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Why Most Churches That Start Small…Stay Small


by Carey Nieuwhof: So…you want your church to grow, right?

When I ask ministry leaders whether they want to see growth, almost every leader I’ve ever talked to says yes.

Sure…there are some house church movements that want to stay small. And some long time or xenophobic churches have lost their appetite for growth. And there are always a few people who think big = evil.

But most leaders want their churches to grow…and for good reasons most of the time. They want to reach people with the life-changing love and forgiveness of Christ.

That is awesome.

But most churches don’t grow.

And most churches that start small stay small.


 Almost Nobody Starts Big

Well, first of all, almost no church starts big. There are a few exceptions, like North Point.

But that’s the rare exception—almost all churches start small. Even mega churches most often start with 5 people meeting in a living room and grow from there.

Big doesn’t have to be the destination for everyone.

But clearly, if you want to reach your community, growth is a natural by-product of a mission being fulfilled.

I Don’t Want to Start Another Debate

Before we get to the main point, a qualifier. The last thing I want to do with this post is to start a debate on small church v. large church. We’ve had them before on other posts and keyboards have been set on fire on other blogs over this issue. No more, okay?

So, for the record:

There are lots of great small churches.

There are lots of great large churches.

There are some bad small churches.

There are some bad big churches.

There is no perfect or biblical number for church size.

No one can claim moral high ground in this discussion.

Can we agree on that? And even if you have different views, can we please not be disagreeable?

Once and for all, size doesn’t determine how significant your ministry is.

Rather, size becomes relevant only for those who are attempting to reach their community.

If you’re going to reach your community, you’re going to grow.

And if you’re going to grow, you have to figure out why certain things make a church grow and why certain things curtail growth.

Size doesn’t determine how significant your ministry is.Click To Tweet

5 Reasons Churches That Start Small Stay Small

For sure there are more than 5 reasons (I outline 8 related but different reasons why churches never grow past 200 here).

But just know there is no silver bullet.

Doing these 5 things is no guarantee your church will grow.

But the opposite is true.

If you don’t pay attention to these 5 factors, there is a very good chance your church won’t grow. At least not substantially or sustainably.

1. Big Hopes…But Small Strategy

There isn’t a single leader who’s planted a church (or started anything) who hasn’t had big hopes.

The challenge is that often those hopes have no strategy to back them up.

Or if they have a strategy, it’s a strategy that isn’t designed to take the community past 100 or 200 people.

You can’t operate as though you were a church of 500 when there are 50 in the room, but you have to plan for the day when there will be 500, not 50, in the room.

Some questions:

What’s your strategy to reach your community?

What’s your organizational chart look like at 50 people, 100, 200, 500, 1000?

How will your role change as your church grows?

How will your team change and develop as you grow?

What will you NOT do as you get bigger?

How will your structure change and adapt?

What will you DO as you get bigger?

Those are all strategy questions. And many leaders haven’t sat down with their team to answer them.

As a result, you start small and often stay small.

It doesn’t matter how big your dreams are.

Strategy trumps intention. And hope is not a strategy.

If you want to read more on the relationship between mission, vision, and strategy, read this.

It doesn’t matter how big your dreams are. Strategy trumps intention. And hope is not a strategy.Click To Tweet

2. Underfunding

I understand poorly funded ministries.

One of the churches I started at had a $4,000 annual budget. And no, I’m not making that up.

I also completely understand that vision always precedes resources and people. That’s a great thing. You should always have more vision than you have money and people.

But here’s what’s true: I’ve seen well-funded church plants flop and shoe-string plants thrive.

You can start on a shoestring, but often churches never make it past that.

Ultimately, if your church is going to thrive, it’s going to need the resources to accomplish all it can.

And that’s where most ministries languish.

You need to figure out how to raise money that goes beyond just paying the light bill.

I’ll share the single resource that has helped us the most.

If you want to develop a strategy to raise more money for everyday ministry, you might want to check out The Giving Rocket program. We’ve used it at Connexus we saw a 25% growth in regular giving in one year.

If you struggle with the idea that ministry should be adequately funded, take 18 minutes and watch this Ted talk by Dan Pallotta if you haven’t already. Although Dan doesn’t come at it from a Christian perspective, his angle is a huge paradigm shift for just about everyone. So good.

Regardless of how you tackle it, adequately funding your mission is critical for long-term health.

You can start a church on a shoe-string budget, but you’ll never thrive if you stay there.Click To Tweet

3. Pastors who do everything

For three years, I was the only staff member at our church.

Then we brought on two very part-time people, and I still ran nearly solo for 4 more years (7 in total) until we hired our first other full-time staff member.

There is a season in which the pastor does ‘everything.’ But that season will rarely get you past 200 people.

It got us to 300 people, but I almost burned out.  And it’s completely unsustainable.

To get sustainably past 200-300 people, I had to:

Stop most pastoral visitation, except for a small circle of people within my care.

Restrict the number of weddings and funerals I did.

Pull me off of almost every team in the church.

Stop leading Bible studies.

Stop doing much except communication, vision casting, and leading leaders.

Who did all the other ministry? People. Some staff, but mainly volunteers.

Delegating and empowering people around a common mission, vision and strategy releases the ministry to people who are gifted, called and equipped to lead that ministry.

When you release ministry, it’s liberating for everyone. It’s the way the church is designed to run.

And remember this: Pastors who do everything eventually end up leading no one. Why? Because too often they burn out, and they get taken out.

Pastors who do everything eventually end up leading no one.Click To Tweet

4. No plans for anything bigger

Many leaders are currently leading the biggest church they’ve ever attended been a part of, right now.  So how do you plan for anything bigger when you haven’t experienced anything bigger?

That’s true if you’re part of a church of 100 people or 1,000.

Even when I led a church of 6 people, I had not actually led a church that was bigger than that (it was my first assignment as a student).

But just because you haven’t led more doesn’t mean you shouldn’t plan for more.

Here are some keys to crossing the 200, 400 and 800 barriers.

Plan today for what you want to be a part of tomorrow.

Plan today for what you want to be part of tomorrow.Click To Tweet

5. A selfish drift inward

This is actually an issue for a large number of churches, both church plants and existing churches.

Even when you start a church from scratch, it tends to be led, populated and funded by members.

And so it’s completely easy and natural to lose focus on the people you’re trying to reach.

And because self-centeredness is a natural pull for all of us (at least it is for me), unless we have a white-hot searing mission in front of us, church can quickly become about satisfying our needs, our wants, our preferences and our desires.

And that fuels a spiral in which congregational or organizational life can become about satisfying the competing preferences of members.

Some want it this way. Some want it that way. And people threaten to leave.

Let that go unchecked and soon you find yourself focused on the people you’re trying to keep, not the people you’re trying to reach.

The casualty in all of this? The very people you were hoping to reach.

The first casualty in an insider-focused church? The people you’re trying to reach.Click To Tweet

The only way to check this that I know of is to prayerfully keep the unreached front and center in all your discussions and your actions.

In your off time (and maybe in your work hours) hang out with the people you’re trying to reach.

Invite them. Regularly.

Speak for them when they’re not in the room and you’re trying to make a decision.

Budget and staff with them in mind.

Plan every Sunday like it’s someone’s first Sunday, even if right now, it might not be.

If you keep this front and center, you will resist the trap that so many churches and organizations fall into; the selfish drift inward.

Plan every Sunday like it will be someone’s first Sunday.Click To Tweet

Push Past The Plateau

So you would love to reach more people, but how? Your church just can’t seem to sustainably grow past the 200 barrier. And you’re really not sure why.

There’s a brand new online course that can help you called Breaking 200 Without Breaking You.

It’s designed to help senior pastors, their boards and leadership team break through the barrier 85% of churches never move past: the 200 attendance barrier.

So many leaders who try to break it either get stuck at 150-250 in attendance or burned out in the process of trying.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

Believe it or not, the reasons most churches never break 200 aren’t spiritual reasons, they’re practical reasons. Strategic reasons.

The course tackles eight key issues that keep churches from passing the 200 barrier and beyond. It includes:

8 videos designed to guide you and your leadership team through all the key growth barriers smaller churches face.
150-page downloadable workbook for you and your team.
12 licenses, so you can take your entire team through it—board, staff, key volunteers—whoever you want (that’s about $20 a person).
A bonus cheat sheet with access to 20 free resources designed to take you further.
A private Breaking 200 Facebook Group access exclusive to the first 1000 purchasers.

So whether your church is 50, 150 or 250 in attendance, the principles will help you gain the insight you need to break the barrier more than 85% of churches can’t break.

Click here to gain instant access.

What About You?

These are some reasons I’ve noticed why some churches that start small stay small, despite intentions that would move them elsewhere.

What have you seen?

Leave a comment!

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