Why is it that so many smaller churches in North America are not growing? Good question. It rarely has anything to do with how much the pastor and key leaders love God. Some of the most devoted followers of Jesus I know lead smaller churches that are not growing. It also has little to do with whether or not the church is part of a denomination. There are denominational churches that are growing, and denominational churches that aren't. Location isn't a deal killer either. Location is important, obviously, but alone doesn't prevent growth. Let's say, for example, your church is located in a small rural area. That will have a definite impact on the rate of growth and overall growth potential of your congregation. But it doesn't prevent it from growing. We know this from smaller churches in little towns that are doing well. We know this even more so because of the reverse. There are smaller churches in huge cities that aren't growing at all.
So what is it? Before I offer some thoughts about why smaller churches aren't growing I want to mention something that I have written about a few times. It's "The Big Three." They are prayer, evangelization (harvest), and leadership (development). They must be the core values of every church. This is a given. There is and will always be a direct relationship between the emphasis on these things and the growth of your church. The intriguing thing about these three elements is that they apply to both smaller and larger churches.
The following five questions are connected to possibilities about why your church isn't growing, or could stop growing. They are meant to serve you as a tool for evaluation that can move to implementation and ultimately change that produces growth. These five ideas are not designed to be specific solutions, but a set of leadership lenses to help you see your church more clearly. I pray that as you consider these five, you may be encouraged about the potential of your church's future.
• Has friendship outpaced focus?
One of the best things about a smaller church is that the fellowship is alive and vibrant. People love and care for each other deeply. People know each others names and connections are tight. That's a good thing, a very good thing, but it can backfire when it comes to growing the church. New people visit and the church is friendly, but friendly like in a hotel where the guests are not expected to stay for a long time.
It's easy for a smaller church to turn inward and invest most of its ministry energy into itself. In time this will begin to shape how decisions are made, how money is spent, and ultimately what the church does and doesn't do in order to reach people.
In one way or another, the Great Commission is the focus of your church. It's why your church was started and why you keep it going. A focus on friendship and relationships in general can take your leadership eyes off the goal. So, how about your church, which is truly first? Is your focus on the Great Commission or caring for established relationships?
• Have you stopped believing its possible?
I'm certain that when your church was started, there was great passion and hope for its future. That's how all churches start. Years into the journey, however, some or even all the zeal can fade. And when the road has been particularly difficult for some time, it's possible to no longer believe the church will ever grow again. You can talk the talk in the lobby and even on the platform, but deep down inside you may have given up.
This sounds bleak, but I'm compelled to say it because it's true in far too many churches. If you are the pastor or a key leader, you must believe your church can grow. You must believe it has a future. And if you can't believe that, then believe that God has imagined a future and He can grow it, but He needs you in the game. God needs you to change your mind to match His. Capturing the mind of Christ about your church is essential.
Kevin Myers, Senior Pastor of 12 Stone Church in Lawrenceville, GA occasionally tells the story of when he gave up. Many years ago the church was small and struggling and he lost faith in the church's future. He shared this with a close pastor friend and his friend said; if you've lost faith that your church can go on, borrow mine! Kevin did! Today 12 Stone has thousands of people attending. The size of the church isn't as important as your belief. Find some leaders close to you who still believe and tap into their faith until yours is once again strong enough to take the lead.
• Have you embraced a shotgun ministry style?
Over-simplified and exaggerated for affect, there are two approaches to ministry design in your church. 1.) "If you have an idea for a new ministry that might help somebody, do it." 2.) "No new ministries are started here for the next two years." The general vibe of the first one is "Yes." And the general vibe of the second is "No." The second is the wiser of the two.
If you and your church team employ a nearly random freedom to start ministries, even though they may be good, you create a busy mess of activity. You inadvertently experience a lack of focus that drains the best ministries, and exhausts volunteers and staff. In the big picture, you are doing more and accomplishing less.
It's important that you offer fewer ministries in order to accomplish more life-changing ministry impact. To do this, you need to be very intentional in your choice of ministries. No one church can do every ministry, that's an obvious fact. So what you choose to do needs to be selected wisely and prayerfully. Saying no to all other ministry options is not squelching the Holy Spirit, its common sense granted from God. Doing less allows you to do it better and with deeper impact.
• Is there a lack of courageous teaching?
Loud doesn't indicate truth and thundering away doesn't guarantee courage. Courage comes from the inside. This kind of godly boldness overcomes personal fear. When you know God is speaking to you, there is a quiet confidence that allows you to stand before the people and speak the truth, letting the chips fall where they may.
I've been reading commentaries for many years. I respect the hard work the authors put into their craft. But I get frustrated when they get to the difficult verses and glance over them or skip them altogether. I don't need commentaries for the easy verses! People in your church feel the same way about the messages, even if they don't say it. Don't skip saying the hard stuff. I'm not referring only to difficult biblical passages. In fact, I'm really talking about the spiritual leadership contained in your teaching.
If you are the pastor, let me shoot straight. Ask God what He wants to say to your people and say it. Don't back down. Say it in love, but say it. People respond to truth, they don't always like it on the first round, but they instinctively know its right. People respond better, over the long haul, to robust vision over nicely crafted scholarly sermons! Don't expect one Sunday to accomplish the big picture. This is a 52 week a year process.
• Does popularity override good decision-making?
Pressure is part of every leader's life. How you handle it internally and what you do with it externally matters. Pastors have to deal with their issues just like anyone else. Pastors love people. That's a good thing. The bad thing that often accompanies that reality is that pastors want to please people. In a smaller church that can turn into an issue of popularity. If the pastor's desire to be liked becomes unhealthy, that can have a huge impact on decision-making in the church. This does not reflect integrity or morals, just human nature.
I was a pastor for almost 25 years. I love people. I prefer that people love me back. But that didn't always happen. Especially if I had to deliver an answer that went against what someone wanted. But I chose the right leadership decision over being liked. Candidly, those moments aren't much fun, but they are necessary. And they can make the difference about whether or not a smaller church stays small or grows larger.
Take an honest look at these five questions. I trust that addressing one or more with serious effort will help your church reach its potential!
"Glorifying God through prayer, the harvest, and leadership development."
[by Dan Reiland, The Pastor's Coach - modifications and personalization by Don Brock]