small thinking

So what’s really holding back your church’s potential?

As hard as it might be to admit, ever think it might be…you? More particularly, ever think it might be the way you think?

I’m firmly convinced I’m my own worst enemy. I limit what God can do because I don’t think largely enough or expansively enough.

I pulled together 5 commonly held mindsets and beliefs that I’ve had to struggle through personally and that I hear again and again from leaders.

The myths I outline below are ones we had to break through in our ministry at Connexus Church, where I serve as Founding Pastor. The average church in Canada is about 75 people. It’s not that much bigger in the US.

Our church now reaches 1400 people each weekend in three locations and we just saw nearly double that on Easter weekend, which even 7 or 8 years ago was not exactly a massive reach weekend for us.

In addition to double-digit growth on the weekend, we’re seeing triple digit (sometimes four digit) growth in our online reach—something many leaders these days say kills in-person attendance, especially in a church that’s a decade old, like ours.

The point? So much is possible even when people tell you it’s not. The Gospel can reach people even when everyone tells you it can’t.

Of all the things that limit growth, a leader’s small mindset is the most deadly. The greatest limiting factors actually exist inside our minds.

It’s not that we had a different start or any kind of ‘advantage.’ Before we launched Connexus, I served three little mainline churches that saw many reached with the Gospel and explosive growth. But we didn’t begin that way. One of the churches where I served had 6 people attending and an annual budget of $4000 (nope, neither figure is a typo). I’m incredibly grateful that some of those same people are still part of Connexus Church today.

To get to where God has brought us today definitely involved a whole lot of grace on God’s part. Sometimes God blesses because of us. Often he blesses in spite of us.

But I also know we had to bust through many myths and beliefs that grip the mindset of too many church leaders, and we had to tackle many obstacles people said were impossible.

Here are 5 small-thinking mindsets it’s time to dump forever if you want your mission to flourish.

1. What works there won’t work here

You’ve heard it so many times. Maybe you’ve said it. “What works in the Bible-Belt/big-city/suburbs/fill-in-the-blank won’t work here.”

Really? Why?

Are you honestly that different?

When it comes to what works where – it’s often your attitude that determines the outcome.

We launched Connexus on as one of the first North Point Strategic Partners. People were both fascinated and critical, wondering how anything that originated in the Bible-belt of the US could work in a postmodern, post-Christian Canada.

But surprisingly, it does work.

Whenever people ask me how much translates to north of the border, my answer is always the same: about 90%. We run Andy Stanley’s teaching via video and people love it. Imagine that… American video teaching working in Canada.

People also claim video teaching doesn’t work. So that’s two birds… one stone.) Sure, I also teach live. But attendance really doesn’t vary based on the communicator. Two of our locations are 100% video. And—surprise—our online ministry is also 100% video.

Most of the model translates directly. So do the branding and marketing.

Occasionally, we won’t run a series because it’s explicitly American or cultural (we didn’t run Andy’s election messages or the Christian series because it addressed Bible-Belt issues). But for the most part, we run the model and our boots-on-the-ground team of staff and volunteers focus as much on the execution as the invention.

One of my all-time favorite quotes is from Henry Ford, who said, “Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re right.” Bang on.

2. My context is different

If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard a church leader say this, I think we could pay off the national debt.

Look, your context absolutely matters. A city church is different than a country one. Urban is different than suburban. West Coast is not East Coast. North isn’t South. I get that.

But I don’t think I’ve ever heard a leader pull out the “my context is different” argument as a reason for their success (my context is different, and that’s why we’re reaching X thousand people…it can only happen here!!).

I’ve only heard leaders talk about context to justify a lack of progress.

Leaders trot this out when they want to explain why they’re not able to do whatever someone is suggesting might help them

But the reality is that you are ministering to people. And people have some pretty universal tendencies. Think about it.

In the West, we:

Listen to most of the same music.

Wear the same clothes.

Drive the same cars.

Struggle with love/hate/shame/unforgiveness/brokenness/bitterness.

People are people.

And sure, a few more people drive Priuses and Teslas in Vancouver and California than they do in Montana or Ohio. But that doesn’t mean the Gospel should die because of it.

Your context isn’t that different from anyone else’s as long as you’re ministering to people. And should definitely not be a reason the Gospel can’t move forward in your neighborhood.

3. If you build it they will come

Field of Dreams was a great movie. But the tagline doesn’t make for great theology or an effective approach to reaching more people.

Too many church leaders think their problem is their building or lack of it.

If their church wasn’t portable, it would grow.

If they got out of their ancient building, they’d grow.

Or maybe something bigger/smaller/better would move them to growth.

A building can help you grow, but it won’t make you grow.

Think of a restaurant for a minute. Do you ever go back to a restaurant because of a facility? Probably not. If a restaurant has a great building and terrible food, you’re out of there.

Conversely, there are more than a few hole-in-the-walls that serve amazing tacos that have long lines of people waiting to get in.

You can lead a growing church in a dying building, and a dying church in a great building.

Buildings don’t reach people. People reach people.

Often the longing we have for a new/different facility won’t solve our problems because the facility isn’t our core problem.

4. People don’t give

I hear this often, especially in a context like ours which is deeply post-Christian. But just because most people don’t give doesn’t mean your people won’t give.

Over the last seven years, we have worked really hard to raise the level of giving among all ages at Connexus, and we’ve seen amazing results.

It’s a systems approach we’ve used that has seen us run over 750 people through a budgeting course that has resulted in a ton of financial freedom for our congregation, especially for Millennials. They know we’re for them, and we want them to save for retirement, save for their kids’ education, save for their vacation and give generously. More importantly, we’ve shown them how to do it.

And we’ve given them a Kingdom vision for what can happen when we pool our money to reach and help people.

The result? We have more money to reach people than we ever have before AND our families have more money for their lives.

Leaders ask us all the time how we do this. The strategy is outlined in detail in a new resource by Joe Sangl and Michael Lukaszewski I’m very excited about called Fully Funded. It’s helped us fund a facility, a growing mission, an online campus and much more, plus help our families get on their feet. Even in Canada.

5. People don’t like big churches

The data just doesn’t support the view that people hate big churches. Many large churches keep growing. And many smaller churches keep shrinking.

It’s important to keep your church relational and feeling ‘smaller’ as you grow.

The bigger your church is, the smaller it needs to feel. But through small groups, serving teams, multisite and other ventures, larger churches continue to grow even as they establish smaller footprints. That’s been our approach, and it’s been Life Church’s frankly.

It’s not a question of whether people like big churches or small churches. People like effective churches.

If a large church is effective in reaching people, people come. If a small church is effective in reaching people, people come and bring friends until (often) it’s no longer a small church.

What Other Excuses Should We Eliminate?

As we’ve said many times in this space, you can make excuses, or you can make progress, but you can’t make both.

What other excuses should we eliminate? Scroll down and leave a comment!

5 Small-Thinking Mindsets That Stunt Your Church’s Potential


  1. Amanda on October 17, 2020 at 1:58 pm

    Your link does not work for Fully Funded and I cannot find it by google under 4. PEOPLE DON’T GIVE. Please help

  2. Jeremy Harper on October 17, 2020 at 12:22 pm

    Well, spot on as always.
    This article is all about Victim Mentality.
    I just can’t help it… it’s my background… my situation… this is just how things will always be…
    This is a huge shift in mindset – not just when it comes to churches, but when it comes to people.
    People have to realize that their attitudes influence their beliefs, their beliefs influence their behaviors…
    Thanks for speaking truth.

  3. John Lee on October 17, 2020 at 12:16 pm

    Thank you, Carey for insightful write-ups. I am learning so much!

    I am a small church pastor with 40-70 people. I still haven’t figured out to break thru the barrier.
    Maybe I micromanage too much. I am trying to outgrow my limit by expanding my thinking and working thru my hang-up. Keep coming to this place for growth and inspiration. Thank you!

  4. Priscilla Onyekuru on October 19, 2019 at 6:12 pm

    WOW, I really appreciate God for the the teachings and encouragements coming through this platform. I see the Holy Ghost using this medium to encourage me, letting me know that the journey I’m about to undertake ministerially is of the Lord. I am highly excited and motivated by the words coming from this place. Thanks.

  5. Andrew J Robinson on October 19, 2019 at 9:15 am

    Carey. Sadly after 7.5 years I have had to step down from pastoring a very small church where on a good Sunday morning I would have 6 people including myself [four of whom are elderly] and on an evening up to 12 people the majority of whom have major personal problems. Many said the church was in the ‘wrong place’ which I totally disagreed with as it was strategically sited / on a main gateway to the town / but lacked presence in the town – which I sought to address. Given the lack of human resources I effectively became a ‘Buildings Manager’ unable to focus on my key role of ministry. The opportunities within the town / area for outreach an growth are phenomenal but sadly I have no been given the support to move forward – either within the local group or via my denomination.I now have a full time hospital chaplaincy role but greatly miss ‘on the ground’ church ministry. Giving by 12 people could be as low as £2.92p or on a good night £6.00 sterling. I would be interested in hearing from others who have faced similar situations and actions taken.

  6. […] 5 Small-Thinking Mindsets That Stunt Your Church’s Potential by Carey Nieuwhof. Mostly, this list is something other people need to read. Uhhhh…no. […]

  7. Christopher Sanchez on April 2, 2018 at 7:55 pm

    Another one for your consideration is “Millennials won’t join our church unless we change X.” The idea that what used to work will no longer work kind of ties into both your first and second points but…

  8. Jo Ann Staebler on April 2, 2018 at 7:45 pm

    How to answer the excuse: “We don’t have the [energy, people, financial resources]”? We have about 15 regular members, all over 55, no children. We’re in a once-rural area becoming ex-urban, but the congregation maintains the rural mindset. About a third have been in the church since childhood; one is third-generation. There is no internet connection. I’m half-time, and the building isn’t open during the week. No one is willing to learn new hymns. They’re resistant to anything that would make the worship more appealing to younger people, but they want younger people. . . .
    The basic problem is that we need more people in order to grow in numbers and outreach. But they really don’t want to close.

  9. David Mehrle on April 2, 2018 at 12:10 pm

    Thanks for sharing the basics that keep people focused on the right things. As leaders, we must always keep our attitudes in check. Too often we determine that our church won’t do something before we ever give them the chance to do it.

  10. Tim Miller on April 2, 2018 at 9:10 am

    Great blog – as I considered your points, I kept being reminded of many examples I’ve seen throughout my own life in ministry. And you’re spot on! Thanks for sharing!

  11. Christopher’s Sykes on April 2, 2018 at 8:26 am

    Carey, I just celebrate do my first anniversary as a lead pastor. I actually followed my own father who pastored our small church for 26 years. Having served for years two of America’s 100 largest, fastest-growing church and having learned from some of the best leaders around the country like you, I immediately recognized we had to eliminate excuses. Your post is spot on.

    The one other excuse I would add is that the new church plant down the street is stealing all our members.

    My church is proof of what others say isn’t possible really is. I took a South Florida urban/suburban model from a 10,000+ church to rural/suburban Mississippi church that had 128 last Easter. We eliminated excuses, began building systems, curated great content, and invested strategically. This Easter we parked 128 cars before service started. We were working to double year over year attendance and hopefully break 250. We had 354 for service plus more came for our Egg Hunt after service. And the best part is that we baptized 10 people! We’re on the wrong side of town in the wrong kind of building with the wrong kind of people but the right kind of strategy (coupled with lots of prayer and hard work) works in the right kind of way!!

  12. Robert Bess on April 2, 2018 at 8:05 am

    I am always so encouraged by your insight sir. Thanks so much for sharing what is on you heart and mind, it makes a difference.

    • David Epps on April 4, 2018 at 7:44 am

      Spot on. While not every church will become a megachurch, all churches can reach out. Pastors need to educate themselves and be willing to try something new. And, I agree, we must eliminate the excuses. I, too, have heard them:
      “We need a new name”
      “people won’t attend denominational churches”
      and so on.

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