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.
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 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.