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Big Lessons from Small Church with Karl Vaters

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Thanks so much for taking the time to join us for another episode of the unSeminary podcast. We have a treat today with guest Pastor Karl Vaters of Cornerstone Christian Fellowship in Orange County, California. Karl is with us to talk about small churches, their unique challenges and how they can be great when they are in this place.

When Karl first arrived at Cornerstone, the church was very small and in need of a lot of help. Through hard work they were able to help the church grow over several years, from 75 to 150, eventually breaking the 200 barrier and getting over 400. But then something happened, and attendance suddenly dropped dramatically all at once. Karl is with us today to talk about that shift, what he learned about pastoring a church of under 250, and what he’d do differently next time.

  • Focus on health, not growth. // Looking in from the outside, Cornerstone was thriving and growing as more people filled the space. But when the church broke the 200 attendance barrier, there was a lot more work behind the scenes than the staff was prepared for. Karl was busy hiring staff and overseeing so many business details that took him away from the actual pastoral work, and he found that being manager was not his calling. The unhappiness Karl felt in all this stress and work rubbed off throughout the rest of the church. People may not have known what was wrong exactly, but they could sense the tension, and it drove them away. Through this difficult season, Karl sought counseling and learned how to redefine success detached from numbers. When the church dropped back below 200, he examined what a healthy small church looked like and sought to understand how healthy small churches operate differently. Karl’s biggest advice is not to focus on growth, but to focus on getting healthy, which was what he shifted his mindset to. At that point, he decided that if they got bigger again, next time they would be ready for it.
  • Large and small churches need different things. // Imagine large churches and small churches on a Venn diagram with the large church principles in the left circle and small church principles in the right circle. The smaller the church, the less overlap; the larger, the more overlap. If you listen to Rick Warren and your church is about 2,000 people, you can still apply much of Saddleback’s princples to your church. But when you drop a zero and your church is around 200, it behaves in a completely different way. A lot of principles for large churches don’t work in small churches. For example, systems, while important in small churches, are not as important as the relationships, culture, and history. Meanwhile, a large church needs to put a lot of energy into developing systems. Small groups are another critical area that large churches need to develop, whereas a church of 50 people may not need to break down into smaller groups since individual ministries in the church (kids, women, youth, etc.) already serve that purpose.
  • 90% of churches around the world are under 250 people. // So many of us look at large churches and feel like grasshoppers in a land of giants, instead of seeing that a small church is “normal”. God wants to use the church, regardless of how many people are gathered in one place. As Karl says, “The power of the Holy Spirit is not more concentrated because there’s more of us in the room. God wants to work in these small groups scattered all over the face of the earth as well as He wants to work in places where large groups of Christians are gathered together. He will use both.” If you have a small church, work hard to get it healthy. If it’s healthy, but you still don’t get big numerically, celebrate the fact that you got healthy instead of mourning the fact that you didn’t grow. The goal is to get healthy.
  • Finding time for small church pastors. // The majority of pastors at small churches are bi-vocational. Finding time to manage everything that needs to be done and planning for the future is one of the biggest problems they face. Planning in a small church can often look like scrambling on a Saturday night for what needs to be preached Sunday morning. While we have to find a better system, large church pastor systems don’t seem to work for us. Large church pastors might take four weeks in the summer to outline their whole year. While you can’t do it all at once, there are ways to break it down. Karl explains his method of 3, 2, 1: every week take 1 hour to think 3 months out, 1 hour to think 2 months out, and 1 hour to think 1 month out. You can do it on commute from your job, when you have some quiet time, before bed, anytime during the day. It doesn’t all have to be done in one day. Find 3 separate hours in a week to think about what your message for these Sundays and soon that time will add up. You’ll be just as well prepared as the large church pastors.
  • Leverage your relational value. // Relationships are especially critical in small churches and will be key to helping your church move forward. Karl uses the acronym GIFT to encourage small churches to be intentional about relationship building. Every Sunday, encourage the regulars in your small church to: greet someone they’ve never met, introduce somebody to someone they’ve never met, follow-up on someone you’ve met recently, or thank someone for a job well done. Doing at least one of these every week will cause the friendliness factor of your church to skyrocket.

You can learn more about Karl and his new book, The Grasshopper Myth: Big Churches, Small Churches and the Small Thinking that Divides Us, at his website newsmallchurch.com.

Thank You for Tuning In!

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Lightning Round

Helpful Tech Tools // Mention.com

Ministries Following // Ed Stetzer championing the rural church

Influential Book // Naked Man Running: 100 IDEAS that work in a small church by Dave Jacobs

Inspiring Leader // Billy Graham

What you do for fun // Long distance hiking

Contact // http://newsmallchurch.com/ or email

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Rich Birch
Rich Birch is one of the early multi-site church pioneers in North America. He led the charge in helping The Meeting House in Toronto to become the leading multi-site church in Canada with over 5,000+ people in 18 locations. In addition, he served on the leadership team of Connexus Church in Ontario, a North Point Community Church Strategic Partner. He has also been a part of the lead team at Liquid Church - a 5 location multisite church serving the Manhattan facing suburbs of New Jersey. Liquid is known for it’s innovative approach to outreach and community impact. Rich is passionate about helping churches reach more people, more quickly through excellent execution.His latest book Church Growth Flywheel: 5 Practical Systems to Drive Growth at Your Church is an Amazon bestseller and is design to help your church reach more people in your community.