5 Tensions Every Small and Midsize Church Encounters

Carey Nieuwhof: “Overcome these tensions and you’re closer to progress. Avoid them and you can stay stuck a long time.”

People clearly have strong opinions and emotions about the size of churches.

When I began in ministry, I spent about three 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 tensions those congregations face.

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 feel 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 tensions every small and mid-sized church encounters:

1. The desire to keep the church one big family. 

This pressure is huge. 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 wished 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.

From Outreach Magazine  Forgiving Difficult People—Is It Possible?

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.

This is a tension almost every small to mid-sized church faces. 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 healthier for it. The people who were supposed to lead got to lead. And we grew.