5 Big Surprises About Church Growth Nobody Told Me About

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Leadership is a lot like life. There’s a picture in your head of how things will go, and then there’s how they actually go.

The same is true when it comes to church growth.

While church growth has its share of critics, I’ve rarely met a church leader who didn’t want their church to grow. And ultimately, growth matters because people matter, and the mission matters.

That said, navigating growth is full of surprises; it’s always more complicated than you think it’s going to be.

The good news is that once you understand the unique dynamics of growth, you can handle the tensions of reaching more people far more effectively.

Here are 5 truths about church growth that surprise most leaders. At least each of them surprised me in my first few years in leadership as we grew from a handful of people to 500 and beyond.

What’s fascinating is no one told me about them. As in nobody. Zero. So I’m sharing them with you. 🙂

Church growth matters because people matter and the mission matters. Click To Tweet

1. Working More Hours Won’t Help You Break Barriers

There’s something to be said for grit, hustle, and determination.

But even hustle has its limits.

I made a near-fatal mistake in my first decade of leadership. I assumed that more people equals more hours and that more hours equals more faithfulness.

Guess where that led me as our church grew? It was a major contributing factor to my burnout a decade into ministry (I tell that story in detail, and offer practical help for people burning out here).

Pastors, unless you’re lazy (which I assume you’re not), more hours does not equal more faithfulness. And working more hours will not help you reach more people. It actually might help you reach less.

Pastors, unless you're lazy, working more hours does not equal more faithfulness. And working more hours will not help you reach more people. It actually might help you reach less.  Click To Tweet

This is a huge issue for leaders who pastor a church with attendances between 150-300.

What used to be manageable isn’t. There are simply too many people to care for, too many events to attend, and too much responsibility for one person.

Trying to do it all at some point will, paradoxically, stunt your church’s growth, not fuel it.


Well, there are many reasons and nuances, but here’s one dynamic you can’t ignore: Your hustle and ability will lead you into a place of unsustainability. Ironically, your raw energy and ability will lead you into a place of unsustainability if you think more hours will help you reach more people.

At 200, the issue isn’t hustle anymore: it’s structural (see below).

You can’t out-hustle a flawed system.

You can't out-hustle a flawed system. Click To Tweet

2. Structural Problems Require Structural Solutions

One of the major reasons growth can be so confusing and frustrating is that few leaders realize they’re running into structural issues.

Particularly, in the church, we deny that there even are structural issues at work, but there are.

Let’s offer an example anyone can relate to. Ever been to a local mechanic that’s so overwhelmed by the volume of work he’s facing that he can’t get your repair done until a week after he first promised?

Almost always, that’s a structural issue. Maybe he started his business after moonlighting, doing oil changes in his home garage for a few friends. That led him to start his business, and at first, he got all of his customers in and out in a day. Even transmissions only took him two days.

But because he was good, he got a reputation and more customers. And now, three years in, he’s completely overwhelmed, always late, exhausted and thinking about shutting down the business because he just can’t keep up.

The problem? He’s running the business as a one-man show, but he has enough work to keep three people busy full time.

It’s not a hustle issue. It’s a structural issue. He needs a new system.

And that’s what happens when your church starts to grow. What you used to be able to manage easily became a little more tricky. So you buckled down and worked a little harder and a little smarter.

Then, that stopped working so you worked even more hours.

Continue that and you’re exhausted all the time, less efficient, and out of ideas on what to do next.

Meanwhile, even though you keep attracting new people, you’re not really growing. Your attendance is stuck at 100, 150, 200, maybe 300. Pick a number.

You’ve got new people, but you don’t really have new growth.

Guess what?

That’s a structural issue. And if you’re ready to stop reading this post because you think God doesn’t do structure, read point 5 and come back.

If you fail to solve your church’s structural issues, you’ll eventually have a people issue and, ultimately, you’ll have a mission issue.

If you fail to solve your church's structural issues you'll eventually have a people issue and, ultimately, you'll have a mission issue. Click To Tweet

Get Answers To Your Toughest Pastoral Succession Questions

5 years from now, what would it feel like to look back and know…

  • That you asked the right questions before and it prepared you for what came after?
  • That you made tough but necessary decisions to prepare for a brighter future?
  • That you were confident each step of the way?

You can hit the ground running in your ministry and skip the years of trial-and-error (and failures) that so many pastors face during a transition.

3. People Will Leave If You Don’t Solve Structural Issues

So what happens if you ignore structural issues or pretend they don’t exist?

You lose. That’s what happens.

More particularly, people lose and your mission loses.

You already understand this. Back to our mechanic friend…if he’s a good guy and promises that you’ll get your car back on Wednesday, but doesn’t deliver because he’s overwhelmed, you’re frustrated.

But you like him, so you give him some grace. But Wednesday becomes Friday, and Friday becomes Monday, and soon you just drive over, pick up your car and take it to a place where it can get fixed the same day.

People behave the same way with your church.

If you don’t solve the structural issues, new people will leave. They feel like they’re a cog in your small but growing machine.

They want someone to engage them, but you’re overwhelmed, and you haven’t trained up a team or equipped others to engage new people personally, so they shuffle out the back door, quietly.

New people leave when you fail to solve structural issues. That’s why structure matters.

New people leave when you fail to solve structural issues. That's why structure matters.  Click To Tweet

4. People Will Also Leave If You Solve Them

Remember that leadership is full of surprises?

Well, you think, if I solve the structural issues, no one will leave, right?

I wish.

Chances are when you do solve structural issues and you stop being the one person show, doing everything yourself, the new people will stay. In fact, your church will likely grow faster than ever.

But that doesn’t mean everyone will stay.

Some of the people who were with you in the beginning might leave.

And here’s why. Back to our mechanic. Say you were the mechanic’s neighbor. He used to do your oil changes on a dime and for a dime. Come home from work, drop it in his driveway, and minutes later you were on your way.

You cheered for him when he set up shop and again, you were in and out in a flash.

But now he’s solved his structural problems and he has a shop with five mechanics, and it’s just not the same anymore. Sure, they’re getting your car in and out fast, but you miss dealing directly with Joe.

Generally speaking, healthy people are fine with that. They’re excited for Joe and his growing business which is finally being run well.

Unhealthy people have a harder time with it. They think the world revolves around them, and they want Joe to revolve around them. So they leave.

Fix your structural issues, and some people may leave. That’s understandable.

So you need to decide who you’re going to lose: The people in your community who don’t know the love of Christ, or the church member who thinks the church revolves around them.

You pick.

As much as I hate losing anyone, I know what I’m doing.

Church leaders, you need to decide who you're going to lose: the people in your community who don't know the love of Christ, or the church member who thinks the church revolves around him (or her). Click To Tweet

5. Structure Is Spiritual

I probably hear this more than any other criticism of people who do what I do: help church leaders think through the leadership issues.

Structure isn’t spiritual. Systems aren’t spiritual.

I disagree.

God absolutely does systems. He created them.

Look at the universe. It appears to have some order, structure, and intelligence behind it. Apparently, God likes systems.

Same thing when it comes to people.  Just ask Moses. Just ask Jesus or ask the disciples.

Moses was wearing himself out and the people of Israel out leading the entire nation single-handedly. Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, suggested a new structure that solved the spiritual problem of an exhausted Moses and a frustrated Israel.

Jesus intentionally organized his followers into groups of 70, 12, 3 and 1 so that when he was no longer with them physically, God’s purposes could be accomplished.

And the early church ran into issues of growth and overwhelm, very much like Moses. They come up with a structural solution that furthers their spiritual purposes. As a result, far more people were reached.

If your issue is structural, why wouldn’t you deal with it?

God absolutely does systems. He created them. Just look at the universe. Or just ask Moses, Jesus or ask the disciples. Structure is spiritual. Click To Tweet

Secure Your Church’s Future with a Proven Pastoral Succession Plan.

If you’ve ever wondered:

  • How do I lead this church with a vision I didn’t create and a staff I didn’t hire?
  • Am I even equipped to be a lead pastor? And to lead our church through a healthy transition? 
  • How can I honor the outgoing pastor throughout the transition?

Then it might be time to make a plan for your future.

So much rides on healthy pastoral succession. A bad one can ruin a great legacy, harm a church, and make the new lead pastor a sacrificial lamb.

Or, it can go exceedingly well. 

How do you not mess it up when there's so much at stake?

The Art of Pastoral Succession helps you hit the ground running in your ministry and skip the years of trial-and-error (and failures) that so many pastors face during a transition.

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Carey Nieuwhof
Carey Nieuwhof

Carey Nieuwhof is a best-selling leadership author, speaker, podcaster, former attorney, and church planter. He hosts one of today’s most influential leadership podcasts, and his online content is accessed by leaders over 1.5 million times a month. He speaks to leaders around the world about leadership, change, and personal growth.