Grow It or Close It? Is There a Third Option for Struggling Small Churches?

closed sign 200cWhat are we going to do about all those struggling Small Churches?

That question has been the subject of endless ministerial (especially denominational) hand-wringing in the last several decades. A lot of time and money has been invested in conversations, books, seminars and classes attempting to fix this problem.

Struggling Small churches are usually given two options:

Option 1: Figure Out a Way to Grow

There’s more information about how to do this than any other subject on pastoral ministry in the last 30-40 years.

Strategies for growth include everything from stylistic adjustments to changing pastors, church mergers, infusions of denominational cash and more. But if all the books, strategies and plans fail to produce the expected growth, there’s often a serious push for…

Option 2: Close the Church


This was the 8th most-read NewSmallChurch.com post of 2013. Click here for the entire Top 10 list.


 

There’s Relief from the Pressure

Grow or close. So many Small Church pastors feel the pressure to do one or the other. At times, that pressure seems to come from everywhere. From our congregations, our denominations and – perhaps the toughest critic of all – within ourselves. Many pastors reading this right now have not been able to pull off the expected growth and are wondering if you should call it quits.

If that’s you, don’t quit yet. I have some good news. “Grow it or close it” aren’t your only choices. There’s a third option. And it’s not a weird, new method, a mystical ancient secret or a positive thinking, pie-in-the-sky, hope-against-reality dream.

It’s been sitting in front of us all along, but a lot of us have been so obsessed with “grow it or close it” we’ve overlooked this alternative.

Option 3: Help Struggling Small Churches Become Healthy Small Churches

 

The Health Alternative

We live in a culture that is so obsessed with a bigger-is-better mindset, that we’ve allowed it to creep into the body of Christ. It’s become such an automatic part of our thought process, that many people in ministry can’t even see this obvious third option for small, struggling churches.

And no, I don’t mean help churches become healthy as a stepping-stone to becoming bigger. I mean becoming healthy as an end in itself.

80-90% of all churches in the world are small. That’s not a new phenomenon. It’s been that way for 2,000 years. If the last 50-year push for growth hasn’t changed those percentages, it’s unlikely they’ll ever change.

But maybe that’s not a problem. Maybe those percentages haven’t changed because they’re not supposed to. Maybe Small Churches aren’t bad. Maybe the issue we should be working on isn’t size, but health.

Imagine if all those Small Churches didn’t become bigger, but became healthy, strong and vibrant (as many of them are already). Would being small matter any more?

 

Be Careful of Unintended Consequences

So we’ve had 50 years of pushing, teaching and spending money on individual church growth, but it hasn’t done much to change the Small Church to big church ratio. Will it take another 50 years for us to realize that Option #1 (grow my church) isn’t likely to happen for the vast majority of churches – at least not past the dreaded “200 barrier”? (Gotta say, I’m not a fan of that term).

Does that mean we’re stuck with Option #2? And if so, have we really considered what the unintended consequences of that might be? Are we prepared to say that we need to close 80% of the churches in the world?

Another unintended consequence of our size obsession is that many people in ministry don’t know a healthy Small Church when they see one. Because of a common misunderstanding that “all healthy things grow” means constant numerical growth, there are a lot of people in ministry who don’t think a healthy church will stay small for long. Growth is inevitable, right? Therefore, any church that does stay small mustn’t be healthy.

With that underlying belief, it’s no wonder we haven’t developed adequate tools to help struggling Small Churches become healthy Small Churches. We don’t even think it’s possible!

 

The Essential First Step to Having a Healthy Small Church

This is what NewSmallChurch.com is dedicated to – challenging our preconceptions about size and health, then assembling and promoting the best ideas we can find to help struggling Small Churches become healthy Small Churches.

You can read some of those ideas in the links below, but my next post tackles this issue head-on.

Click here to read my follow-up post, The Essential First Step to Having a Healthy Small Church.


Some previous posts about healthy Small Churches:

 

So what do you think? Have you ever faced the “grow it or close it” ultimatum? What did you do?

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

(Closed Sign photo from Jasoon • Flickr • Creative Commons)

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

20 thoughts on “Grow It or Close It? Is There a Third Option for Struggling Small Churches?”

  1. Hi Karl…I am sure the adage “If its not broken don’t fix it,” is not always true. But I am distressed by the number of mid-sized churches that take on new pastors that turn them into small churches.

    I have to think that whatever the answer to the healthy small church is:It has to start with the pastor. IOW is the pastor healthy? Of my 40 years of ministry much of it was as an unhealthy pastor. I mean that my own goals for fame and stardom (unhealthy) drove my decisions and planning.

    It’s so critical that we (pastors) be real, reliable, repentant, and revived in Him daily. For me it was becoming less agenda driven and more Spirit-led driven. Accepting who I was in Christ and deciding NOT to try to become like the current successful pastor role model on the cover of CT. Bless him God-but I am not him.

    1. You got that right, Mike.

      As to your first paragraph about some churches shrinking due to pastoral ill-health, I’ve been working on a post that addresses that issue. While small size or lack of numerical growth isn’t necessarily a sign of ill health, a declining church means something has gone wrong. There are hundreds of reasons why that might be the case, including environmental factors that may be beyond our control, but when people start leaving, we always need to ask “why”?

      If the issue of pastoral ill-health (a larger problem than we’ve been willing to acknowledge) your approach of re-assessing our ministry goals is a great place to start.

  2. Hi Karl…I am sure the adage “If its not broken don’t fix it,” is not always true. But I am distressed by the number of mid-sized churches that take on new pastors that turn them into small churches.

    I have to think that whatever the answer to the healthy small church is:It has to start with the pastor. IOW is the pastor healthy? Of my 40 years of ministry much of it was as an unhealthy pastor. I mean that my own goals for fame and stardom (unhealthy) drove my decisions and planning.

    It’s so critical that we (pastors) be real, reliable, repentant, and revived in Him daily. For me it was becoming less agenda driven and more Spirit-led driven. Accepting who I was in Christ and deciding NOT to try to become like the current successful pastor role model on the cover of CT. Bless him God-but I am not him.

    1. You got that right, Mike.

      As to your first paragraph about some churches shrinking due to pastoral ill-health, I’ve been working on a post that addresses that issue. While small size or lack of numerical growth isn’t necessarily a sign of ill health, a declining church means something has gone wrong. There are hundreds of reasons why that might be the case, including environmental factors that may be beyond our control, but when people start leaving, we always need to ask “why”?

      If the issue of pastoral ill-health (a larger problem than we’ve been willing to acknowledge) your approach of re-assessing our ministry goals is a great place to start.

        1. Sometimes we know and just don’t want to hear it – again. Small Church pastor depression can make you want to hide your head in the sand. Yet another reason to get off the “more people equals success in ministry” train.

  3. Karl, your post should be a no-brainer right? Health. Healthy pastors loving healthy Christians and producing healthy churches. Some healthy people never break five feet tall, and others top seven feet. Size is often unrelated to health. Demographics, church culture, denomination, leadership, and location could all be reasons why a church is the size it is.

    The problem is, it is so hard to NOT be culture driven – in any organization around the country. The cultures values of success and growth are just not completely transferable to the local church. We do have to ask, “what is God doing in our church?” Since there are no silver bullet answers to the church size issue, the best answer for us now is health, I think you’re right.

    At 200churches.com we are trying to encourage, affirm, and inspire the pastors of small churches. You are right Karl, we do need to be able to say “Hi, my name is Jeff, and I am the pastor of a small church… and I am not a failure!” I keep saying “your leadership in your 200church – or 50church, etc. matters HUGE in the Kingdom of God.” And… it does! What you are doing at newsmallchurch.com is very encouraging to me!

    1. Thanks Jeff. Yes, health for the sake of health is something we shouldn’t need to be reminded of, yet, we forget it all the time.

      For my readers, I encourage you to check out what Jeff is doing at 200churches.com. He and I have just recently found each other’s ministries. I’ll be doing a post about 200churches.com soon as a part of my “Stuff We Like” series.

    2. I just signed up for your newsletter, even though I am not a pastor. I am currently on the leadership team of a small church whose denomination seems determined to close. We are just as determined to stay open. We are between pastors and using pulpit supply. Any resources you can recommend for a struggling church to find a bi vocational pastor? Thank you!!!

  4. You have no idea how much I needed to hear this.

    Our church has lost two long term families in the last couple of months and one who has only been to church 5 times in the last year and a half – comes up with every excuse in the book why they can’t come on Sunday morning. But for such ODD reasons. Sometimes I feel like we’re in the poverbial “Catch 22”. We are strong on teaching, but weak on activities. (due to money, time and people) So when folks leave because there’s “nothing going on” – it only adds to the problem. We’ve gone from having 25 on Sundays to having around 10…that’s NOT only who we have, but only who shows up. (vacations, illness and sometimes just lack of faithfulness are the culprits…sometimes it’s that the church down the road feeds me breakfast…)
    Sometimes, I believe God does a “weeding out” before He moves – is that what we’re experiencing? Like a removing of hindrances in response to prayer for revival? If I knew for sure – I could sure sleep better at night.

  5. Karl, love your article and love your site. I will be back here over and over again. My story — Pastor of same church for 30 years this coming November. Attendance is from 25 to 35 on any given Sunday morning (depending on who decided to “visit Grandma” this week). We have been down to 10 and up to 50 over the years. I could have left 20 years ago, but then Wesley who was addicted to crack cocaine maybe would not be serving the Lord today. By the way, he sent me a text on July 6th, his salvation anniversary, to remind me that he is still living for Jesus. I could have walked off when three families left the church all at one time, leaving us with about 10 people attending. But, then I would have missed ministering to Roy who retired from the military and began to attend my church, came to the Lord and made one of the best Bible Class Teachers and boys group leaders a pastor could ever wish for. By the way, Roy passed away a number of years ago and went to Heaven to be with his Savior. Would that have happened if I had walked off before he walked in the door of rthe church? Or it could have been a few years back when an ex-drug addict came and is serving the Lord today. I could have left 3 years ago, just before a revival spirit moved into our church in December 2010 and has been here ever since, with our church having revival services once or twice a month for over two years now. (Tell me how many churches are doing that? Oh, yes, something every pastor is concerned about — my income — it has gone up NOT down, even though we are supporting revival speakers on a monthly basis. [all with a decent offering and some with amazing offerings] ) I have lost track of the healings and lives touched in the past over two years of revival that is still going today. I could have moved on about seven years ago when our “little church” of 20 people decided to start a food pantry because we felt the Lord wanted us to do more than come to church week after week; that he wanted us to minister to the hungry in our town of around 7,000, as well as those in the surrounding area. Today we feed over 300 families a month and the ministry is growing. Six of the people who attend our church are a direct result of our food pantry (and God is working on several more).

    Our church attendance has grown in the past 2 1/2 years from around 15 to around 35. I know that is not anything to brag about for some folks, but we are proud of what God is doing. We are simply doing what God leads us to do. If it is one life changed at a time, that is OK with me. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I’d love to preach to a big crowd on Sunday. But, whatever I do, I don’t want to miss the one soul that God places in my path who needs to make it to Heaven. Am I satisfied with small attendance – NEVER! But, I am comfortable doing what God has given me to do. I do the best I can and leave the rest to Him. Wow! He does such a good job!

    1. I echo what Mike and Cindy have said. Thanks for sharing that great story, and may God keep using you and your wonderful church in such amazing ways. (And thanks for the kind words about NewSmallChurch.com. I’m glad you found us.)

  6. Jim Porterfield

    Karl – I’m a “Ministry Pastor” – think Associate & Worship pastor, in a “temporarily small” church. (The church had a 135 year history of unhealthiness, but my mentor, the Sr. Pastor, rebirthed the church two years ago.) I’ve been active in church all my life, but I’ve only been officially “in ministry” for 10 years. While I believe God has called and gifted me to help lead this church to significant growth, I still believe in the value of HEALTHY small churches. One thing to consider: Research indicates that a healthy church has a “halo” effect on it’s community-raising the quality of life for those in it’s neighborhood, even raising property values. But that halo is limited in size regardless of the church’s size. So a mega church does not provide a significantly bigger halo than does a healthy small church that is meeting it’s neighborhood’s needs. What would happen if the “mega” churches, instead of taking over neighborhood churches as they offered to do with our last church in inner city Dallas, and instead saw it as an ministry opportunity to partner with the small “neighborhood” churches within it’s realm of influence – to help those churches become healthy small churches? That would be an example the diverse body of Christ working in unity for kingdom growth.

    1. Hi Jim. I hadn’t heard of that “halo” effect before, but it makes a lot of sense. And I couldn’t agree more with your assessment about the value of big and small working together. What an amazing impact that could have!

Leave a Comment

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