Book Review: The Grasshopper Myth

The Grasshopper Myth by Karl Vaters

Much of church culture in the United States over the past 20 years or more has been dominated by the discussion of size. Mega-churches worshiping thousands of people have become the emblem of church success. Borrowing our economic ideas that bigger is always better, it only makes sense that a bigger church is better than a smaller church, right? More faithful? More impactful? Lots of different ways of describing it. The fact remains that the overwhelming majority of churches are small churches (defined by Vater as under 350 members but more realistically under 250 members).

This book premises that bigger isn’t always better. Vater does so without denigrating mega-churches and large churches, which is good and right, while providing inspiration and a new way of thinking to pastors of small congregations. Is the pastoral goal to grow a small church into a large church? Why? At what cost? What are small churches good at that large churches can’t be? Vater poses these questions in an easy-going style.

This is sort of a cheerleader book. Vater doesn’t make any specific propositions about how to do small church, but does a good job at encouraging pastors and congregations not to feel bad about themselves just because they’re small. It’s an important work in that respect, and I trust it might be helpful to many, many pastors and congregants and church leadership teams trying to figure out what the Holy Spirit might want them to be if they don’t have a million dollar budget and rock-star musicians and 300 programs running each week.

The shame is that a book like this is necessary at all, that we’ve so blindly swallowed questionable economic premises (bigger isn’t necessarily better for companies either!). But we have, and so books like this are a helpful corrective.

Vater has two other books, the next of which is Small Church Essentials. I’m reading that next. I’ve only just started the introduction, but his warning list of signs of an unhealthy church (regardless of the size) is certainly something pastors and congregants alike need to keep their eyes out for:

  • Inward focused
  • Threatened by change
  • Filled with petty infighting and jealousy
  • Not reaching their communities
  • Poorly managed
  • Settling for less

I don’t normally read these types of books, but I was asked to do so by a concerned congregant. I appreciate their concerns and hopes, as they are mine as well. Hopefully the books will offer some tangible help. Interestingly enough the author is already on the slate to do a special workshop on this topic in Los Angeles for my denominational polity. Apparently some people are finding what he has to say helpful!

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