Skip to content

5 Strange Insights Into Church Growth You May Have Never Heard Before

Leadership is a little 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.

As we’ve shared on my new Church Pulse Weekly podcast with Barna President David Kinnaman, about half of all churches are experiencing some kind of attendance growth since moving services online.

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

As churches move into a future hybrid of in-person services (as buildings reopen) and online services (most likely won’t abandon), the subject of church growth becomes even more complex.

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 years in leadership as we grew from a handful of people to over 1000 and, subsequently, as my online audience has grown into the millions.

What’s fascinating is no one told me about any of this. 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 Reach More People

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. Click To Tweet

This is a huge issue for leaders who pastor a church with physical attendances that hover(ed) around 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.

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

Why?

Well, there are many reasons and nuances (I outline them in Church Growth Masterclass), 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. That’s true in person or online.

You have limits. And sometimes less is more.

Working more hours will not help you reach more people. It actually might help you reach less. 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

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.

As churches move back into buildings but also boost their online presence, that will create additional demand.

As your online footprint grows, you’ll likely have to staff spend more time answering emails, responding to comments and social media interaction. If engagement is the way to build a quality online presence and foster digital discipleship, you’ll need to hire more staff and recruit more volunteers to keep engaging a growing online audience,

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. Some of the people who loved church before the current crisis may leave. They won’t like the changes, the growth or the new normal.

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 him (or her).

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.

As the church pivots toward digital and a new future, new structures and strategies will come with that.

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

Break The Critical Barriers Holding You Back

If you want to move past the critical growth barriers that are holding you back, I have some deeper practical help.

You likely didn’t get into ministry to watch your church plateau or, worse yet, decline. You wanted God to use you to reach new people with the good news. You wanted to see your church grow. You wanted to make an impact on your community that would outlast you.

But the odds are, it’s not happening. And the thing is, you’re not alone. We live in an era where 94% of churches aren’t growing or aren’t growing as fast as their communities. Barely 1 out of 20 churches are effectively reaching their neighbors for Jesus. Despite how desperately our communities need to hear and engage with the good news about Jesus, many churches are lost when it comes to reaching a postmodern culture.

That’s why I put together the Church Growth Masterclass. It’s everything I wish I knew about church growth when I got into ministry more than 20 years ago.

I can’t make a church grow. You can’t make a church grow. Only God can do that. But I believe you can position your church to grow. You can knock down the barriers that keep you from growing. You can eliminate the things that keep your church from growing and implement some strategies that will help you reach far more people. That’s what I’d love to help you do in the Church Growth Masterclass.

In the Church Growth Masterclass I’ll show you:

  • The 10 reasons your church isn’t growing
  • Why even committed church-goers aren’t attending as often as before
  • How to tell if your church leaders are getting burned out
  • The five keys to your church better impacting millennials.
  • What to do when a church wants to grow … but not change

You can learn more and gain instant access to the course today.

What Surprises Have You Seen?

What surprises associated with growth have you seen as a leader?

Scroll down and leave a comment!

5 Strange Insights Into Church Growth You May Have Never Heard Before

8 Comments

  1. Kay Kotan on May 3, 2020 at 10:35 pm

    Carey,
    Love this article! It is so spot-on. As a coach who works with churches and pastors all over the country, structure is a HUGE obstacle for so many churches. Yet, the issue often goes unrecognized. I find that frequently the structural issues are coupled with lack of accountability. As we have all learned in the Bullard Church Lifecycle, when structure is driving, the church is in decline. When structure is a healthy support for the mission, all things are possible and the church is healthy and vital. Thanks for this article and continuing to spotlight the dialogue on this much-needed work in the church. I sometimes feel like I am a small tribe of people beating this drum! Kay Kotan, Coach and Author, Mission Possible: A Simple Structure for Missional Effectiveness

  2. Ross Bowerman on May 2, 2020 at 9:41 pm

    More about Point 2: As important as HOW MANY leave, is WHO is leaving. Bad news: your BEST LEADERS will leave FIRST. Why? While your original leaders will stick around longer out of loyalty, any new people with a leadership gift will stay only as long as it takes to work out what is going on (the Pastor can’t/won’t fix the structural problems); which is a double tragedy because these people could have become part of the solution. Why did I say the BEST leaders will go first? Because the greater their leadership gift, the quicker they will see the problems (and whether anyone is tackling them). Sadly, eventually, even the original leaders will give up and go too. So, when watching the back door, don’t just measure how many are leaving, monitor WHO is leaving. Summing up: if you are keeping followers but losing leaders, this is a flashing red light that you have a structural problem. Ignore this long enough and soon, all you will have is followers; and no leaders to help you solve the problem even when you eventually try.

    • Doug Fordham on May 3, 2020 at 6:29 pm

      What a very excellent supplement to Carey’s original post! Thank you very much for your contribution.

    • Mark on May 4, 2020 at 8:52 am

      Monitoring WHO was leaving did not seem to matter nor occur in the past so why would it start making a difference now? I ask that because there seemed to be no concern when Gen X was leaving in droves.

  3. NORMAN G HOWLETT on May 2, 2020 at 12:20 am

    I NEED GROWTH IN MY CHURCH OF 9 YEARS
    ONLY HAVE 9 ATTENDING

  4. John Engberg on May 1, 2020 at 9:02 am

    Very good Article! This is one area of growth for our church. Systems are very important. The challenging part is having the wisdom and courage to implement the right system at the right time with the right people.

    One comment about a previous podcast with Michael Todd. Good podcast. I’m very impressed with what he’s done with this church and heart for people. But a concern: Rapid change. A lot more money fame and power. He says he Calls people at 10 o’clock at night praying for them. My question is, does he have strong consistent accountability? I know way too many pastors who have fallen, who have secrets, who don’t have people who know them.
    God bless you brother!

  5. Robyn Harper on May 1, 2020 at 7:37 am

    Hi Carey, great post. May I add something to your mechanic’s story? Try being the mechanic’s secretary. When you’re not the senior leader but one of the only staff it hurts too, trust me. Frustration, being overwhelmed, and feeling completely helpless leads to staff burnout too. It’s hard to have your job expand with no structure, watch your boss go in deeper water, and have no way to improve things until said boss finally gets on board with change.

  6. Mark on May 1, 2020 at 6:57 am

    You likely have people who understand that fixes that are necessary, and you might even have organizational experts in a large congregation. If not, you still like have people who run businesses who know the need for structure. As Carey said, you have to tell the naysayers that structure has been utilized by Moses and Jesus and that secular ideas such as structure started in the religious community. You use as much as you need for the organisation you need to manage, scale-able is the word that best describes. However, most churches allow so few people to offer suggestions or advice that you may wear out with help being only 6 feet away. Q&A sessions for the general membership are almost never held and most people have no idea who the (un)official leadership is or when they meet or even how to offer a suggestion or if it will be appreciated. Churches need to have people who know what is going on to prevent blowups before they occur. Too often the leadership were only concerned about a few select people, and if they were happy, well, then everything was presumed going along well. This idea sank a lot of organisations.

Leave a Comment





This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Copy link