Several months ago I received a tape entitled, “Leading a Small Church” from John Maxwell as part of my subscription to the Injoy Life Club (www.injoy.com).
The tape really hit home because I’ve been serving as minister of a small, rural church for over a year now which God has blessed with renewed numerical and spiritual growth. I was able to relate to many of the comments John shared because of my own real-life situation. I am using the format of his tape and have blended fifteen major LEARNING POINTS of what I believe has helped our church in Eagleville, Tennessee experience the growth we have over the last year. Just for the record, we’ve been blessed by the following over the last 15 months:
- 40% increase in members
- 90% increase in Sunday A.M. Bible class attendance
- 55% increase in Sunday A.M. worship attendance
- 80% increase in Sunday P.M. worship attendance
- 240% increase in Wednesday P.M. Bible class attendance
- 800% increase in youth group
- 102% increase in weekly giving
My goal is to encourage and inspire you if you are a leader in a small church, and if not, give you valuable enough information that it can be used in any setting. In fact, I had an elder from a 600+ member church come up to me after a seminar I presented in January who said, “Archie, this material works for churches of all sizes.”
Robert Schuler wrote, “The greatest churches have yet to be built.” I believe that. That not only applies to new church plants but I also believe that God is going to raise up leaders who will be focused on bringing back the life and vitality to churches that for too long have experienced lethargy and decay. Too many good leaders are gravitating towards the bigger churches while our smaller churches are suffering from a tremendous lack of leadership. I encourage you to hear God’s call in your life to help lead an existing small church to renewed growth and vitality.
The key? It begins with you, the leader. John Maxwell states, “You’ve got to be ready to lead on the inside before a church will be great on the outside.”
Although I believe deeply that it is God who ultimately brings growth to churches (Col. 2:19) I know that in reality it begins with the desires of the leaders who serve within local churches.
If the leaders have a desire to see their church family grow there’s a good chance that will happen. If the leaders are satisfied with the status quo and have the attitude, “We like things like they are”, there’s not much hope for that church to grow no matter what God’s desires may be. God has always desired the best for His people but we have not always responded the way we should. That leads me to the first Learning Point:
Learning Point 1:
Leading a small church to health and vitality is a difficult job.
Let’s admit it. It’s not easy to lead a small church, especially a church where decline has been the norm. As in labor pains a baby is born and grows, so also a church goes through different cycles as it grows. And many times it is painful. It’s not an easy process. I attended a conference about ten years ago called “Breaking the 200 Barrier”. The key word was “barrier”. There are barriers and limitations that you will face when leading a small church. Let me give you some of those limitations:
LIMITATIONS OF A SMALL CHURCH
A. Limited People. There’s just not a lot to work with in a small church, especially when it comes to mature Christians. John Maxwell says that the number one issue facing small church leaders today is mature and contributing Christians. I agree. Our members may be mature in age but not mature spirituality. I’ve got some 65 and 75 year old babes in Christ at our church in Eagleville. And many have been Christians for 30, 40 and 50 years. And yet they are still babes. One major issue I faced was having spiritually mature people to teach Bible classes.
Learning Point 2:
Go with what you’ve got and God will give you more.
We needed a teacher for one elementary class and I ended up asking a young lady to teach who was attending our services but not yet a member. She did a great job teaching and within the next month she and her husband, who is not yet a Christian, and their two children, expressed their desire to make Eagleville their church home. They’ve been a great addition to our family.
Sometimes God doesn’t give us more because we haven’t used what we already have. Don’t get discouraged by what you don’t have, focus on what you do have.
B. Limited Finances. When I first came to the Eagleville church the giving was around $500 a week. That’s not a lot to work with. Finances were a huge barrier. In fact, although our church has been in existence for over 120 years they have never had a budget. We’d come to business meetings, the treasurer would tell the men how much money was in the bank account, and then they’d spend it. What do you think the response was when I suggested a budget? It was not good, to say the least. “We’ve been doing it this way for 120 years….” You can complete the sentence. But the budget was needed. Every year the church was spending more than it was taking in. We’ve now just finished our second annual budget. Our giving continues to grow. We had a surplus last year and spent twice as much than the previous year. Once people can see ahead where the money is going they want to participate in greater ways.
Learning Point 3:
Developing a boldness about giving is non-negotiable for a growing church.
The first thing I did was to help our members understand what stewardship was all about. I believe that if you handle the lordship issue in a person’s life the giving will follow automatically. John Maxwell states that you need to have a boldness based upon: (1) Biblical Truth: The Bible is clear that all we have is the Lord’s; (2) Personal Conviction: You have to believe that generous giving will make a difference in their lives; (3) Personal Generosity: You yourself have to take the lead in giving. People do what people see. My wife and I take the lead in this area. You’ve got to do the same; and (4) An understanding that people want to give to that which they believe in. I can’t over emphasize that. Our giving has doubled for that reason alone.
C. Limited Facilities. Our building seats 110 comfortably. I know that because we had 122 on Easter Sunday last year and we were very, very cozy. We are already reaching the attendance levels to start thinking about two services. Most church consultants will tell you when you get to 80% capacity you need to start thinking in that direction. We’re also really limited on classroom space. We’ve had wonderful growth in our youth group and we quickly outgrew our teen class. We wanted to continue the growth so we decided to meet on Wednesday nights at the Eagleville Community Center with a program we call Youth Alive!. We’ve been averaging 20-25 in attendance and had 49 attend this past Wednesday night.
D. Limited Time. Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither are great churches. Many of you may be bi-vocational ministers and to you I give you my highest admiration. It’s tough balancing secular work and ministry. It’s also tough for our elders and deacons to find the time to meet and plan when they also have very busy schedules.
E. Limited Victories. This is huge. Most small churches have a very low self-image of themselves, and Eagleville was no exception. Joe Namath said, “When you’re winning nothing hurts.” Well, the opposite is also true. When things are not going well everything hurts.
Learning Point 4:
Make it a goal to help your church achieve one small victory every month.
This can come from a special offering, an attendance drive, or a “big day”. Big days can be an Easter service, Bring-A- Friend Sunday, a special Mother’s Day program, a Sunday School Attendance Drive, etc. These “big days” help to create excitement and expectancy for the future. One of the biggest days we had was a remodeling day. Remodeling is huge. Our educational and fellowship area was in the basement and it was like walking into a dungeon. It was dark, mildewy, crickets jumping around. It was bad! Can you imagine us trying to attract young families and their children from the community?
We planned a work day and painted everywhere, laid new carpets, put up new 4-bulb fluorescent lights (it’s amazing what bright lights can do for people’s attitudes), and painted colorful murals on the walls. Our members came downstairs the next Sunday and they were beaming! The added benefit of a work day is it allows people to pick up paint brushes and hammers and get in there next to people they don’t get along with. One member that I could tell I had a problem with came to the work day. I made sure I rolled paint next to him for two days. It really helped!
F. Limited Vision.
If you’re the leader the church may be small on the outside but on the inside of you it should be growing and dynamic. Every church grows first within the leader.
Learning Point 5:
The size of the vision is based on the size of the leader and not the size of the church.
Don’t let the “smallness” or “ruralness” diminish your vision. Sure, it can be discouraging at times. But I have found more satisfaction serving a small church than I ever did in a large church. Are you unsatisfied serving in a small church? You might need to re-examine your motives for ministry. Are you waiting for your next, “big” church to preach your best? Here’s a thought: preach your best where you’re at.
G. Limited Influence. Most small churches have limited influence in their community not because of the size of the church but because they are ingrown. Most small churches have the attitude “Us four and no more”. They are inward thinking instead of outward thinking. You’ve got to change their thinking in that area.
H. Limited Expectations. Small churches very seldom have high hopes for the future. Eagleville didn’t. I can’t tell you how many members have said to me, “Archie, we had just about given up hope for this church.” I gave out a survey about two months after I came. One of the questions on the survey asked, “How large do you believe this church will be in 5 years?” The majority answered in the 50-100 range. (Well, four people did respond in the 200+ range: my wife, my two sons and one other member)
Learning Point 6:
Cultivating an attitude of expectancy is essential.
For too many churches the expectorant of the people has expired! When small churches are small for a long time, most often it is because of the thinking of the congregation. As the leader you’ve got to stretch the faith of your members.
Learning Point 7:
What most leaders think is the curse of leadership is really the call of leadership.
Most members don’t wake up in the morning and say, “Let’s grow!” or “Let’s get out and evangelize our community!”. If they did they wouldn’t need you. That’s why you’re the leader. Equipping is what we’re suppose to be doing. I had a minister from a small church that was experiencing renewed growth and vitality call me one time and was very frustrated. He said, “Archie, the elders have put the responsibility for training the deacons on me. What am I going to do?” I told him I thought that was great news! I don’t know how many ministers I talk to say they wish they could get their shepherds out of the administrative aspects of the church and heading up ministries, and get focused on prayer, ministry of the word and the care giving needs of the church. It’s our role as ministers to equip people for ministry. Read Ephesians 4 for the basis for this. Sure, it will take a lot of your time in the beginning but the rewards of having well equipped servants will come back ten-fold in the near future.
Learning Point 8:
Go all out for children and youth.
You have to love on and encourage your children and teens constantly. Brag on them at every occasion. I often talk about them from the pulpit and have certain ones come up when they can say all the books of the Bible and they have perfect attendance in Sunday School. We program with our young people in mind. We have special worship songs we sing for our youth every Sunday morning and we send them downstairs on Sunday evenings for a special program of Bible lessons and skits. The result: Our attendance has tripled on Sunday nights.
Last Sunday night our children presented a skit on the life of the Apostles. It was great. The children had a great time doing it and the adults got a lot out of it also. We not only had a record crowd but one couple came from the community to see their daughter in the skit. We’re hoping to soon see them come Sunday morning to our Young Adult Bible class. You’ll find that a focus on the youth fuels and energizes almost every other area of your work.
—————————————————————————- Learning Point 9:
Emphasize your dependence on prayer.
This is important on both an individual and corporate level. So much so that we made prayer a ministry of the church. In fact, in every strategic planning retreat I do with churches prayer is made a ministry in their churches if it is not already. It’s even printed on our planning documents. It’s not optional. Churches must also plan a 30-40 day period of prayer with their entire church family before I come to do a retreat with their leaders. We’ve got to get our focus back on the true power source: God.
We plan and budget for the fellowship and physical plant needs of our churches. We have deacons that serve in each of those areas. And yet, in the area of prayer, we don’t do much to really get our churches focused on prayer. No wonder churches are dying. No wonder their fire has gone out. Imagine seeing someone standing with an electric power cord in their hands and saying, “Hmmm. Why won’t this light work?” We do that all the time in the church. We ask, “Why aren’t we growing? Why is there no life and vitality in our church? Why does it seem like God is not blessing our church?” For heaven’s sake leaders, get the cord plugged back into the power source!
Learning Point 10:
Communicate and educate members on church health principles.
For the first six months I was at Eagleville I preached and taught Bible classes on the subjects of church health, Biblical roles and responsibilities of shepherds and servants, equipping members for ministry, and so on. Our members don’t understand what it takes to grow. You’ve got to take some time to teach them. And let me give you some words of advice: If you’re wondering why all your new programs are not translating into growth for your church the reason is simple. Your church body may be sick. There’s a good reason why the church is likened to a physical body. When our physical bodies are not healthy we don’t function properly. It doesn’t matter how good the program is, it won’t have any impact if your church is unhealthy. Get back into God’s Word. Camp out in Ephesians and Colossians. Teach church health principals and you will find that once your church is healthy again, it “grows as God causes it to grow.” Col. 3:19
Learning Point 11:
Develop a capacity for sustained growth.
What I mean by this is that you have to build a foundation for future growth. We needed leadership at Eagleville so the first thing we did was go through a process of selecting shepherds for our congregation. We then got our deacons and a new ministry system in place. We began Family Care Groups to insure the needs of the church family were being met. We began new Bible classes for all levels even in age groups where we had no children at present. Remember this: if you build it they will come. We did. They came. It’s that simple. The main point here is that you have to begin thinking and acting like a 200 member church if you want to become a 200 member church.
Learning Point 12:
Focus on people’s needs and help them.
If you begin to help people with the difficulties of life they face you will begin to see major changes come in the life of your church. Small churches too often spend their time focused on themselves and their own needs. When I do strategic planning in local churches the first thing we do is focus on the needs of the community. When you look at the people in your city what makes you, as Bobb Biehl puts it in his book, Masterplanning, “weep and pound the table?” And what needs is your church family uniquely qualified to meet?
If your planning process has become a dry routine with no life and no energy the problem is that you went straight to mission and vision without an emphasis on needs. It’s the people in your community that are lost, are physically and spiritually hungry, families that are facing divorce and despair, and lives they are falling apart because of alcohol and drugs that should be driving your planning process, not a secular model.
Learning Point 13:
Seek revival on both a personal and group level.
What most churches need is revival. Let’s hold off on the gospel meetings, for the time being that is. Let’s be honest, they’re not working anyway. Gospel meetings of the past used to be two weeks long. Do you remember why? You’d spend the first week getting the church fired back up before you went out to reach the lost. We decided that two weeks was too much “church” so we did away with the revival part and went right to soul winning. The problem is that we’re trying to use wet kindling to start new fires. It won’t work.
I took our church through a series of lessons on the great revivals in the Bible. We started in 2 Chronicles 7:14. It holds the key to the future revival of your small church: “If my people, who are called by my name will (1) humble themselves, and (2) pray and seek my face, and (3) turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin them and heal their land.” What your church needs is a healing and here’s your key to get it. Will God withhold sending growth to a small church because of the pride and sin of just one person? Absolutely!
Learning Point 14:
Make evangelism the main thing.
Everything we do at Eagleville is focused on winning people for Christ. I talk constantly about our members inviting their friends and neighbors to come and worship with them. We look for every opportunity to get in homes and teach people about the Gospel of Christ. We are training every member to be able to share Christ with a friend and lead them into the Kingdom. Many of our own members did not know exactly what the Gospel was or how to explain it. No wonder we’re not reaching people for Christ.
We’re about to start sending out a bi-monthly community newsletter with basic articles about God, the church, Christian faith and articles on the subjects of marriage and parenting. We also have a large variety of teaching brochures that people from the community can order, including a Bible correspondence course. Winning souls is the most important thing we should be doing as a church.
Learning Point 15:
Seek times of personal renewal with your spouse and family on a frequent basis. —————————————————————————-
This is important. I’m hearing too often about ministers that are leaving the ministry because they have burned out, because they have had an affair with someone at church, or because of other indiscretions including misuse of the internet. Satan is out there, he is alive and well, and he is seeking to devour all of those who choose to preach and teach the unfathomable riches in Christ. I encourage you to be on your guard, be strong and courageous, and pray without ceasing for God’s hedge of protection around you, your spouse, your children and your church family.
May God bless you richly as you seek to bring spiritual and numerical growth and vitality back to your small church!
Our mission at The ChurchPlanning Ministry is to assist churches in their journey towards authentic spiritual renewal and becoming the church of God’s intent. Our ministry work is designed for churches of any size and we offer Strategic Church Planning, Leadership Development and Member Assimilation & Involvement retreats, seminars and resource materials for churches.
For more information about the Strategic Church Planning, Leadership Development, and Member Assimilation & Involvement retreats and seminars offered by The ChurchPlanning Ministry, visit our website at www.churchplanning.com. Or e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.