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CNLP 134: Carl George and Warren Bird on How to Break the 200, 600 and 1000 Attendance Barriers

What does it take for churches to break through the 200, 400 and 600 attendance growth barriers?

Carl George and Warren Bird literally wrote the book on it, and share some of the surprising obstacles church leaders face and outline how to overcome them to reach more people.

Welcome to Episode 134 of the podcast.

Warren Bird on the Carey Nieuwhof Leadership Podcast

Carl George on Carey Nieuwhof Leadership Podcast

Guest Links: Carl George and Warren Bird

How to Break Growth Barriers: Revise Your Role, Release Your People, and Capture Overlooked Opportunities for Your Church by Carl George and Warren Bird

Dr. Warren Bird on Twitter

Warren’s Website

Carl George’s Website

Links Mentioned

ReThink Leadership Atlanta, Georgia; April 26 – 28, 2017

The Canadian Church Leaders Conference Barrie, ON; June 8th – 10th

TrainedUp Leadership

Books by Lyle E. Shaller 

One Size Doesn’t Fit All: Bringing Out the Best in Any Size Church by Gary McIntosh

Books by John C. Maxwell

3 Insights from This Episode

1. Be a rancher, not a shepherd 

One of the biggest barriers for churches to break the 200 attendance mark is Pastoral care. When you first started the church, you were everything to every one… but that doesn’t scale.

Pastors tend to always think of themselves as shepherds guiding the sheep. But Carl and Warren challenge you to think of it this way: be a rancher, not a shepherd. Shepherds guide the sheep, but ranchers guide the shepherds who guide the sheep. Pastors need to have vision for the sheep and to train, empower and inspire the shepherds to do their jobs well.

2. Embrace your people

When you’re experiencing seasons of growth, you’ll have members who resist the change. As George and Warren pointed out… most people perceive more growth to mean less care. When you come across these matriarchs and patriarchs of the church, don’t resent them. Empathize with them, be their ally, lead them differently and with sensitivity.

For the people in your church who are excited about growth and change, create opportunities for them to feel like they are part of the heartbeat of the church. Managing the coffee bar might seem minor to you, but to the first-time volunteer… it’s their sense of purpose in the church.

When you give people opportunities for service in a team setting, you also see leaders arise.

3. Look where you normally don’t

For example, take the nursery. When was the last time you spent time in the nursery and preschool areas? It’s probably been a long time, if ever. But think of it this way: Parents whose kids have great experiences in the nursery will be more likely to raise their kids in your church and be members for the next 20 years.

When Pastors think facility improvements they think first of the sanctuary. But what about the lobby? How easy (or not) is it to navigate? What about parking? All of these things matter.

If you find this topic interesting, listen to the episode where I spoke with a secret church shopper. 

Quotes from This Episode

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Next Episode: Adam Webber

You’ve heard all the excuses. Churches in this region don’t grow. Mainline denominations are dying. Adam Weber defied all the odds. He pastors one of the fastest growing churches in America and in one of the most unlikely places: South Dakota. And he did all this as a young United Methodist pastor.

Subscribe for free now and you won’t miss Episode 135.

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  • Carey Nieuwhof

    Hey Mike…that is a heartbreaking set of circumstances. I haven’t lost a child and I can only imagine the pain that brings .I’m really sorry about Katelyn and the pain that caused.

    For the church to make that worse is frankly, horrible.

    I have no doubt you were hurt, and I have no doubt the church let you down. For that, I am so so sorry. To end up suicidal is horrendous.

    I know you can probably find people who have the same story you do.

    I think what I struggle with is when you say things like

    “I came to the conclusion that institutional churches just don’t do brokenness and have been on a pilgrimage of unorthodox spirituality ever since.”

    I would agree that from the way you describe it, that church didn’t do grief and hurt well.

    But can you write off all churches based on your experience, including my church? Really? I just don’t think that adds up. I really don’t.

    Your hurt ran deep…really deep. But I’m not sure that’s the only conclusion you can draw from your experience.

    We have seen many people heal from deeply devastating losses at our church, including children. I’m sure we don’t do it perfectly, and I’m sure some fell through the cracks. But I think we’ve seen more healing than hurt, and I’ve seen that echoed thousands of times.

    Again Mike, I’m sorry for your brokenness. Sometimes when I read your comments (and we’ve been in a dialogue for a while) i see you pivot between bitterness and hope. Mike, let hope win. I pray you find a broken community that loves you. That’s what we are. And I know we’re not alone.

  • Mike

    BTW, please don’t feel obligated to respond directly to my comment. I totally get that you only have so much time for communicating and it probably is better spent working with those under your care… no worries.

  • Mike

    Interesting podcast.

    I wonder if the obsession with big numbers hurts the kingdom more than helps. “Dunbar’s number” states that we can only know 150 people intimately before mistrust and bureaucracy take over. This has been shown to be true in the military, private companies and indigenous tribes.

    It seems to me once you cross the “200 barrier” you stop seeing individuals and start seeing numbers. You stop caring about the church organism (Jesus’ bride) and start caring for the church organization (religious bureaucracy).

    Given Dunbar’s number and Jesus’ heart to leave the 99 to go after the one, why should the goal be to create large organizations?

    • Hey Mike. Thanks for your comment. I don’t the obsession is as much with numbers as it is with reaching people. If you look biblically, these organizational principles were at work when Moses managed millions in Exodus 18, when the early church exploded in Acts 6 and so on. You can organize people relationally far beyond the 200 level.

      • Mike

        Thanks for the reply, Carey!

        What kind of benefits do you see relationally when groups over 200 gather?

        I attended a large church of 2500+ back in the 90s. Looking back on it now I don’t think it was a very healthy environment for relationships. The only time people opened their mouths was for singing or the 30-second “shake your neighbor’s hand.” There was no place for transparency or vulnerability (impossible to do in the large). It seemed Sunday morning was solely focused on clerical activities by paid staff, which was very polished.

        It seems to me when a meeting gets large it stops being about relationship and becomes about rituals.

        What do you do at Connexus to make a large multi-thousand person meeting relational?

        • Carey Nieuwhof

          I get that you had an anonymous experience. That definitely can happen. We foster community through people serving together in teams (the community there runs deep) and in small groups. Some people never opt into those, and that will create a more anonymous experience, but we encourage everyone to get involved. In many ways, people can feel more connected in a large church than in a small church when they get involved because often small churches are not very strategic in how they gather or organization people. You can be in a church of 40 and not really know anyone or feel like you fit it. You can be in a church of 4000 and through serving and group feel deeply connected.

          • Mike

            Thanks for the reply, Carey!

            What I’m hearing you say is the issue isn’t so much with size of the group, but with both the condition of the group and the condition of the individual. If the individual is looking for connection and the group is warm and inviting, then the person will find connection. If either ingredient is missing the person will have a hard time experiencing a deep connection.

            What would you say to idea that deep connection doesn’t require Jesus or the church organization, but rather just warm people with open hearts?

            At the 2.5k church I attended in the 90s I actually was very involved with the music program. I served in their orchestra and their youth choir every week. Reflecting back, my interaction and connection with the people centered around music, not around Christ.

            Sure, we played and sang hymns and spirituals, but that seems now to be just a meme. I had the same level of connection in my high school band program if not more so because we met together daily and experienced the drama of high school together.

            Do I really need to go to a local church to find deep community or can I find the same connection volunteering in a local community organization that’s not as dogmatic about who God is and how to worship him?

          • Mike, I feel like we’ve had this conversation so many times on this blog, and I don’t mind. But honestly, I think if you just figured out why you’re resisting so much you’ll discover the hurt, surrender it to God, it will heal, and you’ll be in relationship with God AND his people again. That’s my hope and prayer for you.

          • Mike

            Thanks for the reply (and the prayer), Carey.

            Apologies for being repetitive and pedantic. One word and I’ll quit commenting. This is your blog and I don’t want to detract from your mission.

            The symptom of my resistance and hurt is losing a child, getting into an argument with a senior pastor, and attempting to take my own life.

            The root of my resistance and hurt is the narrative I hear coming from Christianity, namely God has split the world into two groups, his chosen people and the rest destined for the flames of hell. And his people are the ones that have proper belief, proper joy and submit to the authority of the local church.

            In my opinion, the institutional church, specifically the Sunday worship hour, exists more as a stage for church staff than it does for true spiritual growth. I do not feel comfortable passively listening to someone that claims to have a special anointing, literally stand over and above people, and monologue about what truth is. I’ve seen behind the curtain and know who the wizard of Oz is.

            It doesn’t seem to reflect who Jesus was, the Son of God who emptied himself of divinity, got down off the stage of heaven and walked around the congregation of humanity and did life with them.

            Today is Easter and I didn’t attend church. Not because I don’t believe Jesus is alive, but rather because the services we use to honor him seem to entomb his kingdom message in the clergy/laity separation of dead religion. I spent the morning eating breakfast, chatting with my waitress and being around the other Waffle Barn patrons who, to me, are every bit as much of God’s people as those sitting in pews and chairs.

            🙂

          • Carey Nieuwhof

            Mike, I so appreciate our dialogue. I really do. I’m so sorry about losing a child. Man, that’s heartbreaking. And the attempted suicide.

            Dude…there’s deep hurt there. Or at least there was.

            I just wish you wouldn’t write everyone else off. People who go to church aren’t stupid. They’re not lame. They’re not all gullible. And every leader isn’t corrupt.

            I just think there’s a lot more hurt than you might realize, and I think there could be a very different future for you if you went there.

            I do appreciate you. And the only reason I’m writing this is because I care. I do.

  • Andrew Soerens

    Great podcast.

    One thought on staff. I’ve often heard it repeated this idea that the staff that worked well at one level may not be the staff that can lead in the next level (you have to get the right people on the bus, etc.). While there may be some validity to this, here are a few thoughts:
    1. I never hear this theory expressed in regards to the Senior Pastor. Apparently experts and consultants see unlimited potential for growth in the Lead Pastor. Why don’t I hear consultants suggest that pastors of 600 member churches leave their church to someone else and go to a smaller church and try to grow that?
    2. If we are going to assume that every lead pastor has the potential for unlimited growth, why would we not assume this about the associates?
    3. If we DON’T see that potential in an associate, were they really a great leader at the smaller level?
    4. If those associates helped you get to the the current level, what is the responsibility of the church to take care of that associate as you go to the next level? If they’re not the right person to have on the bus, do they wind up being thrown UNDER the bus?

    All this to say, let’s make sure we make staffing decisions with Kingdom principles and not just business / leadership principles.