Small Church Essentials

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“There is much in Karl Vaters’ Small Church Essentials that is helpful for the Australian context, particularly when you realise that in Vaters’ work a small church is anything smaller than 250 congregation members,” says Dr Stephen Harrison in his review of Vaters’ thought-provoking and encouraging book

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California-based pastor, author and blogger Karl Vaters has a passion for small churches – not because he thinks that small is better, but because regardless of size he wants churches to be great. Often the literature about church health focuses solely on growth and is written by people from large churches. One of Vaters’ goals it to show that the ideas and resources, associated with this literature, don’t always work for small churches. They need their own approaches and tailored resources. Small Church Essentials seeks to fill the gap in the market for books about the health of small churches.

There is much in Karl Vaters’ Small Church Essentials that is helpful for the Australian context, particularly when you realise that in Vaters’ work a small church is anything smaller than 250 congregation members. National Church Life Survey (NCLS) data from 2001 tells us that the average Australian church size is 60 to 70 people. Vaters acknowledges that there are key differences between churches with 25 congregation members and those with 200 members. This is an important point, as ministry in small churches needs to be tailored for the local community and context.

In Part 1 of the book, Vaters seeks to show that small does not equal broken or deficient. Small churches can be healthy if they are fulfilling their mission. There are many reasons a church might be small that have little to do with their health. However, he also points out that being small isn’t necessarily a virtue and shouldn’t be used as an excuse for not carrying out faithful and life-giving ministry.

In Part 2, Vaters unpacks how small church leaders need to think differently to those in large churches. The essentials for health in a large church are different to those in a small church. There is some overlap, but there is much that is specific to the small church. One example he outlines is that in big churches vision, process and programs need to take priority, while in small churches relationships, culture and history need to be front and centre.

Part 3 sees Vaters exploring how new life might be brought to an existing small congregation. He points out that there is a difference between churches that are small because they are stuck and those that are strategically small. He explores some of the chronic small church issues and some ways of making change. Of particular interest is his recommendation of ‘decluttering’ the church for more effective ministry. He isn’t talking about disposing of the old Sunday School resources piled in the hall, but about not adding a new ministry until an old one has been dropped. He encourages churches to work out what they do well and do it with energy and purpose. There is a lot of practical advice in this part of the book, including about small church vision casting and the process of change management. I liked that Vaters encourages churches to get into the habit of change by embracing an “always be changing something” attitude.

In the final section he focuses on becoming a great small church. This includes sections on being more welcoming, mentoring and discipleship, planning for success and effective outreach.

There is much practical wisdom in Small Church Essentials. It is well worth reading. The only criticism of it might be that it doesn’t focus much on long-term sustainability or ways of problem solving financial issues in small churches. There are some elements of advice in the book that wouldn’t work contextually for Australian Anglicans, but mostly it is thought provoking, beneficial, challenging and encouraging.

Karl Vaters, 2018. Small Church Essentials. Moody Publishers, Chicago.

If you want to hear from Karl Vaters himself, St Paul’s Anglican Church, East Brisbane is sponsoring a seminar on ‘Leading Small Churches (Without Settling for Less)’ to be facilitated by Karl Vaters (The Small Church Guy) on the evening of Friday 21 February and during the day on Saturday 22 February 2020. Participants will come away from the seminar:

Cost of the seminar is $49.00, including lunch and refreshments. Register via the faithful + effective website by 5.00 pm Monday 17 February 2020. For more information, please phone The Rev’d Mark Vincent on 0409 544 297. This special event is an initiative of The Parish of East Brisbane, supported by the Parishes and Other Mission Agencies Commission.

First published on the faithful + effective website.

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