Top 10 Reasons Small Churches Tend to Stay Small

I read a good article on this morning written by a seasoned pastor named Joe McKeever entitled 10 Reasons Small Churches Tend to Stay Small.

I really appreciate Mr. McKeever’s take on church growth. Here’s his explanation:

By using the word “grow,” I do not mean in numbers for numbers’ sake. I do not subscribe to the fallacy that bigness is good and small churches are failures. What I mean by “grow” is reaching people with the gospel of Jesus Christ … any church—large or small—that does not place a high value on evangelism and outreach to the unchurched can’t expect to grow…period.

Growth is not getting members of other congregations to switch to yours. Growth is reaching the lost, and to that I say Amen.

The article goes on to highlight the top ten reasons small churches tend to stay small. Here’s each point with a brief explanation:

1. Wanting to Stay Small

According to McKeever, no one ever verbally says, “We want to stay small,” but actions speak for themselves. If new ideas are constantly rejected and new people are frozen out of the inner fellowship, it could be because church members simply don’t want their church to get bigger. Growing larger would mean things would change, and familiarity is comfortable. Personal comfort is more important than mission in churches that want to stay small.

2. A Quick Turnover of Ministers

If a church is turning over ministers every couple of years, that’s a problem. It takes a while for a new minister to build trust with the church members. If trust isn’t built, ministers are ineffective.

3. Domination by a Few Strong Members

If a minister leaves a church and a leadership vacuum develops, a strong member or two will often step in to help out without the intent taking over the church. But Joe says “taking over” is often what inadvertently happens. This strong individual or small group “takes care of things” while the church searches for a new minister. If the newly hired minister leaves after a short time, the same people step in to “take care of things” again, and now there’s a veiled authority structure in the church every new minister coming in will have to deal with. Instead of being able to lead, McKeever says new ministers are told “that’s not the way we do things around here” by the behind-the-scenes authorities derailing plans.

4. Not Trusting the Leaders

McKeever says:

I’ve seen this phenomenon occur in small churches (and never in large ones) at the monthly business meetings. In the small-and-determined-to-stay-small church, discussion centers on why 35 cents was spent on call-forwarding and $2.00 on paper for the office. Leaders and pastors alike are always frustrated that the congregation doesn’t trust them with $20.00, let alone $200.00.

The determined-to-stay-small church is far more concerned about the dollars and cents in the offering plate than about the lost souls in the community. This church would never step out in faith and do something bold to reach the lost and unchurched, and if they did, unless their mindset changed, they would then harass their leaders into the grave demanding an accounting of every dime spent.

If money is more important than mission, that’s a problem.

5. Inferiority Complex

This is that attitude that says, “We can’t do anything because we’re small.” As a result, no dreaming takes place. A preacher I look up to once said, “You ought to set God-sized goals for your life. A God-sized goal is a goal that’s so big, so huge, so massive, that it will only be accomplished if God is involved! Set it, take action to achieve it, and pray for God to get involved!” The same principle applies to churches.

If a church group never dreams, if a church group never develops a desire to be part of something bigger than themselves, it could be because they’re suffering from an inferiority complex that says, “We’re not good enough, talented enough, wealthy enough, whatever enough,” and they never try. Or they compare themselves to other churches: “We’re not X church with Y resources, so we can’t do Z.” Not only does this attitude show the people making up the church group don’t believe in themselves, they’re also displaying a lack of faith in God. After all, He can do the impossible!

6. No Plan

Going along with #5, small churches that stay small usually have no solid plans for the future. If you ask church members what the vision for their church is, they’ll often give you blank stares in return. With no vision and plan for achieving it, there’s no forward momentum – only stagnation.

7. Bad Spiritual Health

As McKeever puts it, if a church group is more well-known for a list of things they do and don’t do instead of the characteristics and attributes of Christ, then that group is sick. Churches should mirror Jesus. Just because a church is small doesn’t mean it’s sick, but more often than not if a church is sick it’ll be small (and will tend to stay that way).

8. Lousy Fellowship (Inwardly Focused Instead of Outwardly Focused)

This describes a church group that may be friendly to outsiders, but they aren’t real friends to outsiders. In other words, they may say “hi,” but they won’t go out of their way to develop real relationships. It’s nearly impossible for a guest to plug in to the inner circle of a church where this type of fellowship exists no matter how hard they try, so instead of sticking around they leave.

9. A State of Neglect Permeates the Church Building

McKeever says a building in shabby shape is often a sign of something deeper: “a dying church that doesn’t tend to its business.” The attitude prevalent here is one of apathy. When you get down to it, the church members don’t really care that much, and it shows in the facilities. Believe it or not, environment communicates a whole lot to outsiders before anyone says a word to them.

10. No Prayer

McKeever says this is simply a choice – “pray or quit.” If a church is reaching the lost, God is involved. Want Him to get involved? Ask. Don’t want Him involved? Don’t ask. Simple, yet oft overlooked.


There’s a lot more to McKeever’s article than the brief synopsis I’ve given you here. If you’re interested, I encourage you to read the whole thing for yourself. I’m adding it to my list of church revitalization resources.

I do, however, see a flaw in McKeever’s reasoning. Namely, his focus is almost solely on “the church members” – he doesn’t say much at all about church leaders other than his portrayal of us as victims. In my estimation churches tend to stay small more often because of bad leadership than because of “bad membership.” That being said, there’s still plenty of good stuff in this article that’s worth thinking about.

Tagged , , , , , , ,

8 thoughts on “Top 10 Reasons Small Churches Tend to Stay Small

  1. charles says:

    I would say it is 50-50. The leaders are basically members before they are leaders. So this could be a chicken/egg discussion. However, the leaders are only a small portion of the body. If those members have the wrong priorities and are compromised…then the leadership can accomplish nothing of substance. The same can be said in reverse. Perhaps the biggest point I might make is it is always easier to pass the buck. I’m not saying you are doing this; I’m saying it is easier to say it is the leaders or the members depending where you stand. What if we all said, “It’s my fault, and I am going to do something about it!”

  2. Alan Newberry says:

    Interesting article, however, many of the points hinge on the false assumption that the preacher, does and should have the authority that only elders and deacons are scriptually given. Ideally, a leadership vacuum should never exist in the absence of a preacher because of the role that the elders, not the preacher, fill. Also, responsible small churches have to be extra careful with budgets and funding. It is irresponsible not to be, God called us to be good stewards of what we are given, not of what God may choose to provide. In the parable of the talents the man who received only two was not ineffective because he didn’t make as much as the man who was given more, however good stewardship, meant more resources were given in the future. Elders and deacons can only lead so many projects, I’ve known too many christians that say I’d like to see this project or that outreach and do nothing to start it or educate the eldership to approve it. Otherwise I agree with your other points Wes.

  3. WesWoodell says:

    Thanks for the comments.

    Charles – don’t you think a leader (if a person is a leader) would have a level of influence in an organization a step or two above the average member? Seems to me that would fit an ideal definition of “leader.”

    Alan – thanks for sharing. I hear what you’re saying, and am curious how you arrived your conclusion about preachers (or “pastors”) and authority. Care to elaborate? Maybe share some Scriptures with me?

  4. Greg says:

    Hi, Wes. This is a topic that I’ve thought a lot about, and I appreciate you sharing these insights.

    Regarding the comments that others made, it’s clearly not a simple problem, where someone can be blamed, over someone else. We all have a duty to make Jesus our Head. The blind that were led into the ditch are just as much to blame as the one who led them there, because neither looked to Jesus for direction. I strongly agree with the tenth point, that prayerful requests for guidance are a must. 🙂

  5. Josh Freeman says:

    Great find Wes! I can relate especially to number 1 & 3. I remember in a church I worked at, many of the congregation were content with staying small. Although they talked about wanting to grow, comments usually said otherwise. For example, when I suggested that we grow our VBS by 3 times the people, I was told “15-20 kids is a good number.” I agree it is a good number but we should shoot higher. I noticed that many did not evangelize because they did not want “new people” added to the body because it “tips the power” and “brings change.”

    #3 is interesting as I experienced it first hand. In a recent congregation I worked at, an individual (who was well intentioned) stepped up to the plate in the absence of a minister (to which he should be commended). The problem, however, arose in a slow progressive manner. All of a sudden, only his opinion began to count and he was so outspoken that others became afraid to question/challenge a decision due to fear of public scolding/humiliation. By the time I had arrived, this member became a self proclaimed elder (although they had no elders and he does not fit the requirements). Long story short, a huge chunk of time had to be taken in order to empower the remainder of the congregation (which over half of had been run off by this individual) to have a voice. I think a leader (especially minister) is essential to the health of a congregation. A good minister will help even out the field and will empower a congregation to take responsibility for itself. I believe a good leader allows others to “come up with the solutions” even if the minister originated it.

  6. WesWoodell says:

    Hiya Josh 🙂

    Sadly, your story about a domineering member really hurting a local body is a common one. I hear it over and over.

    Thanks for the comment!

  7. K. Rex Butts says:

    Well as a congregational minister, I think there is much truth to this article.

    Josh, I can resonnate with your story. I’ve been in a church just like that.

    Alan, I too would like to know how you get your theory of Elders and Deacons having the leadership authority. I don’t believe Paul ever told the two evangelist/preachers he sent (Timothy and Titus) that they were to be the sole leadership authority in their church (which is why they were to appoint elders and deacons) but I cannot find anyplace where Paul told them that the elders and deacons were a replacement of the authority they had. Seems like they all were to work as a team without one trumping the other in terms of leadership…and I believe churches would be healthier and more missional when elders and deacons, preachers, teachers, etc…recognized the leadership dependency of each other and worked together (cf. Eph 4.11-13).

    Grace and Peace y’all,


  8. […] Top 10 Reasons Small Churches Tend to Stay Small is a blog that I enjoyed exploring written by Wes Woodall. Wes is the founder and administrative director of Campus Ministry United and a graduate student at Fuller Theological Seminary. He also offers blogs on revitalization. […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: