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

Cornerstone logoSmall 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 know that’s not the case.

So why are we in an up season currently? I believe that can be illustrated by a stretch of three Sundays that we are in the middle of right now. Each of these weekends draws a beautiful picture of what a healthy Small Church can look like.

There are no quick answers. No one-size-fits-all solutions. There’s no website, seminar or book (aside from the book) that will set your feet on the right path to Small Church bliss.

But just as I hope people have learned from my down seasons, we can learn principles from each other’s good times as well. Principles we can see better in stories than in statistics. Here are three of mine. My prayer is that you can draw hope from these stories for your own church and ministry.


1. Share Weekend – Serving the Community

Share 150Two Sundays ago we had our latest Share Day. We do this twice a year. On Sunday morning, we gather for our regular worship services, followed by lunch together on the patio. Then we divide into 4 or 5 groups and spread throughout the community, wearing matching Share shirts, to serve people who need help.

Over the last few years, we’ve filled up boxes at the local food bank, made blankets for children in crisis, repaired and cleaned homes for orphans and seniors, and much more.

Last weekend we started on Saturday, helping the residents at the state mental hospital, and concluded on Sunday afternoon by cleaning up the local beach, helping the city with a neighborhood event, and telling Spanish-speaking families in a nearby park about the Spanish-language church we’ll be launching soon.

Then we gathered back at the church for dinner, worship and thanksgiving.

But here’s the kicker – the number of people involved in a least one of these weekend events was over 65% of our average Sunday morning attendance. Yes, 65% outreach involvement. No matter how big a church is, that’s a sign of health. 


2. Worship Weekend – Old Friends and a Fresh Spirit

Last Saturday night (two days ago) we held The Gathering. We met at the church at 7pm to hang out on our beautifully-decorated patio for about half an hour. We ate snacks, drank coffee and enjoyed looking at pictures the kids in our Sunday School classes drew of what they think heaven might look like.

Take Refuge

One of the worship leaders that night was one of our former interns who became our worship leader for a while, and is now a youth pastor in another part of the state. Because he and his family came back for this, the weekend became a sort of homecoming. Former church members, interns and others came back to see each other.

We hugged, smiled, kissed newborn babies, patted pregnant tummies and otherwise caught up on life with each other.

Then we gathered inside the church for worship and prayer. There were makeshift coffee tables among the seats, with home made tablecloths encouraging us to “stay & wait”, “be present”, “take refuge” and more.

When worship began, I watched as high school and college students rushed to the front to gather at the altar, raise their hands and sing at the top of their lungs. Young and old worshiped, took communion and prayed for each other for almost two hours. And when we were dismissed, it took a long time for people to filter out and head home.

Clearly, the “good old days” are still here.


3. Baptism Weekend – A Hurting Man Remembers the Pastor Who Loved a Troubled Teen

This coming Sunday, we’ll have a water baptism service on our patio between our worship services. I live in an area where, when local churches have a water baptism, the pastor celebrates “over 800 baptized last weekend!” on his Facebook page the next day.

I am profoundly – literally eternally – grateful for those reports. But that won’t be my report. Our next water baptism will be in single digits. Low single digits. Let me tell you about one of those digits (aka, a person).

About 15 years ago a man was attending our church with his teenage son. He’d been through a messy divorce that was at least half his fault. He and his son were spiritual and emotional wrecks.

Over the course of a few years, I walked with them through problem after problem, mostly of their own making. One day I was asked by the dad if I would drive to the Naval Academy about 100 miles away because his son was being kicked out.

I’m a Small Church pastor, so I said yes. I took the long drive down, picked up his humiliated son and drove him back home. We talked a lot during that two-hour drive. I don’t remember what about. But apparently he remembers it very well.

Last week I got a phone call from the son I drove home that day. His dad passed away several years ago and he’s an adult now. Two months ago his wife of four years died after after fighting a sudden, short and painful battle with leukemia over the summer months. He was driving home from work when she died. He missed saying goodbye by about an hour.

He hasn’t paid much attention to spiritual matters in the last decade, but his wife was a believer and her death has forced him to struggle with God for the last few months. God won.

He’s re-committed his life to Jesus and wants to talk to a pastor about what he’s going through, but the church he occasionally attended with his wife is a large one, so he can’t get through to that pastor. The only pastor he knew to call was the one who took time to help him over a decade ago. The one who drove a humiliated young man home from the Naval Academy without any condemnation.

He caught me up on his story, then told me he would be in my part of the country next weekend. He asked if I would mind baptizing him while he was here.

We don’t have a baptism tank permanently set up at our church. We don’t have the space. But as it turns out, the Sunday he’s here – this coming Sunday – we’re having a water baptism. And he will be one of the “single digits” I’ll baptize.


How Did We Get Here?

There’s no magic bullet for Small Church health. It comes from doing the stuff we all know we need to do, then continuing to do it over a long period of time.

I was the pastor here for over 15 years before we attempted a Share Day (I wouldn’t wait that long again). And we had some iffy Share Days before we developed a system and the leadership to do it well.

We’ve held worship nights that ended with the handful of people who showed up feeling sad and frustrated when they left. So we tried it differently the next time. We kept what worked and tossed what didn’t. We listened to advice from church members and nudges from the Holy Spirit.

The water baptism story only happened because, when the former troubled teen called the only church he knew, the pastor who remembered his name was still here to answer the phone. Sometimes you just need to outlast the bad times.


Numbers That Matter

Community service. Worship & Fellowship. Salvation and Baptism.

Three weekends. Three stories. 21 years as pastor. 100 failures. 101 successes.

That’s what a healthy Small Church looks like.

And yours truly is what a grateful Small Church pastor looks like.


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5 thoughts on “3 Sundays, 3 Stories – Here’s What One Healthy Small Church Looks Like”

    1. Thanks Christine. Too many times our praise reports can add discouragement to those facing challenges. I know Small Church pastors can experience that when reading about other churches having phenomenal growth, for instance. I debated telling these stories because I didn’t want to be guilty of that. I’m glad these stories encouraged you.

  1. Karl, the real encouragement in that for me is that you have persevered there 21 years. I know that while things are healthy now, 21 years anywhere requires times of perseverance! I am committed to serving at my current church just as long as God allows. Thank you for modeling that kind of faithfulness!

    1. You’ve got that right. There have been a lot of ups and downs, including many times when I didn’t know if the ups would eventually outnumber the downs. There’s no substitute for sticking it out. I pray for the same blessings of longevity for you and your church.

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