Leading a Small Church, Part 2

If I were called to lead a church of less than 50 members, I’d try to persuade the church to think of itself as a church plant — placed by God in this community to reach the lost and serve the hurting. I’d call on the members to make the radical change of mindset from doing church as usual (which rarely produces much growth — spiritual or numerical) to a mindset that each member has chosen to serve in Jesus’ mission as a disciple. I’d ask the members to expect growth and to expect to do the things that produce growth.

And so I’d —

* Teach grace — plainly and repeatedly. I’d make certain that my congregation understands grace and the Holy Spirit so well that the legalism that infects many congregations is expunged. I wouldn’t let my church be a “moderate” church where factions negotiate and compromise differing theologies. I’d do my best to get everyone on the same page theologically so issues like the name or worship styles are spoken of in terms of God’s mission, rather than CENI and such like.

If I was doing the teaching, I’d teach from the Amazing Grace series that we taught in my congregation a year ago, posted on this site. Within a two-year time frame, my goal would be to get my church thoroughly taught on grace, the indwelling Spirit, and baptism as explained in that series.

You see, my church can’t be effective evangelistically until we’ve sorted through these issues and have an agreed understanding of who isn’t yet saved. And we can’t be as attractive to the lost as we need to be while we have a streak of legalism in us — or while our preacher is limited in what he can say because the church isn’t all on the same page. 

Grace leads to unity and a profound excitement about our Savior — which leads to effective evangelism.

I’ll know I’ve gotten to where I need to be when I can talk about something as controversial as a name change and (a) no one objects because of what another Church of Christ in town might say and (b) no one raises a theological objection. When my church gets to this point, we can discuss the question pragmatically: what is best for God’s mission in this place? 

In some towns, a church doesn’t have much of a chance to grow with the name “Church of Christ.” In others, no one really cares. But to get over the issue, my church would have to find its identity in Jesus, not in a denomination. And the path to that mindset is grace and the Spirit. 

* Establish a leadership structure appropriate to a church plant. If we send a missionary to Africa, we expect the missionary to be the evangelist who leads the church  until elders can be appointed. But when we have a small domestic church, we get all upset when the preacher tries to be the leader. We’re afraid he’s being a Baptist pastor or some such thing.

Well, if a small church will just see itself for what it is — an evangelistic outpost in a lost and hurting world — being led by an evangelist/missionary will only seem natural. 

The key verse is found in Romans —

(Rom 12:7-8)  If it is serving, let him serve; if it is teaching, let him teach; 8 if it is encouraging, let him encourage; if it is contributing to the needs of others, let him give generously; if it is leadership, let him govern diligently; if it is showing mercy, let him do it cheerfully.

You’ve been chosen to preach because your church has discerned your gift. Don’t just preach; lead. Soon enough, your church will produce a crop of elders, but until then, the church must have a leader to grow.

The biggest mistake small churches make is to be so focused on having a plurality of elders that they have no leaders or they have good leaders mixed with bad. Or they have a divided leadership. But God gives gifts to those he wishes to have them. And if only one man is gifted to be the leader, then he should be the leader. (Alexander Campbell and Thomas Campbell were each a solo elder in their two small congregations.)

There is no Biblical authority for a church to be led by business meeting of the members or the men. Rather, the Bible tells us that the Spirit himself selects certain men to be leaders, and we should honor the choosing of the Spirit as evidenced by their giftedness.

(1 Cor 12:28)  And in the church God has appointed first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, also those having gifts of healing, those able to help others, those with gifts of administration, and those speaking in different kinds of tongues.

“Administration” in the Greek has its root in being the pilot of a boat — the navigator. Those who have the gift to pilot a church should pilot the church. Those without the gift should follow those with the gift. In a small church, you’re lucky indeed if God has given you someone with that gift. Very few small churches will have two or three. 

Now I urge this point because my observation is that small churches that have a well-trained, Spirit-gifted pilot do very well and those that are “led” by a business meeting or other non-scriptural model generally do very poorly. I think that after legalism, ineffective leadership is the biggest reason small churches tend to be ineffective.

Get with a church planting organization and let them do what they do. And what they do is —

  –  Train leaders. And I can’t emphasize this enough. No matter how gifted a leader may be, he needs training for the task. Very few of us have seen a small church take off from less than 50 and grow like the churches in the First Century did. But it can and does happen for churches that have the right theology, are motivated, and are well led.

  – Support leaders. Church planting organizations make certain that leaders have a “coach” who is an experienced missionary who can help the leader lead, encourage him, and support him.

 – Raise financial support. Your church is larger than most church plants and has older members. Your church will need less support than most — perhaps none. But you may well need temporary support to get going.

There are several church planting organizations in the Restoration Movement, but only three I know of that support Churches of Christs: Mission AliveKairos, and Stadia.

Stadia began among the independent Christian Churches but now works with the a cappella Churches of Christ as well.

Mission Alive and Kairos are both indigenous to the Churches of Christ, and I know some of the leaders involved with each personally. I happen to have much more experience with Kairos and think very highly of them. I’m also a fan of Mission Alive but don’t have nearly the insight into their people and their program as I do with Kairos.

I can’t over-emphasize the importance of affiliating with a church planting organization. 

I must say, however, that I have no idea if any of these would work with an existing congregation. Their mission is to help church plants, and I doubt that they’ve seriously thought about helping someone lead a small church to become a church plant. But they should.

* Preach the mission. Lessons on grace have to be intertwined with lessons on God’s mission. I don’t mean knocking heads about evangelism; I mean teaching the Story as taught in the “Blue Parakeet” series of posts and teaching the mission of God as explained in An Unconventional Approach to the Mission of the Church. 

You see, understanding our mission in Christ helps us get our priorities straight. Rather than obsessing over what some other church down the road is doing, we get busy serving as God intended. We are humbled because we no longer see ourselves saved because our pure doctrine. Rather, we see that we’re saved to participate in God’s mission. It changes everything.

* Develop a team attitude. This is really hard in a big church, but your church is small enough that you can work with the material in a great team-building book, such as The 5 Dysfunctions of a Team, to develop a sense of unity along team principles.

(In a larger church, this applies at the leadership level — getting the elders and ministers to be a cohesive team.)

The Church of Christ culture is one of radical individualism. We struggle to subordinate our wishes to the whole. This book tells you how to get it done. The church planting organization can coach you on additional tools.

But here’s the key: when the church goes from being a group of individuals and becomes a team with a leader and a mission, true unity will prevail and the church will be willing to support whatever change is needed. And I can’t express how much you’ll enjoy being a part of such a team.

I am, of course, ridiculously idealistic. You should be, too. Still, none of this will be easy. But I think church planting is the most exciting idea in the Churches of Christ today — and taking a traditional church and moving into the model of a church plant has the potential to change the Churches of Christ in radical and powerful ways.

I mean, the majority of our congregations have less than 100 members. And very few have managed to grow very much. Maybe this is the way to turn our smallest churches into our most valuable resource.

For too long we’ve tried to grow churches without having the leadership, training, or support needed to do it right. As a result, most small churches stay small — and countless churches are dying. Meanwhile, we’re investing huge resources to create new small churches and calling them church plants. And they succeed. Well, why not use the small churches we already have as more mature, larger plants?

[to be continued]

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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3 Responses to Leading a Small Church, Part 2

  1. Alan says:

    A few leaders have the gift of leading a church planting in such a way that it grows dramatically. Those who have this gift need to use it. So when the church grows from tens to hundreds, why not move on to another church plant, and turn the larger church over to an eldership? Isn't that what an evangelist is supposed to do?

    The other thing these gifted evangelists should do is train young evangelists to do the same thing. That training doesn't take place in the ivory tower of some large church. It happens "on the ground" in a small church planting. Consider the example of Paul with Timothy.

    Finally, a church planting doesn't necessarily require outside support. I've personally been a part of a self-supporting church planting of eleven members. We hired a preacher and met in a member's living room. Five couples giving 20% of their income can support a sixth couple at the average salary of the church. Or ten couples giving 10%…

    There is much to be gained from relationships with other church plantings and former church plantings.

  2. Joe Baggett says:

    Here is the thing about Mission Alive and Kairos. They are still based on too much institutional loyalty. They don’t really address the theologically questions that people are asking. Two of my close friends from ACU are planting a church with Mission Alive in Waco. Anything tied to any denominational institutionalism Baptist, Lutheran, church of Christ etcetera is dead. If you look at most church plants the membership is mostly transfer members from other churches. Most people don’t want to believe this but it is true. One church plant boasted of their growth but when we looked at it and ran the numbers the people who were true converts to Christianity were less than 10%. One of these days we will de-program ourlselves from the religious dogma of the modern age and start listening to the theological questions that people are asking in the post modern age. They don’t come in to churches or ask for home Bible studies to ask them; they ask them through there behavior. Very few of the church plants focus on theology and answering the theologically questions people are asking. If you look beyond our fellowship like to churches like Gateway in Austin TX where my younger brothers go, most of the church is made up of young professionals under 30 who were true converts to Christianity. They focus on creating a come as you are culture and answering the theological questions people are actually asking.

  3. Joe, I think you make some great point, which I also believe the NT supports. I don't think Jesus created the institutionalized congregations we have today.

    And it's very difficult to take a congregation already institutionalized, and convert is to one which is free of that — a nearly impossible transition for mere human beings.

    I wish it were not so.

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