Small Churches Are the Next Big Thing – With One Condition

What's next?

Some people have written off the current generation spiritually.

That is a mistake – for the church and for the Millennials.

There’s growing evidence that this new generation will bring the greatest opportunity for Small Church ministry in 2,000 years.

Why? Because, as the first generation with a majority born and raised outside traditional marriage, genuine relationships and intimate worship – what Small Churches do best – will matter more to them than it did to their parents.

But this opportunity comes with one, big condition.

They won’t give up quality to gain intimacy.

And they shouldn’t have to.

This was the 2nd most-read post of 2013. Click here for the entire Top 10 list.

They’re Checking Us Out – What Will They Find?

Millennials are discovering they have the same needs people have always had. Needs that include a desire to worship something or someone bigger than themselves, and to do so with others who have similar feelings.

In other words, church.

But they will not be drawn to the kinds of churches their parents built. They won’t want a big Sunday morning stage show as much as they’ll want genuine intimacy and relationships.

Because of this need, Millennials are starting to take a peek at what Small Churches have to offer. But they’re used to a high-quality experience in everything, and they won’t settle for less.

Thankfully, that’s not as intimidating as it sounds.


Quality = Health

Small doesn’t mean cheap, shoddy, lazy or low-quality. At least it shouldn’t.

But what Millennials mean by quality will also be different than what their parents meant.

Too often, for Boomers, quality has meant excess. Glitz. Over-the-top. Bling. What the New Testament calls adornment.

(Interesting, isn’t it, that a lot of ministries which properly reject the sin of immodesty have no problem with the flip-side sin of adornment? Some even revel in it as evidence of God’s blessing.)

Quality, for a Small Church, can be summed up in one word. Health.

It starts by getting the basics right.

  • Real-world bible teaching
  • Genuine relationships
  • Practical ministry opportunities
  • Clean, safe childcare
  • And yes, competent musicianship on the worship team

The good news is, your church doesn’t have to be big to do any of that. And even if one or two aren’t at the level you’d like, most people are OK with it as long as there’s high quality in the other areas. They may even step in and help where the church is weak.


Do the Millennials Even Care About God?

Here’s what I said about this topic in The Grasshopper Myth:

In They Like Jesus but Not the Church, Dan Kimball relates some of the feelings new generations of non-believers have about Jesus and the church. The main result is reflected in the title, of course, but other findings were interesting too.

One young woman expressed her desire for a church that was smaller and more intimate. As she so beautifully put it, “Make church a book club with soul.” She’s not alone in that longing.

Another unchurched friend of Kimball’s told him, “…I think the meetings should be smaller. Every once in a while a big meeting is cool, but not as the norm.”

Yet another asked, “Didn’t Jesus spend most of his time in smaller settings, with smaller groups? … I bet that is where they learned the most from him, not when he was in the masses with larger crowds.”

Some of what younger generations want and need from the church has nothing to do with the style of the worship band. Many of them just don’t like the corporate vibe of a bigger church. What speaks to their heart can only happen in a smaller setting.

– from The Grasshopper Myth: Chapter 8 – Small Church, Big Vision
by Karl Vaters


Small groups, Small Churches and “book clubs with soul” (I just love that last one).

What’s going on here? Can we really take these anecdotal stories as an indication of a trend?

I think so. Because the evidence is coming in to back it up.

In a recent poll by the highly-respected Pew Forum, they found what everyone has suspected. Millennials attend church less often than their parents.

But that’s not all. “Among Millennials who are affiliated with a religion, however, the intensity of their religious affiliation is as strong today as among previous generations when they were young.” (emphasis theirs)

So, fewer of them attend religious services, but among those who do, their faith is as strong as ever. And that dedication is likely to grow, as it typically does when you find yourself in the minority.

Which means what? Everyone has their own interpretation, of course. Here’s mine.


It’s Time to Lead

Churches follow trends as much anyone. Usually about 20 years behind.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. We can lead.

Not in a “look how cool they are” way, or a “look how smart they are” way. But in a “look how they love one another” way.

There’s no better place to express or sense that kind of love-leadership than in a Small Church. It’s another reason I’m convinced that healthy Small Churches are going to be the next big thing.

No, megachurches won’t disappear, despite all the predictions to the contrary. And, as I stated in an earlier post, I hope they don’t. Instead, alongside megachurches I see a growing hunger for healthy, high-quality, innovative Small Churches to meet the needs of upcoming generations.

If Small Churches can provide opportunities for genuine relationships with God and each other, in a healthy church, with practical ministry to the surrounding community, we can be the vanguard of a new church movement. But it really won’t be a new movement. It will be the oldest one of all.

The main reason I’m convinced Small Churches will be the next big thing is because they’ve always been a big thing. Since the day of Pentecost, innovative Small Churches have been the way the majority of Christians have done church. They’ve just stayed under the radar for 2,000 years.

Now may be their turn to come out of the shadows.

It’s about time.


So what do you think? Are Small Churches the next big thing? What can we do to be ready for the Millennials?

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

(What’s Next? photo from Sarah Reid • Flickr • Creative Commons license)

Got questions or comments? Use the comment section, below.

Want to reprint this article? Click here for permission. (This protects me from copyright theft.)

31 thoughts on “Small Churches Are the Next Big Thing – With One Condition”

  1. Great article Karl. I like, “Small doesn’t mean cheap, shoddy, lazy or low-quality. At least it shouldn’t.” I’m going to float this around my network. Keep it coming.

  2. Great thoughts, unfortunately we are not there yet. In pastoring a small church and talking to the young people they are still enamored with the big glitzy church that offers all the programs and requires little commitment. At least that’s what I’m seeing and hearing in my community.

    1. Don’t get discouraged, Paul. Whether the church is big or small, commitment and quality always outlast glitz.

      I think this turn towards quality Small Churches is barely beginning. It won’t even be visible in a lot of areas for a while. It’s barely visible where I am. We have a very young congregation who are very enthused about missions, community service and church volunteering. They do most of our heavy lifting. But my youth pastor and I have been serving here together for over 20 years. That makes a difference.

      It can be disheartening to have people leave because we don’t offer the multiple levels of specific programs they may want and/or need. But if we stay faithful, the people who need what we have to offer will find us.

      Let’s serve who we can and be grateful there are others who can serve the ones we can’t.

    2. Paul, where are you at?
      I want to add you, your church, and your community to my prayer wall.
      Be encouraged in what God already has planned!

  3. Thanks, Karl. I once felt that God was asking me, “How big does the church you pastor have to be for you to feel successful in ministry?” Your book seems to be interwoven in that question. And it has changed my response.

    1. I have always been asked this question when people find out I am a Pastor, “HOW LARGE IS YOUR CONGREGATION”? Had to pass that Test and learn not to be ashamed. Then would here others say, about other small churches, Oh they will never get anywhere, they are still small. I wrestled with that for several yrs. Then one day, the Lord spoke to me , you do not have to have a large church to please me, just keep obeying your call and I am Pleased with you. Been content in my Call ever since!!!

      1. James and Patsy, I’m so thrilled that we’re starting to change the conversation and perceptions about church size and success – one pastor at a time.

        You’re right about how that gets perceived, Patsy. It’s great to hear how the Lord has changed that for you and given you contentment.

  4. Hi, Dave! I think this is right on the money, Likely, in the near future, we are going to see only 2 types of churches, Mega and Mini. Additionally, I think we are moving more and more towards amalgamation of denominations and groups will have to cross the denominational divides to survive. Millennials are not nearly as concerned about ‘denomination’ as they are about community.

  5. Funny. I see that happening in our “community” – the breaking down of denominational walls. It’s just kind of “happened.” A couple of years ago, my husband (and A/G pastor) and a friend of his (a baptist pastor) switched pulpits for a day. It was really neat. They also, as just a show of unity, have keys to each other’s churches. Not to use them…but just to say as a reminder, we are one. We’ve colaborated on different occasions together for ministry events.
    We also have a Bible Camp here in our county. We affectionately call it a “Bapti-menno-costal” camp. It’s run by our Mennonite community, has a Baptist staff pastor (my husband’s friend) and us Pentecostals work at it (my husband has been camp speaker, I’ve been official story teller for kids camp, nurse (ha), and craft coordinator…we also do bus runs. Our main goal? To see souls saved and delivered in our community by working TOGETHER.
    You know – I’ve heard before, that instead of asking God to join with us in what WE’RE doing…that we should find what HE’s doing and join Him. Just donned on me, that what I see Him doing is breaking down walls and pulling us together for possibly one last “get er done” before He comes.

    1. While I’m appreciative for my denomination, they just don’t matter as much as they used to for most people. We need to adapt to that new reality because, like you said Cindy, this breaking down of denominational barriers looks like something God is doing.

    2. I wish we ,would see that in my community. The walls are still up, even between like kind churches (if you know what I mean). I feel that the Lord is about to do a work in this area and that He has called us to lead in it. (Prayers needed.)

  6. Great Article. I think this goes along with the high value of “3rd spaces”. I have this coffee house that I go to every day, not because I like coffee all that much, but because of the quality of the business. They are friendly, the environment feels like home, and I never feel out of place. And these are all things that the owner, Beverly, is intentional about. She knows that there is value in doing the hard work to make people feel like they can rest in her business. I think Churches can learn from these kinds of things, that they can have the “book club with a soul”, but only if they do the hard work of making the environment that they exist in, one that allows that to happen.

    1. I couldn’t agree more. Being intentional about relationships is central to the mission of the church. We ought to do it at least as well as coffee shops do.

  7. In America, we learn to build big churches by tailoring our “products and services” according to what the consumer (church shopper) is looking for. Rather than build churches for those who are looking at “what we have to offer”, let’s build churches with those looking to offer what they have (= a small church, because there are fewer of these types of Christians in our culture). Where are the servant types who join a church in order to give…to offer what they have? Don’t choose a church family based on what they can offer you – instead, choose according to which body needs what you have to offer – that might mean helping the small church.

  8. That’s a great way to put it, TT. Whatever size the church is, we do people and the gospel a better service by offering them opportunities to get involved in worship, ministry, etc., rather than just “giving them what they want to hear.”

  9. Thank you for the encouragement. i have been a pastor for 26 years and I was ready to quit until I found your web page. I have always been the pastor of a small church. Please tell me how to change my perception. I am heavy of heart and very discouraged. thank you again.

    1. Hi, Lynn. I’m so glad this blog could be such a help to you. I don’t know that I can tell anyone how to change their perception, but in my book, The Grasshopper Myth, I write about how the Lord helped me change mine. That seems to be helping a lot of other pastors make the perception shift you’re looking for.

      Email me at and we can work out getting a book to you at just my cost.

  10. Hey Karl, this is Pastor James McIntosh, Being in a Bible Belt city Like Springfield, Mo is hard especially being a Pentecostal church because there is a church on practically every corner. Is your church in an area where there is a high number of churches and if it is, what kind of out reaches do you act on and does your book address those topics? Where can I get your Book?

    1. Pastor McIntosh, it is not just the big city. I live in a town of 7,000 in Central Texas. There seems to be a church on every block. They come in every flavor you can imagine. And, we only have some 7,000 people to draw from. It is difficult everywhere. But, it is not impossible to minister to those the Lord sends to you.

    2. Hi, James. I live in Orange County, California. Within a half-hour drive from some of the most well-known megachurches in the world.

      We don’t try to compete with them (since other churches aren’t our competition, anyway), but we work hard to do the Small Church things well. Like fellowship, hands-on pastoring, etc.

      The Grasshopper Myth is about having an attitude adjustment. It’s the starting point of understanding why we’ve gotten to the point that we are, where Small Churches feel devalued. And it offers ways to change that. You can buy the book by scrolling to the top of this page, on the menu bar under The Grasshopper Myth tab. Or click this link.

  11. That was a breath of fresh thinking! I have been the pastor of a small church (under 100) for the last 15 years. Of course my thought when it began was to be the next mega-church and book-writing-bible-toting- mentor-of-leaders kinda mega guy…but God had other plans. God got to my heart to reach people with love and truth the way Jesus did. I’ve wanted to quit a thousand times and, would you believe it, every time just before tossing the proverbial towel I get a call from someone my ministry made a huge impact on. Of course the winds of God blew my pity party away and gave me new hope. I plod along reaching teaching loving and laughing with the group that remains with me. Thank you so much for blowing a little hope and value my way.

  12. Encouraging words! This helps explain some happenings in our church recently. We’ve had three new Millennial families start coming to our church in the last two months. Two very emphatically stated that they were wanting a smaller, less corporate church. However, the real connection came through genuine relationships and love. One family also sought out a place to serve immediately. With Gods help we hope to continue to love and disciple them.

I'd love to hear from you!