For years I had prayed to move back home to Colorado and minister in an area where more churches were needed to reach the unchurched. In 2001 God called my family and me to a dying church on the western slope of Colorado in a resort area. My research suggested 90 percent of the population was unchurched. The congregation was small, elderly, discouraged, and without vision, but the core group—about 15 people—claimed they wanted to reach their community, that they dreamed of doing more with their retirement than ski. My family and I moved in, started praying, and got to work.
Soon a young family with children my daughter’s age started attending. That made three kids in our congregation! I baptized the father in a mountain lake on a cool October afternoon.
My wife was hired as a third-grade teacher at a local elementary school, and I volunteered there. We started several community groups for people not involved in any church. Through those connections and God’s providence, more people joined our church. By 2003 our two small chapels were filling up for services, and we began dreaming about a third chapel in a nearby community. It seemed God was bringing our dreams to life.
Then one Sunday, in the midst of all this exciting growth, one of our original core members approached me. “You’ve changed everything,” she said, her mouth trembling with anger.
I was speechless. Every pastor dreams of leading a growing, flourishing church, but few of us consider the change such growth can bring about.
That day I realized my pastoral work wasn’t done when my ministry dreams came true. What looked like happily ever after became a tale of caution—one that I’m considering carefully as the church I currently serve experiences a similar season of rapid growth. I’ve had to ask myself on more than one occasion, how should pastors navigate the deceptively tumultuous waters of burgeoning church growth?
Expect the Riptide Effect
On a recent vacation, I read a sign on the beach warning of riptides, powerful and dangerous ocean currents that pull away from the shore. Even the strongest swimmers can find themselves drawn far out to sea when caught in one.
Swimmers are lost in riptides because they don’t expect the danger and are drawn too far out to sea to return to shore. Something similar happens when churches experience growth. While we focus on bringing in new people, unexpected and unintended changes may draw churches far away from their original vision.
Years ago, when I was a youth pastor, our church plant moved into its permanent building. This move caused a huge surge in attendance. The building was like a stamp of approval; it seemed to prove we were legitimate. I soon had 40 rowdy students in my middle school class. One morning after class, one of the boys who had been with us from the beginning, a member of my small group Bible study, approached me.
“That’s a terrible tie,” he said pointing to me. “And those shoes are stupid.”
I stood in shocked silence, hurt.
This wasn’t like him at all. He was not a hateful person. After processing the incident with fellow youth pastors, I came to the conclusion that the group’s growth made him feel lost, like an outsider. He was complaining in the only way he knew how: middle-school insults. I decided to start meeting with him after school, not to scold him, but simply to listen and reaffirm his importance.
Even good things such as new buildings, new people, and new staff can cause unexpected responses. Ezra experienced this when he returned to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple. He raised money, reappointed priests and workers, and led the remnant of Israel back home. It was a long-prayed-for and joyous event. Two months after their arrival, they had laid the foundation for the new, larger temple, and they held a celebration. But then something unexpected happened.
All the people gave a great shout of praise to the Lord, because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid. But many of the older priests and Levites and family heads, who had seen the former temple, wept aloud when they saw the foundation of this temple being laid (Ezra 3:11–12).
I’ve seen this kind of thing happen again and again in different ministry settings. Several people in my current church, which is experiencing fast growth, have expressed a yearning for the days when the church was smaller.
“I’m glad so many people are finding a home here,” one of our introverted members said, “but I had a hard time fitting in when we were small. How am I going to find a place now?”
One staff member asked, “How will we retain our culture? This growth is changing us.”
Even our senior pastor, when he returned after several months away on sabbatical, felt as if he didn’t know the congregation.
Usually my response to expressions like these is to counter them with logic. “More church members means more people who might share your interests.” “Isn’t some culture change worth it if we’re able to share God’s Word with more people?”
But often what’s called for is listening. Back to Ezra: “No one could distinguish the sound of the shouts of joy from the sound of weeping, because the people made so much noise” (3:13). A yearning for “what was” may not be simple nostalgia. In my experience, the issue is almost always deeper than the surface outcry. Listening without getting defensive allows us to discern people’s actual concerns.
Don’t Fight the Current
Listening and having hard conversations about real issues can help a church manage growth, but awareness alone won’t keep things afloat.
In a riptide, swimmers who realize they are being dragged far from shore may panic and fight against it. This does nothing but wear out the swimmer. So too with fighting growth in your church.
In the Anglican church I serve, we include communion in every worship service, serving people one at a time with bread and a common cup. This is an ancient, personal, and holy ceremony. As we have grown, the time it takes to serve everyone has increased, cutting into our already brief time between services. Recently we struggled with the idea of moving from two communion stations to four. Such a decision would have consequences: our priest and deacon would no longer be able to serve everyone, which they often did by name.
Questions began to arise. With eight servers, would everyone bring the same integrity to the ceremony? And four stations would certainly add confusion to a holy process. Instead, should we eliminate other parts of the liturgy? Shorten the sermon? Shorten the beautiful, repeated words of “Christ’s body, broken for you” and “Christ’s blood, shed for you” to each person?
In the end, we didn’t let our fears intimidate us, and we made the needed change from two stations to four. The move has been positive, opening up opportunities for more leaders to serve in this holy rite. We have not impinged on the second service, shortened the sermon, or eliminated any liturgy. Nor have we needed to truncate our spoken interactions with each communicant. It remains a personal and holy expression of the gospel.
Resistance to change is natural and sometimes called for. But rather than automatically fighting change based on hypothetical difficulties, I’ve found it better to thoughtfully evaluate particular situations our congregation is facing to understand what is at stake. We must take care not to resist uncomfortable adjustments that ultimately protect foundational issues or practices.
Keep the Shore in Sight
The sign I saw on vacation advised those caught in riptides to swim parallel or diagonal to the shore. Swimming with the tide while angling slightly toward the shore allows one eventually to swim out of the current. Likewise, a seemingly inefficient move must sometimes be made to keep rapid growth from pulling a church away from its core values.
As our church has grown, our staff meetings have filled with discussions about how to manage that growth. Urgent issues tend to force more important vision-and-values discussions aside—unless we intentionally let all growth discussions flow from those values.
Our church considers spiritual formation and equipping people for ministry among our core values. These values had simpler, more relational application when we were a smaller congregation. But as we’ve been pulled out by the riptide of growth, those values have felt less attainable, and they’ve often been eclipsed by waves of urgent practical needs.
While debating the practicality of adding a third worship service, we saw our staff discussions focus more on buying narrower chairs and tweaking service time slots than on the harder conversations about how to spiritually form and equip the new people we hoped to fit into our small sanctuary. We needed to pause and take a refresher course on our vision and values.
Holding to our identity as a Spirit-led congregation, we decided to reserve the month of October for prayer and fasting. Not only did each of our staff members commit to individual prayer and fasting about the way forward, but we also invited the congregation to join us for prayer during the lunch hour every Wednesday. For an outside observer, this may have looked more like a tangent than a clear step toward accommodating growth. But this sidestep helped us keep our vision and values in sight and our priorities in order.
Of the several themes that surfaced during this dedicated time of prayer, “caring for our people as we grow” rose to the top. We discovered the importance of not merely accommodating new people, but relationally and spiritually caring for old and new alike.
Back to the Shore
Even after this dedicated prayer time, we know our logistical options are limited. Our facility is still too small, with no way to enlarge it. A third service will create space in the sanctuary, but it will not alleviate crowding in our educational space. In fact, another service may cause more unmanageable growth there. And because we sense God confirming our commitment to reach and care for the city of Englewood, we will not relocate to the suburbs where more building space is available. Our way forward is still rather murky, but we are trying to remain open to what God has for us.
Still, through this process God has re-grounded us in the vision and values he gave us 18 years ago. Each time the riptide of growth and change has pulled us out to sea, he has led us back the shore and back to himself. Whether we continue to grow or not, we know who we are, and we can respond to our God-given vision regardless of our circumstances.
Growth and change are not foreign to the story of God’s people. The Bible shows that they first worshiped him with standing stones in desert places, then in a movable tent, and finally in a fixed temple. Each of these movements demanded a response from God’s people. As they followed him, they changed and grew.
God is immutable, but he is not static. Israel learned to follow God in new ways, trusting his leading. God commands no less of us today.
Growth all too often sweeps churches away from God’s calling. But if we address that growth intentionally—listening to people’s concerns, embracing needed surface changes, and preserving foundational values—growth can remain a blessing.
Eugene C. Scott is executive pastor of Wellspring Church in Englewood, Colorado.