So…you want your church to grow, right?

When I ask ministry leaders whether they want to see growth, almost every leader I’ve ever talked to says yes.

Sure…there are some house church movements that want to stay small. And some long time or xenophobic churches have lost their appetite for growth. And there are always a few people who think big = evil.

But most leaders want their churches to grow…and for good reasons most of the time. They want to reach people with the life-changing love and forgiveness of Christ.

That is awesome.

But most churches don’t grow.

And most churches that start small stay small.


Almost Nobody Starts Big

Well, first of all, almost no church starts big. There are a few exceptions, like North Point.

But that’s the rare exception—almost all churches start small. Even mega churches most often start with 5 people meeting in a living room and grow from there.

Big doesn’t have to be the destination for everyone.

But clearly, if you want to reach your community, growth is a natural by-product of a mission being fulfilled.

I Don’t Want to Start Another Debate

Before we get to the main point, a qualifier. The last thing I want to do with this post is to start a debate on small church v. large church. We’ve had them before on other posts and keyboards have been set on fire on other blogs over this issue. No more, okay?

So, for the record:

There are lots of great small churches.

There are lots of great large churches.

There are some bad small churches.

There are some bad big churches.

There is no perfect or biblical number for church size.

No one can claim moral high ground in this discussion.

Can we agree on that? And even if you have different views, can we please not be disagreeable?

Once and for all, size doesn’t determine how significant your ministry is.

Rather, size becomes relevant only for those who are attempting to reach their community.

If you’re going to reach your community, you’re going to grow.

And if you’re going to grow, you have to figure out why certain things make a church grow and why certain things curtail growth.

5 Reasons Churches That Start Small Stay Small

For sure there are more than 5 reasons (I outline 8 related but different reasons why churches never grow past 200 here).

But just know there is no silver bullet.

Doing these 5 things is no guarantee your church will grow.

But the opposite is true.

If you don’t pay attention to these 5 factors, there is a very good chance your church won’t grow. At least not substantially or sustainably.

1. Big Hopes…But Small Strategy

There isn’t a single leader who’s planted a church (or started anything) who hasn’t had big hopes.

The challenge is that often those hopes have no strategy to back them up.

Or if they have a strategy, it’s a strategy that isn’t designed to take the community past 100 or 200 people.

You can’t operate as though you were a church of 500 when there are 50 in the room, but you have to plan for the day when there will be 500, not 50, in the room.

Some questions:

What’s your strategy to reach your community?

What’s your organizational chart look like at 50 people, 100, 200, 500, 1000?

How will your role change as your church grows?

How will your team change and develop as you grow?

What will you NOT do as you get bigger?

How will your structure change and adapt?

What will you DO as you get bigger?

Those are all strategy questions. And many leaders haven’t sat down with their team to answer them.

As a result, you start small and often stay small.

It doesn’t matter how big your dreams are.

Strategy trumps intention. And hope is not a strategy.

If you want to read more on the relationship between mission, vision, and strategy, read this.

2. Underfunding

I understand poorly funded ministries.

One of the churches I started at had a $4,000 annual budget. And no, I’m not making that up.

I also completely understand that vision always precedes resources and people. That’s a great thing. You should always have more vision than you have money and people.

But here’s what’s true: I’ve seen well-funded church plants flop and shoe-string plants thrive.

You can start on a shoestring, but often churches never make it past that.

Ultimately, if your church is going to thrive, it’s going to need the resources to accomplish all it can.

And that’s where most ministries languish.

You need to figure out how to raise money that goes beyond just paying the light bill.

I’ll share the single resource that has helped us the most.

If you want to develop a strategy to raise more money for everyday ministry, you might want to check out The Giving Rocket program. We’ve used it at Connexus we saw a 25% growth in regular giving in one year.

If you struggle with the idea that ministry should be adequately funded, take 18 minutes and watch this Ted talk by Dan Pallotta if you haven’t already. Although Dan doesn’t come at it from a Christian perspective, his angle is a huge paradigm shift for just about everyone. So good.

Regardless of how you tackle it, adequately funding your mission is critical for long-term health.

3. Pastors who do everything

For three years, I was the only staff member at our church.

Then we brought on two very part-time people, and I still ran nearly solo for 4 more years (7 in total) until we hired our first other full-time staff member.

There is a season in which the pastor does ‘everything.’ But that season will rarely get you past 200 people.

It got us to 300 people, but I almost burned out.  And it’s completely unsustainable.

To get sustainably past 200-300 people, I had to:

Stop most pastoral visitation, except for a small circle of people within my care.

Restrict the number of weddings and funerals I did.

Pull me off of almost every team in the church.

Stop leading Bible studies.

Stop doing much except communication, vision casting, and leading leaders.

Who did all the other ministry? People. Some staff, but mainly volunteers.

Delegating and empowering people around a common mission, vision and strategy releases the ministry to people who are gifted, called and equipped to lead that ministry.

When you release ministry, it’s liberating for everyone. It’s the way the church is designed to run.

And remember this: Pastors who do everything eventually end up leading no one. Why? Because too often they burn out, and they get taken out.

4. No plans for anything bigger

Many leaders are currently leading the biggest church they’ve ever attended been a part of, right now.  So how do you plan for anything bigger when you haven’t experienced anything bigger?

That’s true if you’re part of a church of 100 people or 1,000.

Even when I led a church of 6 people, I had not actually led a church that was bigger than that (it was my first assignment as a student).

But just because you haven’t led more doesn’t mean you shouldn’t plan for more.

Here are some keys to crossing the 200, 400 and 800 barriers.

Plan today for what you want to be a part of tomorrow.

5. A selfish drift inward

This is actually an issue for a large number of churches, both church plants and existing churches.

Even when you start a church from scratch, it tends to be led, populated and funded by members.

And so it’s completely easy and natural to lose focus on the people you’re trying to reach.

And because self-centeredness is a natural pull for all of us (at least it is for me), unless we have a white-hot searing mission in front of us, church can quickly become about satisfying our needs, our wants, our preferences and our desires.

And that fuels a spiral in which congregational or organizational life can become about satisfying the competing preferences of members.

Some want it this way. Some want it that way. And people threaten to leave.

Let that go unchecked and soon you find yourself focused on the people you’re trying to keep, not the people you’re trying to reach.

The casualty in all of this? The very people you were hoping to reach.

The only way to check this that I know of is to prayerfully keep the unreached front and center in all your discussions and your actions.

In your off time (and maybe in your work hours) hang out with the people you’re trying to reach.

Invite them. Regularly.

Speak for them when they’re not in the room and you’re trying to make a decision.

Budget and staff with them in mind.

Plan every Sunday like it’s someone’s first Sunday, even if right now, it might not be.

If you keep this front and center, you will resist the trap that so many churches and organizations fall into; the selfish drift inward.

Did you know that 9 out of 10 churches don’t grow? Are you one of them?

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 About You?

These are some reasons I’ve noticed why some churches that start small stay small, despite intentions that would move them elsewhere.

What have you seen?

Leave a comment!

Why Most Churches That Start Small…Stay Small


  1. Asa on April 14, 2019 at 6:05 am

    Regards for this marvelos post, I am glad I observed this site on yahoo.

  2. Don Jones on October 12, 2018 at 9:12 am

    Carey, I appreciate what you are trying to do to reach people for Christ. However, I don’t think it is fair to say that “size becomes relevant only for those who are attempting to reach their community.” There are many “small churches” or should we say “normal churches” (since the average attendance in churches in America on a Sunday morning is 75 see Ed Stetzer & Thom Rainer’s research) who are attempting to reach their community for Christ. There are many of us in the normal size church who are working hard to reach our community and we are doing it with other “normal sized churches” which means that in smaller communities, we are not going to be a large church. Karl Vaters has written some helpful information on this and explains their journey as a church. They were around 100+ in attendance and worked really hard and made it to approx 400 in attendance and then in the course of about 6 months dropped back to somewhere between 100-200. He states that they have more community impact now at this size than what they had at 400 because it took so much resourcing to make that happen and try and maintain it. Now they are able to invest their time, talent and treasure into the community rather than trying to maintain facilities, etc., which are used only a few hours during the week. More of their ministry is happening outside the church building. Andy Stanley in his book Deep and Wide (I don’t have access to it right now to quote it exactly) indicated that at Northpoint, that it was about 18% (maybe up to 20% – but I think 18% is correct) of their growth was actually conversion growth. It is possible to get complacent about reaching people for Christ, I think that happened to us a number of years ago. However we are back on mission – our resources are going to limit how many people we can disciple for Christ at our current facility and we aren’t interested in investing millions of dollars into a building when we feel those funds could be used more effectively in mission. So we are currently looking at helping to revitalize another church in our city that is dying and there are others that need help. Our normal church (though we are larger than the average) is on mission to reach our community for Christ and have a significant (for our size) global investment in God’s Kingdom, though I doubt we will ever be a large church. We are committed to reaching people for Christ, baptizing them and teaching them to do all that Jesus Christ has commanded (Matthew 28). Thanks for listening!

    • Mike on February 20, 2019 at 3:00 pm

      Amen…love Karl Vaters work. Numerical growth in a specific local church is not a natural by-product of health but seeing growth for the Kingdom is.

  3. Daniel Indradjaja on October 10, 2018 at 9:50 am

    “Then we brought on two very part-time people…” 🤣🤣 This cracked me up. Great stuff as usual Carey. Very helpful and most importantly very true. 👍🙌

  4. Tony McVickers on October 10, 2018 at 9:38 am

    Thank you! Great, clear content. Keep up the work and continue to be BOLD.

  5. Wilma on August 4, 2018 at 9:26 am

    Carey: I appreciate your insight and many of the points you make in growing the church, but I miss and struggle with the first step. How can you grow and reach out of your congregation if the congregation is not equipped or ready to go out. I believe people who are happy Christians live that in everyday life and reflect their Lord, and are witnesses. They speak to and invite others to their church. The congregation is the first mission field, everyone in the pew that attends most Sundays, is not necessarily saved, adults and especially the youth. I feel the pastor needs to have that personal contact with the congregation first. A new pastor in a congregation should view his new charge as a church plant and work with his congregation before planning outreach programs. It might be a fast process because the ‘core’ is prepared, it might take work with some struggling members. What was Jesus’ example ? He tended his flock and brought the one back to the 99. I struggle with the comment of an “insider focused’ – who are we trying to reach ?” Aren’t we trying to reach the main congregation first ?? A Spirit filled heart will reach out. Why is the church a small church? many reasons, but could it be because they also need the care and nurture and instruction of a loving leader ? In the example of the family, don’t you care for your spouse and children first? Do you bring food to a neighbour before feeding your children? Perhaps i haven’t caught up to your position, and you are speaking to a fully mature Spirit filled core group, or emotionally charged group, ready to go out and grow the church; but somehow i feel you are leaving out a lot of searching souls who also need that personal care, in their own church. Both parts are needed to grow.

    • tony mcvickers on October 10, 2018 at 9:34 am

      I Know where you are coming from, you are correct about the care needed for the “main congregation”. What I am learning is that they need the care, it just doesn’t all have to come from me. It is difficult, but I am learning that it is necessary, not just for growth but for my health and the health of my family. 2Tim. 2:2 Sharing the load is a real strategy for growth.

  6. Steven Mitchell on August 4, 2018 at 8:52 am

    How do these principles apply to different growth models? Not to ignite the big and/or small = good and/or bad, but I wonder how you discern growth that’s a function of mission? I’m not sure transfer growth, which likely fuels the majority of church “growth” among large congregations that break attendance barriers is missional or reaching one’s community, but it does seem to be a function of executing well on the categories listed above. With that last comment, I have in mind your podcast with John Dickerson and his fine book The Great Evangelical Recession. Thanks in advance for any reply. I know you’re busy, so no worries if you haven’t the time.

  7. Cynthia on February 6, 2018 at 11:17 am

    Carey, I appreciate your blog posts and your ideas. One thing I don’t see addressed in the list of things that you had to change is preaching…do you still do that regularly? You mention not teaching bible study, but what about Sunday School? How do you as leader connect with the people in your congregation? Thanks much!

    • Les Ferguson on October 11, 2018 at 2:09 pm

      Not speaking for Carey but I read this entry as don’t lead (and prepare) Bible Study. Not, don’t participate and engage bible study. There’s a level of detail needed to lead a bible study that isn’t needed to participate in one. Likewise with Sunday School. Participation and engagement are more important in my book. There are people in our churches who are as good or better (or good enough) at teaching to lead Sunday School.

      By not leading those events the Pastor can focus on preaching and being present for people who attend.

  8. Ian Hyatt on January 30, 2018 at 2:25 pm

    Great post Carey! I consult churches under 200 almost daily and this article and its points will be a good resource for them I can forward. I specifically run into points 1 and 3 all the time.

  9. Carissa Figgins on January 28, 2018 at 9:25 am

    Man oh man oh man! Such wisdom shared here! I have the blessing of being involved in ministry as well as the rest of my professional life centered around helping organizations grow and scale. I think something churches and ministries really need to start moving past is viewing best practices used in business as something evil that cannot be applied to the church because it “is of the world.” As with everything in this life, we have start with the intent of our hearts. If our intent is to reach our community with transformational hope then we have to look at those strategic systems and processes that will get us there. Again if we use the resources available to us with the intent for good I think very often the Church would have a larger impact just by utilizing scalable business applications.

  10. Pastor Wale on January 25, 2018 at 8:23 am


  11. Hannah Hendru on January 23, 2018 at 3:54 pm

    I don’t completely agree with the message of the Jehovah Witnesses but if anyone is doing what God asks of us it’s them! They knock on doors daily spreading their word that they believe is God’s message. They are never afraid to share their beliefs. They are crucified more than the entire Christian community! They are spit on, doors slammed in their face, and called names. Most importantly not just in America! They receive this treatment world wide. They swallow their pride when we hide. They go out among the Gentiles and personally invite people to their church. We sit in front of our televisions. If anyone is doing what God expects of us? Don’t look in the mirror you won’t find them! Instead open up your doors or better yet go knock on your neighbors door!!!!

    • Don on January 26, 2018 at 1:19 pm

      I don’t envy the JW work ethic Hannah, it is based on fear of losing their place in heaven, or wherever it is they say 144,000 of them are headed. It is labor in vain, useless. Not all of us keep our faith a secret, or don’t invite people to church. Being a Christ follower means following Jesus’ example from scripture, not trying to guilt people into doing random things like knocking on stranger’s doors.

    • Jerry cooke on February 3, 2019 at 12:05 am

      Hannah ,At the church I worshiped in Louisville ,a group of 85,we tried the knocking on doors and inviting people to our church or studies in their home. There was 20 volunteers to do the knocking ,I was one of them. For three months we knocked on doors. We didn’t gain one member. Many people wouldn’t answer the door. Many told us they already went to church and didn’t want to change. Some were rude . Some said they stop believing in God and told us their story. Some were angry because we woke them up and they worked at night and slept in day. Two of our group was bitten by dogs. Many said they worked on Sundays and couldn’t go to church. These were some of the reports when we had our meeting after the 3 month knocking on doors. Naturally all 20 of us was discouraged with the results . Knocking on doors doesn’t work.

  12. Anibal Espaillat on January 22, 2018 at 11:15 pm

    Hi Carey,

    Thank you so much for your articles and the podcasts. They are truly of God and inspire hope and wellness for struggling churches. I’ve followed your advice on developing leaders, releasing them to serve, and not doing it all (myself) and already seeing positive results. It’s like the light went on!

  13. jenny boado on January 22, 2018 at 6:41 pm

    i am so blessed with these articles.

  14. Breshana on January 22, 2018 at 2:46 pm

    Wow! I think I see my church in a couple of these points. Thanks for explaining this in detail.

  15. Penelope Clevenger on January 22, 2018 at 11:18 am


    Just wanted to tell you how much I enjoy your articles and how insightful they are. Thank you for sharing your gift with us.

    God bless,

    Penelope Clevenger

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