Why Are We So Bad At Helping Struggling Small Churches?

Why do a lot of small churches stay in “struggle mode” for so much of their ministry life?

There are a lot of factors, of course, but one of them is sadly obvious. We don’t value small churches enough to give them the help they need, and very much deserve.

We don't value small churches enough to give them the help they need, and very much deserve. Click To Tweet

Here’s an example.

Several years ago, in answer to a pastor’s question about this issue, I heard a denominational official – in a shockingly candid moment – bemoan his group’s less-than-stellar strategy for allocating their limited resources for small and start-up churches.

“Sadly, the way we do it is something like this,” he explained. “Imagine there are hundreds of churches struggling to swim across a raging river. We know that only a handful of them will make it and we have limited resources to spare, so we wait to see who emerges on the far bank.

“After you’ve proven yourself by successfully crossing the river, then we run up to you with a towel, some food and the resources you need to keep going. The others,” he bemoaned, “either drown in the river or keep struggling to survive on their own.”

A Common Problem

I wish I could say he was mistaken. Or overly pessimistic. But he wasn’t.

I also wish I could say that this approach is unique to one denomination. But it’s not.

In fact, I guarantee that the typical small-church pastor resonated very deeply with every word of that description, no matter what denomination or church network they belong to.

We’re bad at helping small churches because we assume that if any church stays small for an extended period of time they must be broken. And the longer they stay small the more hopeless the situation must be.

So, instead, we become enamored with the handful of new and glitzy “success” stories that must be doing things right. They made it across the river. And if they made it, that’s even further proof that anyone who hasn’t made it across the river under their own strength isn’t worth the bother.

Help Them Before They Drown

So what’s the answer?

How can we turn this around?

We need to value the small, struggling church enough to be there for them before they drown. We need to reframe our church leadership thinking. Click To Tweet

We need to value the small, struggling church enough to be there for them before they drown.

We need to reframe our church leadership thinking.

Normalize The Struggle

Certainly, we should celebrate successful churches (along with redefining what “successful” means). But instead of just celebrating the churches that see noticeable numerical growth, we’ve created a church leadership culture that sees success, stability, and massive growth as inevitable.

“Just follow these steps and you’ll succeed”, we tell them. Therefore, anyone who hasn’t succeeded must not have followed the steps, and the fault must be theirs.

But struggling isn’t unusual for local congregations, it’s the norm. Not just now, but historically. As in, from the New Testament on.

After all, the Apostle Paul wrote most of his epistles to local congregations, and the vast majority of those were to address their struggles. He wasn’t waiting for them to emerge on the other side of the river, he was sending in a rescue boat to help them. And, of the seven churches addressed by John in Revelation, all of them were having significant struggles – some because of their sinfulness, others as a direct result of their faithfulness. And the one that was the most outwardly “successful” (Laodicea) was choking on it.

We must start normalizing the struggling church. Only then will we consider them worthy of our help. Click To Tweet

We must start normalizing the struggling church. Only then will we consider them worthy of our help.

And then we can take the next, essential step of not just offering our help, truly seeing them as the kingdom co-laborers that they are. Worth listening to and learning from.

They deserve no less.


In my next article, Quit Blaming Small Churches For Struggling – Help Them Succeed, we’ll address the difficult issue of blame. But not to worry, our third and final article in this series, How To Make More High-Quality, Low-Cost Resources Available To Small Churches will offer some practical solutions.

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(Photo by Joshua Earle | Unsplash)

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