9 Essential Elements of a Healthy Small Church Experience

When someone goes to a healthy Small Church for the first time, what should they expect?

That’s an easier question to answer for big churches, because they have a lot more in common with each other. Once any group – church or not – is serving 1,000 or more people at a time, certain systems have to be in place. So, while big churches each have their own personality, there is a level of quality control that we all expect to see. Age-appropriate Kid Ministries, high-end musicianship, professional-quality graphics and printed materials, etc. It’s like going to a brand-name restaurant when you’re travelling. There’s a comfort level in knowing what you’re going to get.

But the kinds of experience you’ll have in Small Churches vary widely. It’s more like visiting a new town and deciding to check out the local diner. You don’t know what you’re going to get, but you take the risk because you want local cuisine. And you’re hoping for an experience you can’t get anywhere else.

But, even in a Small Church, as varied as they are, first-time guests have the right to expect certain things that tell them the church is healthy. Like a local restaurant should observe standard requirements for cleanliness, service and food quality, Small Churches should have a baseline of quality that people can rely on.

In one of my most-read posts, 23 Non-Numerical Signs of a Healthy Church, I wrote about some of the ways we can tell if a church is healthy, even if we don’t have the numerical growth that many seem to believe is a requirement.

Here are a few things that I think are a baseline that every guest has a right to expect in any healthy Small Church. These are universal. The standards every church needs to observe if they want to create a great worship experience that people will want to come back for.

When We Treat Small Churches Like a Problem, We Get More Problem Churches

Church leaders are always wringing their hands about the problem of Small Churches.

I heard it again recently. A church leader complained that 90% of the churches in their group had less than 200 in attendance, then introduced a plan for getting those numbers up.

(Never mind that the “90% under 200” figure is shockingly consistent across all church groups – which should make us consider that maybe God is up to something with that.)

I watched as many of the pastors in the room tried to hide their “here we go again” faces. Then I left the room wondering again about what happens when we do what that church leader did.

As I was pondering the implications, this question hit me over the head like a hammer.

If Small Churches weren’t seen as a problem, would they stop being a problem?

Think about it. When we treat people like they’re problems, they become problems. When we treat them like they’re a blessing, they often become the blessing we see.

Churches are the same.

Small Church Ministry: A Stepping-Stone Or a Place to Stand?

You know that pastor you run in to at church conferences who’s always looking over your shoulder to see if there’s someone better to talk to?

A lot of us may be doing that to the church we’re pastoring.

In a recent comment on, a reader named Tom Burkholder wrote this: “As a bi-vocational pastor for over 23 years there are very few fellow ministers who do not see small churches as stepping stones instead of real long-term ministries.”

I responded to him this way:

“That’s a great point about stepping-stones, Tom. I think one of the big reasons many Small Churches stay unhealthy when they don’t need to, is that too many pastors aren’t putting their heart into the Small Church ministry they have.

“Instead, they’re looking for something bigger – or they put all their energy into making their Small Church bigger, instead of healthier. This makes the church they are supposed to be pastoring feel overlooked and neglected. That’s not a great recipe for a healthy ministry or a healthy church.”

Don’t Try To Be Successful – Try To Do Good Work

I’ve always tried to live my life and do ministry by this rule: Don’t try to be successful. Try to do good work. Not people-pleasing work, God-honoring work Not self-promoting work, Christ-magnifying work Not numbers-driven work, Spirit-led work The one time in my ministry that I abandoned this principle and did things for the numbers, I …

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3 Sundays, 3 Stories – Here’s What One Healthy Small Church Looks Like

Small Churches have down seasons and up seasons. And those seasons can switch very fast. Monday morning fast. The church I pastor has been experiencing an up season for a while now – several years, in fact. I wish I could say it’s because of my flawless leadership skills, but if you’ve read The Grasshopper Myth, you …

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Unhealthy Churches Should Not Act Like Healthy Churches – Until They Are

There are a lot of books and articles about how a healthy church should behave. That’s appropriate. We should always have a picture of our desired future in our hearts and minds. But what does a pastor do with an unhealthy church? I’m going to propose a radical idea that shouldn’t be considered radical at …

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

Helping 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 …

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The Myth of Inevitable Church Growth

A healthy church does not inevitably mean a growing church. I used to believe that it did. After all, I’ve read about the “truth” of inevitable church growth in every church leadership book written in the last 30 years. I even taught it myself.

I don’t believe it any more. It’s a myth. The reason I no longer believe that numerical growth is inevitable for a healthy church has to do with one problem that kept presenting itself…

The evidence stubbornly refuses to back it up.

We’re Pushed to Build Bigger Churches – Who Catches Us When We Fall?

The push to build bigger churches continues full steam ahead in many (maybe most) American denominations. In the past few weeks, I’ve received several cries for help from Small Church pastors because of the damage this push is causing. Today I’m posting two of those messages. One was a comment on this blog. The other was a …

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What If We Made Disciples and Left Church Growth to God?

We’re often told that one of the reasons so many churches remain small is lack of faith. But I wonder… could it be that the reverse is true? Might our obsession with bigger and bigger churches be rooted in a greater lack of faith?

Have we been afraid that God might not do his part (building his church) if we’d simply be faithful to do our part (making disciples)? Is it possible that the glut of church growth books, seminars and classes in the last few decades been our attempt to help God out?