Leading a Small Church

John Koessler’s take on pastoring smaller congregations.

This week’s featured resource, Strengthening Small Churches, includes an interview with John Koessler, who is chair and professor of pastoral studies at Moody Bible Institute. He previously spent nine years pastoring a small church in central Illinois. Below is an excerpt from that interview.

What are two or three defining characteristics of the healthy small church in the 21st century?
One mark of a healthy church is a biblical sense of mission. It’s particularly important for the small church to get its marching orders from Scripture, and not from the culture, particularly since the culture seems to focus on the large church. The Bible describes the church as a community of the Word, a community that worships, a community that demonstrates mutual concern and ministry, and a community that bears witness to the surrounding world.
A second mark of health would be a biblically informed sense of realism, because I think there are too many small churches laboring under the burden of false expectations. We approach ministry under the assumption that the small church is really just an underdeveloped large church, instead of seeing it as a distinct expression of the body of Christ. We really can’t do all the things that the large church is doing, so we create a climate for failure and that failure creates a culture of defeatism. The mantra you often hear in a small church is, “We’re just a small church.”
A third mark of health is a more holistic sense of what constitutes church growth. Numerical growth is one dimension, but it’s only one, although it’s an important one. But there are other important measures. For example, I think the small church needs to ask questions about whether a congregation is growing in its understanding of God’s Word. Do you see a growth in character among God’s people? Are they developing their capacity for ministry?
How do you encourage the pastor or leader who feels his or her life calling is in the small church, meaning they may never lead a church with high attendance or a large budget?
It’s vital to remember that your value or your effectiveness as a pastor is not determined by the size of your church. We have come to believe that the bigger the church, the better the pastor, and I just don’t see that as being true. Someone’s capacity to be a good shepherd or a skilled communicator of God’s Word is really not a function of church size. There are a lot of pastors who are effective shepherds, they’re good preachers, and they’re in small churches.
What is one common misstep that small-church pastors or leaders could avoid?
It would be the temptation to wish for something “better.” There’s this sense of discontent, this sense of disappointment. I’ll never forget the time I met one of the members of the church I pastored at the post office. After the prerequisite comments about the weather, she said, “I can tell God has been working in your life.” Of course I wanted her affirmation, so I asked her to tell me what she had seen. “Oh, I don’t know,” she said. “Somehow before, it seemed as if we just weren’t good enough for you.” And I was really devastated by the truth of her comment. For a number of years, I had felt I had gifts that could be used in a larger context. I think the hidden agenda of my ministry was to try and transform the church into something that made me feel good about myself, and not necessarily something that was pleasing to God. I was grateful that God helped me to see that before I finished my time there and I was able to moderate that.
What is one powerful role a small church can play, despite its limited resources, in a heavily populated area?
Small churches really are like a family. In a heavily populated area, the small congregation has the potential to provide a face-to-face community in a context where the dominant social experience is one of being nameless and faceless. What you find in the metropolitan setting is that the small church has the potential to provide what I’d call a relational oasis in a desert of anonymity. That isn’t without its challenges, however. It’s very rare in the average small church for newcomers to walk in off the street, and because many small churches are hidden away in their neighborhoods, it’s hard for them to impact the community.
This is also where the family dynamic can work against the church. If the congregation is comfortable, if they enjoy their relational network, they don’t feel heavily motivated to move out into the community. This is where the pastor comes in, this is where the pastor can help remind the church of its responsibility to look outside of itself.

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