Small Church, Big Impact with Karl Vaters

Modern Church Leader feat. Karl Vaters
Small Church, Big Impact on Modern Church Leader feat. Karl Vaters

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Small Church, Big Impact

The phrase “bigger is better” does not always apply, especially when it comes to the church. Just because a congregation is small does not mean it cannot make a big impact. 

In fact, many times, the small churches have the biggest impact due to their close-knit community and focus on relationships. Often, these churches are the ones that survive the test of time. This is because they are the ones that are rooted in the community and are not afraid to get involved.

A small church can have just as much impact as a megachurch - and often do.

Being small is not a problem. The problem is how you can use your size to be as impactful as possible. How do you create an influence that is greater than your size?

In the Book of Acts, the church at Antioch was small, yet they had the biggest impact on the first-century church. It was because they were rooted in the community and committed to making a difference.

And this is where we should start in each community - where we hope to serve. As the body of Christ, our community must be rooted in love and relationship, not by our size, buildings, or our ministries' reputation. That is where we can make a big impact. 

In this episode, we'll give you a peek into the life of a healthy small church in Orange County, California. They are not your typical small church, but they do things uniquely and wonderfully. Their pastor, Karl Vaters, will give us insight into how they are able to make a big impact in the lives of their people and the community. 

“My question is, if your church disappeared tomorrow, would a segment of your community miss you? There ought to be somebody you're impacting to the degree that they'd miss you if you disappeared. My first piece of advice on that to small church pastors is we have to impact our community.”
-Karl Vaters

Karl has been in pastoral ministry for 40 years. He is the teaching pastor of Cornerstone Christian Fellowship, a healthy small church in Orange County, California, where he has ministered for over 28 years with his wife, Shelley. His heart is to help pastors of small churches (up to 90 percent of us) find the resources to lead well and capitalize on the unique advantages of pastoring a small church.

If you're looking for a glimpse into a healthy, thriving church, then this is the episode for you!

By the end of this episode, you will learn:

  • Some ways your church can get involved in your community
  • How small churches can quickly adopt online services
  • How to foster a sense of community during disruption
  • Tips for leaders of small churches
  • How to leverage the strengths of small churches

Here’s a glance at this episode…

[4:04] Maybe we're smaller, and maybe we need to figure out how to do small well, rather than just figuring out how to get bigger. 

[12:15] If your theology says you got to be in the building for it to be a church, you need better theology.

[20:03] Now, the challenge of lockdown was we couldn't do familiar things with familiar people in familiar places. So it exacerbated that problem. As church leaders, her advice, especially in smaller churches, was to preach shorter and worship longer. 

[21:30] We don't need more change; we have to help people go through this change in a stable way. When times are disruptive, leaders provide stability. We're going to lean on things that are a little more familiar.

[25:14] People should not have to be physically in the building for us to remain their pastor. So I'm encouraging pastors, for people who aren't showing up, don't call them to say, “Where have you been?” Just call them and say, “How can I help you?” Don't say we miss you. Because that's just a coated way of saying, “Where have you been?” 

[26:58] We can bring the things they can't get online, the physical, the person, the physical touch, the personal approachability.

[28:54] There are so many discouraged small church pastors out there who have been told that if your church is healthy, it should be getting bigger. And if it's not getting bigger, then you're doing something wrong. Small is not broken. And getting bigger won't fix your problems. My thing is, I don't want churches to be small. I want small churches to be great. And I absolutely believe that small churches can be great. 

[32:27] Just because we're small doesn't mean we can't do great ministry. Do what you can right now at the size you are right now. 

podcast transcript

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Karl Vaters (00:00):

Small church pastors deal with it slightly differently because they have personal relationship with people. It's not about managing groups, it's not about how to figure out how to get the staff motivated to reach their people group, but they have personal connections with people. So we simply function in our leadership in a different way.

Narrator (00:24):

Welcome to the Modern Church Leader, where you'll hear executive pastors share practical tactics and strategies that churches are using right now to thrive in our digital world in advance of the Kingdom of God. Here's your host, Frank Berry.

Frank Barry (00:38):

Hey guys, Frank here with Tithe.ly on another episode of Modern Church Leader. Great to be here today. I'm joined by the, I don't know, the guru of small churches, Pastor Karl Vaters. Pastor, how's it going?

Karl Vaters (00:49):

Good. Wow, I'm a guru. Never knew I was one, never wanted to be one. But, okay, let's go.

Frank Barry (00:55):

Guru, I don't know what, expert.

Karl Vaters (00:58):

I know.

Frank Barry (00:59):

Certainly someone who has lots of experiences, which is awesome because most of our audience is small churches so I'm pretty excited about today.

Karl Vaters (01:08):

Sure. Yeah, me too. Good to be with you.

Frank Barry (01:11):

Yeah. Why don't you, just for the audience, why don't you share a little bit about your story? How you got into ministry and a little bit about your journey and fast forward it to today and how you got into really helping small churches?

Karl Vaters (01:25):

Yeah. I'm actually a third generation pastor and I struggled against going into ministry when I was in college because everybody kept telling me that I was going to be a pastor like my father and my grandfather. I knew that it's not good to go into pastoral ministry as the family business. That's not how that works. I had to really recognize my own call, and when I did, then I enthusiastically entered pastoral ministry. Pastored as an associate for a while, then in smaller churches. Then 29 years ago, last month actually, a couple months ago, moved to Orange County, California. Came to a church that had been through five pastors in the previous 10 years. They were struggling, they had a dozen on an average Sunday, 30 on a big Sunday.

Karl Vaters (02:06):

We had come out of a very difficult church where we were really struggling. So a struggling pastor and family came to a very struggling church and somehow the Lord helped us and healed both of us and helped us to heal each other. And here we are in Orange County, California, eight miles south of Disneyland on a major street. In fact, on one of the main streets that borders Disneyland and all around us are churches like, well, Saddleback was just really beginning to be something at the time. Calvary Chapel is about a mile and a half away. The original Vineyard Church, Crystal Cathedral, Church On The Way, Angelus Temple [crosstalk 00:02:43]-

Frank Barry (02:43):

Yeah, those were trending in Orange County. Like a ton of very, very big churches.

Karl Vaters (02:47):

It is, Orange County is not just a place where like big things happen, it's like a place where big movements begin. Really, people don't realize the genesis of it. Fuller Church Growth Institute is just over the border. It's really crazy what happens here, so I thought, "Well, if not here, then nowhere so we're going to become really super big." And we did grow, we did become healthy, we did become solid, and we went through a very short period of growth where we went from 200 to 400 in less than two years. We got it up from the 30, at about 15 years, we were running about 200, so that's my big success story. I took a church from a dozen to 200 in just 15 years.

Karl Vaters (03:27):

That's when they start knocking on your door saying, "How can I do that now?" When you take that long to get there, people don't want you to come to their conferences. But then we had a big explosion of growth, 200 to 400 in just about two years. Then in less than a year, we dropped to well under 100 and some Sundays we were under 50 and there'd been no scandal and there'd been no split. Like I was reeling and I didn't know what was going on because I followed the rules, I'd done all the church growth stuff and I'm in a place where it should work, and it just didn't work. I really went through a real crisis of confidence, not of faith, but of confidence.

Karl Vaters (04:03):

At that point, started looking around and going, "Okay, so here we are in this tiny little building and maybe we're small and maybe we need to figure out how to do small well rather than just figuring out how to get bigger." I couldn't find any help for it, there was very little help, so I had to scrounge bits and pieces here and there. Because everything was about how to get bigger, not about how to be healthy and strong and missional while small. I ended up writing my first book, The Grasshopper Myth, because I couldn't find anything like that. Out of nowhere, it just started taking off. Here I am a small church pastor with no national platform writing a self-published book of about small churches, that is not supposed to sell. But it started flying off the shelves and then it started writing-

Frank Barry (04:46):

Friends and family are going to get that one for sure.

Karl Vaters (04:48):

Exactly, and only because they feel guilty if they don't, right? Yeah. Then I started writing a blog, and Christianity Today noticed that and asked me to blog for them. So for five years I was on their blogging website, and so now I've got karlvaters.com, I've written four books now on small church pastoring. I'm now with Moody Publishers and I'm on Christianity Today's podcast platform with a podcast called Can This Work in a Small Church? I speak 20 to 30 times a year at conferences of from a small church perspective to encourage small church pastors, to resource small church pastors, and to help bigger church pastors and ministries understand the value of the small church and make sure that we integrate our small church brothers and sisters more than we typically do.

Frank Barry (05:35):

Yeah, and that's fantastic. What I think is particularly amazing is that most churches are small. Like you rattled off some stats as we were catching up at the beginning, but how many churches in the world would be under 200 members?

Karl Vaters (05:49):

Yeah, 90% of churches on earth are under 200 and they constitute about half of the believers in the world. Half of the Christians and 90% of the churches are small. Simply from a marketplace standpoint, it amazes me that we virtually ignore that big a marketplace let alone the value that they can bring and do bring on a regular basis to the Kingdom of God and to their communities.

Frank Barry (06:14):

Oh, yeah, absolutely. Small churches, they're in the community, they're small and mighty. They might be 100 members, but those 100 people are pretty committed usually and pretty active in their community. Even where I live in San Diego, actually, I live in a place called Poway, California, which is like in San Diego but not actually in San Diego. There's just a ton of small churches all over the place that have been around for years.

Karl Vaters (06:42):

Yeah, I use the Starbucks-IKEA comparison. I've got a thing that I call IKEA envy, and most pastors have what I call IKEA envy, which is they look at the IKEA sized church around them and they think, "We want to be like IKEA." IKEA has a business model where they're really massive. There's an IKEA near here and I'm telling you, you can see that thing from space. They make the biggest stores on the face of the earth, but there are only a few of them because they don't fit everywhere. But on my way to IKEA, I'll drive past 30 Starbucks and you won't see most of them, and the Starbucks model works. Starbucks doesn't need get bigger stores in order for their model to work and IKEA doesn't need a whole bunch of more big stores in order for their model to work.

Karl Vaters (07:25):

So big and a few works, small and a whole bunch of places works. It's the same way in the church, we got a whole bunch of Starbucks size churches that are everywhere that we drive past without noticing. And we only pay attention sometimes to the IKEA size church where there are just as many people going to the Starbucks size places as are going to the IKEA size places and the body of Christ needs both.

Frank Barry (07:48):

Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. Gosh, there's so many things I'm sure we could talk about with your years of experience here. I'd love to talk a little bit about like the small church through this pandemic. I know we're not quite on the other side, but we're in this like people are figuring out how to live life, and I think churches are trying to figure out how to just be the church in this new universe of... I don't know, I hear people throwing out this hybrid model, right?

Karl Vaters (08:20):

Yeah.

Frank Barry (08:20):

I don't know, what are you seeing in the small church and how churches are evolving a little bit as we've gone through the last couple of years?

Karl Vaters (08:29):

Yeah, it's been interesting because it's gone in waves for us like it has with everybody else. The first few weeks we went from... I remember, I think it was a Sunday we were talking, we made a joke on stage about, "I guess there's this thing going around, so we should be careful." We actually did a little joke thing on stage where we showed everybody how to do an air high five and an air hug six feet apart. That was about the concern, and then on Tuesday or Wednesday, California shut down as did the country and a whole bunch of other countries. We were told, "On Sunday, you cannot meet in your building and probably will be like that for about six weeks." We had not been online at that point.

Karl Vaters (09:06):

We'd talked about it, but we hadn't just felt the urgency of it, and all of a sudden, it was really urgent. Man, we have an amazing team here. In four days, they bought all the equipment, they figured out how to livestream, they shot the whole thing. They figured out how to put it online. They figured out... we had to figure out how to tell people how to find us online. They did all of that in four days and did an amazing presentation that Sunday. So all of a sudden we were online. My first few months were helping the small churches and pastors figure out how to get online. When, one, first of all, they don't even have a tech team, and secondly, they're stuck in their house.

Karl Vaters (09:44):

Like, physically, they can't get out of their house, so how do I use my phone to get on Facebook Live or on YouTube Premier and do something for people? It was technical at first, and then when we started realizing this is going to be longer term, it started turning into, "Okay, how do we minister to people when we can't physically be together?" It was easier for big churches because in a really big church, especially, like in a megachurch like the great megachurches around us, most of the people have not met or don't have a personal relationship with the lead pastor. That's not a slam against anybody, it's simply the nature of size. If you've got 10,000 people attending your church, you cannot know 1% of them personally. It's just simply physically impossible.

Karl Vaters (10:28):

So that's not a put down at all, it's just simply the nature of size. But in a small church, we know our people. We're regularly used to being with them, praying with them, hugging with them, crying with them on a Sunday morning physically. Now for someone you can't be there, it hits the small church harder. It just does because you're used to the proximity, and so we had to learn then how do we minister? The first thing we discovered was, "Did you realize there's still a phone on our phones?" What we actually did was after [crosstalk 00:10:59]-

Frank Barry (10:59):

We had to, actually, we had to use it before the podcast. Like I had to call you and-

Karl Vaters (11:05):

Yeah, because we-

Frank Barry (11:05):

Yeah, I was shocked for a minute.

Karl Vaters (11:07):

I know, it was weird, "Wait a minute, this thing actually still functions as a phone." What I told the small churches was, because they're all worried about, "How do we get better lighting? How do we get this?" I said that, "Okay," we're talking like six weeks to two months into the pandemic, I said, "Can they see you and hear you clearly on Sunday morning?" They said, "Yes." I said, "Okay, then relax about that for now. What you need now is to reach out with a personal touch because in a small church, especially, they need a personal touch. You're going to have to use your actual phone on your phone." A whole bunch of small churches started the old school phone tree where people were calling each other. Like in our church, we've got a fairly young church, especially for small churches, ours is quite young.

Karl Vaters (11:48):

So we turned our young people loose because they were just bouncing off the walls, and we connected them with our seniors and we told them, "If you're going out to the store to pick up stuff for your family, here are the seniors that you need to call to say what can I pick up for you? What can I bring by for you?" I've had seniors tell me they are closer to the young people in our church now than before pandemic because before pandemic, it was a wave in the hallway and now it's bringing their prescriptions over, laying groceries at the door, and talking from 20 feet away and chatting on the phone for 15 minutes. We use these old analog ways of reconnecting and staying connected with people.

Karl Vaters (12:27):

I've heard some people complain you know, "The Governor shut the churches down," or whatever. It's like, "Stop this nonsense, the Governor did not close any church. No President can close any church. They don't have that power. They can tell us we can't go into the building, but if your theology says you've got to be in the building for it to be church, you need better theology." Closing down the building did not shut down the church. Our building was closed for a couple months, and even later when we met outside and couldn't be in the building, we still had church. We didn't close our church for a second, the church stepped up and became even more of the church even when our buildings weren't closed because we went analog.

Karl Vaters (13:04):

Those were the phases, and now as we're coming to this phase of this may be long term and will it eventually be over? Now we've got some... Quite frankly, we're dealing with trauma right now and we're having to figure out how to negotiate our way through trauma and through how that changes our emotional and even our neurobiological functioning when we're in a constant state of trauma and uncertainty. And so now that's what I'm helping small church pastors deal with. Again, small church pastors deal with it slightly differently because they have personal relationship with people. It's not about managing groups, it's not about how to figure out how to get the staff motivated to reach their people group. But they have personal connections with people, so we simply function in our leadership in a different way.

Frank Barry (13:51):

Yeah, I noticed that church this Sunday, Omicron is going wild right now. I go to a church, it's probably 200 or so members, so on the smaller side, but everybody was out of the building and then we rent a middle school. We're a portable church, and so eventually that we were able to get back in but it took a lot longer, then we're back in, things were building. Then Christmas hits and Omicron stuff starts happening and all of that. Then you come out of the Christmas break and basically everybody's getting coronavirus. It's like crazy, in schools, kids, and we see it everywhere because I have young kids still in school.

Frank Barry (14:39):

We go to church on Sunday and it's probably 20% attended in person. A bunch of people, for whatever reason, whether they're just being careful or they got coronavirus or they're just worried, whatever it is, decided to attend online and we do a really basic online presentation at this point. But, I don't know, are you hearing anything like that? I guess I'm leaning into your they're dealing with trauma and it's almost like another wave of that is still hitting, so there's still a lot of uncertainty going on with small churches and how are they handling it?

Karl Vaters (15:15):

Yeah, there's a lot of that going on. Right now I'm hearing two different types of reports. I'm hearing from some churches that have actually, first of all, I'm hearing most churches are actually doing fairly well financially from the beginning of it through now. Most churches are looking around and going, "People are still giving consistently because they see the need." So that's really helpful. Which means they're still connected and still engaged. But the longer this goes without them physically coming, especially, after they're able to come back, I think the more that's going to be a challenge that we're going to have to figure out how to deal with. For years, 30 years ago, a fully engaged church attender attended three times a week. Then about 10 years ago, the average fully engaged church attender attended three times a month. And now it's down to just over two.

Karl Vaters (16:10):

What that means is over the last 30 years, you've gone from if you have 100 people in the room, it's because you've got a church of 150. Now, if you've got 100 people in the room, it's because you've got a church of 300. We were already dealing with, especially in a smaller church, how do I pastor people who are only here up to two times a month and they still... Because, especially in a smaller church, because it's small, they still expect me as the pastor to be fully engaged in their life and fully present for them. If you come to a church on Sunday and you look around and there's only 50 people, you think, "Oh, he is only dealing with 50 people. He can certainly handle my problems."

Karl Vaters (16:45):

What they don't realize is, "No, there's actually 150 to 200 who attend this church, they're just never all in the same place at the same time." You're actually pastoring a mid-size church even though it looks small. Now coronavirus has dealt that an even further blow, so now we're down to, in some places, 10%. We're still having to help and engage people who are not regularly attending. You got other churches, ours we're blessed to be one of them, where everybody's back, and in fact, we're actually larger than we were before coronavirus. I have not pinpointed all of the reasons for that, but that there are some of those places as well. Continuing to engage people who are not there is a big part of it. The second part of it is trauma, and actually, about, what, six months into this, I talked to a friend of mine who is, actually, she has a doctorate in education with an emphasis in neurobiology. And she also happens to be a small church pastor's wife.

Karl Vaters (17:41):

I thought, "Small church pastor's wife, neurobiology, I need to talk to my friend." I had a conversation with her and I asked her what happens in our brains when we're going through trauma? First of all, she said, "First of all, thank you for acknowledging that this is trauma." I just read somewhere yesterday, I've been saying this for a year and I read it somewhere yesterday, somebody said, "This is the first time since World War II that the entire world has gone through a trauma together." It's true, think about that, since the 1940s, we're talking almost 80 years since the entire world has gone through a trauma together, and it continues to unfold and we're not out of it yet. I said, "So what happened-"

Frank Barry (18:17):

[crosstalk 00:18:17] people have never gone through it, right?

Karl Vaters (18:20):

Yeah, almost nobody. The World War II generation, there's only a handful left. Even those who are alive, who were alive during it, like my parents, they were kids at the time. They really don't remember the trauma. They were kids, so it's really new for everybody. I asked my friends, "So what happens to us, to our brain specifically, neurobiologically, when we go through trauma?" She said, "When our brains are in trauma, there's actually two things that happen. One part of the brain lights up and another part of the brain closes down. Well, the part of the brain that closes down in trauma is our logic centers. We cannot think clearly." She said, "When you are in trauma, you cannot process new information. You're literally incapable of hearing and processing new information. What lights up like crazy are your action and emotion centers."

Karl Vaters (19:04):

What we've got is a whole bunch of people around us, including us as pastors and as leaders, we are filled with action and emotion but we don't have the neurobiological capability of processing the new information and dealing with it properly. When you look around and you see all these people who, "Boy, they used to be normal and now they're acting like conspiracy theory loonies. What's going on here? Why is everybody acting so crazy?" Because their action and emotion centers are lighting up constantly and their logic centers are shutting down. Neurobiologically, we're not able to process new information. I went through 2020 and I barely read a book. I read constantly. I have three, four books going all the time. I don't think I read seven books in 2020, which to me is less than 10% of what I usually read.

Karl Vaters (19:49):

Because I'd read a page and couldn't process it, and it was my friend who helped me understand you can't take the new information in. What you have to do is you have to do the things that help your brain to recover from that. The good news is, she said... I said, "What helps your brain recover?" She says, "Doing familiar things with familiar people in familiar places." Now the challenge of the lockdown was we couldn't do familiar things with familiar people in familiar places so it exacerbated that problem. But if you can get back to church now, go back to church and she said, "As church leaders..." Her advice, especially in smaller churches, was this, "Preach shorter and worship longer."

Karl Vaters (20:27):

The idea of singing songs that you know in a room with people you know and love worshiping Jesus in a way that's familiar with you. She says, "Literally, physically, neurobiologically helps to coat and soothe your nerve endings in your brain. It helps to calm you down. And that it helps your logic center to wake up and be able to hear new things again, and be able to process the information, and be able to understand what we're going through and how to get out of it." We have to do-

Frank Barry (20:54):

That's a good-

Karl Vaters (20:55):

It's huge.

Frank Barry (20:56):

Sorry, yeah, just that tip, like I want people to hear it like preach a little shorter, worship a little longer, sing a bunch of songs that people are super familiar with, that they connect with and they know the words too. That kind of thing, creating that environment and doing it consistently-

Karl Vaters (21:16):

It's weird because it's completely against our... Like for the last 40 years, every leadership piece of advice that I've heard or given has been about how to bring change and to unstick a stuck church. And how to make people who've grown too comfortable in church a little bit uncomfortable so they can process change. Now we have to do the opposite. We don't need more change, we have to help people go through this change in a stable way. When times are normal, leaders inspire change. But when times are disruptive, leaders provide stability. This is a disruptive time where leaders need to provide stability, and so we're going to have to lean on things that are a little more familiar, that are a little more consistent that we're used to.

Karl Vaters (22:01):

We'll get to the bringing in the newer songs and bringing in the change and trying new programs later. That's fine. But from now people need the stability and the familiarity so that they're, even simply neurobiologically, let alone the emotional and spiritual part of it. But simply physically, neurobiologically, the consistency and the stability helps our brains settle down so that we can process the information we need to process so that we know what to do next.

Frank Barry (22:30):

Yeah, that's so good. That's so good. Like how are you doing that at your church? We're just really practically as you heard that info, you've had time to think about it, process it, talk about it with other folks. Like how are you trying to do that at your church just on a Sunday morning?

Karl Vaters (22:50):

Yeah, well, first of all, we're spending more time in worship this last... Usually, we have a full band, last week it was one guitar and two singers because we had a bunch of people out with Omicron. So you do what you have to do like everywhere else. At this point, the people who haven't had it are the outliers, not the people who have had it. Yeah, so it's a little slower, it's a little softer. We encourage people to stick around and to talk afterwards. We create environments where people can slow down a little bit. Last night we started our first ever bowling league in our church.

Frank Barry (23:29):

Nice.

Karl Vaters (23:29):

I mean, bowling leagues, there's a book about how society is changing and I think it was called Bowling Alone. It came out like 25 years ago, and the premise of the book was bowling clubs are gone, they'll never come back again because everybody's living independent lives. Now even bowling leagues are coming back because people want to be together. A simple thing like last night where we had a bowling league, it was all our church people. We were on a bunch of lanes there and we just had fun and we connected in a way where we weren't expected to memorize scripture, we weren't expected to listen to a sermon, we weren't expected to do any...

Karl Vaters (24:03):

There was no expectations at all, have fun. I guarantee you, there was a healthfulness that was brought about by a no barriers, laughing at everybody, goofing around on the lanes last night. That will be as helpful as any fellowship potluck, and then it will help us open up for fellowship and for worship next Sunday. Those kinds of personal connections are really essential right now.

Frank Barry (24:28):

Yeah. How do you help pastors with people are... Omicron's here and less people are in the building a little bit and they're just, I don't know, like a pastor's working through all this change and has half the people showing up at church like they used to and they're less connected. I don't know, what are those conversations? How are you helping pastors process that? Are there things that pastors in small churches are doing to help people overcome wanting to stay home and getting back when it's appropriate? Like not when they have coronavirus or something like that, but getting people back. I feel like there's a hurdle of just getting people back in the building for whatever reason [crosstalk 00:25:11]-

Karl Vaters (25:11):

Yeah, no, there is. First of all, the old fashioned phone thing, people should not have to be physically in the building for us to remain their pastor. So I'm encouraging pastors, pastor the people who aren't showing up and don't call them to say, "Where have you been?" And not even in the nice way of saying, "Hey, we miss you." Just call them and say, "How can I help you?" Don't say we miss you because that's just a coded way of saying where have you been?

Frank Barry (25:38):

It totally is, never say we miss you. It's like the worst, it's the worst when people do that. Oh, gosh, I'm familiar with that.

Karl Vaters (25:45):

I know, they know that, so you're just calling to say hi. How can I help you? Is there anything I can do for you? And let it go, and then call them up a couple weeks later, and after two or three calls where you're not pushing for it, then maybe they'll start realizing, "Hey, they're really just here for me. I don't even need to show up and they're going to pastor me." Which opens them up maybe to trust a little more and to maybe come back again. The second part of that is we need to be... When the people do show up, we need to give them a reason why they're glad they showed up. Now that we're online, we have to look at it and we have to go, "Okay, what are we giving people when they show up that they cannot get online?"

Karl Vaters (26:28):

Because they can get a better sermon that I can preach online. They can get a better musical worship experience. Musically, they can get better musicians online without getting out of bed than they can by getting dressed and coming to church. If the sermon's not better and the music isn't better, what is it that when they're leaving on Sunday morning, they're going to go, "I'm so glad I went through the trouble of coming to church today because I could not have gotten that online." The great thing is the healthy small church is ideally situated to answer that question because we can bring the things that they can't get online. The physical touch, the personal approachability, even if we have to stay six feet apart and masked, the fact that we're physically in the same place together, that we can hang around afterwards, that I can note the tear in your eye and the catch in your voice.

Karl Vaters (27:19):

When you say I'm fine but you're actually not. There are things that you can do physically in the room. Just the act of sitting in a room together, singing worship together is very different. Because when you're at home, I don't even watch the worship at home. I just wait until it's been done and then I go back. Even at my own church, like when I'm gone on a Sunday and I watch my home church services, I hope none of them are listening right now, my worship team... Sorry worship team, but I don't watch you online.

Frank Barry (27:50):

Love you guys.

Karl Vaters (27:52):

I fast forward to the sermon and I watch whoever's preaching on the Sunday that I'm gone and that is all I do. I guarantee you, that's what most do because it's just a weird experience to watch them online. But when you're physically in the room and you're singing together, that's a totally different experience.

Frank Barry (28:08):

Yeah, very different. Irreplaceable.

Karl Vaters (28:08):

We've got to lean into the things that you can only get in person so that when people do leave, they go, "I'm glad I came today. I need to physically be there again." If we don't really make a distinction about that, I think people are just going to stay home because they're going to look at it and go, "If I can get the same experience at home, why am I going through the hassle of showing up?"

Frank Barry (28:29):

Yeah, no, that's a great point. We've talked a lot about current times but you obviously just help small churches like thrive and get healthy and love what they are and who they are and who they're serving. Like outside of all the crazy that's been happening over the last two years, what do you find that you help church leaders with the most when it comes to just being a healthy small church?

Karl Vaters (28:55):

The first thing is encouragement. That is job one for me. There are so many discouraged, small church pastors out there who have been told that if your church is healthy, it should be getting bigger. If it's not getting bigger, then you're doing something wrong. Whether those exact words have been said to them or not, that's the message we have heard. That's how we have processed the information. There's a whole bunch of pastors out there thinking they're failures simply because their church isn't getting bigger. My first encouragement is small is not broken and getting bigger won't fix your problems. I just want to encourage you, you can be a healthy church while being small. My thing is I don't want churches to be small, I want small churches to be great, and I absolutely believe that small churches can be great.

Karl Vaters (29:42):

I know because I happen to be serving one and I've been in a whole bunch of them. The first thing is encouragement because you cannot become a great small church if you don't know that small churches can be great. You've got to know that, you've got to be encouraged in that. Then, secondly, I want to equip small churches as much as possible because there are some things we can learn from our big church counterparts. I still read books by and still go to conferences from and still listen to podcasts by big church leaders because they can't help me. But imagine the Venn diagram of a circle on one side for big churches, a circle on the another side for small churches, there is an overlap.

Karl Vaters (30:21):

But there are some things that are taught from the big church standpoint that don't overlap with the small church. They're simply in a different environment. They'll talk about, "Hey, here's how you need to arrange your parking lot attendance so that they can be the first line of greeters and that's important." And I get it and I hear it and they go, "Yeah, that really does matter." Then the pastor of church of '20s going, "You guys have a parking lot?" What you have-

Frank Barry (30:48):

Literally, you'll have people that will serve in the parking lot? Like not just a greeter at the front door but-

Karl Vaters (30:52):

Right, well, that there is a parking lot. There's a lot of small churches out there that don't own a parking lot. It's not even there's no service for it, there's no lot. Or they'll say things like, "When you have your weekly staff meeting," and this small church pastor goes, "You have a staff?" Or even a midsize church, "We have staff but they're all volunteers and they work other jobs and just getting everybody in the same room, just sorting out the calendar is like..." They start with the assumption that everybody on staff is paid and they're all there and they can all meet whenever you tell them to meet. But in most churches, like in 90% of churches, just getting people together is hard because they're all working at other jobs or going to school or whatever. And physically getting them in the room for a simple meeting where all heads are talking at the same time is really a challenge.

Karl Vaters (31:41):

Those are the kinds of things that anytime I learn something from another pastor or we experience it ourselves and we learn the lesson in advance, then I'll write about it on the blog or I'll put it as a chapter in the next book or we'll talk about it on my podcast or with a podcast with someone like you. I'm just trying to put out this information out there as much as possible. Again, it's because... Small churches and big churches are just different, they are, and it's not that one's better than another. One of my teaching points is small is not a problem, a virtue, or an excuse. If you're in a small church, that's not a problem, you're good. Secondly, it's not a virtue, small churches are not better than big churches.

Karl Vaters (32:19):

This idea that somehow we're more holy because we're the only church in town preaching the gospel or something is just nonsense. Small churches are not more virtuous than big churches. But small church also is not an excuse, just because we're small doesn't mean we can't do great ministry. We got to stop looking at it and going, "Well, when we get bigger, then we'll be able to stop." No, no, do what you can right now at the size you are right now. Jesus did not wake up this morning depressed by the size of your church. You may have, but Jesus is okay with it and he can do right now with what you've got right now if you just give it to him right now. It starts with encouragement and then resourcing, and then sometimes I'll step on a few toes to get us off of our butts.

Frank Barry (33:06):

Yeah, I love that. I guess this is great even for me, personally, because I think about the church I go to and all that so I have that filter on things. I'm wondering, do you help small churches understand how to serve their community like where they're at? I don't know, if it's a college town or if it's a town of young professionals or if it's young married families or just understanding their community and understanding how to be the best that they can be where they're at. Like is there a lot of helping churches in that sense? Because they're not a megachurch, they're not necessarily reaching everybody that exists, they're in this place. I don't know, like how do you think about that? How do you think about helping churches where they're at?

Karl Vaters (33:56):

Yeah, that's a huge part of it. If you're not impacting somebody, then it's like why are you there? There's an old saying, "If your church disappeared tomorrow, would your community miss you?" I think that's the wrong question. It comes from a big church standpoint. It comes from the standpoint that you're big enough for the community to miss you. My question is if your church disappeared tomorrow, would a segment of your community miss you? Is there somebody that you're touching? Because you're not going to touch the entire community as a small church, but there ought to be somebody that you're impacting to the degree that if you disappeared, they'd miss you. My advice, my first piece of advice on that to small church pastors is, yes, we have to impact our community.

Karl Vaters (34:33):

Secondly, you have to pick one thing. Don't try to spread yourself too thin. Now if you have to try different things to experiment and see which area you're really called to, do that. But once you find that thing, focus on that one thing. As an example, in our church a few years ago, here in Orange County, we found that there's a center for abused women and children. And they own three different apartment complexes, and I'm not even going to give you many details because they have to be secretive because they're hiding from abusers. We adopted them and we discovered that there is so much work to do there that everything we do from painting to building to counseling to sponsoring with presents for Christmas, there is no limit to the amount of ministry we can do in these three apartment complexes that house women and children who are escaping abusive situations.

Karl Vaters (35:28):

The heart of our people for it is just unbelievably strong. We looked at that and we realized, "You know what, that's our one thing here. We are going to fully invest there. That will be our local ministry." We're the only church that does that, and that's not a putdown of other churches, that's just simply the place that God has put us and He hasn't put another church there. But we have a big impact there, and it's one of those things where there's not a single Instagram photo of us helping out there because you can't put photos up of where abused women and children are because their abusers are looking for them. They don't even come to church on a Sunday because sending a guy in a white panel van to pick up an abused women and child is triggering for them.

Karl Vaters (36:12):

We don't make any demands on them, we don't make any requests of them. We love them, we serve them, we help them, and there's a bunch of verses in the Bible about widows and orphans and we figure this qualifies. That's what we do, so we have found this place that is desperate in need, that will never run out of need, that we can meet those needs. We can use every gift at our disposal to help meet those needs. From people who just love on them, to people who do accounting, to people who fix things up. I mean you name the gift, it can be used there and we are pouring everything into that. Aside from the occasional sharing on a thing like this, nobody knows about it. We can't Instagram it, we can't advertise it, we have to protect these women.

Karl Vaters (36:53):

But that is part of our call and is part of our passion, and we are having a tremendous influence in the lives of women and children who are in desperate need. And who we are going to sow seeds into their life so that down the road, at some point, they're going to go, "At least there was one man or one church or one group of people who showed up in my life and cared for me when I was at my lowest." That's what we do. That's what I encourage churches to do. Make sure you're looking around, find a single place and invest fully in that rather than spreading yourself broad. Find a place like that that's local where the impact is obvious to you. Like, for instance, for years, we did the Christmas boxes for a ministry that gives hundreds of thousands of Christmas boxes every year.

Karl Vaters (37:35):

It's a great ministry and encourage people to support it. We don't do that anymore because it's hard to see how much impact you're having when it's such a big thing. It's hard to keep people motivated when they can't see the direct impact. We see the direct impact in these homes for abused women and children. It is really obvious and it helps keep people motivated as well. Both are valid, but if you want to keep it going and keep it strong and keep people motivated, find a small area of big need where your impact will be obvious.

Frank Barry (38:06):

Yeah, and it's local which is-

Karl Vaters (38:09):

It's local.

Frank Barry (38:09):

... somewhat tangible.

Karl Vaters (38:10):

It doesn't take many people, two or three people can show up on a day and make a massive difference in that place. It doesn't take a lot of people.

Frank Barry (38:18):

Yeah, I love that. Man, we can keep talking all day. I want to be respectful of your time. I know you have a great website, so where should folks go to learn more about how you're helping small churches?

Karl Vaters (38:28):

Yeah, go to karlvaters.com. It's where I put everything from my blog posts to my podcast episodes and so on, karlvaters.com. And you can find me, if you can spell my name right, you can find me everywhere, I'm Karl Vaters at Facebook, on Instagram, and on Twitter as well.

Frank Barry (38:45):

All the places. Okay, I got a couple questions to close things out.

Karl Vaters (38:50):

All right.

Frank Barry (38:51):

Easy rapid fire ones. So you said you read a lot, what's one book that you've been most influenced by that you think everyone should check out?

Karl Vaters (38:59):

Oh, you're going to make me pick one, are you?

Frank Barry (39:06):

You may have a bunch, but pick the first one that comes to mind.

Karl Vaters (39:08):

Yeah, I probably ought to go through my good reads list. Actually, recently a friend of mine just wrote a book called Posting Peace and it's about how to behave better online as Christians and it's really, really good. Doug Bursch is the guy who wrote it, Posting Peace, and it speaks to some real practical ways that we can change our behavior on our habits online and be a more positive influence online. So that's been [crosstalk 00:39:35]-

Frank Barry (39:34):

And it's super timely.

Karl Vaters (39:36):

Yep.

Frank Barry (39:36):

Yeah, that's cool. That's cool. Because that's a that's been pretty relevant over the last few years.

Karl Vaters (39:42):

Very direct.

Frank Barry (39:44):

What about a podcast that you're listening to right now? Could be anything? Anything that you're into, any podcast that's-

Karl Vaters (39:52):

Well, the Mars Hill one is done. That one was-

Frank Barry (39:56):

I've asked this question to like the last-

Karl Vaters (39:58):

Oppressively obsessive.

Frank Barry (39:59):

... guest and I've heard that answer quite a few times.

Karl Vaters (40:06):

Yeah. I haven't been listening to podcasts other than jumping out on that one because everybody was telling me about it. I listened to podcast a whole bunch until about the beginning of the pandemic, and for some reason, it just didn't listening to podcasts regularly. I went to audio books instead, so I don't even have a recommendation for you.

Frank Barry (40:22):

Okay, not even a past one that you thought was particularly good?

Karl Vaters (40:29):

It's been so long since I've listened. For me-

Frank Barry (40:32):

The pressure, it's all...

Karl Vaters (40:34):

Yeah, no, for me as a leader, the challenge is there's some really great podcasts out there. Ed Stetzer is doing a good one. Carey Nieuwhof is doing a good one. Craig Groeschel, Andy Stanley, all the regulars that we know of. But most of them come from a big church standpoint, so I have to listen to three or four podcasts before I go, "Oh, there's a real gem that I can really use." This is all wisdom. I get where a whole lot of people can use this, but it's really limited where I can use it. I was going to say, so I don't want to mention them because I'll feel bad about telling them they're no good and I just mentioned a whole bunch of them.

Karl Vaters (41:06):

And most of them are friends of mine too, so it's good stuff. But that's part of the challenge for the small church is finding one. The 200churches was the one that I recommended for a long time, but they are not putting out podcasts regularly anymore. But if you can go through the backlog of the 200churches podcast, they've got a lot of great stuff for small churches.

Frank Barry (41:26):

Some good stuff. Yeah, love it. Give us, just last question, what's the latest book that you published that people should check out?

Karl Vaters (41:33):

It is The Church Recovery Guide. I published it about six months in the pandemic thinking we were six months away from the end of pandemic, and it's actually very small-

Frank Barry (41:44):

And here we are.

Karl Vaters (41:44):

Yeah, here we are still. It is evergreen. It's basically about how to help any church come out of a time of crisis, and the stuff I talked about trauma is actually in that book. If they want to do a little further reading on it, that's The Church Recovery Guide. That's my most recent book.

Frank Barry (42:00):

Awesome, love it. Well, Pastor Karl, this has been great. Thanks for taking some time with us.

Karl Vaters (42:04):

Appreciate it, Frank. Thank you.

Frank Barry (42:06):

Yeah, good times. Thanks everybody for joining us. We'll catch you next week on another episode of Modern Church Leader. Bye-bye.

Narrator (42:12):

If you enjoyed this episode of the Modern Church Leader, consider sharing it with the pastor or minister you think would benefit the most from listening to this conversation. You can send them to modernchurchleader.com or share this episode directly from your podcast app. Be sure to subscribe for free on YouTube, Apple Podcast or Spotify so you never miss an episode. And we'll see you again next week with another conversation here on the Modern Church Leader.

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Small Church, Big Impact with Karl Vaters

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Small Church, Big Impact with Karl Vaters

If you're looking for a glimpse into a healthy, thriving church, then this is the episode for you!

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Small Church, Big Impact

The phrase “bigger is better” does not always apply, especially when it comes to the church. Just because a congregation is small does not mean it cannot make a big impact. 

In fact, many times, the small churches have the biggest impact due to their close-knit community and focus on relationships. Often, these churches are the ones that survive the test of time. This is because they are the ones that are rooted in the community and are not afraid to get involved.

A small church can have just as much impact as a megachurch - and often do.

Being small is not a problem. The problem is how you can use your size to be as impactful as possible. How do you create an influence that is greater than your size?

In the Book of Acts, the church at Antioch was small, yet they had the biggest impact on the first-century church. It was because they were rooted in the community and committed to making a difference.

And this is where we should start in each community - where we hope to serve. As the body of Christ, our community must be rooted in love and relationship, not by our size, buildings, or our ministries' reputation. That is where we can make a big impact. 

In this episode, we'll give you a peek into the life of a healthy small church in Orange County, California. They are not your typical small church, but they do things uniquely and wonderfully. Their pastor, Karl Vaters, will give us insight into how they are able to make a big impact in the lives of their people and the community. 

“My question is, if your church disappeared tomorrow, would a segment of your community miss you? There ought to be somebody you're impacting to the degree that they'd miss you if you disappeared. My first piece of advice on that to small church pastors is we have to impact our community.”
-Karl Vaters

Karl has been in pastoral ministry for 40 years. He is the teaching pastor of Cornerstone Christian Fellowship, a healthy small church in Orange County, California, where he has ministered for over 28 years with his wife, Shelley. His heart is to help pastors of small churches (up to 90 percent of us) find the resources to lead well and capitalize on the unique advantages of pastoring a small church.

If you're looking for a glimpse into a healthy, thriving church, then this is the episode for you!

By the end of this episode, you will learn:

  • Some ways your church can get involved in your community
  • How small churches can quickly adopt online services
  • How to foster a sense of community during disruption
  • Tips for leaders of small churches
  • How to leverage the strengths of small churches

Here’s a glance at this episode…

[4:04] Maybe we're smaller, and maybe we need to figure out how to do small well, rather than just figuring out how to get bigger. 

[12:15] If your theology says you got to be in the building for it to be a church, you need better theology.

[20:03] Now, the challenge of lockdown was we couldn't do familiar things with familiar people in familiar places. So it exacerbated that problem. As church leaders, her advice, especially in smaller churches, was to preach shorter and worship longer. 

[21:30] We don't need more change; we have to help people go through this change in a stable way. When times are disruptive, leaders provide stability. We're going to lean on things that are a little more familiar.

[25:14] People should not have to be physically in the building for us to remain their pastor. So I'm encouraging pastors, for people who aren't showing up, don't call them to say, “Where have you been?” Just call them and say, “How can I help you?” Don't say we miss you. Because that's just a coated way of saying, “Where have you been?” 

[26:58] We can bring the things they can't get online, the physical, the person, the physical touch, the personal approachability.

[28:54] There are so many discouraged small church pastors out there who have been told that if your church is healthy, it should be getting bigger. And if it's not getting bigger, then you're doing something wrong. Small is not broken. And getting bigger won't fix your problems. My thing is, I don't want churches to be small. I want small churches to be great. And I absolutely believe that small churches can be great. 

[32:27] Just because we're small doesn't mean we can't do great ministry. Do what you can right now at the size you are right now. 

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