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Saturday
Apr162016

5 problems every small to mid-sized church encounters that hold them back

Church size and church growth is always a hot topic. Here Carey Nieuwhof shares five things that hold small to mid-size churches back.

Originally posted by Carey Nieuwhof

Things that small to mid-size churches struggle with that holds them back.

Of all the subjects I deal with on this blog, church size generates a LOT of reaction and emotion.

This post on why most churches never break the 200 attendance mark struck a deep nerve.

As I outline in my new book, people clearly have strong opinions and emotions about the size of churches that can (and should) be overcome.

But I can also totally relate to the dynamics of leading a smaller church.

When I began in ministry, I spent about 3 years leading a small congregation (under 100) that grew into a mid-sized church (under 500) and then grew into a larger church.

I remember the emotions that swirl around small and mid-sized churches. I also have lived through the struggles those congregations face.

This post (like the last one) is written for church leaders and teams that want to reach more people. If you don’t want to grow, this post won’t help you much.

It’s critical that as church leaders we understand the tensions we’re facing. In the same way that diagnosing that pain under your kneecap when you’re trying to run a race is helpful, diagnosing what you sense in the congregation can be critical to taking your next step forward.

Overcome these tensions and you’re closer to progress. Avoid them or fail to deal with them and you can stay stuck a long time.

So, here are 5 problems every small to mid-sized church encounters.

1. The desire to keep the church one big family

This pressure is huge.

Many people believe that the church functions best as one big family.

The reality is even when our church was 40 people, those 40 people didn’t know each other—really. Some were left out, others weren’t.

Even at 100 or 300, enough people will still believe they know ‘everyone’. But they don’t.

When people told me they knew everyone I would challenge people (nicely) and say “Really, you know everyone? Because as much as I wish I did, I don’t.” They would then admit they didn’t know everyone. They just knew the people they knew and liked and often felt that growing the church would threaten that.

The truth is, at 100-300, many people are unknown. And even if ‘we all wear name-tags,” many of the people in your church don’t really have anyone to talk to about what matters. The one big family idea is, in almost every case, a myth.

Once you get beyond a dozen people, start organizing in groups. Everyone will have a home. Everyone who wants to be known and have meaningful relationships will have them. And a healthy groups model is scalable to hundred, thousands and even beyond that.

2. The people who hold positions don’t always hold the power 

In many small churches, your board may be your board, but often there are people—and even families—whose opinion carries tremendous weight.

If one of those people sits on the board, they end up with a de facto veto because no one wants to make a move without their buy in. If they are not on the board, decisions the board makes or a leader makes can get ‘undone’ if the person or family disapproves.

This misuse of power is unhealthy and needs to be stopped.

In the churches where I began, I took the power away from these people by going head to head with them, then handed it back to the people who are supposed to have the power.

In two out of three cases, the person left the church after it was clear I would not allow them to run it anymore.

It’s a tough call, but the church was far better off for it. When the people who are gifted to lead get to lead, the church becomes healthy. When we got healthy, we grew.

3. The pastor carries expectations no human can fulfill

In most small to mid sized churches, the pastor is expected to attend (if not conduct) every wedding, funeral, hospital call or meeting, visit people in their homes, write a killer message every Sunday, organize most of the activities of the church, be present for all functions AND have a great family life.

In other words, the pastor carries expectations no human can fulfill.

The key here for those who want to grow past this is to set clear expectations of what you will spend your time on.

I visited people in their homes and in hospital for the first two years, but then we went to a groups model. I explained (for what seemed like forever) how care was shifting from me to the congregation.

I stopped attending every church event.

We developed a great counseling referral network. And I started focusing on what I can best contribute given my gift set: communication, charting a course for the future, developing our best leaders, casting vision and raising resources.

Many small church pastors are actually more burnt out than large church pastors.

Small church pastors, please realize this: if the key to growing your church is to work more hours, you’re sunk. Work better and smarter with clearer boundaries and expectations. Don’t just work longer.

Once you master that, you can thrive, even as your church grows.

4. Tradition has more pull than vision

This is not just about traditional churches—it’s true of church plants too.

The past has a nostalgia to it that the future never does.

Even the recent past. Remember how great the church felt when it was smaller, more intimate and met in the living room/school/old facility?

The challenge for the leader is to cast a vision that is clear enough and compelling enough to pull people from the familiar past into a brighter future.

5. The natural desire to do more, not less

As you grow, you will be tempted to do more. Every time there are more people/money/resources, the pressure will be strong to add programming and complexity to your organization.

Resist that. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.

Often the key to reaching more is doing less. By doing a few things well and creating steps, not programs, you will help more people grow faster than almost any other way.

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