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.
What to Do Before You Break Through
The title for my session was “What 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?
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?
We want to hear from you. Yes, you!
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(Discipleshift Door Sign photo by Karl Vaters)