How to grow a small church

“It doesn’t matter to the Lord whether He saves by the few or by the many” (I Samuel 14:6).

Depending on a number of factors, growing a small church is one of the more do-able things pastors can achieve.

Those variable factors include…

–the health of the church.  Now, you don’t want a sick church to grow; you want it to get well first. In an early pastorate, I told the congregation, “There’s a good reason no one is joining this church.  I wouldn’t join it either!” Believe it or not, those words were inspired and they received them well, and repented. (I explained that there was a bad spirit in the membership, people were engaging in idle gossip, and the love of God was missing.  When we extended the invitation, the altar was filled with God’s people praying. We began to have a genuine revival that day.)

the attitude of the congregation. If the people are satisfied with the status quo, they would not welcome newcomers.  I’ve known a few Sunday School classes composed of long-time best friends who felt imposed on by visitors and offended by new members.  No one wants to go where they’re not wanted.

the location of the church campus.  A church situated five miles down an isolated road, at the end of the dead end trail–I’m thinking of one in particular!–can almost certainly forget about growing.

The great thing about pastoring a healthy, small church is you can make a big difference in a hurry.

My seminary pastorate had run 40 in attendance for many years. The day the little congregation voted to call me as pastor, I overheard a man saying to another, “This little church is doing all it’s ever going to do.”  I was determined to prove him wrong.

Within one month, we hit 65 in attendance.

What had happened is this…

Reading the minutes of the church’s business meetings, I discovered we were within five weeks of our 20th anniversary. So, I simply announced the following Sunday that “May 20 is our 20th anniversary, and we’re going to have a Homecoming.”  I announced our attendance goal as 65, and said, “If we hit this goal, I’ll sing you a solo.”

I had never sung a solo in my life, but they didn’t know that. (Neither did they care, but I didn’t know that.)

My enthusiasm caught on and people began to talk about May 20.  I sent out letters and made phone calls.  And fortunately, some relatives visited us that weekend. (Smiley-face goes here.)

We hit 67 in attendance.

And–this is important–we never looked back.  By the time I left that church, over two years later, we were running 120 in attendance and placing folding chairs in the aisles.

Such growth–tripling in less than three years–is much easier in a small church.  In our case, it involved such factors as newcomers flowing into our area from other states, there being only one other viable Baptist church as an alternative, and publicity to alert the surrounding neighborhoods to our presence.  I led a healthy program for our youth and that drew in families.

It was a fun time in my ministry.

Advantages of the smaller church

Pastoring a small church usually means the pastor has everything to do himself. But that’s not all bad. There are a number of advantages to it.  The pastor has fewer leaders to deal with, he can know all the members, and change can come more quickly. After all, a Volkswagen Beetle can turn around in less space than a steam locomotive.

Here are some suggestions on turning around that VW Beetle, aka, the smaller church.

Let’s say you are the new pastor of Smaller Church No. 2 located on Poplar Springs Road, twelve miles out of the city.  Forty people is a good crowd on Sunday, but the facility could easily seat a hundred.

There are no sure-fire methods to do this, and anyone who says there is should be suspect.  If Smaller Church No. 2 (hereafter referred to as SC2) is unhealthy or dominated by one angry family or if the community is drying up and people are moving away, growth is not going to happen.  In those cases, the pastor does what he can to get the church healthy and balanced. That is, he does what he can.

But assuming SC2 is reasonably healthy, that it’s located near people, that its leaders are godly and are born again, even if they are not inspired or disciplined or directed, you can do this.

That’s a lot of assuming, but let’s say these things are so.  How, then, would you go about growing that church? Here is my answer….

One: Pray. Spend a great deal of time every day on your knees.  Do not try this–or anything else–on your own.  You want the Lord to do this and be glorified in it.

Two: Build a team. Win the trust of your leadership.

Three: Paint. Paint up, clean up, spruce up. Have a work day.  Work with your leadership on what needs to be done, purchasing supplies, enlisting workers, etc.

Four: Neglect no one. Work with your leaders to see that each age group is being ministered to reasonably well. As a church grows, it can have separate ministries for children or youth or college, but at first, these are often combined.

Five: Follow-up. As pastor, contact every guest who visits your church.  Don’t announce you’re doing it, just do it.  Make sure the Sunday bulletin has a place for first-timers to register.  Or, if you do not have a bulletin (fewer and fewer churches seem to these days), make yourself available immediately after the benediction to meet newcomers. Then, sometime that week, contact them by mail, email, phone, or visit.

Six: Celebrate victories great and small. In the example cited above, one month into my pastorate, we celebrated the church’s anniversary and over-shot the attendance goal.  For a small congregation that had sat there for years doing nothing, these were huge accomplishments.  Soon we were doing this with VBS and mission offering goals.

Seven:  Improve the services. Do something about the music and singing in the service if you can.  Get two or three key people to praying with you for the Lord to bring gifted musicians and singers to your church. In a small church where a piano alone provides accompaniment to the singing, a couple of guitars or a keyboard can make a great difference. Enlist the participation of your pianist, of course.  You want to keep the musicians you have if possible, and not be replacing them with newcomers. (Repeating: Try not to make your present accompanists feel unwanted; enlist their help.)

Eight: Add a spirit of joy to the worship services.  You do this by your attitude, by calling attention to accomplishments of those who do well, as well as by the tempo and choice of music for the service.

Nine: Celebrate the saints. As you welcome the new members and celebrate the changes, do not neglect the longtime leaders who have served this church in good times and bad. The first defections from a growing church are often people who have served for years but who now feel they are being pushed out.

Ten: Fellowship. Create occasions for fellowship when members share meals together and sit around tables visiting and chatting.  Encourage longtime members to sit at tables with newcomers.

Eleven: Hospitality.  Teach your people–particularly the leadership–the scripture’s teachings on hospitality–especially Luke 10 (the Good Samaritan) and Hebrews 13:1-3. In Leviticus 19:9-18 and 19:33-37, God instructs Israel to take care of the poor, the newcomer, and the foreigners.  Leviticus 19:18,34 is the source of our Lord’s Second Commandment, to love one’s neighbor as oneself.   As a rule, pastor, such lessons are better taught in smaller groups or in Wednesday night sessions.

Twelve: Greeters. Station greeters outside the front doors on Sunday, at least 15 minutes prior to events.  They should be encouraged to stay alert, ready to assist the elderly or handicapped from their cars, and equipped with large umbrellas in case of rain.  The pastor will want to drop by each Sunday at some point to make sure they are on the job and compliment them. (Caution them about spending the time talking to each other rather than watching for arriving worshipers.) Drop them a thank-you note occasionally and rotate this responsibility.

Thirteen: Comfort. Pay attention to the comfort in the sanctuary, the seating, the audio, the temperature, etc.  Consider enlisting a couple of ladies to make recommendations about décor, comfort, visual impact, etc.

Fourteen: Cleanliness is a huge factor, everywhere but in particular with rest rooms.  If this is a problem for SC2, the pastor may need to convene a small group of lay leaders and discuss the best way to deal with this.

Fifteen: Discipleship. Even though the pastor may be tempted to do everything himself, his goal is to develop disciples of the Lord Jesus. When a member agrees to take responsibility for some area, a good pastor will not check it off his list, but keep an eye on it, express appreciation for a job well done, and from time to time ask if the worker needs anything from him.

As quickly as you can, pastor, turn over jobs to members.

In a small church, the congregation may be used to the pastor doing everything himself–from setting up chairs for a meeting, to mowing the lawn, to cleaning the toilets.  And, occasionally, someone will actually state this as the expectation: “That’s what we pay the preacher for!”  Pastors should not overreact but smile at such, then ask for volunteers to help.

It’s important for the new pastor of a small church to keep in mind…

–he should never surprise the leadership with any change of direction, special event, or new plans.  They were here long before and presumably will be here after he leaves.  A wise pastor will leave them better prepared to serve the Lord in better ways.

–it’s not necessary for everyone to come to every meeting.  Be careful about judging members by whether they come on Wednesday night.

–in asking people to give financially, remember the principle: People give to vision, not to needs.  So, rather than urging them to give “to support the budget” or “to pay off the mortgage,” keep before them the vision of a thriving, healthy church making an eternal difference in the lives of hundreds.

–do not be discouraged by setbacks.  Some small churches take longer to turn around than others.  Your leaders will be watching carefully to see how you handle a failure–a goal the church failed to reach, an event for which no one showed up, etc.  So, stay on your knees, stay close to the Lord, and get your vision and encouragement from Him.

As a young assistant minister, I was driving my pastor to speak at some engagement in the next county.  As we passed a small country church, he said, “Joe, let me  tell you something I’ve noticed. Often, the pastor of that little church can preach just as well as the one in the big church.  The difference is that he does all the jobs himself and will not turn loose of them.  But the other pastor has learned to disciple hjis people–to enlist them to take responsibility for areas of ministry.  It frees him up for other things while it develops them into more effective disciples. So, he multiplies disciples while the man in the small church never grows anyone.

I never forgot the lesson. Thankfully, it’s not true in every case.  But there’s enough truth in it to make me remember it and repeat it here.  Let’s make disciples, my brothers.  It’s our Lord’s assignment to us in Matthew 28:18-20.

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