Small Church-Large Church Challenges

Small churches face different dynamics and challenges than larger churches, but both can learn valuable lessons from each other.

There are many, many differences between the dynamics of a small church and a large church, but the biggest challenge for a small church is getting your people to think outward. The greatest strength of a small church is relational—everyone knows everyone. But that can also be its greatest weakness. Everyone loves knowing everyone and most peoples tendency is to keep the circle small and tight so it is often difficult to welcome newcomers into that circle.

Small churches often have a resource problem that is limiting. They don’t have enough people or money to operate all of their programs with excellence and due to the fact that most people shop for a church that can meet all of the needs of their family, a small church has a difficult time meeting all of those needs.

The biggest struggle for the large churches is often the opposite. When a small church’s strength is relational, a large church struggles staying relational. That’s why small groups are so vital, especially for the large churches. The other struggle for large churches is that they do have resources, both money and people, and so their tendency is to get too busy, doing too many things that may meet everyone’s needs but aren’t always on mission. It’s important for large churches to keep it simple, focused, and on mission.

I have pastored both. My church in Canmore fluctuated anywhere from 80 to 160 in attendance. My church in Okotoks started out with a small group of about 20 and grew to 250 and then when I took over the church in Lethbridge it was at about 300 in weekly attendance and has since grown to over 1500 in weekly attendance in the last 6 years.

Retention Dynamics

More than half of the Christians who worship in the United States and Canada do so in just 1/7 of the churches in these two countries.That means the other half worship in 6/7 of the churches in both countries.

One fourth of all Protestant congregations on this continent have fewer than thirty-five people in attendance at their principal weekly worship services, and one half average less than seventy-five. 50% of the churches on the North American continent average less than 75 people!

While there may be geographic or population density stats that explain this, often it is because small churches thrive on their very tight relationships. That's good! But it is very difficult for an outsider to come in to that church and feel like they fit in or are even welcomed. I discovered while pastoring small churches, that we generally had as many visitors in a year as some of the large churches in town, ourproblem was with retention. We were either too difficult to connect with and too cliquey OR we didn’t have good enough programs to effectively minister to the families coming in—or both. Like attracts like, so if that small church is older and doesn’t have any kids, it is tough for a young family to come in and feel like their needs and their kids needs can be met there. Or, likewise if the church is all young families, the older couples come in and feel like they don’t belong and won’t be ministered to. It really is a tough dilemma and is a difficult hurdle to overcome for the smaller churches. I think it takes a lot more skill and talent and effort to pastor a church under 100 than it does to pastor one over 1000. That’s my opinion anyway.

Pastors often feel a sense of “isolation".You don’t have staff working with you in the office every day and it is easy to feel very isolated. I think that is why ministerial’s in communities are so vital, especially for the small church pastors. It is a way to connect with other pastors just like you. I forced myself to regularly visit with other pastors in my community and also in the area. I learned from them, prayed with them, and worked along side them in the community. It was important for me and I encourage any pastor that feels isolated to reach out to other pastors for encouragement. That’s why I am such a believer in an organization like Victory. We are a family of pastors that can lean on each other. But it took my effort to reach out to other pastors because they are busy, too and I couldn’t just sit back and wait for them to come to me. I had to go to them.

Connection Dynamics

Jason Feifer, editor of Entrepreneur magazine wrote recently that people want to be heard. As editor, people that write into his magazine are surprised when he writes them back.He says people want their ideas, thoughts and experiences to be heard.Being heard makes them feel valued. 

While I don't think there should be a difference between how people are heard in smaller churches than how they are heard or valued in larger churches, I do think there is a perception that the pastor and staff are too busy to hear me out or to meet with me in a larger church. I do my absolute best to avoid that from being the case. Every individual matters and is valued—whether they are attending a small church or whether they are a member of a larger church.

The systems that pastors use in a larger church to connect differ from those of a smaller church, and they must be different in order for each person to be heard. I take my cue on this issue from Exodus 18 when Moses’ father-in-law taught Moses an excellent system to more effectively care for a massive congregation of 3 million people. He instructed him to set in leaders of 10s, 50s, 100s, and 1000s to care for the people. The leaders of 10s were like small group leaders who cared for the needs of their 10. And if a need was too much for them to care for on their own they took it to their leader, the leader of 50s who oversaw 5 groups of 10. If it was still too big a matter it went to the leaders of 100s who oversaw 2 leaders of 50s. If it was still too big then is went to the leaders of 1000s and if it was still beyond their ability to help it went to Moses. This system provided care for every individual in the nation and kept Moses fresh and able to lead effectively. The job of a pastor is not to pastor all of the people, but is instead to make sure all of the people are pastored.

Vision Dynamics

Casting vision and the principles of vision casting are the same in all churches, regardless of their size. The principles of a vision is:

  1. What problem are we called to solve?

  2. What solution will we offer to the problem?

  3. Why should we be the ones to offer that solution?

  4. Why now?

The difference in the visions of a small church as compared to a big church might be the size of problems the congregation can take on—because of the amount of resources (both manpower and finances), often determine the ability or the size of the problem you are able to tackle. But, that may be the only difference. I would caution pastors of small churches not to try to cast a vision that is beyond your ability to solve just because you saw a big church take it on. It will only lead to frustration or burnout for you and your people. I say this, because I made that mistake a number of times thinking that my church was small because my vision was too small, but that is not necessarily the case.

Church Board Dynamics

Another major area of contention in many churches is the church board. I have redefined and reshaped the responsibilities of our church board here at My Victory in Lethbridge.  I must explain that it wasn’t just me that brought these changes in. A number of the board members played a major role in instituting these changes.

We read a book called “Winning on Purpose” by John Kaiser and it changed our entire perspective and the way that we operated. The board went from being an operational board, one that had its hands in every ministry and played the role of the leader in those ministries, to a governance board.  

What do I mean? One of my first board meetings was a meeting that lasted 3 hours and most of the discussion was about which photocopier to buy. This decision was being made by people who would never use that photocopier! It’s highly inefficient. When we transitioned from operational to governance, the board established policy and held me accountable to operating within those policies. Now instead of deciding which photocopier to buy, the board set a budget—a policy to operate within—myself and the staff chose the best machine within that budget. That’s a much more effective way to operate since it is the staff that are using the photocopier every day.

The board provides governance and sets policy. The Lead Pastor provides leadership. And the staff provides management while the congregation does the work of the ministry. The board holds me accountable for the mission and to play within the rules. I hold the staff accountable and the congregation is the ministers. While it is a very quick synopsis, I am telling you, it has revolutionized our entire ministry! I would highly recommend every pastor listening and every board read Kaiser’s book. It will revolutionize your church, too.

Pastoral Dynamics

John Koessler says the majority of those entering pastoral ministry will serve a small congregation. Yet most training programs appear to gear themselves for the larger church.The role models placed before seminary and Bible college students are usually "successful" graduates who serve in larger churches.Such role models can be inspiring, but the operating principles that have enabled them to succeed in the larger churches are often inappropriate for their smaller counterparts.

Koessler is absolutely right. I would even say that the majority of conferences are more geared towards the large church, than the small church. I think there is a misconception that the pastors of the large churches are successful and the pastors of small churches are not. I don’t think that is the case at all. It takes a totally different leader and gift set to pastor a small church than it does a large church.

Small church pastors are multi-talented, jack-of-all-trades, pastoral type people. They have to counsel people, prepare sermons, be graphic artists, and web designers, they often have to be involved in the music ministry, children's ministry, youth ministry and lead small groups. They are most times the janitor and the facility maintenance person and the community liaison as well. They are my heroes! Large church pastors are more like ranchers. They oversee staff who do most of the work and they spend the majority of their time working as the chief communicator for the organization. In spiritual terms, most small church pastors have a five-fold pastoral gift and most large church pastors have a five-fold apostolic gift. It's a generalization, but I have studied this a bit and I have seen this to be the case—not in every circumstance—but in many of them.

When I pastored my small church in Canmore I received so much help from so many people. Most of which I sought out myself. Which I think is important as a pastor of any size church. You need a healthy curiosity and seek help from anywhere and everywhere you can. I ferociously read books, attended conferences, and interviewed a ton of pastors who had gone further than me or had pastored longer than me. I still made a ton of mistakes, but I learned from that as well. If I knew what I know now, I would have done most things differently, but wouldn’t we all. I would have conducted our services differently, structured our board differently, taught vision differently, focused more on culture, worked with staff differently and I could go on — so ya, basically everything would be different!

Volunteer Dynamics

John Koessler also comments that a small church's perception of itself is good in that it helps maintain a family atmosphere, but it can lend itself to pessimism in both pastor and people. Lay influence tends to be greater in a small church, a feature that can be cultivated to advantage through wise leadership.

I would agree. The less volunteers you have the greater the impact they have, both positive and negative. In a small church, if one family sours and leaves the church, the impact can be devastating and the whole church feels the hit. Whereas in a large church, if a family sours and leaves the church it doesn’t usually have as big of an effect on the whole. Because of this, small church pastors are often more tempted to compromise in order to keep all of their people happy because they are afraid rocking the boat may sink the whole ship. This is a dangerous thing to do as a pastor.

You will never be able to make everyone happy, and trying to will greatly dilute the vision and mission. You have to resist the temptation and stay the course. I have had to battle this in all three churches I have pastored and I can tell you it is much easier to stay the course and to avoid the temptation of compromising for people as a pastor of a large church than it was as a pastor of a small one. Again, my hat goes off to the small church pastors, you guys are amazing!

I think a common stressor between both sized churches is delegating period. Most of the time it is easier to just do it yourself rather than delegate it to someone else. This is true of both pastors. The key to both is to invest in a few key leaders all of the time. I think the most important thing a lead pastor can do, whether he is pastoring a church of 30 people or 30,000 is to pick 10-12 key leaders in your church that you can monthly train and equip for ministry. As a small church pastor, these 10-12 could be your future staff members when your church grows large enough to hire them. For the large church pastor, these 10-12 might already be your key staff members or potential key staff members, but nevertheless it is vital that you pour your very best into your very best. Believe me, it will pay massive dividends later. To me, this might be your primary responsibility as a pastor — equip the saints for the work of the ministry. At least that is what the Apostle Paul thought was the pastors primary job.

Training leaders in a small church focuses on the laity when training leaders in a larger church focuses on a large paid staff as well as the volunteers.When I was younger and a rookie at pastoring I made the excuse that I didn’t know enough to train others yet. Yet, I talked myself into doing it anyway. And do you know what I found? I found that I grew faster teaching others than I did just growing myself. My advice in training leaders is just do it. Set up a monthly leadership meeting. Invite 10-12 key people you want to invest in. People you trust and see the most potential in. Invite them to your house, have a meal with them, and then give them a leadership teaching. Stay one step ahead of them. Read a book, then teach from it. You will grow as you teach them to grow and it will pay huge dividends for your ministry. It is amazing to me how many pastors neglect this part of their job and don’t train their people in leadership. If leadership is influence as John Maxwell says, then growing your people in leadership is growing their influence in the community. How can your church not grow if your people are growing in influence? It’s seems simple to me. And it works.

In both settings, the lay volunteers are critical to the success of the churches. Again, I think it is much easier to recruit volunteers in a large church simply because there are more people to draw from. With that being said, I would guess that small churches have a much higher percentage of volunteers than do large churches. The challenge in the large church is that many people attending feel like they are simply not needed. Everything seems to be taken care of and so there is no room for me. That is never the case. I have yet to turn away a volunteer and I have never pastored a church with too many volunteers! We need everyone and there is always room for more to get involved.

Culture Dynamics

Both size churches benefit from intentionally establishing a relevant church culture, but I think it is harder to change the culture of a large church than it is a small one. It’s simply because most large churches think they are already successful and have a core group of people who think their way is the only way and you will also have different pockets of culture within one congregation. Getting them all on the same page with a designed culture is really difficult, but really necessary.

Creating a diverse team can be challenging in a small church simply because of numbers again. Because like attracts like, most small churches have one general demographic and therefore it is very difficult to create diversity when it is simply not there. In contrast, in larger churches, it is often much simpler to create diversity because there are often pockets of diverse groups within the church and you just have to get them working together as a team.

Learning From Each Other

As a pastor who oversees the Victory Churches in Canada, I see strengths in both size churches in the Victory Church movement. I love all of our churches and I know many amazing pastors of both small churches and large churches. I think the small churches can teach us how to be more effective relationally and creatively. Why do I say creatively? Well, because lack of resources often forces us to get more creative and inventive. Often having plentiful resources causes us to get complacent and lazy. So, I think some of our most creative pastors are the pastors of our small churches. I think we can learn structure and systems from our large churches. They are often finding new and more effective ways to structure things in order to reach more people. So the strength of the small church is relational and its creativity while the strength of the large churches are their systems and structure.

The biggest question is are we willing to learn from each other? Sometimes ego comes into play and divides us into two campus. Big verses small. I think if large churches think they know better simply because they are bigger then they are greatly mistaken. That attitude pushes people away. Likewise, I think if small church pastors feel inferior or feel like they have nothing to contribute then they are withholding from others and both of these attitudes create isolation into 2 camps. I think we need to be willing to learn from each other and celebrate each other rather than falling into the comparison trap and egotistical isolation.

Leaders in either church who grow themselves stand out from those who don’t. But growing leaders usually includes those leaders being exposed to new church trends or to what Jason Feifer calls in the secular world,“shiny objects”. Sometimes chasing the “shiny objects” but not following through, hurts the integrity and trust factor of any pastor regardless of the church size.I was one who was easily swayed by the new shiny trends until I realized that our mission must go before our vision. Our mission defines why we do what we do, and to me, Jesus gave us our mission 2000 years ago with the Great Commission. We are to make disciples. The vision defines what we will do in order to fulfill the mission. The vision is where the shiny objects show up. So, if some new trend comes along, but it doesn’t help us fulfill our mission then it simply must be avoided. But, if it keeps us on mission and will assist in the great commission, then I say bring it on. Let’s do it!

We Are THE Church

Certainly larger churches seem to have challenges that stand in contrast to those in smaller churches; and yet we’re all on the same team.

We must realize that not one gift is better than another, that I don’t need to be just like someone else, that God is not judging me based on someone else’s fruit or comparing me to the size of someone else’s ministry. He called me to be me, and he placed me as a member in His global plan to save the world. So, I must play my part, no matter how big or small, because my part is vital to the success of His Kingdom on the planet, because thechurch is the hope of the world and we are on a missionto reach every available person, at every available time, by every available means with the Gospel of Jesus Christ by creating churches unchurched people love to attend.

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