How to Tell If a Small Church Is Strategic or Stuck

If your church is small because you’re equipping people who worship and minister best within a smaller setting, you’re not stuck, you’re strategic.

Just because a church is small doesn’t mean it is stuck.

But the truth is, many small churches are stuck.

If small churches want to keep being vital elements in Jesus’ Great Commission strategy, we need to be able to tell the difference between a strategic small church and one that’s just stuck.

Here are some starter ideas:

A Church Might Be Strategically Small If It Is:

1) Small For a Reason

For a lot of people, small works.

Even the big guys are finding this to be so. According to an article by Ed Stetzer, while megachurches keep growing, “fewer churches are building large spaces specifically meant to accommodate thousands of people causing many megachurches to switch from building bigger buildings to multiplication of smaller venues.”

Some people worship, fellowship and minister better in a smaller setting. The old stereotype of the stuck-in-the-mud church member who wants their church small to keep things the way they’ve always been is dying out. No, they’re not gone yet, as many of you can attest to, but their days are numbered.

The new “small-church person” is more likely to be young, engaged, tech-savvy and looking for causes and relationships they can engage in within a more intimate setting. We need a lot of churches to be intentional about meeting those needs and equipping disciples.

If your church is small because you’re equipping people who worship and minister best within a smaller setting, you’re not stuck, you’re strategic.

2) Small For a While

This is the spot most small church pastors think they’re in. I know I did. For over two decades in three different churches I thought serious growth was just around the corner. It was a long corner.

As it turned out, my church was small for much more than a while (it still is), so we started being intentional about it.

But some small churches are only small for a while. The problem is, no one knows how long that will last. So here’s my suggestion.

While you’re a small church, be a great small church. Don’t put all your energy into growth. Work on health. It’s better to become a healthy church that grows than an unhealthy one that grows, right?

If your church is small right now, but is being healthy during the time you’re small, you’re not stuck, you’re strategic.

3) Small to Simplify and Streamline

A while ago, I attended a conference of house church leaders. These churches are obviously small on purpose. But they have as much passion for making disciples and advancing the kingdom of God as any church leaders I’ve met.

Every one of them used to be involved in more corporate churches, but they left because the house church allowed them to be more intentional about everything from worship, to discipleship to community outreach.

They weren’t against the more traditional churches (they invited me to speak, after all) but this works best for them and their mission.

If your church is small because you’re reducing overhead and simplifying your life and message, you’re not stuck, you’re strategic.

4) Small for Infiltration

Big cars, trucks and SUVs have value – especially for people who are hauling large items. But they can have challenges around tight corners and in small parking spaces.

Big churches are the same. There are things they can do that smaller churches can’t do. But they don’t fit everywhere.

In places where

  • the church is illegal
  • the people are poor
  • the land is expensive
  • the population is sparse
  • the gospel is new
  • the nation is war-torn
  • the culture is modest
  • or for many other reasons

the churches must often be small.

If your church is small to infiltrate a culture where big churches can’t go, you’re not stuck, you’re strategic.

5) Small By Nature & Gifting

As I described in The Grasshopper Myth, the church I currently serve grew to almost 400 people for a while. When it did, I was miserable and the church was unhealthy. Not because of the increased numbers – I’d worked and prayed very hard for those numbers to increase.

But I discovered that the gift-mix required to pastor a church of 400 wasn’t my gift-mix. I wasn’t unwilling to change, I just wasn’t gifted for the work required at that size. I’m a good small-church pastor, not a good big-church pastor.

Every Christian, every pastor and every church is good at some things and not good at others. That’s what Paul’s body analogy was all about. Don’t despise your place in the body by coveting someone else’s place – or church size.

If your ministry and your church finds its greatest kingdom effectiveness within a smaller setting, you’re not stuck, you’re strategic.

A Church Is Stuck If It Is:

1) Small By Mistake

Let’s face it. Some churches are small because (I hate to say it) they stink.

They’re doing so many things wrong, it’s a wonder anyone attends.

If your church is small because you’re not paying attention to mistakes that need fixing, you’re not strategic, you’re stuck.

2) Small By Exclusion

Very few churches exclude people on purpose. But that makes no difference to the people who feel excluded.

But some churches actually do exclude people on purpose. They have a mistaken theology that is overly restrictive (hello modern-day Pharisees!). They make an issue of things that don’t matter. Then they use their smallness as “proof” that they live in a sinful age in which no one wants to hear the real Gospel that only they are preaching.

They are the righteous remnant. At least in their eyes.

If your church is small because it excludes people based on petty issues, you’re not strategic, you’re stuck.

3) Frozen In Time

No, a church doesn’t need to be filled with teens and twenty-somethings to be fresh and strategic. But too many churches seem more like they’d be comfortable with the way things were 50 or 500 years ago than today.

You can honor the past and still move into the future. The Bible, after all, is almost 2,000 years old and it’s more relevant today than ever.

Most of the beautiful, ornate church buildings in Europe are little more than museums today. But I’ve also been in some gothic-era cathedrals filled with people of all ages and backgrounds, worshipping with a band to the latest chorus, followed by a John Wesley hymn played on their ancient pipe organ.

Honoring your traditions doesn’t mean being stuck in the methods of a bygone “good old days” that probably weren’t so good to begin with.

If your church elevates traditions over making whatever changes are needed to fulfill the Great Commission, you’re not strategic, you’re stuck.

4) Looking Less Like the Community Around You

Many stuck churches look like their community. The community the way it was when the church was built, that is.

No, I’m not saying Christians shouldn’t be set apart from the sinful practices of our community. We are called to be a holy people. And holy means different.

What I’m referring to are the demographics of the community, not its sins.

For instance, a strategically small church in an ethnically diverse community will be an ethnically diverse church. But a church whose average age is 25 years older than the average age in its surrounding community is stuck, not strategic. On the other hand, a church full of seniors in the middle of a retirement village may be meeting the needs of its community just right.

If your church demographics look like the neighborhood used to look, instead of the way the neighborhood currently looks, you’re not strategic, you’re stuck.

Uh Oh! What Do I Do If My Church Is Stuck?

If your church is stuck, it’s not fatal. You can become strategic.

How? I’m glad you asked.

Start with How To Be A More Innovative Small Church (3 Starter Principles).

(Photo by @USArmy | Flickr)


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