3 Big Takeaways from “Small Church Essentials” – by Jon Hembree

In our “bigger is better” world, small churches can be seen as “less than”. That’s not okay. About 85% of churches have an average attendance of 250 or less. Often those statistics are stated as a negative. But what if it’s not a problem? What if it means that small churches are normal? (Now, before you think I’m a large church basher, I’m not. I just love the church. Period.)

Small Church Essentials

I pastor a small church. I’ve grown to love what the small church can offer. But I’ve also been to the conferences, read the books and blog posts that all come from the perspective of large churches and large church pastors. There are always a few nuggets to glean here and there, but often the ideas that work in a big church don’t work in a small church. And it’s rather discouraging to constantly get the impression that my church stinks and I’m a terrible leader because I can’t get that stuff to work.

That’s why Small Church Essentials by Karl Vaters is so encouraging. Vaters has recently become one of the voices for the small church. Not because small is better than big, but because small is different than big. He’s a veteran pastor of a small church, and in Small Church Essentials, he shares some great tools and strategies to help small churches become great small churches.

While this book is incredibly encouraging (the last two chapters will leave you pumped to take on the world!), it’s also very helpful. There are so many practical ideas, tools, and tips, but, because I think you need to read the book for yourself, I’ll just give you my top 3 big takeaways (and what I plan to do with them):

3 Big Takeaways from “Small Church Essentials”

1. Churches of different sizes need different priorities.

“Big churches need to prioritize vision, process, and programs. Small churches need to prioritize relationships, culture, and history.” (p. 61) The bigger the church, the greater possibility of more going on. So it’s important that the “more going on” is focused on a common vision. The processes are important to get people plugged into the programs that serve the big vision. It all ties together, and it’s all necessary to mobilize a lot of people to do Kingdom work.

Small churches can still have vision, programs, etc., but they shouldn’t be the priority. Relationships are supremely important to the small church. Many people love the “family feeling” that a small church can uniquely offer, but when those personal relationships are sour, there’s almost nothing worse. Small churches rise and fall with their relationships – and not just those relationships within the church. The relationship to Jesus takes top priority, and a relationship with those we’re trying to reach is key as well. Small churches need healthy relationships to survive and thrive.

Then there’s culture. A church says they want to serve and build relationships in the poorer parts of their city, but imagine that, when changes are introduced to get the ball rolling in those areas, they are met with resistance. The culture might have a lot to do with that. If the previous minister tried to introduce so many ministries that most fell apart because they couldn’t be sustained, it would be understandable for the church to have some apprehension when a new ministry is introduced. But that apprehension might still come out decades down the road. It’s important to learn about our church’s culture. If we don’t the negatives may continue to haunt us, and the positives may be left undiscovered.

Lastly, there’s history. There may be painful and tragic events in a church’s history. Those can be a struggle to navigate through. But we can also look at history in a positive light. Chances are that your church was founded with great intentions. There was a mission those founders set out to accomplish. We would be wise to tap into that history to encourage our church to carry on the work that was started, “not by slavishly copying what they did, but by daring to think the way they thought”! (p. 68)

For me, this is so helpful. I’m an introvert, and I could spend almost all my time doing “the office stuff”, but I need to make relationships a bigger priority in my ministry. As a church, we need relationships to take the forefront, too. I also want to do some digging into our history, both to learn more about the culture here, and to find those hidden treasures that we can build on top of.

2. It’s important to play to your strengths.

This may come as a shock to you, but people often complain about their church. It’s easy to focus on the areas where things aren’t going well in your church. In no time at all, that stuff consumes your thoughts.

Karl suggests playing to your strengths instead and featuring what you do well. Here are some great questions to help us zone in on what we do best:

  • What does our church already do well?
  • What can our church do really well?
  • What do we want to be known for?
  • Have we been missing the mark?
  • How can we clear the clutter and focus on what we do well?

(p. 139)

I need this one. I can get into that trap of dwelling on the things we need to do better, but my church family has some incredible strengths. Our worship service is one of the things we do best. The musicians on our praise team are mostly semi-professionals. Those who do communion and offering meditations do so with passion and humility. Even our prayer time is intimate and special. We also have the capacity for that incredible family feeling, and we do that well! I need to think about ways that we can lead with our strengths because they’re the best parts about our church!

3. The G.I.F.T. of a Friendlier Church

Karl points out that walking into a small church on a Sunday morning is an act of vulnerability: in a small group of people, there’s no anonymity. Because of that, friendliness is keenly important. If guests feel nervous walking in, we want them to feel welcome very quickly. You’ve probably heard the statistics that a guest will decide whether to come back to your church within the first ten minutes of showing up. The way we welcome our guests matters.

Now, most churches say that they are friendly and that generally means one of two things. It might mean that they are friendly to their guests. Many churches truly are warm and welcoming. On the other hand, it might mean that they are only friendly to one another. While the familiarity of friends is wonderful, it can’t come at the expense of those stepping into our church for the first time. It could be their first visit to any church. I don’t mean to sound drastic, but I don’t think any of us want our churches to leave a bad taste in someone’s mouth when it comes to their first steps in faith.

Enter Karl’s G.I.F.T. Plan. It’s a simple strategy to lead to a friendlier and more welcoming experience for your guests as you encourage your congregation to pick at least one of the steps each week:

G: Greet someone you’ve never met before

I: Introduce people to each other

F: Follow Up with someone you’ve met recently

T: Thank someone who did something you appreciate

Another great tool to put into practice. In my congregation, there are some wonderful, friendly folks. But I’ve also heard from a couple guests that no one said a word to them. Ouch! There might always be a potential for that to happen, but I’d much rather hear about how warm and inviting we are, and I think the G.I.F.T. Plan is a step in the right direction.

Bottomline: If you pastor a small church (or even a big one!), you need to get your hands on Karl Vater’s Small Church Essentials. I believe it gives both the encouragement you need as a pastor and the tools you need as a leader to help get on the right track to becoming a great small church.


Jon Hembree is a husband, dad to four boys, preacher, and Diet Dr. Pepper addict living in the middle of Kansas.


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