- Unresolved Conflict. Conflicted churches don’t grow. It’s never “fun” to deal with conflict, but in a smaller church there seems to be so much more at stake. The loss of a family or a whole family system in a medium sized church is unpleasant. In a small church, though, that same loss may mean half or more of the worshipping participants walking out. And so, rather than dealing with conflict effectively, the leaders and the congregation as a whole will choose to ignore the conflict. Of course, this can kill the church just as dead … it just takes longer.
- Lack of Hospitality. First-time visitors decide whether or not they’ll return to your congregation within the first 10 minutes of their visit – and some experts suggest the decision is made within the first three minutes. Either way, you will never get another chance to make a first-impression, so make sure your guests are well received. Remember that Hospitality begins in the parking lot, not once a guest finds their way into your worship center. They generally come with pretty low expectations and an even lower opinion of churches and their members, so when they show up on your doorstep you’re already starting from a deficit. Thus, if there’s no safe, sanitary, and secure nursery for their little ones they are unlikely to be back. If they have to try and keep their older children and youth “entertained” during your worship service, they won’t be back … mostly because they were totally unable to worship or even hear the message, since they were continually distracted by their kids. And if you break any of the Platinum Rules of Guest Relations – Don’t Embarrass Me, Don’t Ignore Me, Don’t Overwhelm Me, and Don’t Confuse Me – they won’t be back. For the record, everything you do … from your choice of hymns to the content of your sermon … is related to hospitality. This is the number one reason first-time guests don’t return.
- Inward Focused. Although it’s true of non-growing churches of every size, it’s especially hard to miss when a small church is more concerned with answering the question “What about us?” rather than “How can we be the tangible touch of Jesus for our neighbors?” When maintaining status quo outweighs faithful effectiveness, church growth is impossible. Please note this is not strictly a “style of worship” issue. Inward focus generally pervades every decision a non-growing small church makes from where the pastor spends her/his time to what events get on the calendar. Offer an early evening Family-Friendly Christmas Eve Service that will attract and reach the neighborhood? “We’ve always had a 7 PM service of Scripture and Carols with candlelight every year. What about us?” Indeed, even offering an alternative (two services!) will get shot down – “You expect us here two times on Christmas Eve?!?!”
- Leaders Don’t Support the Growth. Someday we’ll write a book titled “Classic Textbook!” In it we’ll include those practices and results that are Classic Textbook. Like this one. Here’s the scenario that’s played out over and over and over and over in the small church. A new pastor arrives … or a long-time pastor gets busy … and suddenly there’s growth. There’s new people coming and the average attendance starts to swell. Everything seems fine. The new members seem to be well accepted by the current members who seem to be happy there’s new life. Within a couple of months attendance has almost doubled! The pastor starts writing articles for Net Results, the local denominational official is calling and congratulating the pastor, and dreams of becoming a keynote speaker on the Church Circuit seems almost with grasp. Then, out of nowhere, conflict breaks out over some seemingly trivial matter. In less than three weeks the congregation is pretty well back where it began, at least attendance-wise. This is Classic Textbook. It happens well over 80 percent of the time in small churches. What’s the root cause? The leadership wasn’t really onboard with the growth. Sure, they nodded at what seemed the appropriate moments, but when SUBCONSCIOUSLY realized they could be outvoted at an upcoming board meeting, that there really were new people who might actually become a committee chair, or worse the board chair, tensions naturally surface. Note, I’ve yet to work with a church where a church leader intentionally started a fight in order to sabotage growth … but it just happens … almost every time. Unless the church leadership is really on board, sustained growth isn’t going to happen.
- The Church has Become the Walking Dead. If history has shown us anything, it’s that nothing we build lasts forever. The reality is, churches have a life cycle. Churches are birthed, they live, and they die. As wonderful as St. Paul was, not a single church he started exists today. Sure, some churches are born, get old, but find a way to be rebirthed. But in the end, even these churches will one day be history. In reality, there are many, many small churches that have died … they’ve reached the end of their productive life cycle and at best, they are on life support. But the few, the proud, the tenacious will continue to show up because it’s what they’ve always done and to do any differently is unthinkable. These churches need one of two things. In some cases, the remaining membership can be helped to see the congregation needs to be disbanded before they deplete whatever resources are left … and to leave those resources to support a new church start. This is the most faithful legacy a church can leave. On the other hand, some congregations are so steeped in denial and grief that the legacy option seems more like suicide than faithfulness. These churches need a pastor who can serve as their hospice chaplain – someone who’s greatest gift is simply to be there and prepare the dying for death.
On the other hand, if you want to know how to grow a small church – and it’s happening all across North America – we recommend a couple of resources. First, watch the Church-Talk episode on Smaller Church Leadership … and take a look at related episodes (there are a couple years of weekly Church Transformation episodes to keep you and your teams busy). Second, if you’re really serious about growing your small church, be sure to check out the Small Church Coaching network (www.SmallChurchCoaching.com) and the resources offered there to help you and your congregation go to the next level.