OK… So, Yesterday’s Post Hit a Nerve Or Two

noiseI’m a fan and supporter of Small Churches and their hard-working, dedicated leaders. After all, I’m one of you. You are my peers in ministry and my friends.

In yesterday’s post, I told you about a conversation I had with a friend who was having a hard time finding a good Small Church in the city he’s moved to. When I got to the part about what we, as Small Church leaders can do to help people like my friend, I told you “I love you. But this is gonna sting.”

I was right.

Yesterday’s post resulted in several comments and emails from church leaders who were upset about it. If you haven’t read the post yet, click here to read “Big and Impersonal, Or Small and Pathetic: Are Those My Only Church Options?”, then come back here.

I’m not without fault, so I’ve re-read the post to see if I blew it. (It’s happened before). But I stand by this one.

I intended the post to be strong and direct, even blunt. But not hurtful or offensive. So, today’s post – which began as a response in the comment section, but grew too big for that – is an explanation that might help clarify a few possible misunderstandings. 

First, the “dumpy buildings” line which, along with our use of the word “pathetic”, seems to have caused the most distress, was my summary of a much longer conversation. My friend talked with me about several churches whose facilities were so filthy and unkempt that it was obviously more about not caring, than a lack of money or passion. More on that in a moment.

Second, my friend lives on the edge of a large city in the south, where many buildings are older and the parking lots, if they have one, are often gravel or grass, not just in churches, but in a lot of local businesses. That’s just the way things are there, so that’s not his issue. He and I both get that smaller churches won’t have new, perfectly manicured facilities – if they even have a building of their own, that is. I would never criticize hard-working, underpaid pastors for not having a pristine church property. And neither would my friend.

Third, the primary issue for him had to do with preaching that was legalistic, unbiblical, etc., which is why six of the nine problems I mentioned were about the preaching. Obviously, he wouldn’t have known about the bad preaching if he hadn’t overlooked the facilities issues and gone in for the services, anyway. His minimum standard was, as I stated, a “clean facility, friendly people and competent, grace-filled preaching.”

Fourth, he’s not looking for a place to be served, but to serve. That’s the main reason he wants to take his family to a Small Church. But if a church isn’t keeping up with basic cleanliness, friendliness and biblical preaching, he feels like anything he might pour into it would be a waste. And I agree with him.

Fifth, his criticism of “stale singing” was about a lack of joy and passion, not a lack of musicianship. He and I both understand that it’s brutally hard to find musicians to serve in a Small Church. I’m blessed with a wonderful worship team now, but for decades that was my hardest help to find.


Having a Hard Time? I’ve Been There

Twice in my ministry, I’ve been called to pastor Small Churches that were suffering under years of neglect. The most evident example of that neglect, though not the most important consequence, was their dumpy buildings.

It took years to get each of them to a place where the facility wasn’t embarrassing, even potentially hazardous. So I understand the frustration of not having enough money for some very basic upkeep, let alone improvements. At one point, we had threadbare carpet and no money to buy floor covering, so we ripped it up and lived on bare cement for a few years. But the cement was always kept clean.

At another time, the nursery was in such bad shape that we tossed the broken crib and put a donated, slightly-less-broken crib in a slightly-less-nasty room, then locked the door to the original nursery until we could afford to paint the walls and repair or replace the heater. It stayed locked for years as our Small Church struggled to pay the bills.

Things were hard, but we worked consistently on moving forward. Sure, we lost a lot of people who were looking to be an audience, or expected more than we were capable of offering. And at times I felt like “pathetic” described our facility all too well. But I never used that as an excuse, even when I felt very discouraged. We kept the usable parts of the building clean, greeted people with smiles and preached the Word with integrity. The rest came in bits and pieces. Sometimes with two steps forward and one step back.


Small and Struggling ≠ Dumpy and Pathetic

A church isn’t pathetic if it’s friendly, clean and preaching the Word with grace. If yesterday’s post left that impression, I apologize.

Bottom line? My friend, and people like him, are looking for a  Small Church where they can pitch in and help. But they don’t want their gifts to be wasted. Friendly people, worshiping Jesus in a clean environment in which God’s Word is honored – that’s all my friend is looking for.

Anything less than that? I think “dumpy” and “pathetic” are the right words for it.

But, as I stated yesterday, it doesn’t have to be that way. So I’ll conclude this post with the same words I used to end yesterday’s post.

Believers need an intimate, friendly place to worship and serve. Unbelievers need to hear about Jesus. Your church can play a pivotal role in meeting each of those needs.

They want to attend our churches. But they need to know we’re here and they need us to be a healthy, friendly, vibrant place when they do show up.

With Jesus’ help, we can do it.


So what do you think? Are my friend and I still expecting too much from our fellow Small Churches?

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

(Noise sign photo from Jason Eppink • Flickr • Creative Commons license)

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36 thoughts on “OK… So, Yesterday’s Post Hit a Nerve Or Two”

  1. I pastor a two year old church plant that went from a storefront into an old dumpy church building. It needed a new roof. We raised money and got that. We are taking room by room, gutting to the studs and starting over, but it is a process. A long process for 20 people with less than $2000 a month. We have a gravel parking lot. Good qualities that we have is we keep it clean, grass cut, we have pretty good music, bible preaching, but with all that we will never meet the expectation of many or even people like your friend. The sad thing is overseas people meet under trees. And here in America we are discussing dumpy buildings 🙁 Maybe your friend should consider starting a new church where he is, or give some churches a break and go help make them better. I pray that God still uses dumpy old churches with pastors doing their best.

    1. Bless your heart Mark….. what a great story of faithfulness….. God’s and those 20 people!!! Also, really good advice

    2. Mark, I understand your frustrations, because I’ve shared them for a lot of years. But your comment feels like you didn’t read the post thoroughly. My friend is looking for a church like what you described your church to be. As I said, “he’s not looking for a place to be served, but to serve”, with a “clean facility, friendly people and competent, grace-filled preaching.”

      His “dumpy building” complaint wasn’t about churches like yours that are working hard to improve things, but about “churches whose facilities were so filthy and unkempt that it was obviously more about not caring, than a lack of money or passion.”

      A church like yours, that needs help but is working hard to move forward, is where he and people like him want to invest their time, money and passion. Keep it up. There’s nothing dumpy about a church that’s working as hard as you and your church obviously are.

    3. First let me say that I agree, God can and does work in those small, in need of love buildings but I feel the point of the conversation that started these 2 discussions was more of apathy than the building. I pastor a small churxh. It has its issues to be fixed.
      I think the difference as you pointed out is the plan and activity to make a diffwrence. My own church had a leak in the roof. Church members worked and worked to get it patched but the damage was done to several rooms below and it just needed to be replaced. What did my church do? Kept the doors to those in need of work rooms closed, started a roof repair fund so it was still before us and continued to serve His Kingdom with passion and vigor. That is the difference. Small church doesn’t mean we have to settle for small vision or small passion or small preaching. It means we do it all with the best we have and let God do the work in lives.
      We experienced growth with that leaky roof and closed doors and never missed a payment to a new church plant on the opposite side of the earth. We paid the pastor’s salary and utility bills for that church. (Not a crazy amount of money so don’t all get too excited). The point is we never lost our passion to be engaged in His Kingdom work, to be passionate for the Gospel and to love His children. And were greatful when the roof fund went up $20.
      On another note, as we loved His children, a gentleman who was not a member of our church but was regularly invited and cared for, included us in his will, another faithful elderly member included us in hers as well and joyfully they both went home. As a result, we got our roof replaced, damage repaired, carpet replaced and members finished the painting and setup for those previously closed doors. That man’s family said later he always talked about our faithfulness and joy even though the building needed work.
      Karl’s friend is hunting for that small church that is engaged, passionate about the Gospel, loving His children not a building to impress him. To often, the small church loses its passion just as its building loses its luster. That is what is being said. A small church in need of a little or a lot of TLC shouldn’t also need as much TLC for its passion for God.

  2. Karl, I loved both posts. Far too often we make excuses for what is challenging rather than praying, working, and joyfully expecting the Lord to meet our needs and serve the community. That is true regardless of the size of the church. When we as a church embrace the obvious problems and work to solve them….we are moving ahead, even if it is slow movement.

    1. Thanks, Dave. I agree with you. Forward motion, no matter how slow, is the key.

      I’m surprised that these posts hit such a raw nerve with people. I think it’s a testament to just how much pain a lot of Small Church pastors deal with. Pain I want to help ease, not add to.

      1. Hi Karl,
        Just wanted you to know that, since I was one of three that responded to your original post, I wasn’t responding out of hurt or offense. On the contrary, I really appreciate the work you are doing. It has been a breath of fresh air and an encouragement to what God has been teaching me over the last 3 or 4 years: the tremendous benefits that being small can have, provided we, as a church, or being the church God called us to be.
        That said, I do think the original post missed some important things…. which I responded to already.

  3. Karl, I found both posts to be helpful, and wondered if you might have words of wisdom for a pastor who just finished his rookie year as a solo pastor in a small church. I am the only staff, we try to use volunteers for everything including cleaning. We have sign-ups for cleaning the church, 24 slots total for the entire year. If each family in our church took 2 slots, it would be more than covered. Our family modeled this by signing up for two as well. I am sure you know where this post is going…2/3 of the slots are still full. I don’t believe I’ve asked desperately or in unwise or unfruitful ways, but I do perceive a combination of people not taking pride in their church and simply unwilling to serve in that way. As August is here I am faced with a decision already: no one is signed up to clean the church. I could (a) do it myself, (b) start calling through the roster, or (c) just let it go. I have tried a an b in the past. It “worked” in the immediate need, but obviously not in the long term. I do not like the idea of c, because it is obviously not a very guest friendly way to make a point. Any advice?

    1. Karl, no excuse for what you wrote. I dealt with a musty wet basement in a small church that had almost been abandant. We prayed for the resourses to fix the basement and freshen the church. Vinyl siding and a new sign. Since The Lord was in on it, He provided everything we needed. I believe the same Lord can still provide funding for His people to up keep his Temples. Wasn’t all money, half the materials was donated. You can put on the biggest Act or smallest show, bottom line is love on them and show you care. And maybe pretend The Lord is coming for a visit so you might want to clean up the place a bit. Or if your Big, recognize Him when he visits.

    2. That’s a tough one, Eric. It turns out, tomorrow’s post addresses this to a small degree. My question, before being able to give some specifics is, how was the cleaning done before you came?

      1. Cleaning was done in the same way, just by sign-ups. It switched several years prior to me coming as a result of a realization of some fiscal irresponsibility.

        1. Did it work previously? If so, find out what has changed. If not, maybe you could propose paying a high school or college student a small amount to cover the extra weeks and ask people to sponsor that student for covering their shift for them?

          1. I’m not sure it ever really worked. The former pastor told me it was always a battle. I like the sponsoring idea. Thanks for helping me think outside the box!

  4. I really liked your post yesterday because it challenged me and encouraged me. First, I was encouraged because our church seems to be small and healthy, very clean and friendly, and I do my best to preach grace in each message. But I was challenged because I have registered a domain name for our church and I’ve uploaded a single page kind of as a place holder, but I’ve been too busy to finish the web site. I design and maintain sites as sort of a hobby but I’ve been too busy to finish our church’s site so you challenged me to get that thing finished so we can get the word out about our church, especially to younger people, which is what our church needs. We do already have a Facebook page and I try to keep it updated on a regular basis but it’s largest impact is on our members. I’m always looking for new avenues and methods for “advertising” our church. I felt that your post yesterday was right on target. God doesn’t demand perfection but He does ask for our best and so often in churches that I’ve pastored just getting by was okay for most. As long as they were happy they didn’t really care how they came across to guests. In my opinion that’s almost like sending people to hell with our apathy. If you care about the salvation of others then do your very best to make what you have attractive and holy and they just might get touched by our sincerity. But sincerity with apathy will never reach the world we live in today. It is so easy to put forth a little effort and see huge changes.

  5. While I did not take offence with your article yesterday, it did hit a nerve as well. But in a list over sense. I pastor one of those small, churches with an eighty year old tired building, and music, while appreciated by the people is wearing on me. ( p.s. I am the music and worship leader). Ten years ago when I came to the church not only was the building tired, it was butt ugly. Yes I said it. It had been fourth years since the lays paint job. I took the bull by the horns, and we set to decorate and paint and refurbish the building with the resources God have us. We also have set as our mission that if this building is for the glory of God than it needs to look it. Our building while not state of the art, is cheerful, we have made it technologically relevant ( computers and power point) and our cleaning team has taken personal pride in how we clean the building. It is still old, and tired, but it is the best God has given us so we will do our best to care for it. I still have people who will make mention that it isn’t like the old days. Difference is, the old days never saw repeat visitors, today we do. Our next step is to remove the eps and replace them with chairs so as to make the auditorium multifunctional. That will be a huge step of faith.

    Thanks for the challenge Karl it was a great wake up call.

  6. Karl, we definitely can relate to your friend’s struggle. We have found, especially in our new community, that smaller churches frequently (and some larger churches too) tend to “preach” to new believers. The sermons are more shallow and do not follow a natural path to greater depth and spiritual growth. Growing new believers is critical, but so is the spiritual nourishment of those who have travelled a long way along the spiritual path. So, where do you find the balance in worship? Obviously, Bible study groups/small groups are an important growth mechanism both spiritually and in relationships, but Biblically based, theologically sound peaching with depth is important too.

    1. That balance is very hard, but I believe it can be found. For me, I always want to learn something new from whatever passage I’m studying. Then I teach it in the simplest language possible, using current, practical illustrations and ideas. If I’m learning something, it will have depth. If I say it simply, it will speak to newbies, too. (Hey, that would make a good subject for a blog post! I’ll tuck it away to use later. Thanks for the nudge, Don).

  7. Kirby Holbrook

    Big fan. I think you owe me some commission on referrals : ) One dichotomy we face is that being loyal to a church should not mean being loyal to the preacher, especially in an itinerant system like ours. (United Methodist) However, people won’t stay long if they are not being fed from the pulpit. Since the preaching was the major complaint, and there seems to be some new pastors on here, I’ll share a brief format that has worked well for me. Bear in mind this is very flexible. Number one, preach on scripture; not magazine articles, books or movies. Preach what you interpret the Word of God is trying to say to us, not “this is what I want to preach now I’ll find some scriptures to back it up.” I use the Common Lectionary 90% of the time and the only problem I have is deciding which of the 10 or 20 sermons can come from each lection. Second, always teach them one interesting thing that will stick. (An example would be something like archaeologists have found evidence that in Roman crucifixions, not one nail was used on the feet, but two; one through each ankle and nailed to the sides of the cross.) Third, as John Wesley said, a sermon is not a sermon without the Cross. After all, that and the resurrection is pretty much the whole deal! Lastly, challenge them to grow and/or serve in some way, specifically. Lastly, my mentoring pastor told me years ago, never dig ’em into a hole without giving them a ladder to get out! If you work extra hard, you can learn to preach without notes and it’s been my experience that people appreciate that, as long as you’ve done the preparation. Never forget, that He who began a good work in you will be faithful to complete it!!

    1. As a parishioner, I would appreciate your approach – all the points you mention. But it is challenging to find.

  8. Karl,
    I appreciate both posts. Very glad you are providing such a valuable ministry to us small church pastors. I also appreciate some of the replies. I thought we were small (average lately about 35, with only a few men, but a lot of kids) until I read the one with 20 members and three men.

    A comment about what I think has become a misplaced priority–visitors. Please don’t mishear me. I LOVE visitors, as do those in my congregation. To a person, when visitors walk through the doors, I hear, “You guys are so friendly. I feel like i belong here”. The vast majority of them come once. And I’m glad that the congregation hasn’t given up hope that they will return. We have opened our arms–and wallets–and have provided for the benevolence needs for a number in our community.

    But I think that we, as American church folk have bought too much into the pragmatism of our age. “If we build it they will come.” And so we have a tendency to lean to, or outright design the main services hoping people will walk through the doors. I see this as backwards. Didn’t the Lord tell us, literally “as you are going through life, make disciples.” “As you are going through life, preach the gospel”?

    It seems to me that Sundays are not prime time for evangelism. Sunday services are so the congregation as a group has an opportunity to worship the Lord corporately (BTW, how can a person dead in their sins and tresspasses, who are separated from God, worship? A number of places in Scripture are clear that the Lord rejects the “worship” of those who are separated from Him). Sunday services are also for the pastor to utilize his giftedness as mandated by Ephesians 4:11-12: To equip the saints for the work of the ministry. Sundays are, in my opinion and as I read scripture to love on one another, to encourage one another, to equip the saints, and getting prepared to go and evangelize those in their world.

    Admittedly, pastors who are committed to teaching the flock, rather than having evangelism as a priority, won’t see much evangelistic fruit. But should he on Sunday mornings? Shouldn’t evangelism be the privilege and responsibility of every follower of Jesus? But if the pastor continues to push that evangelism is what the congregation is to do during the week, then they have the joy of seeing their friends and neighbors come to Jesus. Surely, numbers are smaller that way. But even when altar calls are given, how many actually come to Jesus, even if one makes a profession of faith? As we know, the Lord made it clear that it’s not one’s profession of faith that matters, but how one lives their lives when it’s all said and done (see Matthew 7:13-29).

    Don’t get me wrong. I do give the gospel from time to time. We have altar calls every week–primarily so the congregation can respond to what the Lord is doing in their lives. But I’m much more interested in teaching the congregation how to live lives pleasing to the Lord, and encouraging them to show and tell the gospel during the week, and have them bring them to church services, than for them to bring them to hear the “paid professional” preach the gospel to them.

    1. That’s a tough balance, Glenn. I share your struggle. I don’t have the gift of evangelism, but I can teach those who have that gift, so my Sunday preaching is mostly designed to strengthen, disciple and train people to share their faith. But I use common language, rather than theological terms or Churchy words, so everyone gets what I’m saying, including new and not-yet believers.

  9. Karl, Well said.
    I’m retired but remember oh so well when our circumstances were like Cindy’s and how I would think (and say out loud if anyone would listen) that there must be good people out there somewhere who wish they could find a church where they could serve, but I didn’t know how to let them know that we had need of what they had to offer. We hung in there and over the years the Lord brought together an amazing team.
    Now I am retired and sitting on the opposite side of that original question: Is there a small church out there that needs what I could offer? So now I sit in the pew and go home.
    Is there a way to have the information of Cindy type needs available for those of us who would like to help, but don’t know where we are needed.
    I know this blog goes across the nation and across all denominational borders which makes it seem almost impossible but maybe someone would have an idea for how to put together a bulletin board for church needs and church volunteers.

  10. Karl thank you for this post. I never doubt your heart. I was not offended by your post yesterday – or really by your friends comments or observations. My point in commenting was only to be a voice for the “super small” the survivors out there. Those who are literally hanging on by faith and faith alone. Just to raise awareness that there may be very good REASONS for what people see and not EXCUSES for being lazy, faithless or visionless.

    I have observed, by so many, that people seem to want ‘everything already in place’ – that they just have to come and blend in, come along side leaders already in place and just ‘help.’ Even in churches of 100-200 this can easily be done. But the smaller you get, the more holes there are going to be – and people aren’t going to be needed to just help, they’re going to be needed to lead.

    Our church is super small – yes, 20 people and 3 men…but it got that way by a series of “unfortunate events..” We’ve even been acknowledged in a ‘playful’ way as The Church of Job. If it wasn’t so heartbreaking – it would be funny.

    Some churches may be pathetic and also APATHETIC meaning they may know it and don’t care, or they’re not even aware of their condition.

    But so many know they are seen to be ‘pathetic’ by outsiders and there’s just not much they can do about it….and outside of a miracle of revival – of souls being saved and brought into the kingdom, adding to their body all their gifts and talents – may not see the end of.

    1. Cindy, I always appreciate your passion and your heart. “Pathetic” may have been the word my friend used, but “apathetic” was the main ingredient in that problem for him. Your response may have been the longest one, but I didn’t see it as you being offended. I had to delete one comment as inappropriate, but the really angry responses came through email.

  11. My first assignment was in a community of 200 people. Our first Sunday we had 10 people in attendance (my family and 5 others the youngest being 65). I worked two jobs in addition to pastoring.
    We could focus on what we didn’t have or on what we did.
    We chose the latter.
    We had love, elbow grease, each other and God.
    Many times we had to question ourselves:
    Do we love others as much as God loves us? (See Romans 5)
    We did.
    Is the building as well maintained and clean as my home?
    Sometimes better.
    Are we trusting God?
    We were never a mega church (lol) but we had a kingdom impact.
    We grow – individually (more like Christ) numerically 45 average attendance. We were never a mega church (lol) but we were healthy and had a kingdom impact. PS. 25 years later the church continues to be healthy.

    1. Ralph Juthman

      Don am I to understand you are still pastoring the same church. May I ask, how do you keep your passion and vison fresh this long in one small place, and being bivocaational?

  12. I don’t know about others but I took no offense at your comments. And I couldn’t agree more that being small is no excuse for shoddy or lazy preaching, maintenance or worship.
    That said, I reread your article and, like you, still stand by my original thoughts. Yes, you spoke more about preaching than anything else. Perhaps that is what lead me to the conclude that your friend was thinking with a consumer’s mindset, rather than a servant’s. Nothing in your original article contradicted that. Most everything you mentioned was something that made him feel more comfortable.
    My point was that like Jesus, we are called to serve. If the question he asked was “who needs me most?” he might see those churches very differently. It is my contention that small churches, even “pathetic” ones, often offer the normal guy or gal more, not less, opportunities to get involved in service. Their money is more appreciated, their labor more needed, and they can enter into relationships where they can influence others more quickly.
    You write that your friend concluded that the building’s condition was “obviously about a lack of caring” My first response is “how did he know?” How many Sundays did he attend? My advise to those church shopping has been to attend for at least 4 weeks – Sunday worship, but also to weekday events. Only then can you get an idea of what is going on and begin to know the people and what motivates them. I also advise them to speak to the Pastor personally. Take the opportunity to get to know his heart. Is he someone who, like Cindy’s husband, has a desire and vision, but is simply overwhelmed by the lack of resources? Do his gifts lie outside the area of preaching (not every great Pastor is a good preacher)? Does he love his flock? Does he demonstrate the fruit of the Spirit, including faithfulness? If not, it is probably time to move on – since change would mean challenging the Pastor. If so, it may be a wonderful opportunity to serve and make a real difference.
    So, even conceding the point – it was a lack of caring that the building’s condition revealed- it doesn’t mean that he cannot serve there and that his service would be “wasted.” If so, I’ve wasted many years serving and attending churches that were spiritually dead when I came, but changed over the years. One had been through a traumatic church fight. Another was tired and disheartened by the dwindling neighborhood around it and the result of “white flight.” In those churches I soon became very, very thankful for those remnant Christians along with those from the “outside” who caught the vision and overcame years of discouragement to join in watching God bring renewal. In other words, assuming that because these congregations were filled with people who “didn’t care”, that it would be a “waste” to stay would have been dead wrong. In your friends case, his witness, money and service might be extremely powerful precisely because of the lack of congregation’s caring. Becoming involved in a “pathetic” church like you mention he may actually have an opportunity to have more impact than in attending a large one.
    Please understand that we don’t know your friend. We can only go on what you tell us. Given that, he reminds me of a mindset that I see far to often – that finding a church home means finding a place that makes the searcher feel comfortable. If anything “struck a nerve” it was that. Small churches, even pathetic ones, provide a wonderful opportunity to follow Jesus when following Jesus is NOT understood in the cultural norms of “nickels and noses” but instead, as faithfulness to lovingly bearing the cross of serving people where they are and trusting God for a resurrection.

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