How Growing Churches Can Maintain Strong Community

Bobby Gruenewald: “A church’s ability to grow and to make people feel needed and known shouldn’t feel mutually exclusive.”

If you went to Decatur First Church of the Nazarene in Decatur, Illinois, in the early ’90s, you knew the Gruenewalds. It’s not because I grew up in a notable or particularly large family. We were just all over that place. Members of my family served as ushers and assisted at summer camps, with the worship team, on the church board and spent months volunteering on the new building construction.

About 300 people attended Decatur First Church, and the Gruenewalds were there every weekend, every Wednesday night and many nights in between. Without any sense of self-importance, we felt that the church wouldn’t be the same without us.

We played a significant role in the life of the church, and the church played a significant role in the life of our family. Our friendships and relationships were centered around people we knew from church. As we were in community with other believers, we didn’t have a choice but to grow spiritually. It happened naturally as a result of our relationships. That experience had a huge influence on my development in the way it shaped my faith.

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As I look back on that season, I now realize what was going on. At Decatur First Church of the Nazarene, my family was needed and known.

Twenty-five years later, I find myself on staff at a church that’s over 200 times the size of the church I grew up in, and we want to keep growing. Our evangelistic passion drives us to relentlessly pursue people who don’t know Christ, and we create room for them even before they walk through our doors.

Needed and Known vs. Outward-Focused

Many people see an inherent tension between the size of a larger church and its capacity for making people feel needed and known. They see growth goals at odds with the intimacy and vulnerability that happens in community. They argue that people can come and go unnoticed each weekend, or that they won’t feel the desire to serve or give because one person’s contribution won’t seem to make a difference.

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A false dichotomy can creep into church circles when leaders feel they have to choose between two extremes: an inward-focused church with a vibrant community and modest growth, or an outward-focused church with vigorous growth and weak community.

And yet, if that were true, I probably wouldn’t have stuck around Life.Church. I loved my time at a smaller church, and I want my own family to have that same experience of being needed and known as they grow up in the church. The reason I stayed is because our leaders have always placed importance on that value, no matter what our size has been. That’s not to say it’s easy to accomplish or that we’ve found the perfect balance. We know we need to keep adjusting and improving with each season of our church.

Questions for Leaders of Larger Churches

Being needed and known isn’t a new concept for churches, but leaders of larger churches will need to exercise awareness and diligence to make it happen in their church. If you’re a leader of a larger church, you and your team might consider discussing questions like these:

Is our drive for efficient systems pushing people out of the equation? Can we choose strategic areas where we want to favor human solutions over technology solutions? Or are there ways we can use technology to create more touch points for personal interaction?

Are we nearing full capacity for any of our volunteer roles or teams? Are we too rigid in defining how people can serve? How are we creating new ways for people to contribute according to their unique gifts?

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Beyond small groups, how can we create smaller environments within our larger ecosystem? Can we offer additional service times and find ways to create community among our regulars at each service?

Questions for Leaders of Smaller Churches

If you’re a leader at a smaller church where people are flourishing as they feel needed and known, I’d encourage you and your team to consider discussing questions like these:

If people at our church love that they feel like insiders, how do we extend that inclusive culture to visitors and newcomers?

When we enjoy the feeling of the community we’ve got going, how do we keep from growing complacent with the status quo? How do we develop a discipline to keep bringing new people in?

Are we welcoming new ideas? How can we create a culture that embraces change?

What’s the evangelistic temperature of our people? How can we model a passion for reaching people who don’t know Christ?

A church’s ability to grow and to make people feel needed and known shouldn’t feel mutually exclusive. I’ve seen this firsthand through my experience in the church where I grew up and the church I serve in today, and I’ve seen it in the Bible as we read about the first-century church.

“Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved” (Acts 2:46-47).

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Bobby Gruenewald is pastor, innovation leader at Life.Church. Connect with him on Twitter: @BobbyGwald