What Jesus Taught Us About Small Church Ministry

You don’t need a big event or fancy props to do ministry Jesus-style. Let’s take a step back and learn about effective small church ministry from the Master Himself!

WHY CHURCH RESOURCE BOOKS DON’T ALWAYS HELP

When people in small churches read ministry resource books, they often get a bit deflated. Partly because most ministry books are written by and for large churches, and their ideas don’t work in small churches. 

The other reason ministry books aren’t always helpful is because they don’t fit your particular church culture. You find yourself saying, “Glad it works for you, but we’ve tried that” or “That won’t work for us because …”

You see, God made each of us unique. And when a group of totally unique individuals come together, they make an even more unique church – with different needs, different talents, and different demographics.

So my church will never look your church. And it’s not supposed to.

FOCUS ON PRINCIPLES INSTEAD OF PROGRAMS 

Rather than trying to duplicate ministry programs in other churches, we need to understand ministry PRINCIPLES.

Understanding ministry principles helps us get a handle on some of the most common struggles in small church ministry:

  • I don’t know how to get more women to Bible study
  • Our youth only come to the fun stuff
  • I feel like the only volunteer who’s really committed.

If we understand the principles of ministry, we can more easily adapt to meet the needs in our unique churches and communities.

Let’s start by taking a look at the MINISTRY OF JESUS.

THE EFFECTIVE MINISTRY OF JESUS

Even though Jesus’ ministry on earth was really only about 3 years long, He successfully changed the trajectory of humanity. Although few stood by Him in the final weeks before His death, a handful of disciples spread the Good News throughout the world. 

Discipleship is more important than ministry events.

Jesus Spent More Time With The Few

While there were times that Jesus spoke to the masses (teaching as He walked through crowds and the feeding of the thousands for example), Jesus spent a lot more time with His 12 disciples. They ate together, traveled together, and did ministry together.

Jesus spent even more focused time with a smaller group, His 3 dearest friends – Peter, James, and John. Remember how he took only those three to the Transfiguration (Matthew 17) and also to the Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:36-46).

And just like Jesus, while our ministry to the masses is very public, the quieter, deeper ministry has less fanfare.

Jesus Taught Different Things to Different People

Jesus taught different things to the masses than He taught His closest disciples. Whether He was preaching repentance & salvation or discipleship & service depended on His audience.

Jesus’ teaching met the needs of those in His company.

Consider The Parable of the Sower and the Seeds:

In Matthew 13, Jesus told the well-known parable of the sower and the seeds to a large crowd. He told a story that people in an agricultural society could relate to. If you read carefully, you’ll notice that’s all they got – a great story!

He didn’t explain it or teach them a spiritual truth. 

It wasn’t until later that the disciples (a much smaller group) pulled Him aside with questions. Matthew 13:10-11 says,  “The disciples came to him and asked, “Why do you speak to the people in parables?” He replied, “Because the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them.”

Jesus actually chose not to explain the deep spiritual truth to the crowds. He knew they would not receive it. Instead, He told a story and built a relationship with the curious. He offered more only to those who followed and asked. 

Jesus Invited People to Follow … But Didn’t Expect Them All To Come

Modern ministry would feel very different for many people if we all stopped linking our success to other people’s responses.

Get Rid of the “ONE-SIZE-FITS-ALL” Ministry Mentality

Have you ever tried on a one-size-fits-all t-shirt? I have, and a ONE-SIZE-FITS-ALL T-shirt doesn’t fit “all.”

Just as a ONE-SIZE-FITS-ALL church doesn’t meet everyone’s needs.

Often in ministry, we try to create events and programs that have something for all, and we end up frustrating everyone in the process. 

  • The youth lock-in gone bad when the youth leaders try to settle all the kids down for a Bible Study
  • The Sunday School class that never goes deep for the one who wants to learn, because the youth leader is too busy entertaining the kids who don’t want to be there. 
  • The women’s retreat where everyone brings unchurched friends only to find the programming is not for the unchurched at all, but instead on developing a deeper prayer life. 

Every Event Should Have 1 Main Purpose and 1 Main Audience

Too often when we try to reach EVERYONE at the same event, we end up reaching NO ONE.

If you have 30 women in your church who mostly show up for the fun events, and only 3 who come to Bible Study, don’t be frustrated. That’s what Jesus’ ministry looked like too!

Spiritual Milk & Spiritual Meat Really Are A Thing

In 1 Corinthians 3:1-3, Paul says, “Brothers and sisters, I could not address you as people who live by the Spirit but as people who are still worldly—mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? ….”

Church programs and events should meet people in their actual need. Pushing someone in discipleship when they are not ready can result in resentment and rejection.

You can no more force someone to mature spiritually than you can force an orange to ripen on a tree. Everyone’s timeline is their own.

We need to look at every event as an opportunity for growth, but resist the urge to throw people in the deep end gasping for air. 

Model Your Small Church Ministry After Jesus

To model your small church ministry after Jesus means getting back to the basics.

Know what peoples’ needs are.

We cannot know anyone’s true needs unless we have a relationship. So relationships always come first and foremost. 

Make your events about relationships.

Instead of evaluating how many people came and if you stayed in your budget, start evaluating success by relationships and meeting real needs.

  • Did you get to know someone better?
  • Did they get to know each other?
  • Did they leave wanting more?
  • Did you meet a need? 

Offer something deeper for those who want more.

From one event to another, always have something to offer that’s one level deeper.

In doing this, your church programming may look very different from another. And it’s supposed to. 

THE MINISTRY FUNNEL:

A Tool for Planning and Perspective

Instead of filling the church calendar with events that sound attractive, plan your year to meet real needs – from the disengaged & disinterested (if you have them) to the mature disciples (if you have them).

If you’ve ever used a funnel, you know how they work. They are larger on the top, they get smaller as it goes, and if it’s working right the stuff can pour out the bottom. It’s the same in small church ministry.

THE MINISTRY FUNNEL:

The first layer is where people enter.

In Jesus’ ministry, this would be the masses that gathered around Him. This level is Outreach Focused, and it’s all about bringing people in.

The people who enter might be curious about God, or they might be interested in the food you offer and the service you provide – like a free garage sale, a moms & muffins tent at VBS, or a youth lock-in

The top of the Ministry Funnel is wide. That’s where a lot of people hang out.


The next layer is where lasting relationships form.

This is where community and care come in. People come here even if there’s no food, because they know they’re cared for. Fellowship Events fall in this level, like the annual chili cookoff, a book club, or youth group. 

Deeper in the funnel is where spiritual growth & discipleship happen.

Those who want to grow in Christ will go deeper in the funnel. (Notice the funnel gets smaller with each layer.) Maybe you hold topical Bible Studies, Sunday School, or Small Groups.

Here’s where Jesus modeled spiritual teaching with the 12 & and deeper instruction with the 3. Discipleship includes mentoring, prayer ministry, and developing leaders to do the ministry.

The funnel spills out the bottom of course, which is when disciples go out into the world and find a friend to bring back into the top of the funnel.

Now your disciples walks with that friend, at their pace, back through the funnel again.

THREE WAYS TO USE THE MINISTRY FUNNEL

The Ministry Funnel is a great tool in ministry planning and evaluating. Print it out to use as a worksheet. Here are 3 ways to use it.

1) Focus On The Current Needs of People

When you think about the people who are in contact with you and your ministry, where do they fall on the funnel?

  • Are they curious about Jesus?
  • Wanting strong Christian friends?
  • Seeking Bible Study?
  • Ready to lead?

I like to jot their names right into the funnel – not to classify them or stick them in a box – but to visualize their needs and keep them in mind.

Ask: Where are they right now? And what would be an entry point for them to grow deeper? 

To go deeper in relationships, check this out: 33 Questions to Ask for Deeper Conversations at Church

2) Evaluate Your Existing Programs

Take every event and program you had last year and put it on a layer of the funnel – not by what was intended, but by what actually happened.

For example, while many churches would automatically put Youth Sunday School deeper in the funnel (as it contains Biblical learning, prayer, and scripture memorization), who really comes to Sunday School. Many students are forced to attend by their parents, and in some churches Sunday School is actually an incredible outreach and relational building program.

So instead of evaluating based on what you think the right answer is, evaluate by what is really happening. What is the actual experience and what are the results?

3) Plan Upcoming Ministry Events

In addition to meeting current needs, be like Jesus and offer opportunities for growth. As you look at your current events on the funnel, what would take people one level deeper?

For example, if all your women fall in the top of the funnel and have no interest in Bible Study, then beginning a 1-1 discipleship program might not be your next step.

But starting a monthly book club with Christian fiction might be perfect! By discussing the theme of the book, it might be a natural step in sharing personal journeys, God-truths, and testimony.

While I would love it if each woman craved a Bible Study on Spiritual Disciplines, that’s not always reality. Instead, think of their needs and what would help them go deeper in knowing Jesus (without sending them into rejection). 

Just like Jesus, who continually invited people deeper into relationship and discipleship (“Zacchaeus, you come down” to “Peter, feed my sheep”), we should be very conscious to always have next-level events ready. Because just like Jesus, our call is not to just leave people where they are, but to develop disciples. 

[For more on planning your small church ministry year, check out: 6 Steps to Batch Plan Your Ministry Year ]

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