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Karl Vaters: The Small Thinking That Divides Churches

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"Most dying churches aren’t dying because of lack of passion … they’re dying because things have changed and they haven’t caught the wind of the change."

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In this excerpt from our Small Church America issue (July/August), Karl Vaters, pastor of Cornerstone Christian Fellowship in Fountain Valley, Calif., and founder of NewSmallChurch.com, shares his thoughts on big thinking, ministry metrics and leading a healthy small church. 

What does that look like—to be a small church with big thinking? How do you embrace being a small church and find meaning within that paradigm instead of obsessively seeking change or growth?

Here’s an illustration that often resonates with people: Imagine if Starbucks’ executives got together and said, “We’ve sent our spies out and measured all the IKEAs in the area. The average IKEA has 250,000 square feet, but the average Starbucks only has an average of 1,000 square feet. We need to get our averages up. We’ve got to get bigger stores. You can drive by one of our stores and not even see it. Some of our stores don’t even have their own property; they’re stuck inside another store. So let’s consolidate some of the stores and make them bigger.” You hear that and you think, “That’s ridiculous. Starbucks’ business plan is different than IKEA’s business plan, and no one can say either one of them hasn’t been successful. Starbucks is about smallness and intimacy, and it works for what they’re doing.”

Small churches are the same way. There are people who like the smaller setting and the smaller place. They discover God more deeply in a smaller setting. They’re more comfortable inviting their friends to a smaller setting. They like that they can ask questions. They like that when they’re in a store and they run into a pastor, the pastor sees them and knows their name. They’re not wrong or selfish for wanting those things.

So it was that premise I started from: the things that a small church can do better—and that’s not to put down big churches. I love big churches. I love megachurches; I want to see more of them. But I want to see more teaching that is applicable to small churches, because we’re taught almost exclusively from a megachurch standpoint using megachurch principles. And there are some principles that megachurch pastors can teach me, but I can actually use less than half of them in my church. The rest of it I have to adapt, and some of it can’t even be adapted.

One of the concerns—or realities—of a small church is diminishing numbers. How do you keep from dying out?

When a church is shrinking, you have to take a look at [whether] a church has the leadership it needs to have. That’s always the first place to look. If you believe God is still calling you there, and the congregation agrees, then the second thing you’ve got to [ask] is if God is challenging you to change your approach, mission or vision. The third thing to look at is the community. Maybe the community and their needs are changing and you missed it. Maybe there’s been an ethnic shift in the community. Maybe there’s been a socioeconomic shift in the community. Maybe there’s been a shift in family relationships in the community.

We have to constantly be aware of changes happening and be ready to adapt. If we get too committed to a single method, to a single type of system or to a particular way of doing things, it will not be long before that system, method or way of doing things will no longer apply. Most dying churches aren’t dying because of lack of passion, lack of experience or even lack of people; they’re dying because things have changed and they haven’t caught the wind of the change. They haven’t been able to adapt quickly enough.

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