The statistics are clear: 80 percent of all churches in the United States average fewer than 200 attendees each weekend. Without major change in leadership style, congregational dynamics, ministry vision or some other significant aspect of church-life, churches that have existed for more than five years will most likely stay the size they are now, with only moderate growth over time.
One of the shame-inducing truisms floating around the body of Christ goes something like, "All healthy organisms grow." Pastors of smaller or plateaued churches feel the implied jab: Lack of growth is symptomatic of underlying sickness. That's not very helpful in the real church-world. To begin with, there are limits to the size any organism can reach (Trophy trout are rare--especially in small streams), and if you keep growing after the legal age, it's called getting fat.
Most of us have been stuck somewhere, somehow--in the desert sand off the main road, up a tree we climbed in our pre-adolescence or on a tricky algebra problem. But somehow, someway, we got unstuck. When our tires spun uselessly in the sand, we tried different approaches; when the algebra equation withstood one thought, we assaulted it with another.
Getting stuck forces us to adapt our approach to life. In fact, one theory of learning says the brain is wired to solve predicaments, and true learning only happens when the mind tries to figure something out. God designed us to keep at it--knocking, seeking and asking--but to do so in close counsel with Him.
We may find more solutions to what hinders our churches from growing larger if we think in terms of getting unstuck, rather than just getting bigger. The point is not, I hope, just to grow bigger congregations. Our true aim ought to be to grow more spiritually significant people.
Rather than trying the latest surefire program emphases just to attract more people, we can actually focus our church-growth strategies on the very things that make for bigger people. If we remember the goal has never been to put on church per se, but to develop people with the tool called church, we can still find several ways to get our people unleashed and our churches unstuck.
While we must reject too clinical an approach to church growth--making it devoid of God's sovereign working--so too must we refuse to attribute all the growth of some churches to the arbitrary whims of God-sent revival. Thus, a healthy perspective on church growth leaves to God the things only He can do (the stuff we pray about), but willingly assumes responsibility for the things we can do something about. God gave me the teeth He gave me, but I brush them.
Just as 95 percent of all the fish in a lake inhabit a mere 5 percent of the space, and most computer problems can be traced to a limited number of common issues, so, too, do growth stick-points tend to cluster around a few factors.
Of the many such elements, there are three that seem most critical to me: staff composition, fellowship grouping and people mobilizing.
1. Who comprises the staff? This includes both paid and volunteer. A church will rarely grow beyond the capacity of its staff. One of the easiest, surest ways to foster church growth is to add people with staff responsibilities (not necessarily salary). The benefit to each of those new "staff members" and to the whole church cannot be overstated.
2. What fellowship groups exist in the church? And how easy is it for individuals to attach themselves to those clusters of people? Small churches stay stuck by trying to keep everybody doing all the same things as one big, happy family. Multiple services, small groups, choirs and other groupings within the church will gear congregations for expansion--and open more opportunities for individuals to lead meaningfully.
3. How is responsibility delegated? Have significant levels and types of responsibility been delegated to people in the church? If God entrusts His church with increasing levels of responsibility based on proven faithfulness, He will bless churches that do likewise. Besides, the more leaders are freed from doing "the same old same old," the more they initiate new enterprises. Growing churches keep generating new ministries that inspire and challenge the congregation.
Churches get stuck at some sizes more than others, and while the plateau numbers may not be exact figurings, they do present pastors with slightly different challenges for trying new strategies in staffing, grouping and delegating. Let's take a look at some of the most common plateau points--and how to break free from them.
UNDER 60 PEOPLE
Generally speaking, the leader feels his job involves knowing everything about each and every person in the congregation, and "being there" personally for everybody. Church is a big family at the dinner table; that's why potluck meals work so well within this size church. The pastor cares and does so much, he lulls the congregation away from its own responsibility to bear one another's burdens. For the most part, he responds to problems and reacts to situations that arise in the normal course of people's lives.
Acting more as a chaplain or a concerned parent, the pastor of the typical small church delegates almost nothing. And if he does ask someone to oversee an aspect of church life, he will keep checking on it so often and so intrusively, the individual feels about as empowered as a youngster with a learner's permit on her first driving lesson with mom.
1. Identify three ministry jobs (for example, creating the bulletin, selecting the worship songs or running the sound system), turn them over to volunteers, and after explaining the job for an hour, do nothing and say nothing related to those jobs for three months.
2. Do not attend the next church fellowship function, and for the next three months always invite someone different to open any gatherings (with a prayer or a greeting) and to close them. Have neither the first nor the last word.
3. Redirect one hour of your weekly schedule-- something you normally do--and go sit somewhere, such as in a coffee shop, with pen and paper. Write down any new ideas for your church (not reminders).
90 TO 120 PEOPLE
Having broken free from the previous stick-point, churches of this size are developing into a comfortable community, not just a family. Usually, there are not (yet) many structural or logistical problems. The first faint glimpses of a leadership structure are emerging, but delegation is probably friendship-based and related almost exclusively to small or easily controlled aspects of church life. No one is really being freed to do things the way they think is best. Rather, the pastor has thought it through and merely tells someone what to do and how to do it.
There will always be exceptions, but generally speaking, a church of 90 will stay stuck without a full-time pastor and a half-time assistant who keeps regular office hours.
1. Legitimize your operations by making the "office staff" more substantial--setting prescribed hours when you're (always) open, filling those hours with workers (paid and unpaid), getting a "real" piece of office equipment, having a "staff lunch" for volunteers, and so on.
2. Begin to establish multiple gatherings of the same kind. Some examples: dividing into two weekend services even if your building is not full, starting three breakfast groups for emerging leaders, for five months discontinuing regular meetings with your elders so they can each meet during that time slot with their own group of the same size/gender composition as the former elders' group.
3. Identify three main areas of ministry (for example, children's ministry, worship or men's meetings), and invite at least five people in each area to two brainstorming sessions to dream big. Delegate specific jobs and responsibilities to each participant. Help them to do it if they need the help, but expect them to do it. Leave it in their hands.
The vast majority of all U.S. churches stay stuck here because it marks the limit to the number of people with whom the pastor has the time, energy or personal reserves to stay close. People drift in and out of the church because the pastor has unknowingly set up the expectation that he, personally, is going to attend to them. Sooner or later, the pastor will unintentionally violate that agreement, and they will feel as though things "just aren't the same anymore" since all the new people came.
The pastoral strategy must be to remove himself slightly from the whole congregation in order to concentrate on a few present or prospective leaders. Forced to become more strategic and long term in thinking, the pastor must back away from the people and get ahead of them.
1. Consider hiring more staff. Staffing plays an especially critical role in pushing past the 200 barrier. Even if it seems as though the money is not there, seriously consider "hiring" two full-time, pastoral-level staff with two full-time support personnel. Begin by paying salaries to the two support personnel, and add pastors to the payroll as you can. (They're much more expensive to hire and far more likely to be excited about the role--even as a volunteer.)
2. Identify a fairly major work project and bond people to one another by getting them to work together on it. If people scrape paint side by side, they will feel as though they are a part of the body, and the church will begin to grow. It builds esprit de corps, a vital replacement to the "big, happy family" feeling.
3. Write down the names of the seven most active-in-leadership individuals or couples in your church and the "hats" they wear; ask each individual or couple to help you think of other people to whom you can delegate all but two of your leaders' jobs.
The pastor is absolutely convinced he or she cannot and should not pastor all the people in the church, so significant administrative and discipleship measures to utilize "the few" to pastor the many have already been adopted. Pastoral care, along with virtually every other ministry segment of the church, must be delegated the way Jethro instructed Moses. Church is administratively and relationally complex. Individuals and groups shift the focus of attention, and some "widows" are not going to be serviced properly.
The church becomes its own mission field, needing sub-congregations almost like new churches pioneered within it. Leaders are beginning to have an ambition for the people they directly oversee, and sometimes that internal ambition will cross grains with the whole program. Internal expansion and program needs should win out over the larger church program at least some of the time.
It's time for the youth pastor to be his or her own person. The senior pastor should welcome times when various ministry leaders "buck the system" (developing kingdoms within a kingdom), not in the spirit of Absalom, but in the spirit of true servants who, like you, are in the business of ministry because they see the sheep needing more shepherds. Commission and appoint people, full of the Holy Spirit and power, to oversee areas of ministry responsibility.
1. Staff for sanity and for growth. If you keep an appropriate ratio of staff to people, sanity calls for the equivalent of six full-time staff, and growth will likely require a couple more than that. Make a list of everyone you would hire (and what they would do) if you were given $500,000 to be used only for salaries. Don't wait for the money. Ask the people on the list to start doing what you'd like them to oversee.
2. Appraise and repair the church-program offerings to increase the number of strands--fellowship situations or opportunities--in the net you're using to fish for people. The two main types of groups are getting (people come for care and nurture without having to do anything) and giving (people come in order to provide service for others). With an apprentice leader at your side, start two new groups, one of each variety, with very specific focuses--for example, one targeting fathers in blended families and the other developing prayer teams.
3. Provide opportunities for sharing. One of the most substantial ways to build team spirit and cooperation is to encourage members of the team to share their stories, successes and struggles with the whole group--especially with the primary leader present and attentive. Pastors who do all the talking at leadership gatherings miss a great opportunity to promote others into greater involvement and service.
At your next churchwide leaders' meeting, ask at least eight people to give a five- to seven-minute presentation (complete with handouts) on the current condition of and the future vision for the "department" they oversee. And you take notes while they are speaking!
Bottom line: If we're going to burn the hell out of our world, it certainly doesn't hurt to have a few bigger bonfires. But there's a lot to be said for firing the flames of even the smallest campfire, so that it will jump outside whatever presently rings it in. The kingdom principle has always been multiplication. We find our spiritual significance not through collecting people, but in gathering them for the purpose of sending them out to replicate their experience with us.
Remember what we're supposed to be growing: congregants not congregations. For some amazing reason, Jesus did not choose to bequeath to His church a special potion to be poured on pews to attract people like bees come to honey. He didn't give us a franchise-church-in-a-box or limitless sources of money to erect impressive buildings.
Instead, He gave the church people-gifts (prophets, mercy-showers, exhorters, and so on) and a prayer focus (more laborers). Hmmm...
So, whether a church has big or small numbers, God's interest is the same. And even more to the point, that interest is a sobering reality check for us pastors, regardless of how big or small our congregations may be. The true question is not, "How can I get a bigger church?" but, "How can I empower more of my church in ministry that really matters?"
How do you diagnose a church's health? Here are some distinguishing characteristics.
If size alone is not a legitimate indicator of spiritual health--since political conventions, Mormon Temples and stock car races all attract crowds--are there other more telling signs of well-being in church? Here are some of the pulse points I keep my finger on in my congregation:
Leaders' lives. As in the lives of the Old Testament prophets, the true leaders in my church are experiencing the strange and marvelous reality of "living out" stuff God is doing in the whole church. For instance, recently--over the course of one week--four different men told me of their desires to volunteer one afternoon a week at the church. Coincidence or Godincidence?
What is happening in leaders is especially diagnostic of seasons God may be bringing our way. Look for changes in the prevailing winds.
Post-service conversations. Do people want to stick around after "church" is over? What are the subjects of their conversations with one another?
If the same groups of friends are just chitchatting or tacking down details, I'm not nearly as excited as if I notice the normal groups are split up among newer people, and they're talking about what God has done in them recently.
Expectant worship. Regardless of the piano player or song selection, I'm curious about the atmosphere in times of corporate celebration of the Lord. Are people leaning in or back? I am thrilled when many individuals seem to form their own little pockets of personal intimacy with the Lord in the midst of the whole congregation--not doing their own thing apart from the rest of us, but "lost" in communion in the midst of us.
Stories. The more I hear testimonies about what God is doing or saying in people's lives (as opposed to just the normal goings-on), the happier I am. And when the talk around church moves a bit further toward friends' and neighbors' encounters with God through evangelism, the more certain I am that we're healthy.
Affection levels. Godliness (the whole hope for churchgoers) shows up more in qualities such as kindness, patience and tenderness than in thunderous pronouncements and self-righteous judgments. People on whom God has been working tend to manifest soft hearts, and Jesus' trade secret says, "Who has been forgiven much, loves much." Beyond what is normal for friends in a Rotary Club, what signs of affection do I pick up in my church?
Cheerful, heartened buzz. Forgive the pagan allusion, but the best way I know to describe this attribute in church is to call it pixie dust. When that stuff gets sprinkled on a congregation, it creates an excited joy, a sense of expectation about the future, coupled with such enjoyment of the present that no one is in a hurry to move on. It's like enjoying a fabulous meal and spying--at the same time--the dessert tray with its exquisite possibilities. Such timelessness and inability to contain the entire blessing is a touch of heaven to come.
Daniel A. Brown is senior pastor of The Coastlands in Aptos, California. He is the author of several books including Enjoying Your Journey With God (Charisma House), which covers the basics of the Christian faith in a nonreligious way and is designed for small-group study. Buy it at www.charismahouse.com.