Your Church Is Big Enough: Karl Vaters Talks Small Church Health

June 19, 2017

Pastor to Pastor Interview

Karl Vaters believes your church can be healthy regardless of its size. This 30-year ministry veteran pastors Cornerstone Christian Fellowship in Fountain Valley, Calif., and has emerged as a champion of the small church through his book The Grasshopper Myth and the blog Pivot hosted by Christianity Today.

But that rosy outlook on small-church life was years in the making. It was born from a near-burnout experience when his congregation “grew” from 400 to well below 100 in just nine months. That’s when Karl said out loud the words that shocked his staff and surprised himself: “We’ve got to stop thinking like a big church.”

Karl, welcome to Encouraging Pastors.

Thank you.

You’ve been at Cornerstone Christian Fellowship for 24 years. What accounts of the longevity?

One thing is stubbornness. When I came the church had been through five pastors in 10 years and was close to closing the doors. Shelley and I came with the determination that we would stay until our youngest graduated from high school. He was three at the time. There were a lot of crises and problems to sort out, but I was determined to out-love and outlive them.

Especially in a smaller church with a history of trauma, you have to out love them and out live them. The smaller the church, the harder it is to excise toxic behaviors. If you’re not determined to stay for the long haul, you’re better of starting a new church or going to a church with a short history.

So would you advise pastors in conflict-ridden churches to hunker down?

Not necessarily. I talk to a lot of pastors in crisis, and I tell them that unless you’re willing to invest for a minimum of 7 to 10 years, you will not turn the church around.

But part of my story is that I left early in my previous church. We were there for just 20 months. They congregation had a difficult history and was unwilling to make changes. The attacks against me and my family were turning vicious, and I decided I wasn’t going to sacrifice my family to turn around a church. It’s better to make that decision early than to put in several years and realize you’re pouring yourself down an endless well of need.

So what was the timeline for change at Cornerstone?

It was about seven years before I could look at the church and say it was reasonably healthy. At about year 14 or 15, I could say, “We are a good church now.” And over the last 10 years we’ve become the best church I know. [Laughs.] I don’t mean we’re better than others; we’re just where we ought to be in excellence, passion, and missional outreach. It’s always in the process of getting better.

You’ve carved out a niche in celebrating the value of small churches. How did that come about?

After about 15 years here, we were a healthy church. So the expectation was that if we applied church growth principles to a healthy church, it would grow. We were averaging about 180 and filling our little chapel twice a Sunday, so I looked for a bigger facility. We found a cafe-gymna-auditori-librarium at a junior high school and started worshiping there. In about 15 months we grew to about 400. Then it started going in reverse. In less than 9 months, we were well below 100 and were back in our small chapel.

That must have been rough.

It was. I went through a long season, a year or two, of doubt, anger, uncertainty, frustration. I almost left the ministry entirely. But I connected with a very good Christian counselor who helped me redefine success in ministry. He helped me see what success looks like without having numbers attached to it. I was doing pretty well with that when I heard myself talking in a staff meeting about how to get the numbers up again. I was lapsing into that same toxic thinking all over again. I stopped in mid-sentence, and then I heard these words come out of my mouth: “We’ve got to stop thinking like a big church.”

I was as surprised at myself, because that’s a mantra of the church growth movement. If you want to be a big church you’ve got to think like a big church. Instead we said, “Let’s figure out how to be a great small church.” None of us knew what that meant, so I began this relentless journey to figure our what a great small church looked like and to become that.

So what does a great small church look like?

The prescription for a healthy church is in the Bible, and there are no numbers attached to it. It’s really the five purposes of a church that Rick Warren has helped us see—worship, discipleship, fellowship, ministry, evangelism. If a church is doing those things well and in balance, it is healthy regardless of size.

I’m sure you’ve had people ask this question: If a church is doing evangelism, won’t it grow in number?

That’s a perfectly legitimate question. But as I’ve heard a leadership consultant named Bob Buford say, “My fruit grows on other people’s trees.” That is the case for a lot of churches. The result of their ministry is not visibly seen within the walls of their church. That’s the case for us.

There are several things we do well. One of them is to offer a place for wounded Christians and particularly wounded church leaders to recover and find health. As soon as they get healthy, they leave. We’re okay with that. Also, we disciple people well and send them off into ministry. We are constantly saying goodbye to people that we’ve invested years of time, money, and discipleship in. They leave to take leadership in ministry at other churches, as they should do. We’ve learned to celebrate that. Just a few weeks ago we sent off three of our interns to ministry positions. They were here with us while in college. We helped train them, and now they’re gone.

What about the small church that doesn’t see those positives in their identity? For some, small just feels small.

It took us a long time to get where we are, seeing the things we do well and celebrating them. You have to begin and end by doing the scriptural mandate, which is to equip the saints to do the work of ministry. We need to shift the paradigm away from the church paying the pastor to do ministry and toward the pastor equipping the saints to do ministry. Whether that changes the trajectory of a shrinking congregation is a secondary issue. When you’re doing what God calls you to do, you’re successful whether the numbers increase or not.

What’s the biggest mistake small church pastors make?

Thinking that their church can’t be great until it gets bigger. If you don’t think you can be great until you get bigger, you’ll try to get big instead of healthy. Or you’ll see church health as a stepping-stone to growth. Health is the goal. If every small church became healthy tomorrow, the church and the world would change overnight.

I was called to ministry when . . .

I was in high school and starting to take part in leadership of the church youth group. Several people mentioned that I might have a call to ministry, but they all made the mistake of saying, “Like your father.” I love my dad, but I didn’t want to be like anyone but me. So I fought the call for a couple years before accepting it. Now I’ve been in pastoral ministry for over 30 years and just celebrated my 24th anniversary here at Cornerstone.

Southern California is a church-rich environment. You’re surrounded by megachurches. What’s it like to do ministry in that context?

For many years, it was intimidating and very frustrating. One of the shifts we made when we decided to stop thinking like a big church was to stop competing with them. Theologically, we understood that we were not in competition with megachurches. But emotionally we were competing with them. So we quit.

Just like that?

We started counter programming. We knew that there were lots of options for people who wanted a big or spectacular program, and that’s fine. We decided to offer a more intimate setting where people could know others and be known by them. We put that right up front. We began to discover the things we can do because we’re small that big churches can’t do because they’re big. I think there are some people who are discipled better in a larger church, and there are plenty of others who are discipled better in a more intimate environment. We are that environment.

What’s the biggest issue churches are facing, regardless of size?

The church in North America is undergoing a massive identity crisis right now. We’ve had two centuries of being the primary force in the culture. That is changing dramatically now. It has already changed in Canada, which has been post-Christian for a generation. Most of the urban centers of America have been or are becoming post-Christian.The Bible Belt is just now experiencing that. So we can no longer make the assumptions we used to make when we do ministry.

Most of us are still playing catch up on that reality and on discovering new language to speak into that reality. So it’s not about changing what we believe; it’s about understanding how the beliefs of the culture around us are shifting so that we can speak into that reality.

Who is helping sort that out? What voices are you listening to?

I think we’re figuring it out as we go, so the best voices now are those that can accurately define the problem. I don’t think anybody’s figured out solutions yet. Two good books that talk about this issue are unChritian by David Kinnaman and The Great Evangelical Recession by Glenn S. Dickerson

You deal a lot with small church pastors, many of whom are bivocational. Is this the wave of the future?

There have always been lots of bivocational pastors, but we used to think of that as a stepping-stone to a full-time ministry position. I think we’ll see more and more that bivocational ministry will be a deliberate choice for pastors. That’s partly because giving patterns are changing and people are more willing to give to visible, hands-on ministry than to buildings and salaries.

What have you learned about self-care in ministry?

Most pastors don’t have a home church. They have a work environment but they’re not being pastored–and neither is their family. We need to work hard at getting spiritual and emotional input to match our output. That might be fellowship with other pastors, or having a mentor or spiritual director. We have to be intentional about it.

This site is called Encouraging Pastors. What would you say to encourage a pastor today?

Your church is big enough. Right now, at its current size, your church is big enough to be healthy, to be missional, and to do what God is calling you to do.

Karl, thanks for sharing your time with pastors today.

My pleasure.


Resources

Contact Karl Vaters 
Cornerstone Christian Fellowship
Pivot Blog at Christianity Today
New Small Church Blog
The Grasshopper Myth: Big Churches, Small Churches and the Small Thinking that Divides Us by Karl Vaters
unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity . . . and Why It Matters by David Kinnaman
The Great Evangelical Recession: 6 Factors That Will Crash the American Church . . . and How to Prepare by John S. Dickerson

Lawrence W. Wilson

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I blog about pastoral ministry and issues affecting the local church. I've also written a few books including The Long Road Home and Why Me? Straight Talk about Suffering.