Helping Your Small Church Embrace Positive Changes

To strengthen or revitalize a church, you often have to change how that church does certain things. Changes involve the adoption and implementation of new ideas. Ideas for potential changes in a church can come from anywhere: the pastor, a member of the church’s board or council, a long-time attendee, or even a first-time visitor.

Regardless of its source or its apparent merits, every new idea will be met with some resistance. That’s because most people, in general, are resistant to change. An idea will need a champion who can persuade the majority of the congregation that the church should support the new idea and the changes that it entails. The church’s governing body can and should endorse the initiative, but the champion must be an individual. It does not have to be the pastor, but often it is.

The job of the champion is to persuade the majority of the church members to support the idea and its implementation in the church. The challenge is to convert resistors – those who resist the idea, at least initially – to adopters.

The Adoption Bell Curve
Not everyone in your church will respond in the same way to a new idea. The response of an individual member of your church will fall into one of five categories, and can be visualized with the following bell curve:

Let’s look at the five categories of respondents:

  • These are the dreamers and visionaries in your church. They regularly talk about the future of the church rather than the past but are not generally acknowledged as leaders or policy makers. Many have the spiritual gift of faith (I Cor. 12:9).
  • Early Adopters. These members know a good idea when they see it. Their opinions are generally respected by others, and they are influential in moving the church forward in new directions. They often receive credit for ideas that really were not theirs. Many have the spiritual gift of wisdom (I Cor. 12:8).
  • Middle Adopters. These represent the majority of your congregation. They tend to react to the ideas of others rather than generate their own. While these people generally are reasonable in their analysis of a new idea, they are more inclined toward maintaining the status quo and more easily influenced by those opposing change than those supporting it.
  • Late Adopters. These are the last in a church to endorse a new idea. In congregational and committee meetings, these people often speak against and vote against proposed changes and new ideas. They may never verbally acknowledge acceptance of a new idea, but they will eventually go along if the majority agrees to support it.
  • Never Adopters. New ideas are seldom, if ever, accepted by this group. Their commitment is to the status quo or the past. They often sow discord after change is adopted, and they eventually will leave if they don’t get a following.

Implications of the Bell Curve
Based on the above bell curve, here are several things to remember when you introduce a new idea into your church:

  • Not everyone will be happy. Innovators are on a collision course with Never Adopters. Early Adopters are frustrated by the lack of vision of Late Adopters, and Middle Adopters may encourage this disagreement to buy time for an adequate consideration of both sides.
  • You should encourage discussion. Shortly after a new idea is introduced, you should allow the expression of differing opinions. If people are not allowed to express their opinions early, then you can be assured that they will express them later, at a less appropriate time
  • Some members will leave. Don’t think that avoiding controversy or even managing it will avoid the loss of disenchanted members. David DeSelm, in the video A Church for the 21st Century, observes that “you’re going to lose people even if you don’t change.” He’s right. If you introduce change, some folks from the right side of the bell curve will leave. If you don’t, some visionaries from the left side will leave. The question is: which dissatisfied members would you rather lose, the Never Adopters or the Innovators? If it is any consolation, neither group will drop out of church life when they leave your congregation. The visionaries go to more innovative churches, the stalwarts to more traditional ones. The question is, who would you rather keep?
  • The battle is for the Middle Adopters. You won’t need to work very hard (if at all) to convince your Innovators and Early Adopters of the value of the new idea, assuming it’s a good one. The Late Adopters will not be convinced before the new idea actually becomes successful. But if you can convince the majority of Middle Adopters to support the initiative, then you are on your way.
  • Middle Adopters are more easily swayed by Late Adopters than Early Adopters. Most Middle Adopters, while good and reasonable people, prefer the known to the unknown; the present certainty to the future’s uncertainty. This does not mean Middle Adopters are closed to reason, or cannot catch the excitement of a new vision. They’re just normal people, with normal fears of the unknown. As Aubrey Malphurs observes, the majority of these people “… tend to vote for the status quo unless they are given a good reason to change, or are assured that change will not result in a loss of quality. (Pouring New Wine Into Old Wineskins; Baker Books)

Facing the Challenge
The last two points are your challenge:

  • You need to win the majority of Middle Adopters.
  • These folks are more inclined to stay with the status quo than to embrace change.

So how do you win them over? You must make your Early Adopters more persuasive than your Late Adopters. Generally, Early Adopters are well respected in the church. The words are given serious consideration and their leadership often is followed. Here is the approach that I recommend:

  1. Make a list of your Early Adopters.
  2. Solicit their active support.
  3. Ask them to endorse the new idea not just in formal meetings but also, more importantly, in informal discussions. Explain that it is often conversations in the halls and on the telephone that influence other members (especially Middle Adopters) more than anything else.
  4. Make it clear that their support may make the difference between success and failure.

A new idea will not be adopted automatically on its merits. To maximize your chances for success with vital changes in your church, enlist the active support of your Early Adopters to counter the natural resistance that many of your members have to change.

Are Your Church Facilities an Obstacle to Growth?

Check out the interior of national chain stores (grocery, pharmacy, clothing, restaurants, etc.) in your community. On average, retail businesses remodel their facilities every 4-7 years, and with good reason. There’s something about “new”. New additives to toothpaste. New vitamin potency in cereal. New styles in cars. New versions of software. “New” attracts. By contrast, most churches renovate their facilities every 25-40 years; some go even longer without a significant makeover.

Facilities can have an effect on a church’s corporate self-esteem. The effect is similar to the way your house or apartment subtly influences your own self-esteem. If you live with junk in the backyard, unwashed dishes in the sink, dirty clothes on the floor, rooms in need of paint, etc., then these things affect your self-image, whether you know it or not.

The design and architecture of your church actually has a more important influence on your visitors than it does on your regular attendees. Why? The longer a person attends your church, the less he/she is able to see the building through the eyes of a newcomer. Long-time attendees don’t notice the rain marks in the ceiling, the chipped paint on the wall, the hole in the carpet. And, for long-time attendees, those things don’t really matter, anyway, because they are coming for the people, the relationships, the fellowship, the spiritual growth…not the facilities.

How visitors feel about your church, however, will be influenced heavily by their first impressions. As the old saying goes, you don’t have a second chance to make a good first impression. And one of the first impressions visitors have of your church is its building; first the outside, then the inside. Visitors don’t need to be professional architects to sense that the ceiling is too low, the halls too narrow, the windows outdated, or the color schemes from a different generation. Marshal McLuhan once said, “the medium is the message.” Your building is the medium. If the medium is outdated, the message will appear outdated.

Think of it this way: When your home is messy, do you want company dropping in unannounced? Probably not. When you are expecting guests, you probably pick up your clothes, clean the kitchen, and put on your home’s best face. Why not have the same attitude about your church facility and the guests who are coming to visit God’s house?

While nice facilities won’t cause your church to grow, poor facilities can prevent it from growing. If your church building has not had a significant makeover in 15 years or more, then your building is probably a growth-restricting obstacle.

Seeing through an Outsider’s Eyes

An outsider’s perspective is quite valuable. Invite a friend or neighbor who has never been on your church campus to walk through the facility with you. The “visit” need not be on Sunday. First, drive by and around the church. Then park and walk toward, and eventually into, the building. Ask the person(s) to “free-flow” about their impressions, sharing what catches their attention, what they like, what they don’t like, what they aren’t sure about. Either take notes or use a recorder to document their comments. Tell them not to worry about hurt feelings—you want their honest first impressions.

Conduct this exercise at least three times with three different people. That way you won’t put all your “eggs” into one person’s “basket”. See if different people notice the same things. Finally, compile your notes into categories and review them. You don’t need to make every suggested change. But you do need to know how visitors and newcomers see your facilities.

A Christian architect recently told me that, the more an interior of a church (i.e., decor, restrooms, lights, paint, doors, classrooms) looks like the facilities people are in during the week, the more likely the facility will present a positive first impression. Conversely, the more out-of-date that facilities appear, the more negative are their first impressions. When a visitor enters a church building that is 50+ years old—and it looks it—he/she is subconsciously wondering: Is the message of this church as outdated as its building?

A Helpful Checklist

Here’s a starting checklist to evaluate your facilities. Grade each item on a 1-7 scale 
(1 = “poor”, 7 = “excellent”). Perhaps have different people share in this exercise and then compare notes; it’s a great conversation starter!


  • Ease in finding the location
  • First impressions from the outside
  • First impressions of the inside upon entering
  • Impressions after walking around


  • Appearance
  • Adequacy of spaces
  • Proximity to entrance


  • Directions from parking area to appropriate building entrance
  • Where to get information
  • Directions to the sanctuary/worship center
  • Directions to the restrooms
  • Directions to the nursery


  • First impressions upon entering
  • Confidence in security
  • Confidence in nursery staff
  • Impressions upon leaving nursery


  • First impressions upon entering
  • Adequate furniture for age level
  • Room décor

Sanctuary/Worship Center

  • First impressions upon entering
  • Visibility of platform
  • Sound/acoustics
  • Ease in finding a seat
  • Seat comfort
  • Lighting


  • First impressions upon entering
  • Adequate number to accommodate everyone in 15 minutes
  • Cleanliness

The story of the paraplegic who was brought to Jesus (see Mark 2:1-5) presents us with several pointed questions: “Are our facilities keeping people from Jesus?” And, if so, “Are we willing to tear up our roof (and, perhaps other parts of our building) in order to let them be healed?”

Teaching Our Community to Care for Us

Ten years as an at-home mom prepared me in surprising ways to be a lead pastor. In both situations, I’ve learned that:

  • You’re part of the community but also responsible for building the community.
  • Most of the work you do is noticed only if it’s not done
    • At home, people expect dinner to appear on the table and socks to appear in their drawers.
    • At church, they expect the bulletin to be filled with important events and for a sermon to appear every Sunday morning.
  • You will have moments of resentment, and resentment is a sign that you need to share your heart.

It would be natural for my children to feel entitled, and for me to feel resentment, if I were treated as a full-time servant. One day, I decided that everyone would benefit if my kids learned to appreciate what I do for them. And so we have taught our children to say “thank you” not just because it’s nice to be thanked but also because it’s good for them to learn gratefulness.

In other words, if I were to put up with their entitlement for the 18 years they’re with me, I would end up with a lot of resentment in my own heart, and they would leave home as something less than whole and happy adults.

Now, of course, parishioners aren’t children, so I don’t want to overdo the metaphor. Still, it is important for parishioners to be grateful for their church and for their pastor. The responsibility for teaching them this often falls to the pastor when the church is small, there is little denominational oversight of these things, the congregation is young, or the community is very transitional. In my case, all four are true.

Let me share how I’m learning to navigate this.

Last year, I noticed I’d been on staff seven years and was due a sabbatical. We, like most smaller churches, don’t have a head of HR who keeps track of such things. I’m the closest thing we have to head of HR, and for any other member of staff I would say, “Time for a sabbatical!” But no one remembered this for me, so a part of me felt a little resentful.

I decided, as the head of HR, to inform everyone that the Lead Pastor was due a sabbatical. I did so partly because I believe that it’s good for a church if their Lead Pastor takes a sabbatical. In my submission to the good of the church, I raised the issue. Of course, they were happy to let me go. And the sabbatical was good both for me and the church.

I’m also navigating these questions this Christmas. The folks in my congregation are incredibly positive and encouraging. (If they weren’t, then I guess I would need to consider how to pastor them toward that.) Because we are by a university, many of them are young and always coming and going, so each Christmas it’s a different set of faces. As a result, those of us on staff don’t receive many Christmas cards or gifts.

It is important to note the following:

  • We don’t care about being lavished with expensive presents, but a heartfelt recognition of any way we have served folks is always meaningful.
  • Ultimately we find our affirmation in the Lord, but there are also healthy ways the Lord shows his affirmation through his people.
  • This is not about being treated in a special way – because pastors feel that they are above their people or lords to be spoiled – but about being part of the community.

In a very awkward moment, I raised with our elders that:

  • It’s good for the community to take a moment at Christmastime to celebrate good things.
  • It’s good also to remember the things that can be invisible, like a vibrant church community.
  • It’s my job to help them do that, even if it means teaching them to thank me.

In the past, the elders designated a member of the board to buy each staff member a gift and to sign a card on behalf of the church. It was nice, but it didn’t involve the congregation. This year, the elders are seeing that, as spiritual leaders of the congregation, part of their role is to teach people to take care of the pastors, just as we take care of the people. The elders have taken on the challenge with gusto and it’s beautiful, even if uncomfortable.

If we’re honest, it feels good to imagine we don’t have any needs. It feels very spiritual to say, “I won’t ask anything from them. I’m here for them, not the other way around.” There are certainly ways that we can’t burden our congregations with our needs, but how are we helpful if we’re not human? Won’t we serve them best by (wisely) letting them see our needs? As someone who needs words of encouragement, it is okay to let my congregation know that, not for the sake of my own ego but so that I can keep investing day after day, year after year in this place.

The scriptural metaphor of the ox treading the grain makes me think that God is okay with this approach. We have committed ourselves to our congregations. We’re taught to be servants, to sacrifice for this work. If our good and the good of the church are interwoven, perhaps there are times when we need to take care of our own good for the sake of the church.

The worker for the church community is to live off the fruits of the church community. The fruits of the orchards we tend are not limited to financial gifts. We are nurturing warmth and appreciation, spiritual maturity, and gratitude. The Lord wants us to share in those fruits, too.

Holidays Are Splendid…Except When You’re Blended

“If you think your life is hectic during the holidays, you ought to try coordinating schedules, dinner plans, and Christmas gifts with the parents of three households – most of whom don’t care for each other very much.” That’s how stepmother Sheree explained holiday stress to a family member.

As pastors and leaders of churches, whether small or large, it is very important that we take into account those in our church and community who are in blended families. It’s important in every season, but in particular during the holiday season. Author and speaker Ron Deal from FamilyLife Blended says that as many as 40% of those in our local churches are in blended families. Sometimes it is because a spouse has passed away, but more often it is the result of a divorce – in many cases, a divorce that one party didn’t ask for or want.

40%. Let that sink in for a moment. If you have 100 people in your church, as many as 40 of them could be part of blended families. If there are 10,000 people in the community that surrounds your local church, several thousand of those likely are in the same situation. While most of us don’t like divorce and we teach that God’s plan for marriage is “until death do us part”, the reality of our world today is that it is broken. The result is blended families.

Consider the ideal Christmastime in America. We have time off work, so we slow down and enjoy time with family. We celebrate family traditions, attend a special church service, and then open gifts around the tree. On Christmas Day, we have a big meal around the table with the whole family, perhaps including extended family members.

For most of us, the reality of Christmas is far from the ideal. Christmas is stressful and filled with too many obligations. And that’s without the complications of a blended family.

At Christmas and other holidays, children in blended families have to repeat the “family” process several times with different sets of parents, step-parents, grandparents, and step-grandparents. And divorced parents often celebrate a holiday, or at least part of it, at home alone because the other parent has the kids. Not so splendid, huh?

During the holidays, we should be sensitive to the needs and stress levels of those in our church and community who are parts of blended families. When planning holiday events and preparing and presenting holiday-related sermons, we should remember the added dynamics of these families.

In fact, we should do this not just around Thanksgiving, or Christmas, or Easter, but year-round. The challenges that blended families face are 365 days a year. I hope that you will consider starting a blended family ministry in your church and/or community to offer support and hope to these families in the coming year. FamilyLife and Ron Deal have developed a great set of resources called “Smart Stepfamily” that, among other things, contains a small group video study that has eight sessions.

Feel free to connect with me (via the contact page) so we can talk more about how to provide help and encouragement to those in your church and community who are part of a blended family.

Music for a High School Choir

Recently I shared the story of our Celebration Singers, the singing group that came to be because three singers asked for it.  Here is a list of 15 songs they’ve especially enjoyed:


Title Composer Publisher/# Voices
Come to the Manger Van Wormer Kjos 5877 SATB
Gloria! (recording) Stephens Alfred SVM01077 SATB
Hodie Christus Natus Est Bedford Choristers Guild CGA-490 SATB
Hodie Christus Natus Est Bedford Choristers Guild CGA-421 2 parts
Hodie Alleluia Lightfoot Heritage 15/1164 SATB

Lent/Holy Week

Title Composer Publisher/# Voices
In Remembrance (rec) Red/Larson Hope C5565 SATB


Title Composer Publisher/# Voices
Let There Be Peace on Earth Miller/Jackson, Ades Shawnee Press A0626 SATB
Shout to the Lord (rec) Zschech/Hayes Alfred 19952 SATB
Shout to the Lord Zschech/Hayes Alfred 19953 SAB
A Gospel Alleluia (rec) Gilpin Brilee Music BL439 3 parts
Weave Me, Lord Spencer Glory Sound A6332 SATB
Be Not Afraid (rec) Courtney Beckenhorst BP1388 SATB
Lean on Me Mathena/Kee Brentwood OT1003 (out of print) SATB
Psalm 139 Pote Choristers Guild CGA610 SATB
Shall We Gather at the River Lowry/Coates Glory Sound A6545 SATB


Happy singing! — Charles R. Snyder


When I was in college and seminary, I paid my tuition by working in construction. Many of the projects we worked on involved tearing down something old and replacing it with something new. The idea was to retain the integrity and charm of the original room or building, while also making it more functional, beautiful, and inviting. Some people call that renovation!


In much the same way, there are many churches in need of missional renovation today. The old, tired, and worn out attitudes, strategies, and (in some cases) values need to be replaced by a new spirit of vitality, passion for the lost, and desire to connect with new, unreached people. The key to doing that is to retain the spirit and integrity of God’s people in mission without blowing the place up!

You can learn some very practical and proven ways to do that by joining me and 1,500 fellow church revitalizers at the annual RENOVATE National Church Revitalization Conference in the Orlando area November 1-3. The conference site is the Aloma Church at 1815 N. Semoran Blvd. in Winter Park, Florida.

Main speakers include Ed Stetzer, Bill Easum, Bob Whitesell, and Tom Cheney (the founder of the conference). There will be 70 church revitalization workshops with 35 nationally recognized speakers. For more information, go to

Here is your personal invitation from Tom Cheyney:

“We have this year a tremendous group of individuals that have a message that must be heard and are willing to partner together with us to raise the level of discussion and equipping in this vital area. With more than 340,000 churches averaging less than 100 in worship today and the American church in decline, the need for an annual event focused on Church Revitalization has never been greater! Our team consists of 49 brothers and sister in the Lord who will be sharing in these three intensive days of revitalization and renewal.

“We are praying for our speakers, praying for the churches in America in need of revitalization, and we are praying for our Lord God to do a great miracle in these churches as we gather together for RENOVATE 2016!”

I will be leading two breakout sessions on how to Open Doors to Your Community. If I don’t see you in one of those sessions or on the conference floor, please stop by and see me at my booth in the Exhibit Hall.

I hope to see you in Orlando!


 “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock.” (Matthew 7:24)

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 – 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?”


“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 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; it appears at 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 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 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.