#BestOf2014: How to Tell If Your Small Church Is Strategic Or Stuck

strategically smallWhat if Small Churches aren’t a problem to be fixed, but are part of a strategy God wants to use?

How many of us have even considered that possibility?

And if it is possible, shouldn’t we know that and try to get on board with it?

In a recent post, Is Your Church Stuck Or Just Small? I proposed the idea that just because a church is small doesn’t mean it is stuck.

But the truth is, many Small Churches are stuck.

So let’s take it one step further today.

If Small Churches are a part of God’s strategy, how can we tell the difference between a strategic Small Church and one that’s just stuck?

I’ve been mulling a few ideas about this. Here’s what I’ve come up with so far.

This isn’t even close to a definitive list, so feel free to add some of your own in the comment section.

This article was originally posted on June 19, 2014. It wasn’t one of the most-read posts of the year, but I think it’s worth a second (or first) look as one of the overlooked #BestOf2014.


 A church might be strategically small if it is…

1) Small For a Reason

In a lot of communities and for a lot of pastors and church members, 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. As it turned out, my church was small for a lot longer than a while, so we started being intentional about it. (see above)

But some Small Churches really 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 & Streamline

A few months 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 left because they found that they could be truer to their faith and intentional about everything from worship, to discipleship to community outreach in a church that has limited overhead and minimal structures to maintain.

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 have challenges at the mall, because they can’t always find a parking space that fits.

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 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 describe in The Grasshopper Myth and in the post, Why My Church Is Better at 200 than It Was at 400, the church I currently pastor 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. Not that I didn’t try. 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.


It’s stuck if it is…

1) Small By Mistake

Let’s face it. Some churches are small because … well … they stink.

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

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 where 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 dress casually, have all new worship songs or be filled with hipsters to be fresh and strategic. But too many churches seem more like they’d be comfortable living 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 Hillsong 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.

I’ve written on this a lot. My suggestion is to start with these articles to get some fresh ideas:

Then you can browse through the rest of myInnovative” series of posts by clicking here:



So what do you think? Have you ever considered what it means for your church to be strategically small?

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

(Chess Pawn from Indi Samarajiva • Flickr • Creative Commons license)

5 thoughts on “#BestOf2014: How to Tell If Your Small Church Is Strategic Or Stuck”

  1. I would say ours is #5 – mostly, and it encourages me that we can do things within that to make us healthier and stronger….but also another category that isn’t listed.
    If you’re small from being hurt.
    Hurt by people’s sins and poor choices.
    Hurt by things out of your control (deaths, sickness, bankruptcies, family struggles..etc.)
    Hurt by the economy.
    Hurt by local migrations out of your community/layoffs/life in general in your area that is poor – people just surviving.
    Hurt by a ‘church past’ that you may (as a pastor) have had nothing to do with, but live with the consequences. (For example, maybe a church split…)
    Hurt by denominational discrimination. (Believe it or not, in some areas, Pentecostals are still seen as a “snake handling, jumping pew, holly rollers)
    Hurt by natural disasters: fire, tornado, hurricane, flood etc…and perhaps, from being small to begin with, a church can’t bounce back and continues to get smaller.
    Hurt maybe by another church – I debated including this one – but to not do so, would not be realistic. It happens. Many large churches, become large, not because of revival or a steady growth of salvations – but become big, quickly from other believers from other churches: one church’s growth results from other church’s decrease. (Case in point: When I was in college as a freshman, I attended a little church plant that was meeting in a vacant car lot. They were small – probably 20-30 people. It was too far for me to drive, but I was curious as to what a church plant was – this was in the early 90’s. I was in college for 5 years. In that time, that small church went from a car lot to a HUGE facility, 100’s of people and is one of the biggest churches in that city and if I named the pastor I’m sure you’d know him. He’s a good man. It’s a good church. But I can honestly and completely say that within that 5 year time span there wasn’t a huge revival in our city. There weren’t hundreds of conversions. As a Bible college student, we would’ve known. Where did all of those hundreds of people come from?)
    Becoming small or continuing to be small from being ‘hurt’ or a victim (and I hate using that word, but I can’t think of another one) of a ‘series of unfortunate events’ – is just strange.
    It’s a stumper for me.
    I look at each of these things and think, “How can ANY of these be preventable?” What could you possibly do to ‘FIX’ any of those things? And does the ‘fall-out’ need fixing? How does a pastor keep the ‘fall-out’ from destroying his church? (Like if a series of events sends the church on a downward spiral – and folks get an ‘abandon ship’ mentality)

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  3. Rev. Dr. Jeff Knighton

    Well spoken from the depths of experience. It was “light bulb” important to read someone say it’s OK to be a better small church pastor than a poor big church pastor, which is part of what I read here. And the ideas offered for assessing this church are ideal for this time in our life together. We are presently assessing our strengths and abilities in order to determine our Caling from the Lord. Thanks. And may God abide in continuing to bless NewSmallChurch.

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