9 No-Fault, No-Excuse Reasons Many Healthy Churches Stay Small

Fault line sign“What am I doing wrong?!”

How many Small Church pastors constantly torture themselves with that question?

And it doesn’t help that someone’s always writing another list to tell us about the mistakes and sins we must be committing that are keeping our church from the supposedly inevitable numerical growth we’d see if we got our act together.

It’s not that we don’t want to make our churches better. And we certainly aren’t anti-growth. But the assumption that we must be making horrendous errors if our church is small has a way of taking a toll on our spiritual and emotional health after a while.

If you’re a faithful Small Church pastor I have some good news for you today. If you’ve read those lists and you don’t recognize yourself or your church in any of them, relax.

You’re probably not doing anything wrong!

OK, maybe not anything, of course. There are no perfect churches or pastors. But there’s no reason to believe that a healthy Small Church is making more mistakes than a healthy big church.

There are a lot of reasons why churches stay small that have nothing to do with the church or the pastor making mistakes. God has a purpose for Small Churches just as much as he has a purpose for big ones.

If you are lazy, spiritually dead or willfully disobedient you will find no justification for those behaviors or attitudes here. Being small is never an excuse for settling for less than God’s best.

So this is not a list of faults we need to fix or excuses to justify ourselves. As I’ve written in a previous post, Small Churches are not a problem, a virtue or an excuse. They just are. 


When They Play the Blame Game, Refuse to Suit Up

So why is your church still small?

To start with, you’re not alone. 90% of the churches in the world are under 200, while 80% are under 100. So the fact that your church is small is not evidence that you’re sinful, stupid, lazy, prayerless, unfriendly, disobedient, selfish or any other form of inadequacy.

You and your church are normal.

I refuse to buy in to the idea that up to 90% of my fellow servants in ministry are failures because their churches are small. I’ve met enough Small Church pastors to know that, no matter what others may say, Small Church pastors are some of the most hard-working, passionate, sacrificial, smart and prayerful people on earth.

If you’ve gone through all the “here’s what you’re doing wrong” lists and don’t see yourself or your church there, here’s an alternative. It’s my first list of no-fault, Small Church friendly, guilt-free reasons why your church may not be growing numerically.


Your Healthy Church May Be Staying Small Because…

1. You’re a shepherd, not a rancher

We all have different gifts. Not all pastors have the administrative gift-mix that is required to lead a church of 400 or 4,000. Few do, actually. And, as I describe in The Grasshopper Myth, I’ve discovered I don’t have that gift-mix either. If I have to spend more than a couple hours a week on financial and administrative decisions, my spirit starts to shrivel a little. And a pastor with a shriveled spirit is not a good pastor, no matter how big their church is.

If you’re a shepherd, be a great one and help your Small Church be a great church.


2. The world needs more great, healthy Small Churches

If we didn’t have healthy Small Churches, what would the alternative be? Is anyone proposing that we close them all down and only have churches above a prescribed number of attenders? If so, what would that number be?

Does anyone really believe that when Jesus said “I will build my church” what he had in mind was a world filled only with megachurches and cathedrals? No. I think Jesus foresaw something similar to what we have today (without all the petty territorialism and infighting, of course). A world filled with all churches of all sizes for all sorts of people.


3. Your congregation wants to be pastored by their pastor

Most healthy big churches work hard at growing bigger and smaller at the same time. They do the “grow smaller” part through small group ministry. But many people thrive better in their spiritual lives when they can be pastored by their pastor, not just a small group leader. They’re not wrong for needing that.

Pastors of larger churches need to delegate much or all of the personal pastoral care to under-shepherds – and it’s appropriate that they do so. But that isn’t for everyone.


4. Many unchurched people in your community won’t go to a big church

No one church can serve everyone. There are a lot of people who prefer a large church with all the amenities. But there is a large and (if recent trends on Millennials are any indication) growing segment of the population that distrusts the corporate vibe they feel on megachurch campuses.

They won’t go to a big church no matter how many trendy worship venues they offer. They prefer small, personal, even quirky.


5. Your church may be called to serve a niche segment of the population

There are biker churches, cowboy churches, recovery group churches, messianic churches, even churches for ex-strippers.

The people those churches are called to reach are such a small segment of the population that they are not likely to ever get big. But the people they’re reaching may never attend a church other than one that is designed for their peculiarities.


6. Community demographics

Not every community is suited for megachurches, or even large ones.

For instance, there are small towns all over the world where the population base won’t support growth past a certain size. The population of some communities is on a downward population slide. Some churches serve the community’s senior adult population, while others are serving a very transitional and fickle college population. Yes, there are big and megachurches in many of those communities, but smaller churches prevail.

If you take a look at where big- and megachurches predominate, you’ll see that they thrive in certain regions and types of communities, while they are rare or nonexistent in others.


7. Cultural realities

I have friends who pastor a church in Japan. They told me about a huge campaign put on by a well-meaning American denomination to build a large church building on a hill at the edge of a Japanese city.

The big, beautiful church building has been vacant since it was built. Why? It doesn’t fit the Japanese culture.

When a Japanese person becomes a follower of Jesus, it is sometimes seen as shaming to their family and culture. Going to a large church building makes it worse because it is considered an ostentatious assault on the subtleties of their culture.

Japanese Christians need to be humble and small in the expression of their faith in order for it to be respected and considered valid by their culture.

There are many cultures around the world where bigness has similar problems.  We need to honor those realities. But Small Churches work everywhere.


8. Some churches are sending churches

Many churches see themselves, not as a bowl where people collect, but as a pipeline through which people pass. They bring them in, train them and send them out.


9. God might have a plan for your church that can only be fulfilled by being small and healthy

Oh yeah, that whole “will of God” thing. We sometimes forget that while making our own plans, don’t we?


That’s all for now. Something tells me I’ll be writing another post in the future with another pile of reasons I haven’t thought of yet. I could use your help. If you know any, I’d love to hear your ideas, too.


So what do you think? Do you have any other guilt-free, no-fault reasons some churches stay small?

We want to hear from you. Yes, you!
Enter your comment right below this post and get in on the conversation.

(The Fault Line photo from Hitchster • Flickr • Creative Commons)

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

15 thoughts on “9 No-Fault, No-Excuse Reasons Many Healthy Churches Stay Small”

  1. Hey Karl another great post. We/I relate most to 1-3-5-8. I am most blessed by number eight. Our congregation of under 100 in average attendance gave close to $90,000 to missions last year. 41% of our entire budget goes towards missions.

    We also are very much a niche congregation. I think most niche congregations will be limited in the size of their growth because of the niche. We are a seniors congregation and 10% of my congregation either dies or moves into convalescent every year.

    Imagine a mega church of 10,000 losing 10% of their congregation every year to death? I doubt they could even keep up with a thousand funerals a year.

    One really cool aspect of our congregation is this is the last church most of our people will ever attend. Our sending strategy is not releasing people to another ministry, it’s releasing them to heaven.

    And, it is hard work, compassion work, and in many ways agonizing yet full of joy.

  2. Karl,

    Under number 3 you have the phrase… “isn’t for everyone”. We too often have an either/or mentality. Either my church grows or it…(insert anything synonymous with FAIL here!). Big church/smallchurch/megachurch/house church isn’t for everybody. They are ALL NEEDED! I like what you often say Karl – just be the best and healthiest small church you can be.

    Do we needed supremely gifted men who can juggle ten balls at once and pastor a megachurch? Absolutely. But do we need a lot more pastors to care for, shepherd, train, teach, and love people one on one in so many more small churches? Yes! Much more so. 94% of all churches in America are under 500 people!

    Jeff Keady

    1. One of the most freeing things I ever did in ministry was to realize my church can’t please everyone – or even most people. Shoot, it can’t even please most Christians. But the people who do buy into what we’re doing, really love it – and love telling their friends about it.

      Like you said, that’s why we need everyone at their best – big, small and everything in between.

  3. I have to question the statement: “But many people thrive better in their spiritual lives when they can be pastored by their pastor, not just a small group leader. They’re not wrong for needing that.” In the American church there is a vast chasm of understanding about what the task of a pastor is in a church anyway. The role is often more chaplain. What do we mean by the terms pastor, leader, etc.? Are they mere enablers, cruise ship activity directors, hand holders or is the task more than that? Why should not a group leader, acting in the gifts and graces given by God, be just as capable of helping that individual in a small group? Just how intimately involved in the details of life should a pastor be? Can we support these definitions through scripture? Is every pastor supposed to have the exact same skill set, cookie cutter people who visit, hold hands and deliver a homily once or twice a week? Are they supposed to plan programs, build the congregation, evangelize, and administrate the church? What is expected and why? Heavy questions. Pastors do not build churches they teach and preach to provide the guideposts by which the Christian replicates and reproduces disciples of Jesus Christ. Small churches may also be small because they are expecting the pastor to do all the disciple making rather than going out and doing their part of the task. It is more important the pastor go and visit people and hold hands than assertively press the members into disciple making people.

    1. I don’t disagree with any of your statements, Marilyn. Small group leaders are certainly capable of providing help for people in their group. That’s why we have them and why they’re so important. And no, pastors are not supposed to be “enablers, cruise ship activity directors, hand holders”, etc. And pastors do not build churches, Jesus does that.

      And yes, there are way too many churches that should be growing, but aren’t because the pastor is doing too much and the congregation is doing too little. Disciple-making is the #1 task of the pastor, I believe.

      But, while some people prefer to be discipled in a larger church with multiple programs and levels of leadership, some people grow stronger in their faith in a smaller setting where they can have more direct access to the pastor. That’s what Jesus did with the 12 disciples. Yes, he had crowds follow him, but his primary time was invested with a smaller group. Many healthy smaller churches operate in a surprisingly similar way to that.

      Big churches and small churches each have something to add to the body of Christ. Some people thrive better in big ones, some in smaller ones. Neither one is wrong.

      1. Wow Karl! Great answer. That’s the old either/or versus both/and conundrum. We get into trouble when we try to address a “both/and” situation with an “either/or” solution. You said neither one is wrong, which also mean, “both are right.” This is how we open our thinking and broaden our understanding of life, relationships, situations, problems looking for solutions, etc.

  4. I am a layman, retired, who has stepped in to work in tandem with a dedicated youth pastor to lead a small congregation through the trauma of messy church split. Our fellowship consists of a hundred or so people who are discovering they can BE The Church. We’re mostly young families with children, and a generous sprinkling of middle-agers & seniors.

    We began with, “Forget the box… Think outside the church!” In a year’s time we have moved from being consumers of the good and services of the church to being outward thinking “Gospelers.” Our gathering on Sunday morning is to share what Jesus is doing through our people, encourage each other, and fuel up for another week of Gospeling. If our sharing time takes up the entire worship service that’s OK. Our excited, happy folks hang around long after worship time enjoying one another and making plans for the week ahead.

    Our congregation is excited about the new ways the Holy Spirit has been leading them. We are enabling and empowering men and women, to lead all the ministries of the church. They’re free to discard what isn’t working and create new ones based on the needs of our town. This fellowship is effectively reaching into the unchurched community, with laypeople determining the direction, form and method of ministry. Layperson designed ministries look different, and can be real messy, but their custom shape fit effectively into the unique needs of our community. Best of all, people are finding Jesus.

    We will never be a large church, the entire population of our town runs around 3,000 souls, and we have no shortage of churches. This is farm country made up of long time, close knit, family units, with long standing traditions. What we are doing goes completely against the norm, but Praying People in “YES Mode” with Jesus, are yielding themselves to the Holy Spirit and Great Things are happening.

    Our prayer is to find a pastor who will be a team player, not an administrator, a cheer leader, an enabler, who wants to come along side a congregation and help them reach their world for Christ. I thank you for the encouragement, ideas, and insights your site has given to our fellowship!

    Make it a Great Day

  5. I have a new number to add to this list. For Pentecostal churches moving in the spirit (Spiritual gifts in the service) it seems to be a lot easier to do that in a small church than a large church or especially a mega church.

  6. Great post and good points. I’m reading for an upcoming D.Min seminar and it is very depressing for a lifetime small church pastor.

    What occurs to me repeatedly is the fact that the church is the believers, not the organization of believers into groups. We are focused on the size of the local churches because that is obvious and easy to measure. But the real question is what is going on in the lives of the believers, regardless of the size of the church they are attending. I think every pastor should be asking more about the spiritual health of his people than about the number of people attending.


    1. You make a great point, David. It’s tough to say that the size of the institution matters until you first prove that the institutional, organizational church was in any way what Jesus had in mind. And that’s a hard argument to make.

      I know it’s not always easy for a Small Church pastor to study these issues, given the church growth mindset that predominates, but I pray that you’ll stay encouraged.

  7. My question is this…If a small church is healthy than it must be reaching lost people, because that is our primary call! So if they are never growing than they aren’t healthy. And that isn’t to say that the pastor isn’t doing his job, it simply means (in my opinion) that the people are refusing to change. I don’t think we can continue to dismiss the fact the in most small churches the people say they want to see lives changed but they won’t do anything to help the process.

    1. That’s sometimes the case, Paul, but not always. And I get where you’re coming from, because I used to feel the same way.

      But I’ve discovered that it’s incorrect to assume that a church which isn’t growing numerically is refusing to change. It’s also inaccurate that every church which is reaching lost people will get bigger.

      Evangelism and discipleship will result in new members in THE church, but it doesn’t always equate to new members in that specific congregation.

      Some churches are in areas where the population is very transient (like a college town). Some are in senior communities where they have to grow by 20% annually just to replace the members that are dying. Some churches train people and send them out as quickly as they come in. Some are in communities where the soil is very rocky and conversions are rare. Some are in places where the church is illegal and congregations must remain small to stay hidden. Some grow by multiplying small congregations instead of growing bigger ones. Some speak into other congregations and bless the church that way more than for themselves. The list goes on. As one influential pastor said, “my fruit grows on other trees”.

      I’ve written on this extensively. Here’s a link to two posts that might give you some further insight on this question.


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *