Everything You Know About Small Churches Is Wrong

wrong wayOK, maybe not everything you know about Small Churches is wrong. But there’s probably no aspect of the body of Christ that is more misunderstood and under-utilized than Small Churches.

Small Church myths have become so commonplace that most church leaders believe them, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. I know, because I believed them for years, too.

But 90% of churches are under 200 people.

Ponder the implications of that. If any other organization or business was misunderstanding and under-utilizing the nature, value and structure of 9 out of 10 of their outlets, it would be considered a massive emergency.

But much of the church barely notices. And many who notice it, don’t seem to be bothered by it.

Well, I’m bothered by it. And if the comments I’m receiving on this blog and in private conversations are any indication, there’s a growing number of ministers who are becoming bothered by it as well.


The Myths We Believe

So what exactly have we gotten wrong about Small Churches?

For today’s post, I’ve tried to narrow these myths down to a handful of biggies. 

I’ve written about all of them in The Grasshopper Myth and in various blog posts, but I’ve never put them together in one place until now.

So consider these myths an introduction to each issue. I’ve made some short comments, then added links to my previous writings on each subject. These links outline the issue in more detail. Most of them offer some starter solutions too.

This is not a definitive list. If you have any to add, please drop me a line in the comment section.


Myth #1: If a church is healthy, it will grow

Which means, if it’s not growing… you can fill in the rest.

This is unquestionably the most commonly repeated and widely believed myth about Small Churches.

I get it. All healthy things should grow, right?

Yes, they should. But, as I wrote in what may be my most-quoted passage from The Grasshopper Myth,

Yes, all healthy things grow. But growth is never as simple as older equals taller or healthy equals bigger. A pea will never be the size of a pumpkin and a rose won’t ever reach the height of a redwood no matter how much you water them, fertilize them or teach them redwood growth principles. It’s just not in their nature. All healthy, living things reach their optimal size at maturity, then they grow in different ways from that point on.

What if that principle applied to churches? I have come to believe it does. If the church is one body with many parts, isn’t it possible, even likely, that the body of Christ needs churches of all sizes?

I am not a failure if my church reaches its optimal stage of maturity, then starts growing in ways other than butts in seats for weekend services.

– from Chapter 1 – Hi, I’m Karl and I’m a Small Church Pastor
(Click here to read the first half of chapter 1 for free)

Plus, the evidence refuses to back it up. There are millions (literally millions!) of healthy Small Churches all over the world whose numbers don’t increase from year to year.


Myth #2: If a church isn’t growing, the leadership must be doing something wrong

If myth #1 is the most repeated misunderstanding about Small Churches, this myth causes the most damage to hard-working, Godly, faithful leaders.

Small Church pastors have heard what’s wrong with us from conferences, books and blogs. We want to make our churches better, so we go home and try to fix what we’ve been told is wrong, only to find that most of it doesn’t work for us.

This makes us feel like even bigger failures. It’s a never-ending cycle of failure and shame.

But there are a lot of reasons churches don’t grow numerically that have nothing to do with bad leadership.


Myth #3: Church growth will happen if we follow the right steps

Yes, we should always be striving to do church better. That’s a primary principle of this website.

But there are no church growth guarantees. What worked for one church won’t work the same for yours. God doesn’t sell franchises.


Myth #4: Churches will get better if we teach them how to grow

No, no, a thousand times NO!

Churches don’t get better by teaching them how to grow. Churches get better by teaching them how to become healthy. Sometimes that health will result in numerical growth. Sometimes it will not.

Teaching a small, unhealthy church how to grow will only result in a big unhealthy church. Churches need to be taught how to get healthy before we’re taught how to get big.

A world filled with healthy Small Churches is better than a world filled with unhealthy big ones.


Myth #5: Small Churches need to think like big churches

This is the myth that nearly killed me and my church. As I outline in The Grasshopper Myth, trying to think and act like a big church distanced me from my congregation and from my own gifting. I almost lost my church and my entire ministry because of it.

Small Churches need to act like healthy Small Churches. And unhealthy churches – of any size – need to work on health before working on growth.


Myth #6: Small Churches learn best from bigger churches

Sure, there are valuable lessons small churches can learn from big churches. But there many aspects of Small Church ministry that are unique to Small Churches.

Healthy Small Churches have as much to teach each other as the big guys have to teach us – probably more.

Sometimes, the best place for a Small Church pastor to learn what they need is from another Small Church pastor.


Myth #7: Small Churches stay small because they are stubborn and faithless

This is one of those “now you’re making me mad!” myths.

Are there stubborn and faithless Small Churches? Sure. But there are stubborn and faithless big ones, too. Size has nothing to do with it.

I’ve sat with so many faithful, hardworking Small Church pastors, both in America and in other countries. Many feel beaten down by pastors who have told them “you’d be bigger if you had more faith.”

I’ve seen their passion, their tears and their hard work on rocky soil. They don’t need our criticism. They need our support, our prayers and our thanks.


Myth #8: Small Churches are a problem to be fixed

What if Jesus doesn’t see Small Churches as part of the problem, but part of his plan? What if it’s been his idea all along to populate every corner of the globe with pockets of his followers – some large, most small – so that everywhere you go you find his people?

And what would happen if we realized this truth and got to work with Jesus on planting, supporting and multiplying healthy Small Churches, alongside our healthy big siblings?


So what do you think? Are there other myths we’ve believed abut Small Churches?

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

(Wrong Way photo by Dallas • Flickr • Creative Commons license)


12 thoughts on “Everything You Know About Small Churches Is Wrong”

  1. Karl, just when I thought I had read enough about small churches and why they are okay and not the Devil’s tools, you outdo yourself again! Good points. As pastors of not really large churches, we need to hear this over and over again. Small churches were okay back in the 50’s and 60’s, then along came the church growth movement and we’ve had a complex ever since, right? Thanks for hammering home a great message Pal!

  2. Again a masterpeice blog Karl. I would also add that it is portant that as small churches we do not become so ‘proud’ of our smallness that we neglect the commission we have all been called too. We are still called to reach our towns for Christ no matter the size.

  3. Karl, Thank You!!! Just found this blog today. I’m a small church pastor and absolutely love ministering in a small rural community…one reason small churches don’t “grow” is because there aren’t anymore people in the area to reach out to, so, we could “grow” more if we allowed cows and horses to be counted as members 🙂 Thanks for the encouragement!

  4. Rev. Janet Sims

    I consider a small church to be under 50 people – 200 would be amazing!! Our church has less than 20, half of whom are over 80 and even though we’re not growing leaps and bounds, we care about each other and try to do small things to help others. Our doors are open, we’re friendly and anyone is welcome. We have a Bible Study and a prayer meeting – we don’t feel we can do much more with our numbers and our ages…and we’re okay with that for now.

  5. Hey Karl I heard you on the 200Churches podcast and love your work here.

    Like you I’m not a fan of the “if it’s healthy it will grow” philosophy. I prefer to think if it’s healthy it will reproduce, for instance in new disciples and church plants and so on.

    Keep up the good work!

  6. Silvestre Romero

    Thanks for sharing your insight! I pastor a small church in the Houston area and I have heard it said so many times and I know it hurts pastors to hear over and over again that there has to be problems in the church if it does not grow to over 100. I have never believed this and I appreciate how you have articulated this! Thanks

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