You can’t pastor a church of 500 the way you pastored it at 100. Or a church of 100 the way you did at 25.
But how do we know if we should break through from one size to another?
For at least a generation there’s been an underlying assumption that every church should strive to be bigger. It’s never a question of whether-or-not we should break through growth barriers, just whether-or-not we’re willing to do what it takes to get there.
What if we tapped the brakes on that for a moment?
Assumptions are dangerous.
As my church growth friends like to tell us, we can’t assume that what got us to one level of growth will get us to the next. But shouldn’t that also apply to assumptions about whether-or-not we should get to another growth level?
Yes, we need to obey the Great Commission. Seeing people come to Christ must be at the heart of every healthy church.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean that a bigger church is 1) the best way to do that, or 2) the inevitable result of having done that.
How do we know that a congregation will not grow beyond certain sizes (typically called “barriers”) unless the leadership changes the way they lead? Because that’s been studied, researched, footnoted and proven for decades. You simply cannot lead a church of 1,000 in the same way as a church of 100.
But we haven’t spent much, if any time doing similar research to ask whether-or-not we should break growth barriers. For instance, if you Google “how to break church growth barriers” you’ll get a ton of great material on how to break church growth barriers.
Then, if you Google “why break church growth barriers” you’ll get a ton of great material about … how to break church growth barriers. Nothing on why we should. (At least nothing came up on the first few pages when I did it. Unless this article shows up now, of course.)
No, a Google search isn’t definitive, but it is indicative. It tells us what we’ve been paying attention to – and, in this case, what we’re ignoring.
It’s assumed that we should break church growth barriers. But is that a valid assumption?
Don’t Assume An Anti-Growth Bias
Please don’t assume that I’m against church growth. Or against big churches.
I’m against untested assumptions. On everything. As Carey Nieuwhof correctly noted in a recent article, we need to stop making unfair assumptions about megachurches, too.
We always have to think through the reasons why we do what we do. Especially when it’s as important as the church and the mission God has given us.
Don’t Assume, Assess
What about pastors whose gifts are suited to leading a church of one size range, but not a bigger size? Should they push to become bigger? Or should they figure out how to pastor in the best possible way for the size of church they’re most suited to lead?
If, for instance, a pastor’s leadership sweet spot is between 100 and 200, is it necessary for them to change their leadership style so they can pastor a church of 500 – 1,000? Is it even helpful? Maybe not.
If there was evidence that bigger churches are more effective than smaller ones, then every church should strive to get bigger. But that’s not what the research shows.
Certainly there are some kinds of ministry that big churches can do better than small ones. But the evidence that tells us that 10 churches of 100 will do at least as much discipleship and evangelism as one church of 1,000. Maybe more.
And those 10 smaller churches will probably see more salvations, too. As a recent Lifeway survey discovered, “46 percent of smaller churches (fewer than 50 in worship services) say they had 10 conversions or more for every 100 in attendance, while only 18 percent of churches 250 and above meet that benchmark.”
No Magic Pills
Pushing for numerical growth isn’t wrong, but it’s not a magic pill. It has some downsides.
Given this reality, we need to ask if we should get bigger before teaching pastors and churches how to get bigger.
It only makes sense to ask some serious questions about this. Like, is it wise to keep pushing for numerical growth if it takes you out of your leadership sweet spot? And, is it possible that most churches are small, not because they’re failing, but because that’s where most pastors and churches do their most effective ministry?
I’m not assuming what those answers might be. Small churches aren’t a magic pill, either. They have plenty of downsides.
But the questions matter.
So let’s get back to the question posed in the title.
Why break church growth barriers?
The go-to answer is “because we want to reach more people for Jesus.”
I agree. Every church and pastor should want that.
But what about the churches and pastors that are best-suited to reach people and follow God’s call in a smaller environment? What about the 10 churches averaging 100, or the 20 churches averaging 50, that are reaching more people for Jesus than the typical church of 1,000? (I’m not assuming that’s always the case.)
Here’s my best shot at a one-sentence answer: We should adapt our leadership style to break church growth barriers when, and only when, doing so is a better way to reach people for Jesus and make disciples.
When shouldn’t we break church growth barriers? When it’s not the best way for a specific pastor or church to reach people for Jesus and make disciples.
Find Your Size
Big churches are great.
Small churches are great.
In one situation, a big church may be the best way to reach more people for Jesus and disciple believers into mature, loving, worshipful disciples-makers. In another situation, a bunch of smaller churches may be the best way to do that.
In most places, a mix of all sizes and styles is what we need.
All types of churches to reach all types of people.
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