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Small Church Pundit

AG pastor Karl Vaters has become the go-to answer man for pastors toiling in the trenches.
Karl A. Vaters jokes that he became a small church expert because he failed miserably when the church he pastored grew, then receded.

Vaters has been at Cornerstone Christian Fellowship in Fountain Valley, California, for 26 years. For most of that time, the Assemblies of God church has been under 200 regular attendees, except for a two-year stretch when it swelled to 400.

“We became the cool church in town for a while due to transfer growth,” recalls Vaters, 59. Cornerstone hired additional pastoral staff, who quickly felt overworked.

“We didn’t disciple our own people to manage the growth,” Vaters laments. “When another church got cooler, people left to go there.” Subsequently, attendance plummeted to under 100. Today the regular crowd numbers 180.

Now laypeople in the congregation have been discipled and could handle an influx without hiring more “professional clergy.” During the process, Vaters learned being an administrator didn’t suit him; he felt called to be a shepherd of a small church, often considered a body of under 200.

Consequently, Vaters searched for materials that could help him do well in that role. He couldn’t find any. He began collecting tidbits of information and sharing it with his congregants and other small church pastors on a website. NewSmallChurch.com reassures, connects, and equips small church ministry leaders. He ended up writing The Grasshopper Myth: Big Churches, Small Churches, and the Small Thinking that Divides Us, which resonated with small church pastors around the country. Vaters started a blog, Pivot, which gained traction immediately and found a home at the Christianity Today website. It has 130,000 page views per month.

His extensive writings have made Vaters, a third-generation AG pastor, a small church expert. That takes in a lot of churchgoers.

“Ninety percent of the churches in the world are under 200,” Vaters says. “Fully half the Christians in the world attend a small church. Small churches have always been and will always be the most common, most resilient, and most adaptable expression of the body of Christ.”

While scads of church growth seminars in the past generation have minimized or even disdained the relevance of the small church, it’s a term Vaters embraces as a valuable contributor to the kingdom of God.

“If we ignore or under resource small churches, we’re going against the apostle Paul’s body analogy,” Vaters declares. “The hand telling the foot, I don’t need you, is a dangerous statement. ”

Some small church leaders have gotten a complex in the shadows of megachurches that stress the importance of expected numerical increase. Church growth seminars, often led by large church pastors, have left small church pastors flummoxed because most of the principles taught aren’t applicable to them. Vaters suggests small church pastors can learn the most by conversing with those leading similarly sized congregations. Rather than emphasizing the need to grow larger, small church pastors are better off focusing on making whatever size congregation they oversee healthy, according to Vaters.

He cites the “pastoral prime mandate” in Ephesians 4:11-12.

“A pastor’s calling from God is to equip the people of the congregation to do ministry,” Vaters says. “Too many small church pastors think they need to do everything, and they burn out.”

However, churches shouldn’t strive to stay small, Vaters believes. After all, Jesus declared He would build His church in Matthew 16:18, a verse that implies growth rather than complacency. Yet Vaters believes some people worship and minister best in a small church environment because they prefer the intimacy of a smaller group setting where they can know everyone else and likewise be known.

Vaters has become an encourager to a multitude of small church pastors who toil in the ministry trenches without many or any accolades. His materials, which include the book Small Church Essentials: Field-Tested Principles for Leading a Healthy Congregation of Under 250, are appreciated by a broad spectrum. He’s discovered there is much alike in the all-encompassing evangelical camp.

“Every denomination is a denomination of an overwhelming number of small churches and just a handful of big ones,” Vaters observes. The AG is typical. Around one-third of the Fellowship’s congregations have under 50 regular attendees. About 57 percent are less than 100 and approximately three in four average below 200 weekly worshippers.

Yet Vaters believes Pentecostal churches have an advantage over others.

“Understanding the empowerment of the Holy Spirit makes the priesthood of all believers a great benefit,” Vaters says. “A huge part of what makes a denomination healthy and effective is participation of the entire body.”

Vaters’ work as a small church resource last year led him to step down as full-time lead pastor at Cornerstone, succeeded by Gary D. Garcia, who had served as youth pastor for a quarter century. Vaters is now teaching pastor at the church. He insists it’s essential to remain on staff, despite the increasing amount of time he devotes to being a small church pundit.

“If I speak about small churches I need to be active in small church ministry,” says Vaters, who has been an ordained AG minister since 1983. “I don’t want to lose touch. I’m skeptical about someone who is not hands-on giving advice.”

One of Vaters’ chief boosters is Steve M. Donaldson, an ordained AG minister who heads Rural Compassion, a Convoy of Hope initiative that partners with rural — virtually all small — congregations. Donaldson, who is a U.S. missionary with Missionary Church Planters & Developers, says Rural Compassion incorporates Vaters’ materials extensively in instructing rural ministry leaders.

“Karl’s writings focusing on the value of the small church in God’s kingdom are well-thought out,” says Donaldson, 59. “We try to get his books into the hands of everybody we work with at training events and district events. His materials really resonate with rural churches.”

John W. Kennedy

John W. Kennedy served as news editor of AG News from its inception in 2014 until retiring in 2023. He previously spent 15 years as news editor of the Pentecostal Evangel and seven years as news editor at Christianity Today.