While browsing Facebook recently, I came across a picture of a worship service in a church I attended as a teenager. More than 45 years have passed, and the congregation is much as I remembered—a few different faces, perhaps a little more gray hair, some added technology, but essentially the same.
The picture revealed about 50 in attendance—the same as I remember years ago. Why was this church not growing? What size could the church have been if it had maintained just 4 percent growth rate each year? The first year they would have added two people. This seems like a simple, realistic goal for 50 people. If the 4 percent growth rate was maintained for 45 years, there would be almost 300 in attendance today; the growth goal would be 12 for this year.
A few years ago, I attended a pastors’ meeting in which we listened to a pastor who was brought in as an expert speaker. Under his leadership, his church had grown in attendance from 50 to 300 in about four years—an annual growth rate of 56 percent. The pastor shared a suggested program, and the conference president advocated that all of our churches could grow at this rate. A few years later, the churches have remained about the same as they were at the time of the presentation.
Why are churches not growing?
What is causing our churches to plateau in attendance? We keep adding to the church membership list, but there does not seem to be a correlating rise in attendance.
Some may argue that pastors are not spiritual enough. They say pastors need to spend more time in prayer. Some have even prescribed that pastors should spend 40 days on their knees in repentance and prayer. Others suggest that pastors are not working as hard as their counterparts of earlier years.
Others defend pastors but say today’s church members are too secular minded. They claim that the world has neutralized the mission spirit of the people in the church.
Still others suggest that the time is not right for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and that we should simply maintain as we are until the end times.
Thus, the lack of growth in church attendance is an alarming, ongoing issue. Churches tend to grow to a certain size, then plateau. We can send a new pastor, pour money into evangelism, try to duplicate programs that have had success elsewhere, but they stay the same size, which tends to be small. Lyle Schaller notes, “The normative size of a Protestant congregation in the North American culture probably varies between twenty and sixty at the principal weekly worship service.”1
A majority of Protestant churches have reached a predictable plateau that can be called a “church growth barrier.” I define a church growth barrier as an attendance level where adding members to the church books is no longer followed by a corresponding rise in attendance. Attendance tends to plateau in spite of continued evangelism. These barriers happen at predictable levels regardless of infrastructure, community demographics, or location.
I believe God wants churches to grow through these barriers. Jesus said, “ ‘All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age’ ” (Matt. 28:18–20, NASB).
I agree with Bob Moorehead who wrote, “I am convinced when the 20th century church [or the twenty-first century church] resumes ‘normal’ behavior, the kind we read about in Acts, we will see ‘normal’ results again (which the watching community would surely call abnormal!).”2
One author states that we should give up on growing our churches and only plant churches: “First, acknowledge that all churches eventually plateau. And that the plateau factor will continue to frustrate our efforts to grow existing churches. . . . We have made repeated, vigorous, and well-meaning attempts to make existing churches larger only to find that no matter what pastor we assign, how much money we spend, or what evangelist conducts the series, the church remains at its plateau.”3
I do not believe this is the only answer. We should be planting many new churches, but we should also be growing the ones we have. I believe God wants both.
The simple truth of why churches plateau
What might be the problem? Why are so many churches plateaued? Why do they remain the same size year after year, decade after decade? The answer is simple.
Churches are the size they are designed and structured to be.
I am not talking about the size of the building, the number of seats for worshipers, or even if the church family has a building of its own. These are important considerations, but they are secondary to the real issue. A church is restricted to a certain size of attendance, and that is largely determined by its organizational design and structure.
In my experience of pastoral ministry, I have seen how size relates to the structure and culture of the local church. In several churches, we successfully changed the structure and culture, and the churches grew to the next level.
Consider the M&M illustration. Imagine this: I line up four containers of different sizes and designs on a desk. The first one is only capable of holding 15–20 M&M candies. As I pour more M&Ms in, they do not stay in the container but fall on the desk. If I want to hold more M&Ms, I must change the type and design or structure of the container. So, I change to the next size and shape. We can now hold around 100 M&Ms, but again, if we continue to add more, they end up on the table. And so we go to the next structure that holds around 200; and then with a different design and structure, we can hold around 500 M&Ms.
The point? A small church structure will never grow beyond a certain size of its design, structure, and holding capacity. Strong emphasis on evangelism may add names to the church books but will not have a corresponding effect on the number in worship.
Bill Sullivan explains the concept this way, “A small church is not a microcosm of a large church but a totally different kind of organization.”4 If you want your church to grow through an attendance barrier, you will need to change its design and structure. Your church must become a different kind of organization.
Another way to understand this is to think of the different organizational designs and structures as caring for pets.
When my children were small, they wanted a pet. We settled on a hamster. We created its home in a fish aquarium with a screen over the top. We placed wood shavings on the bottom of the cage, food, water, and a wheel for exercise, and the hamster was very happy.
But what would happen if we came home one day and instead of a hamster there was a cat in that cage? We would have to house and feed the cat in a very different way. The few wood shavings would not work as cat litter. The hamster was always ready to just sit in a shirt pocket, but the cat would scratch if we restricted it too much. What we have is an entirely different animal, needing a completely different design and structure to keep it healthy and happy.
What if we left the cat in the kitchen one day, and when we came home there was a cow in our kitchen? Now what should we do? We need some serious change in the structure and design, so we build a small barn behind the house. We find some nice alfalfa hay for her to eat. We buy straw to place around the cow. With the radical change in structure and design, we now have a happy cow.
That’s just an illustration. Likewise, different sizes of churches must be cared for differently to be healthy and growing. Each church will need to have a different design and structure to be able to care for the different needs of people—for example, differences in age, spiritual development, emotional support, cultural milieu—and then we will see growing churches. A caring church is a growing church.
If you are the pastor of a hamster church and you believe God is asking your church to become a cat-sized church, you have to anticipate and begin the necessary design and structure changes before you get to the cat size. And so it is with moving to each different type of design and structure.
If a church is designed for 50–100 people from the same milieu, we can expect the church will not likely become much larger unless there are changes in the organizational structure and design. As a growth strategy, only holding evangelism events and adding names to the books is not satisfactory. We not only want to connect people to Jesus, we want to keep them connected to God and His family.
Suggestions for growth
You may ask how does a pastor lead his or her church to real growth? How does a pastor revise the structure for the next level of church attendance? Here are several suggestions:
1. Prayer is the most powerful spiritual tool for beginning the process of change in the church. Both pastor and congregation need to pray to God for guidance and vision for what God wishes the church to become.
2. In order to successfully restructure a church for growth, you need a church that is basically healthy. If the church is at war with the pastor or itself, this must be dealt with first.
3. Leadership style is important. The pastor will need to move beyond simple management of the church to truly leading it into the future. Different sizes of churches need different leadership models for the pastor. In my personal experience, I have found it best to lead through a team. A pastor by himself or herself may be able to move the church from very small to the next level, but he or she will not be able to move the church to greater levels of size without building a team of leaders.
4. The church family needs to have a sense of a special calling from God to become much more than they are and a willingness to obey as God may direct. In my experience, this process may take six months to a year to instill in the congregation. When I become a pastor of a new church, my first order of business consists of creating within that church a sense of calling and belonging to God. Through preaching, visitation, teaching, letters, all modes possible, the focus is all about this sense of the extraordinary.
What we are talking about is changing the culture of the church. Changing the organizational design and structure will need a change in the local church culture if this change will stick. Changing the culture of the local church means creating room enough and an inclusive atmosphere to care for the varying needs of the congregation. This may be uncomfortable. The congregation may be fearful or rebel, but the members must move forward.
5. We must change the posture of the church to a discipleship and mission focus. The pastor and his or her team must lead the congregation to understand more fully what being a disciple of Jesus in our modern world means. A church with healthy relationships is a powerful force for evangelism as long as the relationships are inclusive, not exclusive.
6. Understanding the governance structure necessary for different sizes of churches will assist the pastor and leaders to develop what is needed to support the size of congregation that God has asked the church to become. How this change will take place depends on what the next level of church size, design, and structure needs for success. A small church of 25 will not operate successfully with a governance structure needed for 500, nor will the congregation of 500 operate well with the governance structure that is most successful for 25.
7. Discover, communicate, and implement God’s mission and vision for your particular local church. Your mission and vision tell you where to aim the church, and this also allows everyone to know where to place the resources, financial and personnel, of the church to accomplish what God has asked. The mission and vision are discovered and maintained somewhat differently depending on the size of the congregation.
Moving churches from one size to the next is often difficult work for the pastor. This may, at times, seem too difficult and even impossible, but we must remember that we have a big and powerful God. If we partner with Him, our leadership will make a difference and the churches we pastor can move to the next level.
Remember this good counsel given long ago by Ellen White, “As the will of man co-operates with the will of God, it becomes omnipotent. Whatever is to be done at His command may be accomplished in His strength. All His biddings are enablings.”5
1 Lyle E. Schaller, Growing Plans (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1987), 18.
2 Bob Moorehead, The Growth Factor (Joplin, MO: College Press Pub. Co., 1988), 9, 10.
3 Ron Gladden, “Evangelism and Church Planting,” Ministry 72, no. 10 (October 1999): 7.
4 Bill M. Sullivan, Ten Steps to Breaking the 200 Barrier: A Church Growth Strategy (Kansas City, MO: Beacon Hill Press, 1988), 14.
5 Ellen G. White, Christ’s Object Lessons (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1941), 333.