According to Carl George and Warren Bird, fully 85% of all Protestant churches in North America never break the 200 attendance mark.
Surprisingly, the main reasons churches never pass the 200 attendance mark aren’t spiritual, they’re structural.The main reasons churches never pass the 200 attendance mark aren't spiritual, they're structural. Click To Tweet
I published an earlier version of this post several years ago. It appears to have struck a nerve.
The post has been shared over 40,000 times on social media and read by over a quarter million leaders. You can read the original post here and you’ll see how my thinking started on this issue.
When I saw the response to this post continue over the years, I drilled a little deeper, reflected more systematically on my only learnings in leading a church from 6 in attendance to over 1200 attendees today and did more research.
In addition, I surveyed 1400 small and mid-sized church pastors on what they struggled with as they tried to break the 200 mark. While I think all the points in the original post are still helpful, you’ll also see new factors that emerged from my reflection and research that I outline below.
1. Small churches are structured to stay small
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.
The main reason churches don’t grow past 200 attendees isn’t spiritual, it’s structural.The main reason churches don't grow past 200 attendees isn't spiritual, it's structural. Click To Tweet
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.
A bigger vision requires a bigger structure. A bigger church requires a bigger structure. Simply put, you need to structure bigger to grow bigger.If you want your church to reach more people, structure bigger to grow bigger. Click To Tweet
2. The Pastor Does Everything
In any small church, the idea that the pastor does everything probably sounds familiar. The expectations on the pastor are significant.
He or she is supposed to prepare a message, lead the Bible study, show up early to set up chairs, organize the next event, make hospital visits, recruit volunteers, AND make sure to care for themselves well enough that they don’t burn out.
The list of activities is as comprehensive as anything and everything the church does.
Whether you’re in a mainline denomination or in a church plant that meets in a school, there is a predominant bias in small churches toward the pastor doing everything.
There are so many problems with this approach, but let’s start with two.
First, it doesn’t scale. If everything that gets done depends on one person, your church won’t grow beyond the ability of a single person. For most of us, that means 200 is the upper limit.Expecting the pastor to do everything simply doesn't scale. Click To Tweet
Second, if the pastor does everything, it’s a complete denial of how God designed the church to work. It’s just insanely backward from the church’s God-given design.
God gifts his people, not just the pastor, for works of ministry. The church should organize like it.
Finally, this is why breaking the 200 barrier breaks so many leaders. They just can’t get it all done. Many pastors are already maxed out, and think “If reaching more people means working more hours, I just can’t.”
Fortunately, it doesn’t.Reaching more people doesn't mean you have to work more hours. Click To Tweet
3. The pastor is the primary caregiver
Of all the things that pastor does, pastoral care is often the one congregations most love and expect. And it’s killing churches.
In this post, I outline more about how pastoral care stunts the growth of so many churches.
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 pastoral care, 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.
98% of pastoral care is having someone who cares. It doesn’t have to be the pastor. In this course, I show you how to make that transition in a way that helps your church care for each other while the senior pastor gets freed up to lead and teach.
4. You Don’t Have the Right People
In my survey of 1400 pastors, finding and developing the right leaders emerged as the key problem leaders felt.
Not only are pastors exhausted trying to do it all, so are the handful of volunteers that have stepped up. To make matters worse, many pastors don’t think they have the right volunteers. Most church leaders have enough nice people, they just need more capable people.
So how do you get the right people?
The truth is, great people don’t randomly assemble. They are attracted by clear and compelling missions like the mission of the church. They are challenged, nurtured, and inspired by skillful, humble, passionate leaders who have devoted their lives to a cause greater than themselves.
The reason your people aren’t like the people of the churches you admire is because you haven’t led them there yet.
Growing churches don’t buy great leaders, they build them.Growing churches don’t buy great leaders, they build them. Click To Tweet
5. Too Many Doers, Not Enough Leaders
A second problem the 1400 pastors I surveyed identified is that as their church grows, they end up with teams of doers, not teams of leaders.
That’s a huge barrier.
Leaders lead other people; doers only lead themselves.
Leaders don’t mind having a team of people to manage. Doers would rather worry about themselves and their specific assignment.
If you only have teams of doers, your church will struggle to grow.Leaders lead other people; doers only lead themselves. Click To Tweet
6. The Team is Not Aligned
Another reason 200 is such a big barrier is because once you get hundreds of people in an organization, you end up with chaos unless you have a great plan.
When our church was between 200 and 400 in attendance, I found myself waking up at night wondering, “How do I keep all these well-intentioned people from accidentally running the mission of the church off course? How do I convey what is so clear in my head — the mission, vision, strategy, and values of our church—to everyone else in a way that’s clear to them?”
Those questions (and the fear associated with them) are focused around one key leadership issue: alignment. Alignment is getting a team of people committed to a common mission, vision, and set of values. It’s the hard work of making what’s clear to you clear to your team.
Alignment is so critical because if you don’t do it, it’s like releasing the stallions from the barn. They’ll run wild and in every direction. That’s why some leaders fear empowering leaders: they fear those leaders will run the church in various directions.
An unaligned church will struggle to grow, and if even if it does, it carries within it all the seeds for implosion.Alignment is the hard work of making what's clear to you clear to your team. Click To Tweet
Most small churches are led by congregations who want a say in everything or a board that does.
Here’s what’s true: committees kill vision.Committees kill vision. Click To Tweet
Individuals are almost always more courageous than groups. And the more people you seek to please up front, the less inspiring your idea will become.
When everyone wants to have a say, very little gets done.
Governance is a silent killer for most churches trying to grow.When everyone wants to have a say, very little gets done. Click To Tweet
8. The Leaders Make Too Many Excuses
All too often when I’m interacting with church leaders, I hear the same excuses over and over—reasons that something won’t work or that another idea can’t be done.
Leaders complain that their building is too small or too big, their location isn’t ideal, they don’t have the right team, they haven’t got enough money, or that their context is different.
Here’s what’s true: you can make excuses or you can make progress, but you can’t make both.You can make excuses or you can make progress, but you can’t make both. Click To Tweet
In fact, the leaders who make the most progress make the fewest excuses. And the leaders who make the most excuses make the least progress.
Stop Spinning Your Wheels…Let’s Solve This Together
I address these issues directly in the Church Growth Masterclass and provide strategies on how to tackle each of them.
The Church Growth Masterclass is 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