small church

“So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.” – Matthew 7:17-20

A healthy church produces good fruit

The sermon this morning used this text.  It was preached one way for the congregation, but the readers here are church leaders.  Church leaders worry about the size of the congregation, and whether those that do come are getting anything out of it.

I’m not saying bigger is better, or smaller is healthier.  There are healthy megachurches and dysfunctional small churches.  But size over time can give an indicator of other issues.

  • A church in a transient community – like a military town or near a college – can watch a significant portion of the membership leave each summer.  The health of the church becomes apparent quickly if incoming military don’t see value right away.
  • The number of children or teens in a church is an indicator of the future longevity of the church.  Unless it is situated in an age-restricted community, the lack of children means the size will decline over time.
  • The number of volunteers is a good indicator. We know active volunteers give more than passive attenders.  The ratio between volunteers and paid staff should show a large difference. Therefore a church will a low percent of volunteers will generally struggle for money.

The causes of poor church health tend to be rooted in one or more of the same factors:

  1. Doctrine preached and taught.  Dean Kelly’s “Why Conservative Churches are Growing” continues to be relevant.  Churches that teach the Bible – what it says and what it means in daily life – tend to have more active congregations, and more easily retain visitors.
  2. Volunteers are valued.  Volunteers are motivated not by money but by accomplishment. Most will continue as long as they feel they are making an impact either in the organization or toward the organization’s purpose.  When what they do is cancelled without a recognition of their sacrifice, they will be less likely to volunteer anywhere else, and often will quit attending.
  3. Outreach is community-focused, not manipulation to grow the church.  Most people today understand when they are being marketed.  But most will accept some demand on their time to gain a benefit they desire. (Stop by a church that’s doing a food give-away in a poor neighborhood. People will sit for an hour waiting for a handout.)
  4. Prayer is God-focused. Yes, we pray for the sick. But when the only prayer is about us, our needs, our wants, that’s missing the mark.  A healthy church prays both in worship and for it’s community.

Healthy churches don’t have to be big, but they do need to make an impact.




I got a strange email Friday afternoon.  The pastor of the churches I visited once sent me an email with the cryptic subject line: “Survive”.  Here is the entire text of the email:

Breakfast at 8:30. Class will follow. Be done before noon

I had no idea what he was talking about.  I went to the website to find out. There was no website.  I googled and found a Facebook page that said that page was shutting down and directed me to another page that didn’t exist.  So I sent the pastor a reply saying I had a conflict, but was interested in details:

Thanks for the invite.  However I have a commitment Saturday morning this week.

Also, I don’t know what Survive is.  I looked for it on the website, but the church has no social media presence to find out.  I did find a Facebook page that said it was going to be taken down last December, but the link didn’t go anywhere, or was private, so it wasn’t any help.
Now I must tell you that although I only attended one Sunday, I did talk with the pastor about how I might help the church.  I gave him a presentation on how to easily create a social media presence for not much money.  He thanked me and said he had people in the church that could do it.  That was six months ago.
I’m guessing the church is still trying to decide how to survive the declining membership.  Given what I’ve seen, that might become a real issue.

Brandon O’Brian has a book out describing how a church can be effective by choosing to be small, and adjusting how they do church into that context, measuring success by effectiveness not size.

your church–whatever size–has everything it needs to be used in extraordinary ways for the Kingdom of God. You don’t need more resources or more volunteers; you just need the imagination to see how God has equipped you uniquely to carry the gospel to your neighbors.

OBrien says there are lessons for large churches as well.  The habits of fostering intergenerational dialogue, of working together in small groups, of focusing on projects where a mass of people would overwhelm the ministry.  It changes how you plan.

The key lesson, though, is to affirm to congregations that small is not bad, if  you are small for the right reason.  Rural churches, size constrained churches, targeted community churches.  God can use churches of all size if they are operating his way.


Thanks to Ed Stetzer, for including an interview with Brandon O’Brian on his website.

Eph 3:2 offers an intriguing benediction about the power of our God “who is able to do immeasurably more than you can think or imagine.”  What a great God!  More than you can understand. 

So what do I do with that knowledge?  Do I sit and marvel for a while, and then go back to trying to balance the checkbook, pay a few more bills, and wonder how I’m gonna pay for my kid’s college?  Maybe I take it at face value and expect an outpouring sufficient to make bills?

The Bible is full of stories of how God provided enough to live on.  Manna in the wilderness sufficient for the day; and although it would go bad at sundown any other day, for the Sabbath, it would last two days, so the people would not have to break the requirement to not work on that day.  Elijah in the desert, given food and water sufficient to make the long journey.  The widow and her son that Elijah stayed with during the famine, who’s one last loaf of bread was enough to last the year.  The one days’ oil in the Maccabee’s lantern that burned for 8, which is the background for Hanukah.  And on and on.

But the passage says “more”.  Consider Jesus’ feeding of the “5 thousand.”  Five loaves and two fish were enough for the five thousand men…and the women and children … with enough left over for a basket for each disciple to teach about God’s overflowing provision.

But I come back to the passage.  “More than I can imagine.”    Elijah told the woman to get every pot and jar she could find, and the oil continued until there were no more empty pots:  God provided until her imagination ran out.  How do I get more than my needs?  I suggest you dream bigger.  Consider Plato’s cave.  They who had never left the shelter of the cave had no concept of a wider world.

What about your congregation?  Are you feeling limited by finances, limited workers, or other resources?  Pray.  And dream big.

I’ve been thinking through what it means to be church, what size is appropriate, and what forms are most useful for particular peoples.  This came in part from a lecture by David Garrison on Church Planting Movements, where an essential form of church can be constructed and rapidly reproduced (sometimes several generations a week).  The following weekend, Rabbi Sam Nadler, President of Word of Messiah Ministries, came to give training on planting a Messianic congregation.  Christmas eve, I an Episcopal midnight mass.  Neither of these models match what I see in my current congregation of 2700.*  Even the home congregation’s Christmas eve vespers service was atypical of them.

While shopping this week, I picked up Dan Kimball’s Emerging Worship.  Since it was Kimball and on the topic “emerging” I knew it would be different from my current experience.  I’ve only skimmed the book, but here’s what’s already working minmy brain:  What is the difference between big box church and what can be reproduced in smaller churches with very little budget?

By Big Box, I mean the megachurches that do everything, especially those that do everything for the attender.  There are some very large congregations that act like nimble smaller churches. 

For example, Central Christian Church (Henderson, NV) is quite large – the 3000-seat auditorium is filled 3 of its 5 services, and nearly so for the other 2.  They have 2 satellite campuses, and one of those has multiple services.  Yet they seem to spawn ministry easily to match needs.  They use ordinary people int he congregation to spawn new acts of service and study.

But more common is the auditorium church, with Disneyland parking lots to hold the thousands that come to their arena seats and watch the jumbotron of half a dozen professional singers and a well-paid preacher give just enough Gospel to make them feel good.  They pay a nominal admission fee (not quite the tithe) and go home, feeling good that they’ve met their minimum weekly requirement.

Kimball likens this to taking the car to the minimart service station – get a full tank of gas & a cup of coffee, and then on your way until next week.  You’ll come in periodically for the oil change (seminar) or periodic maintenance (conference).  But that’s all the level of participation that’s required.

I’ll take that analogy one step up, to the full-service Super Big Box (WalMart, KMart, Meyers, etc.)  There’s a gas station, true, but also a restaurant, coffee bar, bank , eyewear, electronics, books, food, etc.  It’s a one-stop experience.  In the variety of churches, I’ve seen snack bars open the public, Starbucks franchises, bookstores, DiscoveryZone kids’ playspaces, music schools, etc.  I applaud these services, and have used each at least once. (The Starbucks had a dollar-a-cup self-service honor station! Would that work outside the church?)

The question I will explore in the coming days is what alternatives are available to the Bix Box, and what Big Box practices are good and reproducable.  (Let’s not discount their value simply in reaction to the excesses of a few.)


*Note:  I’m not the pastor, but an active layman in that congregation, and a worker to strengthen other congregations.

I’ve been considering when a strugglng church becomes too small to effectively turn around. Not that God can’t do miracles when only “two or three” are gathered, but there should be a general rule of thumb for when a church comes into being and when it should be laid to rest.

This is a concern because the average size for a church in North America is 75 attending. It is less in some other countries – or even this country – where the house church is the model; you are limited to how many people can fit in your living room or garage.

But in general, have the churches are less than 20 families, and many are a lot smaller: 35, 25, 15.

Which brings me to my question. How small can a church get before it’s not economically viable to keep it open?

With a congregational style church, part of the answer depends on whether the pastor and staff are full-time, part-time or unpaid. If your congregation is 5 families, making about $35k a year each, a tithe of the gross only nets the church $18 grand. What pastor can support a family on that?

If the church is in a denomination where the diocese or synod pays the salary, the congregation can get smaller, because someone else is frontloading the expenses to maintain a presence in that neighborhood. But that also means the local congregation is at the whim of someone else on whether to keep the building open or not. (I remember the furror when a local Catholic diocese tried to close an underperforming facility. Ten times the number that ever attended protested the closure of “their” church, the one they wanted standing when they needed to be married or buried!)

What I’ve been considering is the concept of a minyan. In Jewish practice, the minimum for a synagogue is 10 men. Similarly, in Islam, it takes 10 men at prayers to sustain the mosque. Jesus had his 12, but “one was a devil” and another a betrayer.

With 10 men, that’s probably 30 people: the men, their wives, one or two children for half of them, plus a few widows. Perhaps you can get as small as 10 family units, counting the Singles / single parents and widows, meaning about 15 adults.

In my opinion, if the church gets below 15 and stays below 15 for several weeks, it’s time to consider closing the church. God can still raise up dry bones, but only if the leadership is committed to nurturing the new growth.

I had occasion to use the space of a large church in the area.  It was tedious, to the point of pain.  The bureaucracy added way too much stress on the ministry team and hindered the spread of the Good News.

The startup congregation I’m working with heard that a noted singer in our denomination was to be in the area, and had a few days between performances.  Although we only had 10 weeks to put it together, we decided to try.  But getting a room on a Tuesday night in August was harder than it appeared at first glance.

We normally meet in a church of 2800.  But the adminstration of that size congregation means multiple layers of approvals, some of whom were out of town during key meetings, meaning a delay in channeling the room request to senior leadership.  (A number of other venues we tried either wanted a $400 fee for 4 hours or would not consider us using their space at all.)

At barely one month out, we secured a room, but just as publicity was going out (the minimum lead time for advertising is usually 4 weeks), the host church decided they didn’t want their name on anything that hadn’t gone through the in-house graphic designer.  That approval came out less than a week prior to the concert, changing the background picture and a slight change to the wording.

If we had had our own space, our congregation of 50 could have decided in early June, advertised in July and probably exceeded the 70 that came.

Leaders of small churches can usually meet  more spontaneously, make decisions with less coordination, and respond to needs much more quickly.

Large churches have more resources.  (We wanted a room to hold more than 100 and parking for 50, something not available to a house church!)  They can mobilize for special events.  But small churches can see and respond to needs more quickly.

And ministry is measured in speed to action, not intention to convene a committee.

I watched a great video on “10 stupid things that keep churches from growing” with Geoff Surratt.  It includes many of the same simple ideas I identified in Chapter 7 of Hope for Struggling Churches.  However, in our visual culture, it sometimes helps to hear someone talk about it.

Geoff Surratt on THE SHOW from Todd Rhoades on Vimeo.

Geoff Surratt on THE SHOW

What do you think?  Is he right?

What is the strength of your church?  What is its mission?  Who are the target audience?  Are you focused enough to check progress, or are you scattering random seed to the wind?  You have to plant the right seed in the right soil to gain the expected harvest.  Anything less will be a disappointment.

The “National Survey of Megachurch Attenders” has been released by Leadership Network ( and Hartford Seminary’s Hartford Institute for Religion Research ( Officially called “Not Who You Think They Are: The Real Story of People Who Attend America’s Megachurches,” it says that megachurches (over 2000 attending consistently) are more likely to attract younger, unmarried, better educated and more affluent.  It also says they attract based on paid staff (pastor and worship team), and have higher rates of uninvolved attenders.

45% of megachurch attenders never volunteer at the church, and 40 percent are not engaged in a small group, the mainstay of megachurch programming.

By contrast, the small church is focused around family or community / neighborhood.  Your task, in leading a church through a turnaround, is to know what God has called your church to do and to whom you are to minister.  Start by assessing the community needs and the available resources already available within the congregation.

For example, if your neighborhood has widows or single mothers of young children, and your congregation has mechanics or handymen, you could provide

  • free labor
  • training for minor/routine repairs
  • advice on picking a professional

All 3 are valid expressions of love and concern, and get you into the community.  True, megachurches could do it better, but the survey suggests they won’t.  That’s for you.





One of the problems facing struggling churches is the feeling of not knowing what else to do.  You wish someone would come help, but there’s no money for a consultant and no time or money for attending conferences.  And even if you go, it’s just you.  How do you remember enough to carry the same vision & excitement back to you church leaders?

One of the joys of the current internet is the amount of teaching that’s available online,  much of it for free.  One site I recently discovered is from the Southern Baptists in Maryland.  The BCMD equip site is full of really good short courses – videoed workshops – that are geared to the small churches in that region.

For example, tonite I learned that putting on a play or special program can be done without a lot of money.  Five dollar costumes that don’t look like bath robes.  Wooden boxes to add visual interest as portable staging.  Where to find scripts and music that won’t break the bank.

Youtube is another place to find teaching.  Browse the bookstore for church growth / church health authors and then search for them on youtube.  Chances are, someone has posted one of their conference lectures there.

I’ve also started listening to chapel lectures from seminaries and Christian colleges.  It’s inspiring to hear how pastors and teachers are working out their faith in small churches, and I pick up ideas and have my preconceived notions challenged.  Or affirmed.  David Bycroft spoke at Ozark Christian College about being a formerly small church that held auto shows and tractor pulls and family festivals to attract people to come hear the Gospel.

The resources are there.  If you can’t find one, drop me a note and I’ll help you find some.

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