Ministry in a small church can be frustrating and discouraging. You might even see churches down the road that are growing, but for some reason, your church isn’t. Eric Miller, director of ministry operations for CE National, talks with Tim Spankle and Shawn Kidder, two pastors who are seeing God do big things in their small churches.
Tim is the pastor of Leesburg Grace in Leesburg, Indiana. The town of Leesburg is very rural, surrounded by corn fields and tractors.
Shawn pastors Grace Community Bible Church in the city of Philadelphia. Shawn’s church is surrounded by row houses, apartment buildings, and markets. Both churches average about 100 attendees.
Whether you pastor a church in a small town or a large city, if your church is around the national average of 75 attendees, this conversation will be thought provoking and inspiring for you.
What is your church’s vision?
Tim shares Leesburg Grace’s mission statement: “Every Christian Becoming Full in Christ, United in Love, Strong in Service.” The goal is to continue to grow spiritually and impact the community. Tim has an annual theme and this year’s theme is “immersed.” This theme emphasizes the idea of serving together in the strength of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 12). The mission always remains the same, but the yearly theme gives people something to rally around as well as the opportunity to develop a ministry mindset.
Shawn’s mission statement at Grace Community Bible Church is “Loving God and Loving People.” Shawn breaks it down by asking his people how they love God and how they show God’s love to others around them. He wants the people in his church to have a strong love for God, one another, and their community. Shawn also chooses a theme each year. “Grow in All Things” is the theme for 2020. He is calling his church to leave spiritual infancy and grow up in every area of the Christian life. Currently he’s encouraging them to grow in their ability to defend the faith out of a spirit of love, so he’s teaching them apologetics. Apologetics is important in the city because there are so many different opinions out there.
What are your thoughts on being a small church?
Tim says he fights his ego a lot. He recognizes his place and influence in the lives of the people around him. Tim has seen their digital audience grow much broader in the past few months than they had before. He sees that bigger churches are often in more strategic locations with pastors who are more visionary than he is. Tim is a great pastor, but does not have the gift of rallying people. Pastors of larger churches are exceptional at communicating vision and rallying people around their vision. Tim is content to make the most of the gifts that God has given him.
Shawn similarly shares that he fights his own pride. It’s a wonderful blessing to be part of a small church. A church can be small because it’s ineffective or stagnant. But that’s not always the case. There are a lot of wonderful small churches. It’s not about the size of the church, but the obedience that matters.It’s a wonderful blessing to be part of a small church. Click To Tweet
When Shawn started pastoring about 20 years ago, the neighborhood around the church was very stable. People would buy a home, then their kids would purchase the same home from their parents. Generation after generation would be in the same home.
However, after Shawn became the pastor, diversity began to move into the neighborhood. Now the average family stays 3-5 years. People come in, stay for a bit, then leave. There are well over 200,000 people in the little square around the church. The church has to adjust its method to match the dynamic of the community. Every year Shawn loses about ⅓ of the church. The group will drop from around 80 people to around 60 people each year. But God faithfully brings others in. To say a church is ineffective because it’s small isn’t true. It’s the obedience that counts. Living on mission is related to God’s people, not the size of the church.
Do you feel tension or pressure with leading a small church?
Tim shares three areas of tension:
- There’s not a lot of great Christian literature on leading small churches.Training and books are usually written by someone who is leading a large church.Tim has to scale books to his church size to make them applicable.
- Owning limitations. When a church has a broader base of people, there could be a broader base of talent. Establishing a critical mass is difficult in smaller churches.
- Online means you can reach a broader audience. But the online gain is often a result of marketing.Tim’s marketing skills and network aren’t as deep as a large church might be.
Shawn also shares three areas of pressure:
- Success in our culture is seen with size. When someone you just met finds out you’re a pastor, the first question is usually, “How large is your church?” A lot of times you feel pressure that you’re not a good leader because your ministry is small. You have to get over your own pride.
- Going to a gathering of other pastors, what Shawn has to share might seem small compared to what other pastors are sharing. Shawn has to get past his pride and self-centeredness and not try to sugar-it-up to make it look good. It’s not something that other pastors put on him, but what he puts on himself.
- There’s a natural tendency to want to compare, but Shawn realizes he wants to stay away from that.
How do you focus your methods and mission based on the context you’re in?
Shawn talks about how his church has developed a philosophy that’s working well for them. When he first came to the church, there was a core-group of people doing most of the work. People were getting burned out filling the calendar with events. It wasn’t necessarily bad, but they would get grumpy and frustrated, then quit the ministry they were leading. The church realized the importance of focusing ministry efforts and choosing a few priorities to do extremely well.
They concentrate on doing things that are meeting the needs of the people. One example is their VBS.The church used to do a fabulous VBS. As soon as VBS ended one year, the director started planning the next year, however they found that VBS wasn’t accomplishing the goal of reaching the unchurched community. It was great for their own children and other church’s children, but it became apparent that they were having VBS for all the other churches in the community. So they stopped doing VBS and began having monthly, summer community movie nights. Most of the people who came were from the community. The movie nights were accomplishing their goal of reaching into the community much better than VBS and it was much easier to do.
Tim shares that trying new things energizes him. The church has tried many different outreach ideas.They measure success by looking at two areas: 1) Did the event connect with the community? 2) Did the event train his church members? The more people in the church that get involved the better. Tim works at giving others the freedom to run with their own ideas. If it’s Tim’s idea, it might work once, but as other people join in the planning process, they are able to work in their areas of passion. He has also tried to teach his people that it’s OK to let things die. He encourages his church that as they serve in the community, they work in the community. They have an outreach shirt that says “SHOW care to SHOW Christ”.
SHOW stands for:
- Sphere of influence
- Hear their heart
- Offer help or hospitality
- Words of hope
What are some big things you’re seeing God do in your small church?
Tim shares that after a recent sermon, a man who speaks English as his second language, came up and asked if he could be baptized. Another man, who is new to the church, was out of work for months. As soon as COVID hit, it rocked his world because he knew it would be harder to find a job. Individuals from the church dropped off food and gift cards at his house. Two weeks ago the man sent a thank you card to Tim for how the church supported his family.
Shawn explains that after 20 years of ministry, four things come to mind:
- A huge thing God does every single year is to allow them to remain open. With such a high turnover rate, the church must have an effective outreach.
- Another area God works is in financial giving. Even during quarantine, their church’s giving went up. It’s a middle-lower class income community and they’re huge givers. This enables Shawn to be full-time.
- God also gives growth in people’s lives. Seeing how people come in and gain a hunger for God’s Word is so rewarding and leads to huge victories in people’s hearts: Marriages begin to get better. Relationships get better. Individuals get better. Because of God and His word.
- God also works in the love the church has for one another. The community around the church is one of the most diverse communities in the county and there’s a snapshot of the world right in their little congregation. Amidst the diversity, they are amazing at accepting and loving each other well.
What are the benefits and challenges of having a small church?
Tim shares that the number one challenge for him is fighting the cultural lie that size or numeric growth equals success. God has called Tim to a long-term ministry and he’s done 3 or 4 weddings of people who were 3rd graders when he started pastoring the church. There are profound ministries he can have with people over time.
Shawn talks about the challenges of money and resources. However, God always comes through and always provides.
Shawn has also had trouble with people who want to take over the church. He says there are people who come regularly and they absolutely love the church, but their attitude changes and they want to take over the ministry of the church and cause division. The elder board has to protect the ministry and body of Christ from people who are trying to destroy it.
A benefit is the wonderful opportunities to make connections and close relationships with everyone. You have the opportunity to make those close personal relationships without trying to.
What is some advice for the pastor who’s starting out in a smaller church?
Tim says continue to be a learner. Read a lot and talk with other pastors. Don’t be intimidated by others in large churches. Don’t create the dichotomy that a shepherd isn’t a leader and a leader isn’t a shepherd. Tim reads a lot of Eugene Peterson. Be patient and listen to God in prayer. Listen to what God is doing in other people’s lives.
Shawn says try not to fall into the trap of comparing.You can get discouraged and lose sight of why God has put you where you are. Learn to love where God has placed you. He’s brought you there for a reason; to shepherd these people.
Find a support group outside of your church that you can pray with. You might not be able to share some things with people in your church. Find a group of people outside of your church where you can share your struggles or ideas with.
He also adds that it’s OK to let people leave your church. For example, don’t be offended or upset if someone leaves your church for another children’s ministry. Don’t try to be everything to everyone. You’ll burn yourself out. Be OK with doing what God has called you to do.
Tim also recommends the book A Big Gospel in Small Places: Why Ministry in Forgotten Communities Matters by Stephen Witmer.