The Stupid Things We Do That Hinder Growth

Geoff Surratt on three unnecessary barriers to church growth.

I have a confession to make: My name is Geoff, and I am a churchaholic.

Nothing is more exciting to me than to see growing churches. I love them whether they are across the country, across the county or across the street. I can’t imagine anything more fulfilling than to be involved in a place that is making a dent in the number of people who would otherwise face an eternity without God.

And as a churchaholic, nothing is more frustrating to me than walking into a good church with a sharp pastor and discovering that the church isn’t growing. The pastor is pouring everything into this body of believers, but despite best efforts and sincere prayers, the most that can be hoped for is to have as many people this year as last. You can see in this leader’s eyes, hear it in the voice—the desire to see the church grow—but week after week, month after month, very little happens.

The reasons why churches don’t grow abound. Some churches are so hard to find you need a guide dog and a GPS to attend. The unique membership requirements of snake-handling churches tend to keep their congregations small. And sometimes church leaders are doing something stupid that keeps their church from growing. The reality is that God is sovereign and he blesses who he wants to bless, but sometimes we erect unnecessary barriers that can make it difficult for God to bless our churches.

Barrier 1: Lone Ranger

The most common barrier to church growth that I’ve seen in my own pastoral experience and through working with churches across the country is a leader who tries to do too much of the ministry alone. When I pastored Church on the Lake in Huffman, Texas, I was the one-stop leader shop. I not only preached on Sunday morning, Sunday night and Wednesday night, I filled a plethora of other roles: Sunday school superintendent, worship director (though I can’t play or sing), bookkeeper, janitor, maintenance man, men’s ministry director and adult Sunday school teacher. And I mowed the lawn on Saturdays.

Somehow I missed Paul’s meaning in Ephesians 4:11-12: God “gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.”

Rather than equipping the saints for the work of ministry, I was doing the work of ministry and inviting the saints (and sinners) to watch. What my little church needed was a good garage sale.

Every year, the garage at my house becomes so clogged with old decorations, discarded boxes and odd Christmas presents that we have a ruthless garage sale. We start by sorting everything into three piles: keep, sell, trash. My goal is always to make the “keep” pile the smallest.

What if we did the same thing as leaders?

Make a list of everything you do for the church. Then divide that list into three columns: stuff only you can do, stuff someone else should do and stuff no one should do. Once you have the lists, begin giving away the responsibilities on the “someone else” list and eliminating those on the “no one” list.

Your church is far more likely to grow as you become an expert at giving away ministry and focusing on the important things God has called you to do.

Barrier 2: Hard Questions

A second barrier to growth is failure to face the hard questions. Have you ever asked why you have a Sunday morning service? (Other than on Sunday afternoon when you’re thinking, “Why do I do this? Please God, let me do something else.”) It’s amazing that we do the same thing every weekend, week after week, year after year, and we seldom ask why we’re doing it.

Are you there to carry on a tradition? To feed the saints who show up every week? Entertain visitors who may or may not come back next week? Or are you driven by a desire to make God famous and to bring honor to His name whatever it takes?

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If the purpose of your Sunday morning service is to make God famous, is it happening? Would He be proud of the way you care for your building? Does your approach to worship bring joy to His heart? What about the sermon you preached last weekend? Would God say, “Wow, you really did everything you possibly could to build My reputation through that message”?

Another hard question we need to ask is, “Who are we trying to reach?” Who has God placed in your path and called you to reach with the Good News? The answer to that question will have large implications on what your church will look like. When I was at Seacoast Church, we opened a campus in an urban part of Charleston, S.C.; we knew our target had changed. Chris Tomlin songs had to give way to Kirk Franklin’s hip-hop beats, and some of our suburban lingo would need to shift if we wanted to connect with our new neighbors.

Hanging out at Starbucks on Sunday mornings helps me figure out who our church needs to reach. Once the church people clear out (in our area, they’re the ones in the coats and ties), I’m surrounded by people who don’t wake up each weekend thinking about church. These are the people we need to reach.

I settle in and take notes on the people around me. How old are the other customers? How are they dressed? What are they talking about? Are they married? Then I compare that data to our church on Sundays. Are we applying the timeless truth of the Gospel to the issues and interests people are talking about? If the people I saw at Starbucks were to drop by our church, would they fit in? So next Sunday, try skipping church and going to Starbucks. I think you’ll be amazed at how much you learn about your community by doing some holy eavesdropping over a tall chai latte.

Barrier 3: The Curse of Knowledge

Chip and Dan Heath in their book Made to Stick (Random House) introduce an interesting concept they call the Curse of Knowledge. The basic idea is: You can’t not know what you already know—and once you know it, it’s very difficult to remember what it’s like to not know. I experienced this recently at the Department of Motor Vehicles.

I needed to register a new (to me) car, so I headed to our local DMV. When they called my number, I took my stack of documents to the counter. When I told the DMV employee that I needed a license plate and a title, she looked like I had slapped her favorite baby seal. “You cannot have a title today,” she explained. “You’ll have to wait 10 days.” Chagrined and ashamed of my ignorance, I stared blankly across the counter. “So what do you want to do?” she asked. We were at an impasse; she knew how to do that special magic that makes a car legal to drive in our state, but I didn’t know the correct way to ask her to make it happen.

The Curse of Knowledge: I knew too little and she knew too much. All day every day she registers cars and doles out titles (after a 10-day wait apparently), but she cannot relate to someone who doesn’t understand the process. She doesn’t remember what it’s like not to know.

Imagine walking into your church for the first time. Maybe you have never been in a church before, or maybe this is the first time in many, many years. Imagine listening to the music, hearing the sermon. Imagine feeling a tug on your heart and knowing you need to do something to be connected with God, but you have no idea what you should do or how you should do it. Imagine hearing about “small groups” and “Bible fellowship” and “baptism.” Imagine having someone say you need to “ask Jesus into your heart so you can be saved” and wondering what in the world this is all about.

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Many of us have been in the church so long we have completely lost touch with what it’s like not to know. Things like communion, public prayer and taking an offering seem very normal to us, but they can be quite intimidating to the uninitiated. If we want to improve our ability to connect with “outsiders,” we have to find a way to see Sunday through their eyes, to get past the Curse of Knowledge.

Gaining fresh perspective requires intentionality, strategy and consistency. A few ideas to try:

• Ask new attendees for their feedback. We did this at Seacoast. All who identified themselves as new attendees received a postcard asking for their input. This was invaluable over time as we made significant discoveries about ourselves. For instance, we heard repeatedly that newcomers liked our worship service, but they felt like our congregation wasn’t friendly. We thought we were very friendly, but we realized we were only friendly to people we already knew. We responded by challenging our people to become “guerrilla greeters” and spend the first and last five minutes of every service talking to people they hadn’t met before. Over the next few months, first-time attendees began to remark on the friendliness of our congregation.

• Trade pulpits with another pastor for a weekend. After you’ve preached at each other’s churches, get together and compare notes. Encourage your pastor friend to be ruthless; it’s the only way you will learn. We even tried a Secret Shopper service. For a relatively small fee, companies will send a Secret Shopper to your church for a Sunday service, then send you a report on this visitor’s experience (similar to Outreach magazine’s “Mystery Visitor” department based on a report from FaithPerceptions.com). Now I know there is a high “ick” factor to paying someone to come to your church and getting anonymous feedback as though you are some kind of fast-food religion store. Here’s the way I see it: McDonald’s feels that selling hamburgers is so important that they will pay people to rate them on how well they do it. I feel that making an effective presentation of the Gospel is so important that I’m willing to pay people to give me feedback on how well we do it.

One of the Fastest-Growing (Small) Churches in America
For several years, I walked alongside my friend Brett Thompson as he has worked through each of these barriers, moving his congregation in Greensboro, N.C., from a long period of stagnation to a season of rapid expansion. Brett delegated or eliminated many of the tasks he used to do. He focused on the hard questions, bringing in outsiders to give feedback on how the weekend experience could be improved. And Brett led his congregation past the Curse of Knowledge to seeing the church through the eyes of a newcomer. As a result, the church experienced rapid growth.

Wherever your church is today, you can see it grow as you remove the barriers and let God do the growth thing.

Geoff Surratt is author of Ten Stupid Things That Keep Churches From Growing, and co-author of Multisite Church Revolution and A Multisite Roadtrip (all published by Zondervan). You can connect with Geoff at GeoffSurratt.com or on Twitter.