Rookie Review: Small Church Essentials by Karl Vaters

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I pastor a small church in Mississippi. I became a Christian in a smallish church but spent much of my time in mid-size to large churches. In seminary I moved from the big-box mega-church to smaller/mid-size churches. I didn’t actually care about how big the church was. I was looking at the theology and it just worked out that way. We have a tendency to assign moral value to church size. Big contemporary churches are better because they reach a greater audience and don’t get bogged down in all that theology or tradition, right? Nah. Small churches are better because they haven’t sold out. You can’t just disappear into the crowd. You know the pastor and the the people. That’s often how the argument goes. In reality, there are faithful and unfaithful churches of all different sizes.

One thing I will say though about pastoring a small church is that you quickly develop a chip on your shoulder. There is an insecurity you have to constantly fight off. This is because nearly everyone asks you, “How is your church doing?” And the answer that is expected (or assumed by me) is a number related to growth: “Great. We had several new families join recently.” “It’s been hard. Attendance has been down.” You get the idea. But how do you answer that question?

Another issue (I promise I will review a book at some point in this post) is that the resources for pastors are almost always tailored to mid-size or large churches. This is because they normally come from large church pastors who have accumulated the staff around them to allow them the time to write. So they put out their book on leadership or church growth. But the strategies they offer only work in churches that are 200+ in members. They don’t work for a guy who pastors 70 or less in Mississippi.

This is where Karl Vaters really shines in his book Small Church Essentials. The main premise of the book is: your church is small and that just might be a good thing! Karl divides the book into four parts:

Part 1: Small ≠ Broken
Chapter 1: Believe It or Not, You Will Pastor a Small Church
Chapter 2: Embrace the Small Church Without Settling
Chapter 3: Small Churches are Not a Problem, Virtue, or an Excuse

Part 2: Thinking Like a Great Small Church
Chapter 4: Small Churches are Different (and That’s Okay)
Chapter 5: Why is My Church so Weird?
Chapter 6: Untold Secrets About Church Health and Growth
Chapter 7: We Need a Broader Definition for Church Growth

Part 3: Bringing New Life to an Existing Small Church
Chapter 8: Is Your Small Church Stuck or Strategic
Chapter 9: Tackling Chronic Small Church Issues and Changing for the Better
Chapter 10: Discover What Your Church Does Well, and Then Do It on Purpose
Chapter 11: Starting, Changing, or Stopping a Ministry
Chapter 12: A New Way to See Small Church Vision Casting

Part 4: Becoming a Great Small Church
Chapter 13: A More Welcoming Small Church
Chapter 14: Mentoring and Discipleship in the Small Church
Chapter 15: Planning for Small Church Success
Chapter 16: Doing Ministry from the Church, Not Just in the Church
Chapter 17: Your Church is Big Enough

The chapter titles are pretty descriptive and give you the idea of the book. Karl gives a much needed corrective. He addresses the false myths that have developed since the church growth movement came in the 1980’s. The basic message small church pastors hear constantly is, “If your church is small you are a bad pastor.” The lie comes as pastors believe numerical growth = faithful ministry. We know this isn’t true, but you feel it. I know my church is roughly the same size as John Newton’s was when he wrote his famous hymn. He never pastored a church larger than 100 people, yet why do I long to be over 100 members as if that is the promised land?

I want to go ahead and give my main criticism. The writing felt like a bunch of blog posts formatted into chapters for a book. If you go look at the author’s website it seems that might be what happened. It means the book has a bloggish feel. Other than that I love this book and I think every small church pastor should read it.

Chapter three is my favorite chapter. The title gets it all. The reality is that the majority of churches are small (under 100 members). Mid-size and large churches are outliers. This doesn’t make them bad, but we need to stop acting as though larger churches are the standard we should aspire to.

What Karl does is free the small church pastor to love his church for what it is now and not where it might be in ten years. It could get bigger, smaller or stay the same in terms of size. But that’s just the point, the biblical standard is not how big your church is. That is an incredibly important point that pastors, especially young pastors, need to remember.

This book is encouraging and challenging. Because even though the pressure for numerical growth is relieved, and the possibility of having a great small church is introduced, it takes faithfulness in the church by the grace of God to get there.

Bottom Line

I wouldn’t say this is a deep book or even the most well-written book. But it is a thoroughly encouraging and needed book for pastors of small churches. Therefore I highly recommend it to pastors and leaders in small churches. You will be glad you read it and you will love your church better because of it.

What do you think? How does church size affect how you feel about a church? You can contact me here?

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