Book Review: Small Church Essentials -1

This book comes recommended by one of our deacons, Kathy B, who ordered it after reading the author’s blog.  I picked up my own copy of ‘Small Church Essentials’ by Karl Vaters, and will be sharing highlights from the book as well as my thoughts and responses as I read through it.  Each chapter short and makes for a quick read.

It’s geared toward pastors leading a small church (defined as being under 250 in active attendance), but it seems relevant to a wider context of those who are leading and active in smaller congregations.  It’s worth noting that in his denomination (which he doesn’t share) 80% of the churches are under 100 in weekly attendance.  Vaters describes the 250 mark as one which requires significant shifts in organizational and structural style – one of the big markers being everyone at church having the expectation of knowing (or recognizing) everyone else in the church.  [and to which I’d say the number is significantly lower than 250]

One of the big early points: Small isn’t necessarily bad (or good) – it’s just small.

The key isn’t size, it’s health, and the expectations and focus we work with as a small church.  There are some good reasons why a healthy church might remain a small church over time, and Vaters lists some examples:

  1. It focuses its energy on planting more small congregations instead of trying to grow a larger one
  2. They may serve a population that is inherently in transition, like students or those in retirement [or in the military]
  3. Or they may be a house church, looking to minister and serve with as ‘light’ a footprint as possible (i.e. without church mortgages/property / staff salaries / etc.
  4. Or they may focus on a specific section of the community which is smaller by its nature (i.e. language, ethnicity, or a group that feels disconnected from the broader community)
  5. Or they may be a countercultural community whose sense of faithfulness to the Gospel and calling positions them outside the mainstream of the context they are in.
  6. Or they may be an impoverished community.
  7. Or they may be a persecuted community (he’s mostly thinking globally here)
  8. Or the church may be in transition due to community factors
  9. Or the church may be intentionally small as part of its focus and identity.

These are not meant as excuses for every church being or staying small, but to point out that there can be unhealthy expectations of growth or sense of failure for not growing that are unrealistic given the focus or situation of the church.   Vater is refreshingly not interested in either slamming megachurches or small churches, but asking the question of what health and faithfulness looks like in the smaller church.

That said, he’s also not interested in giving small churches a pass when they’re not being healthy or faithful to their calling.

“Just because we’re small doesn’t give us an excuse to do ministry with anything less than Christ-honoring, people-serving, world-transforming passion.”

The reality is that a small church can’t operate like a big church.  So instead of trying to emulate the programs and processes of bigger churches, we need to innovate with what we have, to be who Jesus is calling us to be.

Personally, I resonated with much of what he’s said in the opening chapters of the book, on one level, resisting the mantra of the church growth movement that implies something is wrong if we’re not growing, and the danger to pastor and congregation of operating out of frustration and discouragement.   I found the examples of healthy reasons to be small encouraging, and a good reminder to be focused on our calling and purpose as a congregation of any size.  My critique at this point is that at least so far, Vaters hasn’t gotten into many specifics about healthy and unhealthy dynamics and structure.  There are good reasons to be small, and there are also cultural factors at work which are affecting churches of all sizes, requiring adaptive changes which can be challenging to envision and implement.  I’m interested to see how and if he engages some of these factors as the rest of the book unfolds.

To ponder:

  • In what ways may we be carrying (or trying to meet) expectations for our church that are unrealistic?


  • In light of our unchanging mission: To build one another up in faith (in Christ-likeness), and to share and show that active faith in the world, what God-given opportunities do you see in Memorial Baptist Church, in light of its place in the community, strengths, and values?