Bringing Innovation to an Established Small Church

Bringing Innovation to an Established Small ChurchWhy bother trying to resurrect an old, dying church?

I’ve heard that question a lot.

There was a time when it seemed like every pastor I went to Bible College with was pastoring a dynamic, growing church, but me.

They followed church growth principles and started new churches. In a few years they were buying new land to accommodate the growing crowds.

But I was sitting in a pre-existing Small Church, nurturing it along through the beginning, challenging stages of a turnaround. It’s a hard, long road from dying, introverted and tired, to healthy, outward-looking and innovative.

My friends in ministry saw my struggle and gave me two pieces of advice more often than any other:

1. Plant your own church.

2. Start all over. Read the church the riot act, tear the old structure apart and say buh-bye to anyone who won’t get on board.

I chose a third path:

3. Work with the current church to rediscover a new vision together.

It was probably the hardest route to take, but for me and the church it has been the most rewarding.

Let’s start by answering the question that was asked of me.


Why Bother?

Why do we even try to resurrect a dead or dying congregation? Why not just start fresh? After all, as my friends liked to tell me, it’s easier to have a baby than to raise the dead.

My answer, to quote Butterfly McQueen in Gone With the Wind was, “I don’t know nothin’ ‘bout birthin’ no babies.”

  • Some are called to plant new churches
  • Some are called to strengthen healthy, existing churches
  • Some are called to resurrect dead or dying churches

You have to go where your calling takes you.

For those whose calling has taken them along a similar path to mine, let me offer a couple starter principles that have served me well in what is now a successful and long-term transition to a healthy and innovative church.

This isn’t even close to comprehensive. Don’t worry, we’ll come back to this subject again.


We Are Stewards, Not Owners

There are few more important principles for pastors than this one. Especially if you’re coming to an existing Small Church.

Rick Warren’s book, The Purpose Driven Life, starts with the words “It’s not about you.” Pastors could learn a similar lesson about ministry.

It’s not your church.

It belongs first to Jesus, then to the people. They were here before you and they’ll be here long after you’re gone. Especially if you’ve done your job well.

We need to listen to what they have to say. Hear their heart. Understand their fears. Earn their trust.

Turnaround in an existing Small Church is a multi-year process. You need to settle in for the long haul. If you can’t do that, your calling may be somewhere else.

In my previous church, I had a short stay. The problems were deep and most of the people were resistant to change. I realized that a turnaround would take five years or more to take root, and at least another five to bear fruit. When I considered what those years would cost me and my young family, I decided it wasn’t worth it, and I left for another calling.

It wasn’t my church to change.

But even in my current pastorate of 20-plus years, where things are working well, the rule is the same. It’s not my church.


Give Them Time to Adapt – Just Like God Gave You

God doesn’t just speak to pastors.

If we really believe in the New Testament teaching of the priesthood of all believers, then we have to put it into practice by giving people a chance to hear from God on their own, and listening to them as they try to express it. One of the ways I’ve found to do that is to give God time to speak to the church, just like he took time to speak a new idea to me.

Think about it. How many exciting, innovative, church-changing ideas did you hear once and jump right into, ready for immediate change?

Maybe a few.

Now, how many good ideas came that way? Even fewer, right? Maybe none?

Good ideas take time. Big ideas take a lot of time. They need to simmer in our hearts and spirits before we’re ready for them.

It’s not fair or helpful to present an idea that’s been simmering in your spirit for years and expect a leadership team or a congregation to be ready to jump in with both feet after a 20-minute Powerpoint presentation. No matter how cool your graphics are.

Giving people a chance to get on board takes time. But the long-term benefits are worth the wait.

(In case you’re wondering, no I do not wait for consensus. There will always be a few people who resist all change no matter how long you give them. That’s a subject for another day.)


Make Decisions the Next Pastor Will Thank You For

We do not own the position of pastor at a church. It’s like a coat we are privileged to wear for a while. It doesn’t belong to us any more than the church does. We need to respect it, care for it and leave it better than we found it for the next person who will wear it.

The decisions we make can’t just be about what we like, or even about what God is calling us to do. We need to constantly ask ourselves if the decisions we’re making are leading to something that the next leader of the church will be grateful for, or will be frustrated by.

Lay a foundation. Teach eternal principles. Promote health. Don’t put the next pastor through the same problems you’ve had to endure.

That’s my long-term goal. Five, ten, twenty or more years after I’m gone, I want the leaders of the church to say “I’m thankful to God that Karl Vaters was here” – even if they have no idea who Karl Vaters is.


So what do you think? Are you in it for the long haul?

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(Renovation ladder photo from kvanhorn • Flickr • Creative Commons license)

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5 thoughts on “Bringing Innovation to an Established Small Church”

  1. Great post. I believe if you spend some time to find out where the hearts of the people are you can determine whether change is possible. I have seen too many young Pastors rush in and think they can change it right away and wind up with an empty building while blaming the people for it. There are small/rural churches that can and some that can’t. It takes above all trust in the Pastor and leadership and that will take time to establish.

    1. Thanks for the response, Jesse. The people of the church ARE the church. Too many of us forget that.


  2. Titus Noinyane, of South Africa, starting and struggling to raise up a small church for a better number was my most concern but your pastorate and spiritual discernment has tremendously encouraged my calling to the very people I pastored for almost ten years, with a small improvement. blessings to your godly inspiring leadership

  3. Robert Van House

    One thought about preparing the way for the next pastor: I have a “successor file” that I leave when I go some place else. In it, I try to give my views of the members, their strengths and weaknesses. Some common place things need to be passed on by the pastor, such as who has keys to the property, where the supplies are stored, who is in charge of replentishing supplies, what renovations have taken place and what still needs attention. Before computers, I would leave hard copies in the desk drawer. Now I can add additional and hopefully helpful items as the time goes on.

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