When it comes to church growth, some barriers or size plateaus prove to be difficult to overcome, churches feel stuck at a certain size. Many thinkers and strategists have written about these attendance barriers that burden today’s church.
For example, a lot of churches get stuck at 35 members. These kinds of churches are typically comprised of a family or two and some of their friends. Another barrier exists at 75 members. The church consists of a pastor, who may not be full time, and a congregation in which everybody knows each other. The 125-person barrier is one of the hardest for churches to break through because progress involves restructuring and thinking differently.
Even when churches do break through these barriers they often remain hindered because their thinking is still associated with their previous attendance level. A location suited for growth, effective outreach and a tremendous word-of-mouth campaign can help churches power through barriers without ever changing their thinking.
Eventually, though, stagnant thinking will catch up to the church. To continue their growth, churches must shift their thinking. There are four shifts that must take place to ensure continued growth past the traditional attendance barriers.
1. Pro-Growth Shift
First, church members and leadership must shift their mindset from anti-growth to pro-growth. I once received some pushback from an occasional attendee at our church. During an outreach emphasis, he asked why we were wasting our time emphasizing church growth. He said we were behaving like a business and that we should be happy with the people we already had.
Our church is unapologetically pro-growth for a very specific reason. It has nothing to do with salary, status or fame. We are pro-growth because there are people in our city without Christ. We believe we can reach more people than we are reaching currently. Growth is good because it means more people who are far from Christ will be brought near.
That doesn’t mean you idolize numerical growth as the complete picture of church success. It simply means you keep growth as a mindset—not as the only indicator of the success.
2. Relational Shift
The second key mindset shift must express itself in how church members relate to one another. In Transformational Church: Creating a New Scorecard for Congregations, Thom Rainer and I outline relational intentionality as one of seven elements common in churches that see the transformation of individuals, their congregation and their community. Many churches struggle to keep attendees because they fail to connect them in relationship with others.
Because proximity to other people does not automatically lead to community with other people, the shift must move people from sitting in rows to sitting in circles. Having a 30-second meet and greet on Sunday mornings will not help visitors connect, but helping them to make friends through small groups will. A small group environment provides opportunities for authentic community and connection to the church at large.
3. Staff Shift
In order to break attendance barriers, a church must experience a staff shift. It’s not necessarily that churches need to hire more staff members—though that could be the case—but rather they must help their staff undergo mindset shifts regarding the functions and purposes of their ministries. They must intentionally spend time with two specific groups of people—leaders and the lost.
Church staff members need to increasingly move into different roles. The pastors should be administrators, while the people serve as the ministers. Ephesians 4:11 says that pastors and teachers are to equip believers—the ordinary members of a church—for works of ministry and for the building up of the body of Christ.
The success of staff is not based on accomplishing tasks, but rather on meeting with, working with and providing leadership to lay leaders, who then carry out leadership in each ministry area. Church staff should shift from being shepherds who perform all the ministry tasks to being ranchers overseeing the shepherds in each ministry.
4. Ownership Shift
The fourth and final shift must take place in the lay leaders within the church. They must take responsibility for their respective ministries. They must own the goals, plans and strategies for implementing and improving their ministries.
This concept must spread to the church as a whole. Beyond merely those in a leadership position, every church member must see the church as his or her own. They should not think of it in terms of being the lead pastor’s church or the elders’ church. Every church member must take ownership and work toward the church’s growth and health.
Ultimately, both churches and church plants looking for revitalization must shift their mindsets. As members and leaders become pro-growth and seek to connect visitors and members in authentic relationships, transformation will occur. Then, as church staff works both to reach the lost and equip new leaders for ministry areas, staff and members will experience renewed ownership and responsibility for their roles within the body of Christ. Then the church can break any barrier they face.
Ed Stetzer holds the Billy Graham distinguished chair of church, mission and evangelism at Wheaton College and the Wheaton Grad School, where he also oversees the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism.