The Elements of a Healthy Small Church – And the Hidden Agenda that Can Kill It

fingers crossedWhat does a healthy Small Church look like?

It looks like a healthy big church – in all the ways that matter, anyway.

No, a healthy Small Church is not just a miniaturized version of a healthy big church. Pastors who try to do that are usually concentrating on the externals. And it never works out well when we do that.

But underneath, every healthy church looks the same – no matter what size it is, what style of worship it utilizes or what denomination it does (or doesn’t) belong to. The principles that make big churches healthy are the ones that make Small Churches healthy. And the same missteps can kill that health, too.

So the elements of a healthy Small Church are the elements of every healthy church. But what exactly are those elements?


Choose Any Model – But Choose One

One of the foundational principles to having a healthy Small Church is to establish what model you will use to become what God has called you to be. Every church needs a plan. 

I don’t think there’s one right plan for all churches, as long as the model we use is based on the fundamentals Jesus gave us – namely The Great Commission and The Great Commandment. Within that simple framework, each church should use the model that works for them. But it is essential that we pick a biblically-based model and stick with it.

Fortunately, much of this work has already been done for us. There are some great models to help a church understand what a biblical approach to ministry looks like. For example, the Natural Church Development model is based on a long study Christian Schwarz conducted to isolate the elements all healthy churches have in common. He found these eight:

  • Empowering Leadership
  • Gift-Oriented Ministry
  • Passionate Spirituality
  • Functional Structures
  • Inspiring Worship Service
  • Holistic Small Groups
  • Need-Oriented Evangelism
  • Loving Relationships

Any church that has all those elements in balance would obviously be a healthy church.

The most well known and widely used model for a healthy church has been around for centuries, but was brought to the forefront of our thinking when Rick Warren used it as the skeleton for his landmark book, The Purpose Driven Church. That model consists of the following five elements:

  • Worship
  • Discipleship
  • Fellowship
  • Ministry
  • Evangelism

Any church that has all those elements in balance would obviously be a healthy church. Unless


Why We Do Them Matters As Much As What We Do

Unfortunately, while those lists are what we say we want for our church, too many church leaders have a (not so) hidden agenda behind them. I know, because I’ve had that agenda myself.

We don’t say it out loud. Many of us haven’t admitted it to ourselves, so we may not even realize we’re doing it. But right now, perhaps for the first time anywhere, I will restate this list and show you the hidden agenda I have often seen behind each of these points:

  • Worship – so the church will get bigger
  • Discipleship – so the church will get bigger
  • Fellowship – so the church will get bigger
  • Ministry – so the church will get bigger
  • Evangelism – so the church will get bigger

Any church that does those elements with that agenda behind them will not be a healthy church. No matter how well they do them.

But why is that agenda a problem? After all, we want the church to grow, right? Right.

It’s a problem because why we do things matters – a lot.

For example, why do we worship? So there are more people sitting in my church building this Sunday? Or should there be a deeper purpose than that? And if we’re not doing it for the right reason, can we really call it worship?

It’s important, especially in church leadership, to do the right things for the right reasons. Because the wrong reasons can turn right things very wrong, very easily.


Do the Right Things for the Right Reasons

So, what are the right reasons to do the five elements on the Purpose Driven Church list? Or the eight elements on the Natural Church Development list? Or however many elements are on the model you use?

The reasons need to look something like this:

  • Worship – to tell Jesus how much we love him
  • Discipleship – to help us become more like Jesus
  • Fellowship – to love each other more
  • Ministry – to meet people’s needs
  • Evangelism – to bring people to Jesus

Doing the right things for the right reasons will always produce a healthy church, even if it doesn’t always build a big one – although there have been many big churches built on the right reasons.

If we lead the church God’s way for God’s purposes, sometimes that will result in the numerical growth of our congregation. Sometimes it won’t. But it will always result in the growth of the kingdom of God – and that’s all that really matters.


So what do you think? Have you ever found yourself doing the right things for the wrong reasons?

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(Fingers Crossed photo from mndcpr • Flickr • Creative Commons)

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23 thoughts on “The Elements of a Healthy Small Church – And the Hidden Agenda that Can Kill It”

  1. I just concluded a series of sermons on the purposes of the church. I’m really glad to read this article because it reaffirmed much of what I covered in those messages. I told our church that we need to focus on doing what the church is called to do in the way we are best able to do it and let the numbers take care of themselves. Good stuff!

    1. Despite all the temptations to be cynical about the church and the ministry, I’m convinced that the majority of pastors are people like you, Paul. Godly servants, doing the right things for the right reasons and leading their congregations well. Way to go.

  2. Great article Karl. It’s hard to be radically honest with ourselves sometimes. In the past it’s felt like our staff was drowning in information and tools to “make the church bigger” and we never addressed the reasons why we wanted to grow. In the last year and a half we’ve changed that and now we have not only a healthy model, but also healthy intentions. Thanks for the reminder!

  3. I think that one of the missing elements from most of the above categories is creativity. Small churches must rely heavily on being creative. I also believe that we rest to heavily on per-packaged materials in our discipleship, worship, etc.

  4. The “new and improved” model of health made me teary eyed. I don’t really ever think I’ve seen it put that way before.
    Why is this so hard for so many (who write books, conduct seminars, lead workshops) to understand?
    We are told, as a small church, that using CDs for our music (because we don’t have any musicians) won’t grow our church. You need a stellar band!
    But if our worship, using CDs is the best we can do with what we have – and it leads us to honoring and loving Jesus – then why isn’t that good enough?
    If the small church could just get the whole – make Jesus the center- of everything…how FREEING would that be? How encouraging! Do what we were called to do and let God handle the rest…really!
    I feel inspired.
    Just might have to share this one with my sheep!

  5. Since our Pastor has fallen ill and i have been standing in for him; I’ve found that the ‘why’ of doing church is most important. That was an awesome post which affirms a lot of what God has been speaking to us lately. I’m glad i found this site. It has taken much of the pressure of’ growing the Church’ of us and we have been leaning toward being healthy….which when we have converts gives them a safe place to begin their journey as Christians. To me that is one of the points of being a healthy church.

    1. Keep at it, Keith. I’m glad I could help affirm the good work you’re doing. And I pray your pastor gets well soon. Wouldn’t it be great if he could come back to a stronger church than the one he left? That would be a great affirmation of the work you’re doing and the seeds he’s planted.

  6. Simon Osunlana

    What I like about this article is the assurance it gives to small church pastors that they are not out of line with God simply becuase they are pastoring a ssmall church. I also like the way you separate a stuck church from a small church. I think wrong teachings always lead to wrong believing and wrong believeing produces nothing but wrong living. Many small churches have been made to belive that they must be doing something wrong otherwise they would have become big church numerically. But being a healthy small or big church serves the purpose of the kingdom of God more. Thank you Karl.

  7. Thank you for this article. I have been racking my brain about the church I pastor. It has been a roller coaster of a journey. But now I have come to the reality that I have a small healthy church. This has let me see and realize that all churches have their roll in the life saving gospel of Jesus Christ whether large or small. Thank you for encouraging me. I NEEDED THIS!!!

      1. I needed that perspective. It was a time when I thought “is this church going to grow, should I give it up?” But after reading your article I Know that every church is vital. Thanks again and may the Lord bless your ministry!

        1. I have been the Pastor of this church for nearly 4 years now. We’re in the Bible belt where there are literally churches on every corner but knowing and realizing that there are unchurched people everywhere keeps me focus that Jesus is doing a work in our church and His presence is always there. It’s amazing. I find that the size of congregation doesn’t measure the Lord’s presence. I am just glad that we have our own ark of the covenant presence of God!

  8. Pastor E.M. Thrash

    Thank God for your struggle with this matter because I am struggling with it too. I think your new view of a small church is exactly what I need to investigate.

  9. Thanks Karl for this post and this site. I’ve been reading these posts for quite a while now. My only question, how do you have time to read all the comments?
    I think that sometimes (in the case of my church for example), we have a certain model that we are told to follow that just might not work for our church because of size, culture, etc…

    1. Thanks for your kind words, Andrew. Actually, reading the comments isn’t hard. I get two or three a day – maybe five or six on a busy day. On your second point, I completely agree. Most of us have a very limited vision of what church should look like, but that model isn’t right for everyone. For Small Churches especially, trying new models is vital for our ministry and our future.

  10. Dear Karl – thank you so much for this post!!!!

    I followed the link to Natural Church Development and found materials that will significantly change (for the better) my efforts to serve my small Jewish congregation.

    Between your work (essential blog posts and The Grasshoppper Myth) and that of Dan Reiland, Dave Jacobs and the 200Churches Podcast (lots of podcast listening) and now Natural Church Development (NCD) books (Natural Church Development, Implementation Guide and Color Your World), the past days and weeks have been extraordinarily important.

    I would not have found the NCD information without this blog post and consider myself led through your work to information that will raise me up as a better leader and then give me the tools to raise up leaders for God’s work in the congregation I serve. Between the spark of online reading on NCD and then Amazon Prime overnight delivery of the three NCD books, within 24 hours I feel like I’ve left Egypt and already made it into the Promised Land. While I know it’s not that easy and that I need to be careful and thoughtful and prayerful, for the first time in 12 years here I have hope. I may be overstating it, but I am thrilled.

    I know I am working from a different religious framework, but our efforts to build God’s kingdom among the people of God arises, in my mind, from the same desire to strive for holiness and faithfulness to our being created in the image of God, regardless of our major differences.

    Many blessings on your ministry. Anne

  11. Hi, I’m Ken and I’m a small Church Pastor. Thank you for this post Karl. It came at a very important time for me. I found about you when my daughter came back from a Children’s ministry conference. I finally got the Kindle version of The grasshopper Myth. I am thankful that I am off this weekend because otherwise I would be two days behind. I just couldn’t stop reading it. Thank you for putting so well all of the things I have been thinking for a while now.

    Let me tell you a bit more about our little church. We have been in existence for 50 years but 10 years ago the church went into an ill-advised restart. Since that time the church has been homeless and drifting, renting from one place and then another. When I took over as pastor (2 years ago) I found a church that had simply lost its way. They were 30 people meeting in a rented Seventh Day Adventist facility that seats close to 400. Shortly after my arrival half of those people left. Over the next year we set about rebuilding the heart of the church. A year ago we started looking for a place of our own. We ended up purchasing an office/retail space in downtown Sonora, CA. It is a small town in the Mother Lode south east of Sacramento. I have been working in this area of town for the whole time I have been here working with the disenfranchised, and bohemian (that’s the best way I can describe them) people who live and hang out here. Some are homeless but most are not.

    The thrust of what we are doing here is finding needs and then doing what we can to meet those needs. The majority of those needs are not as much financial as they are spiritual and emotional. For that reason our primary ministry is to simply love them. Our goal is to provide a safe place for them to discover/rediscover the hope that is found in Christ.

    During that time we have come a long way towards being a healthy church, doing the right things for the right reasons. However, the finances of the church have begun to be a problem, not because of the new building as it added very little to the budget, but because the excess funds that were saved up in the year they were without a pastor is running out.

    When I read this post, I realized that I was starting down the wrong reason road. I know that God will provide, but I was being tempted to start seeing the purpose for the mission of the church was to increase our (my) income. Thanks for jerking me back to reality.

    Now, do you have any advise for getting rid of this lump on the side of my head? 😉

    1. Thanks for sharing your story here, Ken. I’ve lived in Modesto and Susanville, so I’m familiar with Sonora.

      I’m so grateful that what I’ve written has been a blessing for you.

  12. Thank you Karl! My husband and I are pastors of a small church, and we have sometimes felt like giving up because we felt God would be sending more people if we were really called to pastor. God continues to whisper to me, “I have provided,” and He has. He has provided everything we need even though we are tired and short of solid leaders. We are healthy because our motives are in line with God and His Word. Nothing else. It is reassuring to know that we can be small and healthy! Thank you, again! I feel a weight lifted today!

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