Church Leadership

Size Matters: Why Some Churches Never Grow

February 16, 2015

Every pastor wants their church to grow.  I haven’t met one yet who’s said, “I want to be known as a church killer!”  Going on four years of full-time ministry, I used to go from program to program looking for the magic bullet that would turn my church around and get it moving in the right direction.

Now, I by no means am I a church growth expert, but I have read a lot of material.  And one very helpful point was understanding that your approach to church growth depends a lot on the size of church you’re working with.  So what will it take for your church to grow and why don’t some move forward? Read on!

At the end, you’ll get a free resource that will help you understand and grow your church!

There are four main types of churches, each a different beast to understand.

Family C

Family Church: Also known as the Patriarchal Church, approximately 59% of American churchgoers attend such churches.  These churches are comprised of less than 100 active members (up to 50 of which are considered active because of their regular participation and attendance).

The reason why church researchers call this church a patriarchal church is because it usually has a handful of prominent lay leaders or families (of course, contrary to the name, the lay leaders can be men or women).

Role of the pastor: Don’t misunderstand my following statement; I’m not saying that this is done with evil intentions.  From what research has shown, usually in churches of these size, the pastor is seen as subordinate to the board or lay leaders.  The patriarch or the board has the final say in important matters and the church achieves no more than the patriarch.

Pastoral C

Pastoral Church: Also known as the pastor-centered church, approximately 35% of US churchgoers attend this kind of church.  These churches usually have between 50-150 members.  There are usually more active and engaged church members and leaders in this church.

Role of the pastor: Most times, the pastor is held in high esteem.  However, the reason why it’s called a pastoral church is because most of the decisions center around the pastor.  Here, the pastor is expected to be present at all activities and have the final voice in all major decisions.

These types of churches usually have pastors who are extremely likable, social, and outgoing people but typically have trouble delegating pastoral duties to others.  The church may also resist the idea of having pastoral care given by someone other than the pastor.  In this case, the church achieves no more than the pastor.

Program C

Program Church: These churches comprise 4% of US churchgoers and have approximately 150-350 members, half of which are active to a degree.  As the name implies, these churches usually have many programming options for members and visitors.  Members here are empowered for ministry based on their gifts and passions, and decisions are made in a collaborative effort.  If the church growing and working at this point, the only hindrance to further growth may be facilities or leadership structure.

Role of the pastor: In these last two categories of churches, the pastor is seen as the primus inter pares, Latin for the phrase “first among equals.”  Day-to-day leadership is less about power and more about empowering others.  The pastor’s role here is more of a CEO and vision-caster.

Corporation C

Corporation church: These churches comprise only 2% of US churchgoers but have the most amount of members individually.  These are churches that have an active membership of 350-500+.  In most cases, the church is connected to another large but separate institution, be it a hospital, school, or some other community service agency.

These churches are a unique beast in their own right.  They take many of the characteristics of the previous churches and roll them up in one.  As one resource says (which I’ll provide at the end):

The corporation church is characterized by more complexity and diversity. It includes many characteristics of the other categories, but in a more extreme form. The patriarchs and matriarchs return, but now as the governing boards who formally, not just informally, control the life of and the future of the congregation. The central pastor reappears as the head pastor who now has so much prominence that the personage acquires a legendary quality over a long pastorate. Perhaps few know this person closely, but the function does not require it. The head pastor becomes a symbol of unity and stability in a very complicated congregational life. The leadership of the laity now takes a multi-level form in which there is opportunity for working up the ladder of influence in the large community. We see the outline of the program church, but with more divisions of activity and more layers of leadership ranks.

There is a sense of belonging to something awesome when the community gathers in worship; the head priest is seen as presiding over the massive family. Much of the pride and loyalty in the congregation comes from being part of the majesty that is created by the large proportions of the church, the numbers, and the authority of the visible leadership. Newcomers might be attracted by an impressive worship service, powerful preaching, or a grand building.

The personal relationships between members of the congregation tend to form around small groups. These take many shapes and have various reasons for being. The programs are extensive and may reach into aspects of the members’ daily life.

The size of this church also allows a level of anonymity among members if they don’t want to be known in a deep way.

Do You Want Your Church to Grow?

Are you a pastor and want your church to grow to the next tier?  There are many important steps both spiritually and practically that you need to start doing in order to do so (prayer, learning, etc).  But the number one decision you need to make clear in your mind is that your role as pastor must change. 

Rick Warren, pastor of one of the largest churches in the US, underscored this very idea:

Once you decide you want to grow, you’ll need to analyze your role as pastor. You must be willing to change from minister to leader. If everything depends on you — if you have to personally minister to every person in your church — then the church cannot grow beyond your own energy level. And that is a barrier! You become a bottleneck, an obstacle to growth.

Some people may not like Rick Warren as a reference, so I’ll include two other quotes that bring out the same point that a pastor must change his role from sole-caretaker to something else.  These quotes are from Ellen White:

God has not given His ministers the work of setting the churches right. No sooner is this work done, apparently, than it has to be done over again. Church members that are thus looked after and labored for become religious weaklings. If nine tenths of the effort that has been put forth for those who know the truth had been put forth for those who have never heard the truth, how much greater would have been the advancement made! God has withheld His blessings because His people have not worked in harmony with His directions. Testimonies to the Church, Vol 7., 18.2

The greatest help that can be given our people is to teach them to work for God, and to depend on Him, not on the ministers. Let them learn to work as Christ worked. Let them join His army of workers and do faithful service for Him. Testimonies to the Church, Vol 7.,19.1

There are times when it is fitting for our ministers to give on the Sabbath, in our churches, short discourses, full of the life and love of Christ. But the church members are not to expect a sermon every Sabbath. Testimonies to the Church, Vol 7., 19.2

Yes, some places are challenging and sometimes, your ideas may fall on deaf ears.  You can’t change other people, but you can change the way you think about and approach your church.  Yes, in most cases, it is easier to plan a new church than to try to turn one around because of the immense amount of stress that may come your way.  If you have no option but to revitalize your church, Ron Edmondson recently released a great post called 8 Questions about Church Revitalization that you might want to check out.

Moving your church to the next level is going to take work.  Before you go bulldozing your way through like the Lone Ranger, I would suggest that you build a core group that shares your passion.  Remember this African proverb, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together!”

Free Resource: If you’d like to do some more research on how you can implement change depending on the size of your church, I’m sharing a great little handout called “Sizing Up A Congregation” which was released by Congregational Development Services a few years back.  It’s a great read to understand your context better.  Enjoy!

You can download it directly by clicking the following link: Sizing Up A Congregation.