“So, Will This Session Help My Church Break Through the 200 Barrier? No? Uh… OK…”

Exponential Discipleshift signHelping Small Churches become healthy before they get bigger is a revolutionary idea. It shouldn’t be, but it is. And it probably will be for a while.

But dents are being made. Let me tell you about some that were made this week.

On Wednesday I was honored to represent Small Church pastors by being invited to teach a session at the Exponential West Discipleshift conference – a massive and very well designed seminar for church planters. It was held at Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church. He and his staff did an amazing job serving about 2,500 church planters who overtook their campus for three days.

I am grateful to Exponential, and especially to Chris Lagerlof of Mission Orange County, for the invitation and for acknowledging Small Church pastors in this way.


What to Do Before You Break Through

The title for my session wasWhat to Do Before You Break Through: Leadership and Decision-Making In Churches Under the 200 Barrier.” I’m not a fan of the term “200 Barrier”, but I felt this terminology was more likely to attract church planters than something like “How to Pastor a Healthy Small Church.”

This was an experiment for all of us. Exponential had never featured a session specifically for Small Church Leaders and I’d never spoken at an event of this size before. 

They assigned me to the 8:45am – 9:45am slot in Tent 3. There were about 10 tables set up in the center of the room with chairs around them. This side venue at Saddleback Church is easily 4-5 times the size of my church sanctuary. I can admit now that I was a little intimidated.

I arrived early and worked everything out with Saddleback’s very gracious tech people. After a quick visit and an encouraging “atta boy” thumbs-up from Exponential’s Director, Terri Saliba, I was ready to go.

Pastors started filtering in at about 15 minutes before the session, so I did what any good host should do. I walked around greeting people, introducing myself and answering questions.


You’re Teaching What?

Many of the pastors came in, then looked at the thick event program to confirm they were in the correct room.

It didn’t take long before I received a question I expected. I heard it from a few pastors, actually.

“So I assume this session is about two things, right? How to have a healthy smaller church, then how to grow it bigger?”

“Yes to the first part,” I answered. “No to the second part.”

He looked at me curiously.

“This session is about the importance of having a healthy Small Church,” I continued. “There are a lot of great books, classes and seminars about how to get bigger. My ministry is about pastoring a Small Church well, even if your church never becomes big.”

One pastor responded with “good! It’s about time!” and sat down ready for the session. Others weren’t quite so sure.

With others, I could see the wheels turning. “So…my church has been stuck at around 200 for a few years,” one of them continued. “Will this session help me?”

“I don’t guarantee anything,” I responded. “But I know about feeling stuck. My church is around 200 too, but we no longer feel stuck. And we’re not settling for less, either. I think if you stay for the session you may hear something you can use.”

“OK…” he said, now curious, but still uncertain. “I’m not sure I get what you’re talking about, but it sounds interesting. I’ll stick around.”

And he did.


A Good Day for Small Churches

By the time the session began, I was pleasantly surprised to have a full house. We ran out of handouts quickly. There’s a greater hunger for teaching about healthy Small Churches than most church leaders realize.

I started as I always do with “Hi, I’m Karl and I’m a Small Church pastor.” That always gets a few smiles and chuckles – along with a handful of “Hi, Karl”s.

Then I told them that, although I’ve been a Small Church pastor for over 25 years, I didn’t know I was a Small Church pastor until the last five years. Until then, I explained, I thought I was a big church pastor who hadn’t arrived yet.

That last line had heads nodding all around the room. So many of us know that feeling, don’t we?

Anyway, I don’t need to go through the rest of my hour-long session here. Three-quarters of it has been written either in my book or on this website. And I’ll blog the rest of the points soon enough.

At the end of the session I hung around and chatted again. Some of the pastors who’d asked me questions before the session thanked me for giving them a nudge towards a perspective shift.

Some had tears in their eyes as they shook my hand, said nothing, then left wordlessly. Others shared stories of joy and pain that I promised I wouldn’t tell anyone else.

All-in-all, it was a good morning for Small Churches, their pastors and church health.

But of all the responses I heard, the one that made me smile the widest was five words from the pastor who said he didn’t quite get what I was talking about before the session started.

He shook my hand, nodded his head and said “Thanks. I get it now.”


So what do you think? Is the Lord helping you make the shift from obsessing over numerical growth to striving for health instead?

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(Discipleshift Door Sign photo by Karl Vaters)

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14 thoughts on ““So, Will This Session Help My Church Break Through the 200 Barrier? No? Uh… OK…””

  1. Karl, I recently sharedyour book with my leadership team. I downloaded the sermon you preached based on chapter one where you share your testimony. My team was silenced. One board member asked, ‘ pastor, do pastors and churches really think like that?’ He had no idea. Thanks for your ministry. And my goal is to have a seminar like this in Canada. We need it.

    1. That’s so great to hear, Ralph. That response from your board member is identical to many responses I got from my congregation, too.

      I’m working with some people in Canada. Something could happen within a year or so. Keep praying.

  2. Karl,
    Great post Pal! Those small church pastors actually got the real deal their size on the Saddleback Campus! Kudo’s to the conference planner to include you in the speaking line-up. They got the best of all worlds – the Exponential challenge, the Saddleback encouragement, the Vater’s wisdom! Looking forward to talking with you soon!

    1. That’s a great point, Jeff. When big and small come together some amazing stuff can happen. That may be the essence of what New Small Church and 200Churches are all about.

  3. It is so true that so many small church pastors think of themselves as big church pastors who just haven’t arrived. The truth of that has been hammered home to me for years. My first attempt at ministering to small churches back in the 90s received a grand total of one invitation to help a goals committee with some ideas–that was it and I dropped the idea for years. Since I started again a few years ago with Small Church Tools I have had a little better response, but only a little. Most people want to hear about getting bigger, plain and simple. I am so glad your session went well and I pray you will be able to minister to many more who need to hear your message.
    Terry Reed
    Small Church Tools

    1. Thanks, Terry. It’s an uphill climb alright. But it feels like some things are shaking loose a little. Hopefully this is just the start and that small church principles will be a regular part of conferences like this in the future. Exponential was very kind to me and excited about serving smaller congregations.

  4. It is so funny that they asked you to speak there given the experience that I had at the Exponential Conference back in April. While I was there, I was actually starting to investigate your site and had started reading your book and was just floored by what I was reading. They shortly after the conference I started emailing Terri Saliba about you and was told that I was like the 5th person who had contacted Exponential about seeing if they would include you. The reason I was so adamant about them talking to you, not knowing that they either already had or were planning on it, was because I went to a tract of workshops there that were supposed to be about small churches and small towns, and they had had absolutely nothing to do with either topic. It was just more of the same. So I was encouraged that they were actually going to have someone there who could address those kinds of topics from the posture of experience. Any chance that you will be at the conference in April? I would love to be there and pick your brain a bit.

    1. Thanks for the recommendation, Gary. That was part of Terri’s “atta boy” to me. Right before my session she told me she’d received several requests for me to speak. I didn’t know you were one of them, of course. She mentioned the possibility of the April conference, but I hadn’t presented anything yet, so there were no promises or plans set up. Hopefully the feedback is good enough that April can happen.

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