Thoughts on Growing a Small Church

(Less than 50 Attending)

I recently had a friend reach out to me for some advice on growing their small town church. His situation is very similar to many others in small rural communities. He was asked to take over a denominational church that had been struggling for years and had dwindled down to less than 30 people attending. At one time the church had been successful, but because they haven’t been willing to change, they were on the verge of having to close their doors. What follows in this post is the advice I gave him and the advice I would give you if you were in a similar situation.

Before we jump in, let me just say, you have a very difficult task ahead of you. It is very hard to build momentum in an established church that has seen better days. Especially one that is apprehensive about change.

Less people attending also means less volunteers and generally less money coming in. I don’t think it’s impossible, but I do think you’re going to have some days you want to quit and some days you want to run your head through a wall.

If you think you’re up to the challenge, then here is where I would begin.

  1. Build Relationships. Lots of them, inside and outside of the church. When you have less than 50 people attending, you should know everyone’s name, the names of their kids, and the names of their pets. The benefit of a small church is you really can know everyone. When they miss church, check up on them. When they’re in the hospital, stop by and visit for a minute. You’re not going to be able to do this forever. Eventually, you’re going to need to recruit others to help, but in the beginning stages, this falls on you. Also, make a point to get to know others in the community. Know who works at the bank, who runs the local grocery store, the old guys who are always sitting at the same table at the local meat and three. You get the idea. Make it a point to go to local ball games, hang out at the library, and go to community events.
  2. Form a Core Team. This terminology is generally used for church planters, but in essence that is what you’re doing. Once you’ve started building relationships, I want you to choose three to six couples to be on your core team. These are people you can trust, people you enjoy doing life with, and people who can help you execute the vision you have for the church. Just call it your small group in the beginning so no one gets suspicious. These are the people who are going to help you turn around the church. Start holding meetings with them to share your ideas, hopes, and dreams, and make it a point to listen to theirs. They’re much more likely to buy into the vision if they’ve played a part in forming it. If you can’t recruit this team, you’re going to fail.
  3. Get the Right People in the Right Places. Ideally, the people on your core team should be the people leading the most important ministries in your church. The big three in my mind are kids, first impressions, and worship, in that order. In some churches, the entire congregation votes on these positions. That’s why it’s so important to build those relationships and have a solid core team. Unfortunately, in some churches, change is only possible when you overthrow the old regime. Just be careful that they don’t overthrow you first.
  4. Start Making Improvements. Not only in the way you do ministry, but in the way your facility looks. New flooring, new paint, and new fixtures can do wonders for an old building. If you don’t have the money, you can try to raise some, or just fix what you can. A lot of churches would look better if they just de-cluttered and had a really good cleaning. For instance, if you have fake plants in your auditorium, get rid of them. I’d also try my best to get rid of pews if you have them. You can adjust the numbers of chairs you have to help with critical mass, but you can’t adjust the number of pews. And even if you could, they still scream “traditional out of touch church.” Sorry, pew lovers.
  5. Rename or Rebrand. Ideally, I would never want the denomination in the church name. Because what happens is that someone who has a bad experience at a church that’s the same denomination as yours will never come to your church. Your church and that church may be completely different, but you’re labeled by that denominational name. Now, by all means hold on to the beliefs of the denomination, just don’t put it in the church name. I know that’s not always possible, so for the rest of you, just rebrand your church logo to make it look more modern. Try to avoid doves, and fire, and those other things that were popular in the 80’s.
  6. Celebrate the Small Wins and Learn Patience. Realize that this is going to be a marathon and not a sprint. For every three steps forward, you’re going to take two steps back. Learn to celebrate the small wins, like a new family joining the church, a person getting baptized, a young couple dedicating their child. My friend has seen 25% growth at his church in the 6 months he’s been there. They’ve grown from 28 to 35. That’s something to celebrate. The church I serve only grew by 5% last year, and you know what, we were celebrating. Getting people involved in church is difficult right now. They have a lot of options, so celebrate the small wins.

This is by no means an exhaustive list. There’s so much more I’d like to add, but I’d rather hear your thoughts. What would you add to this discussion? Leave a comment and let us know, and if you’re in a spot where you’d like some help with your church check out my coaching page and see if I could be of help to you.

Three Ways We’re Using Positive Peer Pressure in Church

Do you recall the story of those three Hebrew boys who were thrown into the fiery furnace? The king made this huge statue and forced everyone to bow down and worship it, but these three boys refused. I wonder what would’ve happened if instead of three boys, there was only one. Would he have still been brave enough to deny the king and face death? Maybe so, but no doubt it would’ve been a much harder decision.

When culture is going one way, it’s really difficult to go the other, even when we know it’s the right decision.

Even when we know it’s what’s best for us, we struggle to do it.

Take diet and exercise for example, I want no part of it, even though I know it’s going to make me healthier.

But, I’m more likely to do it if I’m a part of a group that encourages me and holds me accountable.

At the church I serve, we have this saying “We’re not meant to do life alone.” We stole it from another church. It describes why you should be a part of a small group, but I’m starting to realize that it’s much bigger than that.

We’re not meant to do life alone because most of us are far too weak, myself included.

Let’s not kid ourselves and say we wouldn’t bow down to some statue if we were alone. We have enough trouble reading our Bibles, showing up to church, and tithing.

We need each other, and not just to keep us from doing the wrong things, we need each other to help us do the right things.

It’s this thought that has shaped several things we’re doing at the church I serve this year. Let me share three with you.

  1. Bible Plans with Friends – The YouVersion Bible app is such an incredible resource. I can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s fantastic. And they just made it better. Now you can read the Bible with your friends and talk about it together all within the app. If you want people to grow closer to God and learn more about His Word, this is one of the best ways to do it. It’s as simple as picking a plan and inviting others to read with you.
  2. In Service Invitations – One of our goals this year as a church is to encourage our congregation to invite more. We’ve tried sending them home with invite cards and similar things with limited success. This year we said, what if we asked them to send an invite within the service? Most people have plenty of contacts in their phones that aren’t attending church. We could just have them send a text. On other weekends we’ll ask them to share a Facebook post. Doing it within the service creates a kind of positive peer pressure because everyone around them is doing the same.
  3. Thank You Center –We’ve been working with our ministry leaders to show more value to the volunteers they serve, but we hadn’t taken the necessary step to really resource them until now. The Thank You Center is a place leaders can go to get thank you cards, birthday cards, and envelopes, so they can better appreciate their
    volunteers. This
    is an idea I saw years ago at the Chick-Fil-A headquarters in Atlanta, and I’m just now putting into practice. I’ve included a picture at the bottom of this post to give you an idea of what that looks like.

These are just a few of the ideas we’re implementing this year. I’d love to hear yours. How are you using positive peer pressure in your church? Leave a comment and let us know, and don’t forget to subscribe to the blog to get tips on church growth, leadership, and more delivered to your inbox each week.

Ministry Leaders: A How to Guide

Every pastor knows the backbone of any church is the volunteers. You can’t do ministry without them. These men and women who give of their time each and every week are helping point people to Jesus. They’re awesome…if they’re led well. Without good leadership volunteers may actually do more harm than good, which is why many pastors take it upon themselves to lead them. This is a mistake. You and I both know you don’t have the time needed to lead volunteers effectively, which is why you need ministry leaders.

Ministry leaders are leaders of ministries. I bet you figured that out already.

Sometimes they’re paid, but most of the time in smaller churches you can find more than capable volunteers.

Some examples would be the youth pastor, children’s director, or worship leader.

In the church I serve we drill down even further and have leaders who oversee each kid’s ministry area and each guest services area, like the greeting team, parking team, and ushers.

This allows people to use the leadership gifts God has given them, and frees pastors like me and you up to focus on big picture tasks like preaching and vision-casting.

Get the right ministry leaders in place, and your church has a great opportunity to see big time growth this year.

So, what would that look like? What would you need ministry leaders to do?

I’ve narrowed it down to these six things:

  1. Cast Vision – If you’re the senior pastor, you’re the chief vision-caster at your church, but that doesn’t mean you need to be the only one casting vision. Casting vision reminds volunteers that their serving has a purpose. Spending every other week in a room full of toddlers can become overwhelming, but hearing about a child’s mom getting baptized quickly reminds them what they’re doing matters.
  2. Provide Care – I want my ministry leaders to see themselves as shepherds of the volunteers who serve in their area. I want them to know about their families, what’s going on in their lives, and how they’re doing spiritually. They should be their biggest encourager, and include them in their prayer life. The more volunteers a leader oversees, the harder this becomes. That’s why I recommend a leader not oversee more than twelve volunteers.
  3. Recruit Volunteers – A leader who can recruit volunteers is invaluable to a church. A church can never have enough volunteers, and recruiting volunteers from the stage will have diminishing returns. That’s why it’s so important that you have leaders who aren’t afraid to tap a shoulder and start a conversation about serving.
  4. Train Volunteers – Once you recruit a new volunteer, you can’t forget this important step. You need to train them. Many people have quit serving, not because they don’t love Jesus, but because they feel unqualified because they’ve never been trained. Spend a few weeks training them and making sure they’re comfortable in their new position.
  5. Maintain & Order Supplies – Depending on where you serve, this could be a big part of your responsibility or very small. If you lead the area that serves coffee, you better make sure you have coffee each week. If you lead the nursery, make sure you have extra diapers for the mom who forgot her diaper bag. If you don’t have the authority to order the supplies yourself, make sure whoever does knows what you need in plenty of time.
  6. Deal with Conflict – Hopefully as a ministry leader, you won’t have to deal with this much, but you are serving in a church, so you need to be ready to deal with conflict when it comes. This could be a spat between two parents, a volunteer gossiping about another, or a variety of other situations. Your main priority is deescalating the situation. If that’s not possible let your leader know about the situation so they can help handle it.

I’m sure I probably forgot something, so I’d love to know what you would add to this list. Leave a comment and let us know. Also, make sure to subscribe to the blog to get tips on church growth, leadership, and more delivered to your inbox each week, and shoot me an email if I can serve you or your church in anyway this year.