How To Grow A Small Church

by Rev Dr Bruce Hart (Baptist Pastor, New South Wales, Australia)

small churchThe small Baptist Church was stuck. Fred Smith, a 75 year old farmer and faithful Christian was the senior deacon. He sat on the church steps one summer’s night after the monthly deacons’ meeting, having a yarn with Bruce Tapper, the 35 year old pastor who had come from Theological College two years before. A cool easterly blew across the wheat stubble.

“You know, Bruce, I’ve been in this church for 50 years, but over the past 20 years the number attending church has declined and we are getting older. If we keep on going at this rate it won’ t be long before we have to close the door. How can we increase the number of people attending our church?”

“Well, Fred, what has happened is that we have lost our way as a church and become a club. Our values are very similar to that of a club. For us to grow we need to adopt biblical values, not club values.” “What do you mean?” said Fred. Bruce replied, “Let me share with you the values of many small churches and then the biblical values our church has to adopt to grow and become healthy.”

The values of many small churches are:

Patriarchs or Matriarchs – Leaders of the Church The traditional Minister are given much responsibility but little authority. Within the life of the church they are treated as the Chaplain – the one who is to do all the jobs, but not to make decisions about how the church is to be run. Patriarchs or Matriarchs are the ones who have authority to make decisions and the Minister is the one who is told how the church will be run. The Minister is the servant of the people and the Patriarchs or Matriarchs are the ones who are running the church.

PS. The reason why the church is led by the Patriarchs or Matriarchs is that the Minister moves every few years. So that the church doesn’t rotate from one Minister’s goals to the next, lurching all over the place, the Patriarchs or Matriarchs provide stability to the church. (Maybe Ministers should stay long term in a church, say, 14 to 15 years, so that they can provide leadership.)

Driven by Tradition When a church looks at what it is going to do in the future, its reference point is its tradition. The goal of many small churches is to perpetuate the past. Change is seen as negative and divisive and to be fought against at all cost. Tradition becomes such a driving force that any change, even though it may seem a good change under normal circumstances, is not acceptable. Even though a ministry may have been set up (to reach the unchurched) for the last 20 years but has brought very few to faith, yet tradition says it must continue. The Pastor introduced choruses into the service at our church but a number of people objected to them. As a matter of fact they would not sing them, only the hymns. One couple said to the Pastor, “Don’t change anything while we are alive but when we die then make all the changes.” The Pastor spoke about having a vision and setting goals (use their gifts). One group read this to mean that we should start up the choir, and so we had a choir once a month singing hymns. For them the way to get the church fired up was to go back to the past tradition they enjoyed.

Fortress Ministry The traditional Minister’s church has nurture as its main emphasis. The people expect the Minister to be there with them to care for them, to teach them, to feed them, to lead them in worship, to marry them, to baptise them, to bury them. They have been employed to nurture and care for them. If a minister should move out of that role into doing extra work in the community apart from the church, in outreach or in social justice, the leaders of the church and the members will ask the question, “Are we not paying them to do the job of ministry; are they not paid by US to serve US and care for US and nurture US?” Thus the main ministry that is expected of members is to them, and not to the unchurched. Because of this expectation the minister spends most of his time serving the church. Thus we have a fortress church.

I mentioned that there is not much difference between the local small church and the club. The club exists to look after the members. That is why they pay their dues. The church is doing the same thing in the fortress church. We are looking after ourselves to the exclusion of the unchurched.

When we look at the budget we see how much money is spent on mission in the local community also as we look at the Minister’s diary we see how much time the minister and church members spend reaching out into the community to tell people about Jesus. Unfortunately, the budget and time is often heavily skewed towards looking after the church members, the club members.

Reactive Ministry The job done is all consuming, there are few boundaries, and Ministers are the primary care-giver. This results in most of the planning being Reactive – they are planning on the run. They have their nose to the grindstone and they are busy thinking about what to do tomorrow or today, let alone next year. The consequence of reactive ministry is that it moves the church into maintenance. How can the church grow if no one is planning for it? They continue to do the same things as they have been doing for years and years. Once this pattern has been established, churches continue to operate maintaining the status quo. To set long term goals is unheard of and not acceptable to the small church. Maintaining the tradition is more important than anything else.

Love people but don’t discipline them The Christians in a small church think that if someone is causing problems that they have to love them but not discipline them. Even though the church may be held hostage by a negative influencer who resists any change, often the church will not discipline this person because the view is that Christians must love everyone. (Yes we are to love everyone but our definition of love includes discipline. The writer of Hebrews [12:5, 6] tells us that whom God loves he disciplines, like a father with a loved child. We discipline our children because we love them.) Very little happens in the church without the negative influencer’s approval because no one wants to upset him/her. But being loving without discipline is not Christian. If the vitality of the church is being effected by the this person, then tough love must come into play.

Our church has one such member. She led the night service for several years until the Pastor removed her from that position. She reacted by calling the Pastor a false teacher. She also sought to undermine his ministry by telling him that many people in the church didn’t like his ministry and a couple had left because of his attitude. She also leads a couple of small groups. The Parish Council are not doing anything to discipline this negative influencer except to remove her from leading the night service. She is still leading one small group even though at every opportunity she seeks to undermine the minister.

Minister is the spiritual expert Ministers are regarded as the “experts” who do all the spiritual work, while the laity does everything else. This leads to exhausted Ministers and atrophied Christians. The traditional Minister’s job is to provide pastoral care to the whole congregation. Even though Elders may be apportioned to care for a certain number of people, they are not really seen as being the primary pastoral carers. The expectation of the church causes ministers to fulfill the above, but it can also feeds into a Minister ego. “I” I am the only who can do this spiritual ministry. It also meets my need to be needed and to be significant.

For the small church to grow the traditional values have to change.

The Biblical values that need to be adopted by small churches for them to become healthy and to grow are:

Faith Vision The church needs to have a vision for the future of that church, of where they believe God is calling them to go. The vision has to be such that the members just cannot wait to get there. The vision is so powerful that the members want to be involved in ministry, to be trained to minister to fulfill the vision.

Goals The church has not only a vision for the future but sets goals in order to achieve that vision. Once they set the goal, then it is necessary to work to a strategy to achieve that goal. Unless the Leader has faith to believe that God is going to work and do mighty things, then people will not follow and the church will remain where it is. It is the visionary Leader who sets the pace. “Without faith it is impossible to please God.” (Hebrew 11:6 N.I.V.)

Proactive The church needs to be Proactive. The leaders need to focus on the objectives of God’s calling for that church and not necessarily on the members’ traditional focus for the church. Some Churches like to stay as they are and to remain comfortable (be a club), but if they do, then the focus comes on what is good for them, rather than what God would have them to do. To break out of that mind-set it is necessary for the leadership to review, one night a month, their strategic plans, to pray and to hear God’s voice.

Spiritual Gifts Pastors encourage members to find their spiritual gifts and to use those gifts in the life of the church and in the community. (1 Corinthians 12:1-31:14:1-39 N.I.V. Romans 12:6-8) Whatever position is being filled within the church the members’ gifts are taken into account before the position is filled. Instead of the Minister being the “spiritual expert”, every Christian has been given a spiritual gift by God and they can become an expert in their field according to their spiritual gift. When Christians find their spiritual gift and use it, this helps them to grow spiritually.

Small Groups A Pastor needs to decentralize ministry. Instead of the Minister doing all the ministry, the ministry takes place within the life of the small groups. It is necessary to equip the lay people to do the ministry so that instead of one person doing all the ministry while the rest of the people are spectators, everyone is doing ministry, caring for each other and using their gifts.

Holy Spirit For the church to move forward the church needs to move in the power of the Spirit of God. (Acts 1:8 N.I.V.) The Church needs to depend upon His Spirit and to be open to the Holy Spirit and his gifts in everything that they do. They need to be ready to use those gifts in every aspect of the life of the church. People today are looking for an experience of God, but it is not good enough just to transfer data from our mind into someone else’s mind. They also want to know and experience God’s presence and power in their lives.

Inspiring Worship Service The Pastor seeks to make the church relevant to today’s society. He seeks to be open to what is happening in the music ministry and to use music that people can understand and enjoy and to move away from 18th century music. It is important to be relevant in our sermons – to meet people at their point of NEED and not just our theological understanding of the message. We need to then apply the Scripture to that felt need.

Empowering Ministry Ministers need to hand over the ministry (not the leadership) to the lay people and to train them in ministry. Ephesians 4:11-12 N.I.V.)

Priesthood of All Believers Ministers are not the only ones who have access to God. They are not the only people who are servants of God, who have a high calling. All Christians are priests and ministers. “But you are a chosen people a royal priesthood…” (1Peter 2:9 N.I.V.). The Pastor needs to teach this often and model it to the members in all that they do.

Evangelism The Church desires to have conversion growth. For this to happen it is important for the Christians to have friends who are unchurched. What they find is that the majority of Christians after five years have very few close friends who are unchurched. It is important for the Pastor to model to members the need to have unchurched friends. Often this values is a perceived value but not a real value. Yes members say this is very important value but when they check the budget they find that very little money is spent on mission to the local community. The diary of the minister shows that most of his time is spent looking after the members of the church.

Paradigm Shift For the church to grow it needs to adopt the above values and make a paradigm shift. The shift is so great from the way ministry has been modeled to us over the last century, that it is very difficult to perceive the new ministry to which God is calling us to. What does paradigm shift mean? It is the lens through which we see events, our job and the world.

The thing that moves us to a new paradigm is a crisis. We have a crisis in that many small churches are dying and the majority of the members are over 60 years of age. One in two Ministers are burning out after ten years of ministry.

How do we make the change to the new biblical paradigm so that the Church will grow?

Here are some of the approaches used so far but they have not been very successful because the traditional values undermine the biblical values…

~ We have sought to help the church to formulate strategic plans for growth but it doesn’t work. .

~ We have sought to teach the Pastor leadership so that he/she could lead the church into growth but the Pastor is not the leader of a small church, that is the job of the Patriarchs or Matriarchs.

~ We have tried sending consultants but they only stay a couple of days and it doesn’t work.

How do you change the values of Patriarchs or Matriarchs who lead the small church and are usually over 60?

The change needed is not easy. However, it is possible to change a traditional church and help it to grow.

Some approaches that may work

1. Work with the Patriarchs or Matriarchs. One Minister used to talk to the Patriarch before the parish council about changes that needed to be made. For example: The back door of the hall needs painting, it’s a disgrace. We need to have a cup of tea at the back of the church rather than in the hall so that we don’t miss the visitors. Then the Patriarchs would bring those issues to the meeting and move that those changes be adopted, and they were. (But sometimes the club values will stop the Patriarchs or Matriarchs agreeing with the changes.)

2. An intentional interim Minister comes into the church for 18 months helping the church to process the biblical values and to accept a new paradigm.

3. To start small groups. The Pastor leads the first small group in order to teach people the biblical values in the small group. Then as the group grows the new leaders for new groups are trained. Small group leaders have to attend a training program once a month. When there are sufficient numbers a separate contemporary worship service can be started. This service is to have its own leadership structure. (This approach works best with youth and young families)

4. To start an outreach program for youth and eventually to start a youth service at night that is completely separate from the traditional service, teaching the new values. It has its only leadership structure – their own deacons and elders. This method has the best chance to be successful because you don’t have to undo the old values before you teach the new biblical values.

Conclusion Small churches are not growing and the membership is getting older. Many Ministers are burning out and leaving the ministry because many traditional small churches will not accept the biblical values mentioned. The change we need is not incremental but a major change from being a club of members who largely look after themselves to being a mission outpost. The traditional small church will grow when it adopts biblical values that will create church health.

© John Mark Ministries.

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