He has become the go to small church guy.
His refreshing approach to small and medium churches has inspired thousands and sparked hope in the hearts of many pastors.
John Finkelde: Karl, welcome! Did you ever think you’d become this well-known around the globe?
Karl Vaters: No, it’s been very, very strange thing. For 30 years, I think the first 20, 25 years of pastoring, I really tried to build a big church, and never could get more than 100 people at a time to care about what I had to say. Now that I write a book about that, everybody wants to hear what I have to say.
John Finkelde: I noticed on your website New Small Church, you call yourself a small church pastor. When did you start calling yourself that because that’s a phrase pastors tend to avoid?
Karl Vaters: I’ve been a small church pastor for 30 years, but I didn’t know I was one until about seven years ago. Really, I thought I was a big church pastor who hadn’t arrived yet.
I went through a very difficult time of soul searching.
I asked my counselor at one point, “What is this? Is it burnout? Is it mid-life crisis?” He says, “I don’t care what you call it. You just got to figure out how to get to the other side of it.”
A lot of it was because of where I am. I am in Orange County, California.
I’m a 25-minute drive from Saddleback Church from Crystal Cathedral, from the original Cavalry Chapel, the original Vineyard. They’re all in my back yard.
John Finkelde: Some big churches there.
Karl Vaters: Yeah, and well-known, and places that have duplicated themselves all over the world. If you can’t do megachurch in Orange County, California, you can’t do it anyway.
John Finkelde: That’s intimidating.
Karl Vaters: Yeah, it really is, and I couldn’t do it, so I thought there must be something wrong with me, because this is the place you come to do this, and I can’t do it.
It wasn’t even that I wanted mega so much, and I don’t think it was that I wanted some kind of ego thing. It was, “Hey, if I’m reaching people for the gospel, if lives are being transformed, then the church is going to get bigger.”
It just feels axiomatically true, and yet here we had this church that was dynamic, reaching people, and training people for ministry, but wasn’t growing past a certain number of butts in the seats every Sunday.
I finally decided I’ve got to figure out how to redefine success.
One day in our staff meeting, we were talking about getting the numbers up again, and I stopped in the middle of a conversation.
I said, “That’s it, I’m done with this. We got to stop thinking like a big church.”
Everybody in the room gasped, like I just cussed at them or something.
I said, “We’re not a big church. We’re a small church. Maybe someday we’ll be big. I don’t know, but we’re not a big church. We are a small church and we got to figure out how to do small church well.”
Then I looked at them and I said, “What does a really great small church look like?”
Nobody in the room, including me, knew how to answer the question.
John Finkelde: Great question.
Karl Vaters: I started doing research to discover what I already knew, which is that 90% of the churches in the world are under 200, so categorically, they’re small, and yet nobody knew how to answer the question what a great small church looks like for 90% of the churches in the world.
I thought, “This is a big gap.”
John Finkelde: What inspired you to write the book, The GrassHopper Myth?
Karl Vaters: It was after that meeting, and I started looking around and couldn’t find any help. I just started writing down the lessons that I was learning.
It became this massive stack of notes that I finally just had to get off of my chest.
I actually sat it on the shelf for six months and then I went back and read it, and went, “Oh, I don’t just have a book. I have a pretty good book.”
My full expectation was this: in my lifetime, I’ll sell 500 books.
They started flying off the shelves from the moment I started putting it out there. I was just shocked
John Finkelde: How many have you sold now?
Karl Vaters: Just over 9,000.
John Finkelde: I read it a couple years ago and it was my book of the year.
Karl Vaters: I remember that. You were one of the first ones to do that, and I’m grateful.
John Finkelde: I certainly recommend it and talk it up, because it’s such a great book.
Karl Vaters: Thank you.
John Finkelde: Give me three words to describe the feel of your church?
Karl Vaters: I’ll use three words that maybe set us apart .
One, we’re obviously small. That’s my thing. We’ve learned how to do small well, so small is one.
The second one I would say casual is probably as good a term as any. We’re in southern California. We’re three miles from the beach. There’s a surf and skateboard culture here, and it just fits out style to be casual and laid back.
The third word would be persistent.
Abraham Lincoln was quoted as saying, “I may move slow, but I never move backward.” We’re not fast, but we’re persistent. We’re never going to give up. I’m never going to settle for where we are now.
John Finkelde: Brilliant! Eugene Peterson has got a book, a long obedience in the same Direction.
Karl Vaters: Whenever people get frustrated by their lack of forward progress, I always ask, “Are you facing in the right direction? If you are, direction is everything. Just keep doing it over a long period of time.”
John Finkelde: That’s wisdom right there, especially for a young pastor who’s feeling like a lot of young pastors feel that they’ve got to get it all done by the time they’re 35.
Karl Vaters: Yeah, and I think it minimizes the dangers of some of the infamous flame-outs that we’ve seen. Early and radical success, if God brings it, that’s great, but it also carries great dangers.
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John Finkelde: What do you think’s the biggest change of pastoring a small or medium-sized church today?
Karl Vaters: I think it’s getting over the barrier that we set up for ourselves that success will be numerically verifiable.
It’s the Grasshopper Myth.
We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes. If we don’t see a grasshopper in the mirror, the giants will not perceive us as grasshoppers.
It’s as simple as what we all learned when we were teenagers learning how to date for the first time. The guy who just went into the room with all the self-confidence got all the girls. You’re looking at him going, “I’m a better athlete. I think I’m even better looking. Why are all the girls around him?”
He just knows. I’m sitting there worried about myself, and everybody can smell that fear. When we perceive ourselves than less than, then we will operate as less than. We got to get over that. I think that’s the primary thing.
John Finkelde: Your book tells us, “Everyone is significant. Everyone’s valuable. There’s no significant pastors and insignificant pastors.” Giving pastors that language helps us get past this mindset of big is best. It lets us know that you can have a healthy church that is small and even remains small.
Karl Vaters: For me it always comes back to Paul’s body analogy. The hand can’t say to the foot that I don’t need you.
Paul didn’t begin his analogy with the hand despising the foot. He began his analogy with the body part despising itself. “Because I’m not a hand, I don’t belong to the body.”
He recognizes the grasshopper myth. He starts it with self despising, and then he also says, “Then you can’t despise the other part, either.” He begins with, “Don’t despise your part.”
John Finkelde: What’s the worst mistake you’ve made in ministry?
Karl Vaters: I hate to be redundant, but it goes back to the other, that I didn’t recognize the value of where God had placed me, that I was so determined to get to a place that I had in my head that I didn’t enjoy the place that I was.
It was so ingrained in me that when it didn’t happen the way I expected it had to happen, I turned toxic.
A toxic pastor can’t pastor a healthy church, and it nearly killed my church, and it was all based on this idea of not recognizing the value of what God had given me and the place that I was.
All the other mistakes in ministry, pretty much all of them flow from that mistake, from that misperception.
John Finkelde: What got you motivated to get into blogging?
Karl Vaters: I had this book that I had to sell!
John Finkelde: You’ve been reading Michael Hyatt.
Karl Vaters: I ran across Michael Hyatt’s book, Platform. He said, “The best way I know to do that is blogging,” and he showed me how to blog. I literally had to Google what’s the difference between a website and a blog.
Then I discovered, “Oh, I’ve been reading blogs all along. I didn’t know that.” It’s true. That’s how I had to start.
John Finkelde: Your output of content is massive. You’re pastoring a church. You speak at various conferences and events, but your output is remarkable.
Karl Vaters: Thank you. If you’d told me six years ago that in addition to preaching once a week, I’d be blogging three times a week, I’d say there’s no way.
It just keeps coming through.
Again, I got to look at it and go every day, my prayer is, “Lord. I don’t know what you’re doing, but help me not to mess it up.” That’s all I got.
John Finkelde: You got a great grace on you for it, Karl, and it’s helping many pastors around the world.
Karl Vaters: It’s been extraordinary, and to me the real news about that is that an organization with the reputation and worldwide reach of Christianity Today is telling the world small churches matter this much to us. Their only two regular bloggers are me and Ed Stetzer.
John Finkelde: Wow. You’re in good company there.
Karl Vaters: It’s crazy, isn’t it? If you came to my church on Sunday and you wanted to sit in the back row, there would only be four rows in front of you. And I’m blogging along with Ed Stetzer at Christianity Today.
John Finkelde: I try to encourage pastors to take their sermon and write a couple of paragraphs and put it on their church website, because pastors produce fresh content every week.
Karl Vaters: I back you up on that. You never know the kind of muscles you’ve got until you start exercising them.
John Finkelde: Is there a blog that you read regularly?
Karl Vaters: I found a magazine, Church Relevance that every year publishes a list of the 200 biggest Christian blogs in the world. I subscribed to all of them on my RSS feed.
In about ten minutes a day, I scroll through all the titles on Feedly.
Then I click save on three or four that I think, “I probably need to read that at some point.”
Then they’re saved for whenever I got some time. I’m standing in line at the bank, I’ve got a few minutes before a meeting. I pull that up and I read that.
John Finkelde: What’s the best book you’ve read lately?
Karl Vaters: The most important book I’ve read for ministry is in the last year or two is The Great Evangelical Recession, by John S. Dickerson. The first half is tough to get through, not because the words are hard, but because the news is bad.
Then at the end of it, he turns it around and says, “Here are the opportunities that these changes now offer.”
I just finished reading a novel, The Good Earth, by Pearl S. Buck. She wrote it in the 1930s, and it’s just a beautiful novel about the Chinese agrarian society back in the 1910s and 1920s. It’s just, anybody who just wants to read something that will stir your emotions and your heart about, and your cry or humanity. Beautiful book.
John Finkelde: Sounds great. Karl, it’s been fantastic having a chat with you.
Karl Vaters: Same with you, John. I sure appreciate the work you do, too.