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 may well be  one of the more do-able things pastors can achieve.

Those variable factors include…

–the health of the church (you don’t want a sick church to grow; it needs to get well first!).  I once told my 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 the people received them well, and repented.

–the attitude of the congregation (if the people are satisfied with the status quo,  newcomers will not be welcomed).  I’ve known Sunday School classes composed of a small cluster of best friends who felt imposed on by visitors and new members.  No one wants to go where they’re not wanted.

–and the location of the facility   A church situated five miles down an isolated road, at the end of the dead end trail, can almost certainly forget about growing.  Yes, it’s been done, but rarely.

the will of the Father.  God may well have plans He has chosen not to reveal to us.

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

My seminary pastorate had run 40 in attendance for years. The day the little congregation called me as pastor, I overheard one 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 67 in attendance.  By the time I left that church, 30 months later, we were running 110 and more.

Here’s what happened…

A week or two after being called as pastor, I was reading the minutes of the church’s past business meetings and discovered we were close to  our 20th anniversary. Being green and untrained, I did not take this to a committee but simply announced to the church the following Sunday that “May 20 is our 20th anniversary, and we’re going to have a Homecoming.” (I was hardly aware what that was, other than a high attendance.)  I set 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.  Fortunately, some relatives visited us that weekend. (Smiley-face goes here.)

We hit 67 in attendance.

And we never looked back.  By the time I left that church, over two years later, we were putting 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 factors such as new residents 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 an active 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 traditionally means the pastor has everything to do himself. However, the good news is the pastor has fewer leaders to deal with, he can know all the members, and change can come more quickly with fewer people.  A Mini-Cooper can turn around in less space than an ocean liner.

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 easily seats a hundred.

There are no sure-fire methods to grow this church, and anyone who says otherwise 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 keep the church functioning, healthy and balanced.

But assuming SC2 is reasonably healthy, that it’s located near people, that its leaders are at least typical of most we find in church (meaning they are born again and want to do the right thing) and that you have your heart right and your head on straight, you should be able to 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: 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: Win the trust of your leadership.  You do that by doing things with them, doing things for them, and letting them see you are trustworthy.

Three: Fix up your facility .  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: 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: As pastor, follow up with every guest in your church.  Don’t announce you’re doing it, just do it.  For the time being, don’t try to motivate others to do it; you do it.  Make sure the Sunday bulletin has a place for first-timers to register and then you contact them (phone, email, personal visit, etc) as soon as you can.

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.  Before long, we did this with VBS and mission offering goals.

Seven:  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, 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.

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: 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: 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.  People love fellowship, and need it.  (In these days of the pandemic, you’ll need to get creative to pull this off.)

Eleven: Teach your people–particularly the leadership–the scripture’s teachings on hospitality–especially Luke 10 (the Good Samaritan) and Hebrews 13:1-3. Show them Leviticus 19:9-18 and 19:33-37 where 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, such lessons are better taught in smaller groups or in Wednesday night sessions.

Twelve: Station greeters outside the front doors on Sunday, 15 to 30 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.

Note:  It is a law of human nature that these greeters will drift away or grow lazy unless someone–usually you!–is periodically encouraging them, training them, appreciating them.

Thirteen: 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 the 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.  In one church, we knocked out a wall and doubled the size of the women’s rest rooms.  They require more space than men, and we asked the women to decorate it.  They loved the changes.

Fifteen: Even though the pastor of SC2 will be tempted to do everything himself, he should remember his goal is to develop disciples of the Lord Jesus. When a member takes responsibility for some area, the pastor should not check it off his list, but keep an eye on it, express appreciation for a job well done, and ask if the worker needs anything from him.

You will notice I’ve said nothing about the pastor’s preaching.  That should be a given, that he will work hard to bring the best sermons he possibly can, that he will devote himself to studying and preparing to preach.

If you are the brand new pastor of a small church, we have a few thoughts for you. 

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

–It’s not necessary for everyone to come to every meeting.  Be cautious about judging members by whether they come on Wednesday night. Or even Sunday School or choir.

–In asking people to give financially, remember the principle: People give to a vision, not to needs.  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 people for whom Christ died.

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

As a young assistant pastor, I was driving my preacher to speak at some engagement in the next county.  As we passed a small country church, he said, “Joe, 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.  A pastor has to learn to involve 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 and the church grows.  The pastor who never turns loose of a job will never grow his church.

I never forgot the lesson.

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