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.

Karl Vaters 4: Being an Effective Small-Church Pastor

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Small churches that don’t change stay small.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Karl Vaters 3: Measuring Success in a Small Church

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

I said, “What do you mean by that?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Karl Vaters 2: Thinking Like a Small-Church Pastor

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Karl Vaters 1: Big Churches vs. Small Churches

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

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


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

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

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

Vaters: A little over half an hour.

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

Vaters: Maybe a couple hundred.

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

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

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

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

Vaters: Virtually every megachurch has satellite campuses.

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

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

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

Vaters: I think that there are three primary reasons.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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