Small Church Essentials by Karl Vaters did something for me that I thought wouldn’t happen again, at least not so soon after leaving full-time ministry two years ago; it provided me with hope. Hope in the fact that there were others out there who focused on doing the Jesus stuff well. Hope in the fact small church does not equal failure. Hope in the reality that if churches focus on being healthy, Jesus will do the rest, and that does not equate to making a church huge.

See, I had mostly given up on the current concept of church (as it exists in the US) and really wanted no part of the come-and-watch “concert culture” many churches have become. Karl has restored my hope that a church in America today can be what Jesus intends the church to be. More than that, we need small churches to be great churches, not seeking to become great-big churches, unless that’s what Jesus wants for them.

We need small churches to be great churches, not seeking to become great-big churches, unless that’s what Jesus wants for them. Click To Tweet

Small Church Essentials is now the most highlighted book on my shelf, and I’m not even in ministry! For now…

Did you see the movie “Groundhog Day” with Bill Murray? Remember when he meets Ned Reierson on the street, and whenever Ned helped Bill remember something he would shout, “Bing!”? I found myself repeatedly saying out loud, “BIng!” while reading this book. It was kind of funny.

Who Small Church Essentials Is Written For

While Karl is himself a pastor writing to other pastors, I think the audience net needs to be widened. Not just to other pastors on staff, not just to the assistants, custodians, and volunteer leaders. I think every Christian needs to read this book, regardless of the size of your church.

If that statement intrigues or confuses you, then that right there tells me that you need to read this book. The reason is that everyone in a church participates in the health of a church. Everyone. If your concept of church is that the staff puts on the Sunday service and people come and watch, then you are thinking about small church in an unhealthy way.

Karl does an amazing job of explaining the thinking and the doing behind what small church can and should be. I cannot recommend this book more highly.

“Great churches don’t happen by mistake. No matter what size they are. They take prayer, planning, hard work, cooperation, and the calling of God. But no church can be a great church if they don’t know they can be a great church. Too many small churches and their pastors are laboring under a false impression – a lie, really – that their church can’t be great until it becomes bigger. We need to put that lie to rest, starting in the heart and ministry of every pastor of every small church.” p. 24 Bing!

Book highlights and my story

This might sound like an overstatement, but Small Church Essentials was a kind of therapy for me. It healed some stuff. It encouraged some stuff. It revealed some stuff.

Bible College

“Still today, ministry students are taught how to get through 200 but not how to pastor well under 200.” p. 18 Bing!

My wife and I graduated from Calvary Chapel Bible College in 1995. It was a kind of romantic period in Calvary Chapel’s history. We were taught

  • If you teach the Bible, people will come (you will have a big church).
  • If you go to somewhere in the country and bring this style of ministry to them, you could be the next Chuck Smith or Greg Laurie (you will have a big church).
  • Just teach the Bible and trust Jesus and you will be able to deal with anything that comes up.

For some people that worked. For most, it didn’t.

Looking back, we were equipped with faith in God, faith in the power of the word and the Holy Spirit working together. I still strongly believe that those are essentials. But we were wrongly equipped with the idea that a church that God has blessed, and church that is being done right, will grow into a large church. That is simply false.

NOTE: That was over 20 years ago. Hopefully, things at CCBC have changed. I think Small Church Essentials needs to be a textbook and a class at every Bible school and seminary.

Two Churches, Two “Failures”

10 years after Bible college I started my first senior pastor position. It lasted 7 months. One of the main contributing factors here was that the church was one-year-old, and really hadn’t settled into what it wanted to be. It had no identity internally. There were different groups assuming it was going to settle into what they had in their minds, but these varied between the groups.

If I had had this book then, it would have helped a great deal. I don’t know that it would have helped me successfully navigate all that was happening, but it would have helped big time.

A few years later I found myself stepping in at a small church where there was a leadership vacuum. It was a Calvary Chapel so I took my Calvary Chapel training and soon realized it was inadequate for the task. The Lord wasn’t inadequate, but the only people I knew were large church pastors and the only resources were on making your church bigger. This church needed healing, not size. (In retrospect it needed a lot more, but that’s for another time.)

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“Being small doesn’t mean that something is broken. If something is broken you can’t fix it by making it bigger.”

“Then we wonder why so many pastors leave ministry burned out and disillusions, with damaged churches in their wake.” p. 18

“The size of a church is a huge factor in knowing how it operates, how it ministers, the kinds of people it’s likely to reach, the way its members will be discipled, and the kinds of pastoral gifts and skills needed to lead it.” p. 22 Bing!

We tried for over 7 years. Two name changes, old people left, new people came, moved locations, my wife got burned up and burned out, and in the end, we closed the doors.

“What if God’s plans for our ministry are different than out plans? … And if a lifetime of small church ministry is possible, even likely, shouldn’t we spend time preparing for it?” p. 19

“When you recognize, embrace, and passionately fulfill God’s call on your life to pastor a small church, you will find it to be a profound privilege and blessing – to you, to the people you pastor, and to the community your church ministers in.” p. 19

People Are A Part Of It, Not The Product

Over and over again, I found myself writing in the margin that people in the church need to be aware of and on board with this kind of thinking. I think that too often pastors think of the people in their church as a kind of customer, and the pastor thinks of himself as some kind of marketer. “If I can do things this way, I will get this result from people, and they won’t even know they are doing it.” Not in some sinister manipulative way, though I have seen that also, but because this is what they have been taught to do by books and conferences. As if the idea is to get people from A to B without them even noticing. What is that? It’s not discipleship, that’s for sure.

People in the church need to be included in the process. If there are people that subscribe to the “bigger is better and blessed” model, their thinking will need to change or they will find themselves out of the loop and out the door. When new people come in, very often they come from the “bigger is better and blessed” model and do not stick.

“The idea that everyone is enamored with a bigger room, more people, and high-end production values has never been true. Just as there are people who prefer a local diner to a chain restaurant, there are people who are looking for smaller environments to discover and live out their faith.” p. 32 Bing again!

While I agree that not “everyone” is enamored with this, my experience teaches me that many are. Here in the Pacific Northwest, there is a significant “concert culture.” People like to go and watch concerts. They like to go see something. Because this is what people want, this is what many small and large churches provide, for better or for worse. It works. Many Christians go to multiple churches throughout the week for different “experiences.” I know because they post about it on social media. All the while they don’t participate in the life of any of the churches. They don’t know what they are missing out on.

When this is what people want, and you want to provide something other than this, something that will edify them and not just entertain, it can be very frustrating.

“We can help struggling small churches become healthy small churches. I don’t mean helping churches become healthy as a stepping-stone to becoming bigger, although it’s good if that happens too; I mean becoming healthy as an end in itself. If many of the churches in the world are small, maybe we don’t have a size problem as much as we have a health problem.” p. 34

The Point Of The Book Isn’t Church Size, It’s Church Health

“Your church doesn’t need to be big to do the Jesus stuff well… and the Jesus stuff is all that matters.” p. 43 Bing amen!

I want to make it clear that I’m not anti-big-church and despite its title, Small Church Essentials isn’t either. The point is that regardless of size, a church needs to be healthy. Pastors need to be OK with that. People in the church need to be ok with that. If you don’t know how to be OK with that, Karl is the man to help you understand it. Small churches get healthy in different ways from large churches. Small churches function in a healthy way differently from large churches.

Like the above quote, the goal is to do the Jesus stuff well. I think the Jesus stuff has become muddled up in a lot of other things in our churches. Another great thing about this book is Karl helps to bring these things back into focus which is extremely important in becoming a healthy church.

Get and Give Way This Book

  • If you are a pastor, even of a large church, read this book. It points out some important differences in the way different sized churches operate. Small churches try to function like large ones, and sometimes large ones function like small ones. Neither is healthy. Small Church Essentials will help fix that.
  • If you are a pastor, get some copies for your staff, read it together, and then recommend it to your church. If you have a resource room, library, or bookstore, get some in stock and sell it for cost. If people read it they will get a glimpse of the stuff you deal with. Let’s face it; being a pastor sometimes feels like being “the man behind the curtain.” It will help ease the burden trying to explain why you do what you do. Not all, but some.
  • If you are a member of a church, buy this book for yourself. Do not buy a copy and shove it in your pastor’s face. Read it and start functioning in your church in such a way as to contribute to its health. Your pastor will appreciate it. At some point recommend it to him, if you have that kind of relationship.

I only quoted from the first three chapters of the book. The first half is about changing the way we think about small church. The second half is extremely practical ways to correct problems and become proactively healthy.

Maybe It’s Time

BTW, I am seriously considering some kind of pastoral ministry again. I don’t know exactly what that looks like, but Small Church Essentials had made it much more clear than it has ever been in my life. It’s been a kind of catalyst and my wife blames Karl. 😉

After you buy the book, follow me on social media and here on the blog to keep up to date as to how the grand experiment goes if it ever gets off the ground.