Overcome the 5 Barriers to Church Growth by Nelson Searcy
Are you stuck? Has your church growth leveled off or even started declining? I can relate. When we launched The Journey Church in 2002 with 110 people, I was ecstatic. What a great number for a brand-new church in the middle of New York City! Unfortunately, my excitement didn’t last long.
The next week, only 55 of our 110 attendees returned.
Not too bad, I reasoned—we’d kept half. Yet, over the next five months, with my dynamic leadership and powerful preaching, I “grew” the church down to 35…in a city of 8 million. Something was definitely wrong.
Without knowing it, I was already bumping up against growth barriers—the issues we all face at various points in ministry that stop or reverse our church’s growth. But I slowly learned to identify and break through these barriers that were standing in our way.
In five years, with God’s blessing and a clearly defined system for dealing with growth barriers, The Journey had become a multicultural, multisite community of more than 1,200.
Most churches seem to face growth barriers at five key points: when attendance reaches 65, 125, 250, 500, and 1,000.
In training pastors throughout the country, I’ve discovered that we all deal with the same inevitable barriers, so remember you’re not alone. However, by becoming proactive in learning to identify and break through these barriers, we can keep our momentum and continue growing for God’s glory.
First and foremost, as a pastor looking to grow your church, make sure you’re always asking yourself the right question about growth.
The Wrong Question: How do I get my church to grow? Your job is not to force growth. When you think growth is your responsibility, you will inevitably make bad decisions. Church growth is ultimately not about what we can do in our own power; it’s about God’s power and His choice to work through us. Refuse to settle for anything less than God’s vision for your church.
The Right Question: What is keeping my church from growing? Healthy organisms grow. If you feel stagnation setting in, barriers are inhibiting your growth. Implement a plan to remove them. Now that you’re asking the right question, I encourage you to make two affirmative decisions.
Decision No. 1: I believe God wants to grow my church. Second Peter 3:9 (NLT) tells us, “The Lord isn’t really being slow about His promise to return, as some people think. No, He is being patient for your sake. He does not want anyone to be destroyed, but wants everyone to repent.” Your church is part of that redemptive plan. Of course, God wants it to grow. Growth signals repentance and life change.
Decision No. 2: I want to see my church grow. Does thinking about the next barrier you’re facing scare you into inactivity? Don’t get discouraged. God never gives us a vision without supplying what we need to fulfill it.
When you’re asking the right question, and you know in your core that both you and God want your church to grow, nothing can stop you—but growth barriers can definitely slow you down.
So whether you are growing a small church in the suburbs or a megachurch in a big city, you need to be able to recognize the top five growth barriers and know how to meet them head-on.
Growth Barrier No. 1: Space
Space is the most fundamental barrier we all face—and the easiest to overlook. As church leaders, we love full rooms, so we say, “Pack ’em in, there’s still a few seats!” But the truth is that when a room reaches 70 percent of its seating capacity, it’s full. Period.
Here is a four-step exercise to perform frequently as your church grows:
Step 1: Determine how many seats you have in your main worship space.
Step 2: Multiply that number by 0.7 (70 percent).
Step 3: Determine how many people you averaged in attendance over the last month.
Step 4: Is the number in Step 3 greater than the number in Step 2? If the answer is yes, you’ve got to open up more seats or find a larger location—fast.
At The Journey, I learned this lesson the hard way. Our first location in Manhattan was at a small comedy club-type theater.
At capacity, the space could hold 110 people. Seven months after our launch, we were averaging close to 80 people each week; we would bump up to 100 every now and then, but our number would always return to below 80. Why? It’s because we were full. We just didn’t want to admit it.
People stopped inviting their friends because they perceived there was no more room. Some regular attendees stopped coming because it was hard to find a seat. Eventually, we caught on and moved to a space that was three times bigger—and our church began growing again.
I’ve seen many pastors of churches with fewer than 250 attendees start second services in an effort to circumvent this barrier. Starting a second service too early usually does more damage than good, so don’t think of it as an easy fix.
For example, let’s say a church of 120 decides to start a second service. Inevitably, one service will have 100 people and the other one will have 20—it’s impossible to equally divide two services, although careful choice of service times does play a part. Over time, the 20 people will be disappointed with the small crowds and filter back into the larger service.
The better choice for a church of 120 is to find a larger space and grow to 300 or 400 before starting a second service.
I encourage churches to be willing to move.
Growth Barrier No. 2: Self-Development Growing churches are led by growing leaders.
So, if you’ve stopped progressing personally, your church is not far behind.
Jimmy Britt, pastor of Rocky River Community Church in Concord, N.C., recently realized the power of this truth.
Jimmy had grown his church to 150 when he got stuck. After learning about the barrier of self-development, he set up a personal growth plan for himself, focusing on leadership ability and spiritual maturity.
Sure enough, when he started growing as an individual, his church started growing again. An organization can never outpace the inherent qualities of its leader.
When a pastor isn’t growing:
—The sermons are stale.
—The congregation’s passion for ministry wanes.
—The staff stops growing.
—The church stops growing. An intentional reading plan is the single best avenue for personal growth.
Set a reading goal that will stretch you—perhaps a book a month—and spend focused time in the areas of theology, church history, and philosophy, in addition to reading your Bible.
Also, schedule time to attend key conferences and plan opportunities to seek out and meet with mentors. Personal development is essential not only for your own health and balance, but also for the growth of your church.
Growth Barrier No. 3: Sharing
Churches stop growing when they become inwardly (instead of outwardly) focused. If you notice a decline in your number of first-time guests and an increase in discussion of inwardly focused programs, beware! You are about to fall victim to the sharing barrier.
In my experience, healthy growing churches will have a ratio of five first-time guests to every 100 regular attendees. So, if you are averaging 200 people per week, you should average 10 first-time guests per week. Watch this ratio carefully, and take its waning as a warning sign. When this barrier starts blocking your growth, here are some ways you can break through it:
—Teach on relational evangelism.
—Set an example by telling stories of how you’ve invited people to church.
—Do servant evangelism outreach.
—Challenge staff, volunteers, and attendees to invite friends.
—Read an evangelism or church growth book with your staff and key volunteers.
—Ask someone who has experienced life change to share his or her testimony.
Growth Barrier No. 4: Worship Service
Your weekly worship service is the front door through which people are introduced to your church. If not done correctly, it can become a big barrier.
To keep your service strong, always try to look like a church twice your size. If you are a church of 100 people, intentionally create a worship service that looks like it’s for 200 people. Take your preaching up a notch. Energize your worship time. Create the excitement that would be present in a bigger crowd. Moreover, it’s essential to get in the habit of looking at your service through the eyes of your guests and regular attendees. What kind of impression are you giving them?
Improve the quality of your service in the following ways:
—Tweak your transitions.
—Set up feedback and develop evaluation mechanisms.
—Visit larger, growing churches and benchmark against what they are doing.
—Attend cutting-edge seminars and leadership conferences.
Jeff Gunn, pastor of CrossWalk Lutheran Church in Phoenix, saw incredible growth when he was able to overcome this worship service barrier. A few years ago, Jeff started a new congregation in a long-standing community that was being transformed by new development. As a strong communicator, he grew the church to 100 people in no time. But Jeff didn’t have a worship leader. In his Sunday services, he was cueing up and playing recorded music.
When Jeff made the decision to improve his services by bringing in a worship leader, he quickly broke the 125 mark and grew to more than 200 people. As he’s learned, sometimes you have to get out of your own way and do what needs to be done to create a quality experience for your attendees.
Growth Barrier No. 5: Staff
If your congregation suddenly doubled in size, would you have the necessary staff members to serve them? To keep your church moving forward, you will need to hire people on faith, so you’ll be prepared to receive the harvest God wants to send you.
Hiring staff is truly a faith issue. Many pastors want to put off staff hires until they have the money in place to support the positions. Sounds like a practical plan, but unfortunately, it doesn’t work. You will never have enough money in advance to hire the staff you need.
To overcome this barrier, change your perspective on what it takes to hire a new staff person. Say you need to fill a position that would require a $48,000 salary. Don’t look at it as a yearlong position. Instead, think in three-month blocks. If you approach the new position as a three-month, $12,000 risk instead of a $48,000 risk, you will be more comfortable filling it. Then, if the staff person you hire is good, the position will begin paying for itself after three months.
When you approach staffing with a faithful heart, you’ll be much more prepared to handle the growth God brings you.
All Grown Up
In our journey from 35 to 1,200, our church had to break through every one of these barriers—most of them more than once. Thanks to that process, I have come to understand that staying ahead of growth barriers is the most effective way of dealing with them.
When we cooperate with God by taking action for His church, He will bless our efforts. As you learn to identify and diffuse growth barriers before they get you stuck, you’ll be able to keep your momentum and effectively expand God’s kingdom for His glory.