Since transitioning away from the pastorate four years ago, I’ve had a lot more time to sit, pray and think. I have conversations with myself. That’s right, I talk to myself a lot. My former self – the younger, inner city, small church Pastor Mike – interviews my present, old sage, Mike T, self. Now some of you might find this strange and chalk it up to age, but I have to say, at times we have some surprisingly good dialogues. Have a listen…
PM: Hey there Mike, how’s it goin’?
MT: No complaints, Mike. Although I am talkin’ to myself.
PM: I got no problem with that.
PM: I’m a hard workin’ small church pastor in a great big city,
tryin’ to get it right and make a difference and I’m struggling with
some things that I think a veteran like you can help me out with.
MT: Okay, shoot…
PM: We’ve been at this for a few years now. Our church is a small
fish in a big pond and I struggle with feelings of insignificance and
incompetence because of our size. So much of pastoral ministry
success is tied to size.
MT: Well Mike, how big is big enough? A congregation of a hundred?
Two hundred? Five hundred? As the pastor of a small church it’s
easy to feel irrelevant in today’s celebrity-consumer culture. But a
small church can have a footprint bigger than its actual numbers.
In the thirty-eight years I pastored I never led a church larger
than two-hundred and forty. Maybe a better question to ask is:
How big is a healthy church? I’m not saying size doesn’t matter at
all. It’s an indicator, but it’s not everything. Health and size are
not the same. Size has to do with numbers of bodies in the seats
not of spiritual maturity. There can be healthy or unhealthy
churches at any size.
PM: So, if building a big church isn’t the measure of ministry success,
MT: As you know Mike, I struggled with ambition and the desire to be
successful in the eyes of others for a lot of years. I never
measured up to the success models showcased in the books,
magazines and conferences. They just made me question my
competence. I had to get back to the main and plain of gospel
truth. Success for Jesus wasn’t about numbers it was faithfully
carrying out his Father’s will. I realized I wasn’t called to be a
success in the eyes of others, I was called to be faithful to what
God had given me to do. It was the lesson of the parable of the
talents. I was a two talent not a five-talent guy. The fact is that
some ministries are not meant to exist in a rapidly increasing
reality. There were ministries meant to be small, with a few
people. Growth, certainly, but not always in terms of quantity.
It was a matter of finding out who God had made me to be and
what he had called our church to do, then getting really good at
doing that. We were a small church of mostly twenty-somethings
away from home who had come to New York chasing their
dreams. We got really good at being a “home away from home”
and at building foundations because most of these young people
were starting out and would eventually find careers, get married,
start families and move on in life. Success for the Manhattan
Vineyard became preparing people on the move for life wherever it
PM: Obviously you were able to get past the “bigger is better”
mentality that dominates today’s American church scene.
MT: Well it took time but our perspective on size and success changed.
We had such a hard time gathering a critical mass of people
that would create momentum and attract others. Like I
mentioned our demographic was mostly single young adults on
the move, just passing through. The average tenure of
membership was about three years and then we’d be saying good
bye. Boom! They’d be off to some other place in life in the world.
It felt like we were doing church at a bus stop.
This was very frustrating and heartbreaking. We found ourselves constantly giving away our best. It
seemed that as much as we were welcoming new people we were saying goodbye to people we had
poured our lives into and grown to love. This was painful and it was all we could do to keep our hearts
open knowing that they could easily be broken again. But we resisted this tempation. Of course, this
effected our numerical growth. But like I said, we started to see things differently. We weren’t doing
anything wrong, these were the conditions into which we were called by God to build a community of
faith and we couldn’t fight it we had to work with it.
We realized that if we had a three to four-year window to work with, success for us became doing the
best job possible in that time actually being a home away from home and building strong foundations.
Our focus turned from growing a bigger church to producing disciples and developing leaders.
PM: Talk more about producing disciples and raising up leaders in a
small church. Is it possible?
MT: Of course! In my mind this goes back again to the issue of
spiritual health and maturity verses size. They’re not the same.
They require two different types of measurements. An important
measurement of health and maturity is reproduction and
multiplication. Healthy humans, healthy animals, healthy
churches reproduce and multiply.
A true sign of spiritual health and maturity is reproduction and multiplication. Mike, ask yourself,
what is your church producing? Are you producing disciples – people that live like Jesus lived and do
the things he did – and are they producing other disciples? From these disciples are you raising up
leaders? This is spiritual reproduction and multiplication and a true sign of health and maturity.
We were a church of about one hundred and twenty in Manhattan when we planted a church in North
Jersey right across the river from us. There was a disciple in our congregation that God called to
church plant. He trained and was equipped in our church and was eventually sent out to reproduce a
church community like the one in Manhattan. Today the North Jersey Vineyard has far exceeded the
numbers we had in Manhattan and grown to almost seven hundred people! Our tiny church
successfully birth that church because we were healthy not big.
PM: Mike, if you could give me one word of advice, small church
pastor to small church pastor, what would it be?
MT: Well Mike, I think it would be this: Think kingdom of God and
parish rather than merely church growth. A healthy
small church that is producing disciples and has a parish
mentality can have an influence that exceeds the number of
people that show up on Sunday. The kingdom of God is a power
at work in the world that knows no bounds or limitations.
The Spirit of God is at work outside the church in the most
unlikely places, in the lives of the most improbable people. Rather
than growing a big church the ultimate goal, seeing God’s
kingdom advanced becomes the goal.
It starts with a local church prayerfully discerning its neighborhood. It must be attentive and alert to
what the Spirit is doing, ready to respond to the larger needs outside its four walls. This takes prayer and getting out and meeting your neighbors. It must constantly be asking, “Father what are you doing in the lives of our neighbors and in the fabric of this community? Where are you working? How can we join with you?”
By cooperating with what the Father is doing even a small store front church can earn a good name and
develop a good reputation among the surrounding community. Simply equipping its members to pray
and live like disciples of Jesus, Monday through Saturday, in their ordinary, everyday lives – as good
friends, good neighbors, good co-workers, good patrons of local businesses, will raise visibility and
create good faith and trust among the greater non-believing community served by the church. In time
this will create opportunity for ministry. Success becomes faith conversations, friendships, and acts of
kindness that point people to Christ.
PM: Wow, what a really helpful perspective. This has been a really good talk. Let’s
do it again, soon.
MT: Any time Mike. You know where to find me.