5 Mistakes More Likely to be Made by Small Churches Than Big Churches

Karl Vater is a champion of the small church. What I like about his approach is that he sees the value of our smaller churches, while at the same time, he holds us to a high standard. In other words, we may be small, but that doesn’t give us an excuse not to be all that God has planned for us to be!

Vater constantly reminds us that the small church is not just a little version of a big church. That’s the problem of going to a “Large Church” seminar and trying to apply what they are doing to a smaller church. They are different as a local mom and pop store and Costco.

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Here are the 5 mistakes Karl Vater says are more likely to be made by small churches than by big ones. The smaller, the more susceptible they are.  (Posted on Sermon Central)

1. Holding On To Stale Traditions

Some traditions strengthen a church, some weaken a church.  And some traditions that used to strengthen us will eventually weaken us if we hold onto them past their sell-by date.

Some churches need to ask themselves a very serious question. Namely, ‘what’s more important to us? Holding onto traditions that are killing our church, or letting go of some traditions to save the church?’

No, I’m not talking about biblical principles. Without those, we don’t get to call ourselves a church. But anything other than those need to be held lightly, and sometimes not at all.

2. Poor, Or Nonexistent Planning

Not long ago, I was chatting with the pastor of a dying church. He was excited about his plans to revitalize it, so I asked him to send me an outline of those plans. What did he send me? A six-month calendar of committee meetings.

Certainly, getting the planning team in the room for regular times of prayer, strategizing and assessment is a very valuable part of the process. But having more meetings is a poor substitute for having a plan.

Another pastor in a similar situation sent me a list of sermon series. Preaching in series can be very helpful. I’ve done it for years. But we can’t confuse a sermon series with a revitalization plan any more than meetings are. They may be elements of a plan, but they can’t be the plan.

On a recent, very helpful Thom Rainer podcast about replanting dead or dying churches, Mark Clifton said that churches in crisis “generally value the process of decision over the outcome of decision.” Healthy churches prioritize outcomes.

A plan includes a roadmap for how to get from where you are now to a better, more desirable future. Certainly that plan will change as circumstances change, so the ability to adapt and change needs to be built into the plan. But, to repeat the old cliché, those who fail to plan, plan to fail.

3. Not Enough Assessment Or Evaluation

The smaller the church, the harder it is to gauge effectiveness by numbers. But that doesn’t mean we can’t or shouldn’t evaluate our effectiveness in some way.

After Jesus sent out the 72, he gathered them together and asked how their mission went. Then he told them how to evaluate their effectiveness (Luke 10).

Every time we do any ministry, we need to gather the leadership to assess

  • What went right
  • What went wrong
  • Why it went right or wrong, and
  • What we can do to improve it the next time.

I know, when things are really bad, that can be painful. But it is essential.

4. Too Much Inward Focus

Many dying churches are doing so because of many years of obvious, intense conflict. But some churches are surprised that they’re dying because the people who remain are often having a great time with each other.

“The preaching is great, the worship is vibrant and the fellowship is so deep,” they’ll often say. But it often only feels like that to those who already belong.

In a previous post, I made a statement that many readers took me to task for. But I stand by it. Here it is again. “If your church isn’t willing to be changed by the unbelievers who come to your church, they won’t come.”

In a smaller group each person has a greater impact.

Yes, we need to be willing to allow them to change us, not just expect us to change them. In fact, the smaller the church, the more this is true, because in a smaller group each person has a greater impact.

If we aren’t willing to listen and adapt our methods (but not our core theology, of course) based on the changing needs of the community around us, we will be seen as increasingly cold, distant and irrelevant to them.

No, the church must never abandon the saints who built and support it (a challenge I’ll address in the companion article about mistakes big churches tend to make), but if all we’re doing is a holy huddle, we’ve stopped being a light in the darkness.

5. Depending On The Pastor Instead Of Making Disciples

The smaller the church, the more we need to fight against the expectation that the pastor is supposed to do ministry for the members. Instead, we must follow the biblical mandate to equip the members to do the work of ministry (Ephesians 4:11-12).

No church can survive if its ministry doesn’t grow beyond the capacity of the pastor. We need to expand our ministry base by equipping and involving everyone.


What do you think of Vater’s list? What others would you add?

He also writes about the larger church. They are not perfect either.  This is worth a read, too. Here is the link: 5 Mistakes More Like to Be Made By Big Churches than Small Churches.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Ken Przybilla says:

    Randy I so agree with your comments made today. Richmond Park church in Edmonton failed because they could not let go of tradition. In stead of looking for new ideas to minister to the people of today, they instead turned to they way they did things 50 years ago. They people that went there were at friends and enjoyed each other, but as the years went by they lost more and more people until the church had to close. It was sad that they could not look forward to new and bright future but wanted to take the easy road and look back on how we have always did things.

    Thanks Randy for taking time to have coffee with me.


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for sharing that. That’s the story of too many of our churches.


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