talk more. I would love to help you to be the next small church that makes a big impact on marriages in your church and community.

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.