small church

When Smaller Is Better

Karl Vaters says not all small churches are created equal.

Not all small churches are created equal. Sure, some are small because the leadership doesn’t have a strong vision for reaching their community. But Karl Vaters believes that the pressure to raise numbers has kept many small churches from becoming the best small church they can be.

For the past 20 years, Karl has served as pastor of Cornerstone Christian Fellowship in Fountain Valley, California, and in that time his church has grown—and shrunk—and finally settled into its mission to be the best small church it can be. He blogs about the ways small churches can be better small churches at NewSmallChurch.com and wrote a book called The Grasshopper Myth (NewSmallChurch.com, 2013) to challenge small church leaders to think bigger by thinking smaller.

He spoke with BuildingChurchLeaders.com managing editor Laura Leonard about how small churches can find their niche and become the small church God has called them to be.

How did you come to see yourself as a “small church pastor”?

I started in ministry in the early 1980s, just when church-growth teaching was beginning to take root. I was an associate pastor for five or six years, and then I pastored my own small church that we were able to get strong and healthy, and from there we went to another church that was dysfunctional. We left before it started hurting our family too badly. For the last 21 years, I have been at Cornerstone Christian Fellowship. When we showed up, it was about 35 people who were just about ready to close the doors. We were able to work together to get the church healthy and strong, running about 75 or 80 for quite awhile.

When The Purpose Driven Church came out in the mid-90s, I had all of our leadership couples read it. It changed the way we did everything, and we grew to 200-250 or so. I realized we were at the 200 barrier, so I started reading, studying, and going to conferences to try to figure out how to break through the 200 barrier. We made it to about 400 people for a little while, and we were in a rented facility at that time.

After about a year at that level, things started going really south, really quickly. We started losing people, we lost the facility we were in and couldn’t find another place to rent, and we ended up back in our original building. We shrank so much it wasn’t fun anymore, and I stopped counting—we were probably in the low 100s. I was in a bad place spiritually and emotionally, just trying to figure out was going on. I followed all the rules, and it didn’t work.

A former pastor who is now a counselor walked me through that long season. He said, “Karl, you’ve got to figure out how to redefine success.” When he said that, I wanted to punch him in the nose. I thought what he meant was, You’ve been trying to jump a 10-foot bar but you’re only jumping 9 feet, so lower the bar to 9 feet and call it a success. I couldn’t do that. But he said, “Forget about jumping a bar. If the bar is to your left, success is to your right.”

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