This is one of my most-read posts of all time. Times change. I updated the post and the reasons here. In the meantime, enjoy this original post.
While social media and even traditional media are still preoccupied with mega churches and multi-site churches, the reality is that most churches in North America are quite small.
The Barna group pegs the average Protestant church size in America at 89 adults. 60% of Protestant churches have less than 100 adults in attendance. Only 2% have over 1000 adults attending.
Please understand, there’s nothing wrong with being a small church. I just know that almost every small church leader I speak to wants his or her church to grow.
I get that. That’s the mission of the church. Every single day, I want our church to become more effective in reaching one more person with the hope that’s in Christ.
So why is it that most churches never break the 200 attendance mark?
Desire. Most leaders I know want their church to reach more people.
A lack of prayer. Many small church leaders are incredibly faithful in prayer.
Love. Some of the people in smaller churches love people as authentically as anyone I know.
Facility. Growth can start in the most unlikely places.
Let’s just assume you have a solid mission, theology and heart to reach people.
You know why most churches still don’t push past the 200 mark in attendance?
They organize, behave, lead and manage like a small organization.
Think about it.
There’s a world of difference between how you organize a corner store and how you organize a larger supermarket.
In a corner store, Mom and Pop run everything, Want to talk to the CEO? She’s stocking shelves. Want to see the Director of Marketing? He’s at the cash register.
Mom and Pop do everything, and they organize their business to stay small. Which is fine if you’re Mom and Pop and don’t want to grow.
But you can’t run a supermarket that way. You organize differently. You govern differently. There’s a produce manager, and people who only stock shelves. There’s a floor manager, shift manager, general manager and so much more.
So what’s the translation to church world?
Here are 8 reasons churches who want to grow end up staying small:
1. The pastor is the primary caregiver. Honestly, if you just push past this one issue, you will have made a ton of progress. When the pastor has to visit every sick person, do every wedding, funeral and make regular house calls, he or she becomes incapable of doing other things. That model just doesn’t scale. If you’re good at it, you’ll grow the church to 200 people and then disappoint people when you can’t get to every event anymore. Or you’ll just burn out. It creates false expectations and so many people get hurt in the process. The best book I know on the subject has just been re-released with a new, updated edition. The answer, by the way, is to teach people to care for each other in groups.
2. The leaders lack a strategy. Many churches today are clear on mission and vision. What most lack is a widely shared and agreed-upon strategy. Your vision and mission answer the why and what of your organization. Your strategy answers how. And how is critical. Spend time working through your strategy. Be clear on how you will accomplish your mission and don’t rest until the mission, vision, and strategy reside in every single volunteer and leader.
3. True leaders aren’t leading. In every church, there are people who hold the position of leadership and then there are people who are truly leaders (who may not hold any position in your church). Release people who hold titles but aren’t advancing the mission and hand the job over to real leaders. Look for people who have a track record of handling responsibility in other areas of life and give them the job of leading the church into the future with you. If you actually have leaders leading, it will make a huge difference.
4. Volunteers are unempowered. Sure, small churches may not have the budget to hire other staff, but you have people. Once you have identified true leaders, and once you’re clear on your mission vision and strategy, you need to release people to accomplish it. Try to do it all yourself and you will burn out, leave or simply be ineffective. Empower volunteers around an aligned strategy and you will likely begin to see progress.
5. The governance team micromanages. If you need permission every time you need to buy paper towels or repaint an office, you have a governance issue. Most boards who micromanage do so because that’s where most people simply default. You need a board who guards the mission and vision and empowers the team to accomplish it and then gets out of the way. This post on governance from Jeff Brodie is gold.
6. Too many meetings. I led a church with a grand total of 50 people in attendance. We had 16 elders. Overall, the church was in evening meetings 2-3 times a week. Why on earth would a church that small need to meet that often? I eventually repurposed most of those meetings to become meetings about vision and reorganization. We also cut the number of elders down. Now, although we have a much bigger church, I’m only out one or two nights a week (and then mostly for small group). If you’re going to meet, meet on purpose for the future. Free up your time so you and your team can accomplish something significant.
7. Too many events and programs that lead nowhere. Activity does not equal accomplishment. Just because you’re busy doesn’t mean you’re being effective. If you check into most small churches (remember, I was there…I’m not judging, just being honest), there are a lot of programs that accomplish little and lead nowhere. Stop them. Yes people will be mad. Even have the courage to cut some good programs. Good is the enemy of great. Then go out and do a few great things.
8. The pastor suffers from a desire to please everybody. Many pastors I know are people-pleasers by nature. Go see a counselor. Get on your knees. Do whatever you need to do to get over the fear of disappointing people. Courageous leadership is like courageous parenting. Don’t do what your kids want you to do; do what you believe is best for them in the end. Eventually, many of them will thank you. And the rest? Honestly, they’ll probably go to another church that isn’t reaching many people either.
I realize the diagnosis can sound a little harsh, but we have a pretty deep problem on our hands. And radical problems demand radical solutions.
I’ve actually updated this post for 2017 with fresh reasons and insights based on a survey of 1400 pastors I did. You can read that post here.