10 Ways to Minister Well at a Small Church

We live in a day and age where many assume that if you are ministering well in a small church, it won’t stay small for long. Many see small churches as a stepping stone or a low rung on a ladder that must be climbed up for “bigger” or “better” or even “greener” pastures.

I don’t buy it.

Small can have impact. "A little yeast works through the whole batch of dough.”
“A little light lights up the whole house.” Yes, Jesus preached to big crowds, but he went deep with twelve men.

People left Jesus all the time. Remember Jesus declaring in John Chapter 6 that he was the bread of life, then going on to say,

Jesus said to them, “I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your forefathers ate manna and died, but he who feeds on this bread will live forever.”

Shortly after this announcement, disciples start leaving in droves because his words were hard. Thousands had been coming; the numbers dwindled to a few. I don’t mean to say that people leaving is a mark of great spirituality, but I’m not sure we can say that people coming is clear sign of faithfulness.

I’ve served as senior pastor of Trabuco Canyon Community Church (TCCC) for 12 years, the first 9 years bi-vocationally, the last 3 years in a full-time capacity. TCCC has a unique distinction of being about 3 miles away from the mega-church known to all as Saddleback. The building that we meet in was built in the 1960s to look like the kind of church you’d find in Walnut Grove (Imagine Little House on the Prairie). We’ve got stained glass windows, pews, hymnals, a bell from a SantaFe Railroad steam engine, and a little kitchen off the fellowship hall. The fire marshal says we can seat 150, but we normally only hit that mark at weddings and funerals. In fact if we get 150 between both services that’s a REALLY good Sunday … and I’m okay with that.

I’ve met Rick Warren, the pastor of Saddleback Church, once, and he’s a nice guy … at least he was nice to me. I’ve never heard a word of heresy out of his mouth. I’ve joked that I “oversee his ministry” because our building is located at a higher elevation than his campus, and we can “look down” into a portion of his parking lot, but I don’t know Rick Warren. This article isn’t intended to bash big churches, but they are not for everyone. The reality is that the median church (non-orthodox/ non-Catholic) in the U.S. has 75 regular participants in worship on Sunday mornings, according to the National Congregations Study. http://www.soc.duke.edu/natcong/

I do know people who have attended Saddleback and who are now at TCCC. Some held official leadership positions there, others led small groups, and some just went to services on Sunday.

Those who stick around at TCCC like that their pastor knows their name. They like being able to talk to him and pray with him. They like that he teaches the youth group (which he may be getting to old to do soon). They are thankful that he has the time to sit with them in the hospital.

According to 9 Marks, 1,700 pastors quit the ministry every month. I’ve thought about quitting at times. In our consumer-driven society, we all want to be “winners.” The pastors who are held up as role models minister at the biggest and best churches, write the most popular books, broadcast to millions, shape culture and make a difference. Being the shepherd of a little “country church” that is hard to find…well let’s just say it doesn’t appeal to my ego. But ministry in the Kingdom isn’t about my ego or yours; it’s about God’s glory.

If you are a pastor ,let me remind you that you are not Rick Warren and neither am I.

So how do we stay focused on the work God has called us to?

These are some of the things that are helping me, and I hope they will be of service to you.

  1. Don’t isolate yourself. There is a reason the disciples were sent out two by two. I’m the only pastor at TCCC. We’re not part of a denomination. There have been times as a pastor when I’ve felt very much alone. Find other pastors. Share fellowship with them. Meet and pray with them. I’ve been blessed to gather with several other pastors from different churches each Thursday morning for encouragement in God’s word.
  2. Trust in God’s calling. You are uniquely called and uniquely gifted to serve where God has called you. I can’t remember who shared these words of wisdom with me but I’ve taken them to heart: “don’t despise your own calling or covet the calling of another.” I know we like to measure success in big numbers and big budgets … but God often delights in using the small so that His glory might be magnified. Think about Bethlehem. Think about Gideon.
  3. Jesus is the Chief Shepherd. It’s not your church—it’s His. I remember the first family who told me they were leaving the church. I was devastated. They wanted a bigger youth group for their kids. I just wished they would have held out a bit longer. When the worship leader leaves and you wonder if the church will last, remember Christ said He will build His church.
  4. Fast and pray. Pray for your leaders, your family, and your whole congregation by name if you can. Print up a church directory and pray though it. Invite your congregation pray though it. As Luther said “Pray and let God worry.”
  5. Focus on God’s purposes not your vanity. I remember hearing Mark Dever sharing how John Brown, in a letter of paternal counsel to one of his pupils newly ordained over a small congregation, wrote:

“I know the vanity of your heart, and that you will feel mortified that your congregation is very small, in comparison with those of your brethren around you; but assure yourself on the word of an old man, that when you come to give an account of them to the Lord Christ, at his judgment-seat, you will think you have had enough.”

  1. Love. It’s hard. People are messy. You might find greater comfort in your books, but ministry is about caring for souls.
  2. Build altars. You don’t need to pile stones, but maybe create a bookmark for your Bible where you write down those times in which God showed up in a big way. The year you met budget and you didn’t think you would. The time when those three families left at the same time because they were mad about a church discipline issue and you couldn’t share the details, but you were hoping and praying that those under discipline would be restored to fellowship.
  3. Extend grace and receive grace. We are all works in progress. We are all still being sanctified. Christ’s atoning work is complete, but the sanctifying work of the Spirit is ongoing (certain, but ongoing).
  4. Don’t neglect the Gospel. The Gospel isn’t just the gateway to the Christian life, it is what will sustain you in the Christian life. Preach it, share it, be transformed by it.
  5. Trust the preaching of God’s word. Enjoy the rhythm of preaching each week. You toil in the vineyard of the Lord. That is good work regardless of the size of the plot of land you have been given. Cast the seed and pray for the harvest. Point the congregation to their only hope – Jesus.

I gave this article the title How to Minister Well at a Small Church. I don’t claim to be an expert. I know for certain these ten things have been of great help and blessing to me, even though I still struggle with them. I am trying to minister well, and I hope that you may add a remark in the comments below that has helped keep you grounded.


Robert Jacobsen serves as senior pastor at Trabuco Canyon Community Church

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