Breaking Through Church Growth Barriers (Part 3)
Every church faces a common set of challenges as they hit certain growth barriers in the life of their ministry.
For this conversation, we’ll define large churches as those between 800 and 3,000 in attendance. These congregations reflect less than 5% of all churches nationally.
LARGE CHURCHES: BREAKING THE 2,000 BARRIER
Some common issues hold true for churches of all denominations and expressions as they grow beyond 1,000 and face an entirely new set of challenges as they near 2-3,000 mark. At this stage, there is a mindset that churches need to transition through if they’re going to continue growing… So there are some churches with a larger attendance that I’d still put in this category because they haven’t appropriately wrestled with these challenges yet.
In this week’s episode, we’ll discuss breaking the 2-3,000 barrier by exploring the common challenges that hold large churches back from future growth with some practical ideas on how to approach them. Join in as we unpack:
- Developing reach systems & strategies
- The role of the church staff vs. the board
- Moving from events to relationships
- Why digital ministry still matters
At this free webinar, you’ll learn to address the growth barriers you may be feeling now, as well as how to recognize the warning signs of future barriers that may be ahead as your church continues to grow.
This Episode Is Sponsored by Planning Center:
Planning Center is an all-in-one church management system that gives you the tools you need to organize your ministries and give your congregants a place to engage. Whether you’re looking for a secure check-in for families, an effortless way to schedule volunteers, or an easy method to give online, sign up for only what you need. Go to planningcenter.com and start your 30-day free trial today.
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Welcome to The Unstuck Church Podcast, where each week we are exploring what it means to be an unstuck church. Every church faces a common set of challenges as they hit certain growth barriers in the life of their ministry. These issues hold true for churches of all denominations and expressions. For churches that grow beyond a thousand, they face an entirely new set of challenges as they near that two to 3,000 mark. On today’s podcast, Tony and Amy continue our series on how to become a church that’s both healthy and growing by looking at some of the common growth barriers with some practical ideas on how to approach them. If you’re new to The Unstuck Church Podcast, stop before you listen, and go to theunstuckgroup.com/podcast to subscribe to get the episode show notes in your email. When you do, you’ll get resources to support each week’s episode, as well as access to resources from all of our past episodes. Again, that’s theunstuckgroup.com/podcast to subscribe. Before we get into this week’s conversation, here’s a word from Tony.
Today’s episode is brought to you by my friends at Planning Center. Planning Center is an all-in-one church management system. With a single software, you’ll have the tools you need to organize your ministries and give your congregants a place to engage. Whether you’re looking for a secure check-in for families, an effortless way to schedule volunteers or an easy method to give online, you can sign up for only what you need. Go to planningcenter.com and start your 30-day free trial today.
Well, we’re now in part three of our series on breaking church growth barriers, and today, we’re gonna talk about the challenges that large churches face. And I’m assuming everyone thinks of a slightly different number when they hear large church, Tony. So can you define that for us before we jump in?
Well, sure. I mean, actually, if you were to look at the data of all the churches, church of any over a hundred people is actually a large church. However, for today’s conversation, we’re gonna define it maybe as a church between 800 and 3,000 people in attendance. And these congregations really do reflect less than 5% of all the churches nationally. And I will say there’s nothing magical about 3,000 either. It’s really more of a mindset that churches need to transition through if they’re going to continue growing. So there are some churches with a larger attendance that I’d still put in this category because they haven’t really appropriately wrestled with those challenges yet, Amy.
Okay. All right. So we’re discussing breaking that two to 3,000 barrier and answering the question, what distinguishes large churches from very large or megachurches? So, what are the common challenges, Tony, that we see hold large churches back from future growth?
Well, Amy, you could probably explain this first challenge even better than I can because the, the biggest challenge is they have a complex organizational structure. And over time, these churches will have added boards and committees, and as the ministry has grown, rather than unifying under the oversight of one board and a clear understanding of its role, which is to empower staff to lead the day-to-day ministry and really develop a pathway for the right leaders to join the board. So getting the right people and serving on a unified board to help guide the ministry forward in, in, into day-to-day ministry.
Yeah, that’s right, Tony. We’ve actually mentioned this as something that gets mid-size churches, too, right? A complex governance structure is something that can get churches really of any size unable to move forward towards healthy growth, and I definitely have seen my share of that in the many years I’ve been working on the Unstuck team. And by the way, if you’re a church leader and you’re hearing this and thinking, “Yes, that’s my situation.” I encourage you to go back to a series we did in November on effective church boards and governance models. We covered topics like structuring your governance for unity, the roles of the board versus the roles of the staff and more. And that was episodes 269 through 272.
That was a great series. And it really not, it’s not just how we structure our, our governance, but it really comes down to decision making to help us be able to move ministry forward. And governance may not be the most flashy topic, but for many churches, it can still be a huge barrier to growth if we don’t get it figured out. Alright, so moving on to challenge number two. Second challenge is the spiritual formation path is not defined. When the church is smaller, the path doesn’t necessarily need to be defined in small churches. Next steps are driven relationally. People develop a relationship, and then that naturally leads to a next step spiritually. In large churches, though, people will likely need to take a step before they have a relationship. And that’s why it’s essential for these larger churches to clearly define that discipleship path and make sure that it’s supported by systems and then leadership. And churches, then once that’s defined and they have language around what that path looks like, they need to routinely communicate it so that people have a clear understanding of what their next steps look like in their personal spiritual journeys.
And it seems like this challenge and the next challenge on our list kind of go hand in hand, don’t they?
Yeah, they do, Amy. This third challenge for large churches is that they have too many programs and events competing for people’s time and attention and resources, too. I mean, the challenge of having an ill-defined spiritual formation and discipleship path typically compounds then this problem of overprogramming.
Yeah, absolutely. And I think, Tony, our natural tendency is to think that we need to offer more ministries and more programs to encourage more steps of spiritual formation, but that’s actually faulty thinking. Time and time again, research has shown that it’s not attending programs or events that creates real spiritual growth in people. And we refer to this concept a lot when working with churches around this issue. And I think this quote from Greg Hawkins and Cally Parkinson’s research book Move sums it up. Well, they said this, “Unfortunately, churches often make things harder by obscuring the goal to become more like Christ with a complicated assortment of activities. When the church incessantly promotes all the things people should do, it’s very easy for them to lose sight of the real goal, which is who they should be becoming.” So, in other words, instead of filling spaces so people can experience an event, we need to focus on helping them get from where they are now to where God wants them to be.
And helping them become more like Jesus. That’s absolutely right, Amy. Establishing a clear discipleship path is all about intentionally helping people move forward in their next steps of faith. And that being said, it’s not enough just to clarify the path. Large churches must also get focused and selective with their programming and events. Yes, programs and events can play a role in our discipleship path, but we need to be incredibly intentional about making sure every event is tied to a specific next step or ministry goal and that it’s a good use of our staff’s time and resources.
Yeah. Tony, I was just working with the church, I don’t know, four to six weeks ago, and they would fall in this category being between 800 and 3,000. And that was actually one of the big “ahas” that the pastor and the executive pastor had while we were there. They, they, they’re an active church. People are using their building all the time, and ministries are having event after event after event. And we just talked through a simple debrief process for those events, which actually starts with a clear purpose and what’s the clear win and how do you drive that win from just an attendance or a number of people showing up? How does it actually connect to that discipleship pathway? And this whole concept becomes particularly necessary when churches are hoping to go multisite or expand in the future because the more campuses we have, the more events, the more programs, etc. It’s important for churches to break that cycle of just having events before they expand if possible.
Let me just tag on, it’s, you know, Amy, we’ve talked about this several times even in recent months. But through the years, we’ve worked with a lot of churches, but we’ve worked with a lot of multisite churches, as well. And we’ve worked with some multisite churches long enough that we kind of warn them on the front end of jumping into multisite, “You really need to streamline your ministry programming and your spiritual formation path.” Well, they maybe didn’t believe us when we said it in the beginning, but now they’ve done it long enough that it hasn’t been addressed, and they’re circling back with us because they’re realizing by giving all of the campuses a lot of autonomy about programming, events, ministries and especially around spiritual formation, it, it does; it just creates all kinds of complexity and all kinds of challenges but particularly for multisite churches. So you asked about the third challenge and this third challenge gets large churches stuck, and it’s all about systems and strategies. They, they haven’t been developed particularly around communications, and, and we’ve mentioned the need for systems before as it relates to spiritual formation. But the reality is that healthy systems need to be developed around every key touchpoint within the church.
Tony, when you say touchpoints, you’re referring to things like connecting new guests, registering new kids, I don’t know, connecting to a small group or volunteering, is that right? Along those lines?
That’s right. Yeah, that’s exactly what I mean. So good communication strategy and systems may be the most important need because it touches every area of ministry. What we’ve seen is that without a solid communication strategy, churches either try to give every ministry an equal voice or the ministry with the loudest voice wins. And for whatever reason, that tends to be student ministry, Amy. I don’t know why; they just have loud voices. But in either, either case, the most important next steps don’t get the priority messaging and promotion that they deserve. And it’s also important to note here, most of the systems churches do have are focused on people already connected to the church and the faith. Very few large churches have developed effective reach strategies and systems that is strategies for connecting with people far from God or spiritually curious people. And this easily becomes one of the reasons then why even large churches can get stuck.
Yeah, that makes sense, Tony. I mean, we can’t effectively grow if we’re catering to the people who are already there. We have to care for them but not cater to them. And we saw this a lot after the pandemic as people returned to church. Churches maybe thought they were reaching new people, but, you know, came to find out, these were really just people moving from one church to another church. And of course, there’s nothing wrong with that either, but we don’t want our churches to rely on growing by reaching people already connected to other churches.
Right. And our path shouldn’t start when someone comes to our church or gives their life to Jesus. It should start with strategies and systems to reach people who are not yet interested in faith and those that are spiritually curious, which leads us to the next challenge.
Well, the challenge is this, their model leans too heavily on large group gatherings that don’t foster relationships. It’s really impossible to engage discipleship outside of relationships. And the challenge is that when churches are smaller, most of the environments were small enough that when people engaged in those environments, it was still fostering relationships. But, as the church grows, there needs to be a strategy to encourage people to step into environments where relationships can develop. And that may be small groups or ministry teams or one-on-one relationships of some sort, mentoring or otherwise, or some combination of the three. Let me give you a specific example. I was talking with a pastor in recent days and describing the church has experienced all kinds of growth, and what used to be men’s ministries and women’s ministries where maybe a dozen or more people gathered now have hundreds and hundreds of women and men gathering. And because of that, there are so many people coming to those environments that it’s really become more of an upfront teaching and worship time. And people may chat with each other a little bit, either coming or going from those events, but they’re really large group events now. And it doesn’t really create the opportunity for relationships to develop in those types of ministries. So rather than discontinuing men’s ministry and women’s ministry, what we talked about doing is how can we leverage the larger group gatherings? Maybe they don’t happen quite as often, but how could we leverage those larger gatherings to encourage people to step into relationships through small groups? Because otherwise, people will become dissatisfied if their only connection to the church is through a large group gathering or service.
Yeah. I was just talking Tony with Chad Hunt from our team. He’s a lead pastor, and his, his church is growing. And we were talking about, you know, he has his discipleship pathway mapped out. Obviously, they’ve got their weekend services mapped out, and over the past 12 to 18 months, where his team has really doubled down on are kind of three steps to help people go from that large gathering to actually start engaging on their discipleship pathway. And he talks about, you know, the first step, it’s, it’s minimal time commitment, and it’s minimal relational commitment, if that makes sense. I think it’s something like take five minutes and come meet the pastors after the service. And then step two is like one of those 15-minute overviews, I think like around the next steps or learn more about the church. It has a little bit more time, but there’s a little bit more relationship built into it. And then he has a third step and that takes a little more time and a little bit more relationship. But it’s been working. It’s their version of their funnel to get people engaged in the life of the church. And you know, I’m not saying that’s the way every church should do it. In fact, I probably didn’t give you enough detail to get there. But there’s this idea of we have to put some time to: how do we get them from large group to the discipleship pathway?
Yeah. So let me give you a specific example of that first step you described. Christ Church is a great church in the Chicagoland area. I was just with them, and for that very first step that you mentioned beyond Sunday service, which is minimal time and minimal relationship, they have started in the last year, they call it Christ Church in Five. And all it is the ask is at the end of the service, “Join us for five minutes just to get to know you a little bit, for you to get to know us.” Not a lengthy commitment of time, obviously, and because of that, you can’t go deep in relationship. But it’s that easy first step that people can take beyond the Sunday service.
Yeah, yeah. It’s great stuff. All right, well, let’s go to the fifth challenge, Tony. What’s next?
So, the fifth challenge that gets large churches stuck is that they haven’t shifted to a staff-led structure. As, as churches grow, the demand for paid professionals to drive the day-to-day decision-making also increases. And at some point, it just, it becomes impractical for volunteer lay leaders to continue to make day-to-day ministry decisions regarding people, property and money specifically. And by the time most churches get to this size, they’ve probably already eliminated ministry-specific boards or committees. But it’s kind of bringing together all those remaining boards and committees that may currently exist, and rather than continuing to use that kind of governance model and structure, we’re shifting all of those key responsibilities to staff leaders. And at the size, though, the next step is for lay leadership teams to really release this day-to-day decision-making to the staff and, instead, elevate their focus to overarching mission, vision and ministry resourcing. So, for the church board, we’re not, we’re not involved in day-to-day decisions. We’re really empowering our pastors and staff to carry through with day-to-day ministry, and we’re really just protecting the overarching mission, vision and ministry resourcing.
Yeah, so what we’re talking about at this stage is really clarifying the roles and the responsibilities of the church board versus the church staff. When these roles are not clearly defined, we see all kinds of layers of complexity and dysfunction on a team. And in some cases, this becomes so extreme that the governance of churches actually hinders the leadership of pastors and staff so that they’re no longer able to leverage their spiritual gifts to carry out the mission God’s given the church. We were just on a call this week, Tony, where governance was their lead initiative coming outta their time together.
And it is hindering their ability to move forward and to lead. So, on the other hand, Tony, like you said, thriving churches are led by lay leadership teams that streamline decision-making and empower the pastor and the staff team to lead strong. So that’s what we mean when we call it a staff-led church. The board members are responsible for protecting the mission and vision, but the senior pastor and the staff are empowered to lead the day-to-day ministry, including defining ministry strategies.
That’s good wisdom, Amy. And again, if you’re hearing all of this and thinking, “Tony and Amy are reading my diary here.” Do people still, do they still write in diaries, Amy?
No, I think they call ’em journals.
Yeah. I couldn’t use the, “Tony and Amy are reading my mail” here because people don’t get mail either, but if this is true, if this is resonating with you, go back to that series that we did in November and specifically episode 270, where we talked about the role of the board versus the role of the staff leaders.
Okay, Tony, we’re almost done. What’s the last challenge that gets large churches stuck from reaching their next stage of growth?
Well, I have a feeling some of our church leaders aren’t going to like this one, Amy. The seventh challenge for large churches is that they don’t have a clear digital ministry strategy.
Why do you think church leaders don’t wanna hear that?
I think that the prevailing attitude from a lot of church leaders today is that they’re just a little tired of hearing about this topic because it’s been hammered into them for the last few years. But I also think a lot of leaders feel that digital ministry, well, that was just a pandemic thing, and then we can leave it behind now that we’re back to normal. In fact, I’m even hearing from pastors who think that their digital ministry is now competing with their in-person services. And for that reason, they’ve kind of moved away from digital ministry completely.
Well, I hate to be the bearer of bad news here, but that’s really not what the research has shown at all. In our latest edition of The Quarterly Unstuck Church Report, we found that while average online service views were down across all churches surveyed, the churches that were growing in person were also seeing an increase in online engagement.
That’s right, Amy. And we saw that growing churches on average have two online service views for every five people attending physical service gatherings. So churches that are experiencing attendance growth at their physical service gatherings have more people watching services online, which seems to confirm that online is kind of one of those new front doors to the church. However, for a lot of large churches, they still won’t have a strategy for reaching new people or engaging people already connected to the church using digital tools beyond posting a video of each service online. And they also haven’t shifted finances or staffing to support that digital ministry. And it’s just one more thing they’re tackling onto the job description of maybe the youth pastor or the media director. Since the front door of the church is now online, this lack of clear digital ministry strategy really does become a major gap that inhibits future growth online and in person.
Yeah, you made a good point there, Tony. You know, you may be a large church listening and thinking, “We do have a clear digital ministry strategy.” But do your ministry budgets and staff structure backup that strategy because digital ministry is really one of those areas where you have to put a lot in, in terms of investment and consistency, to be able to see growth. It’s an investment, especially on the front end. All right, well, once again, we’ve covered a lot in a short time today. So, Tony, any final thoughts before we wrap up today’s conversation?
Whether it’s your systems and structures, leadership development or digital strategy that’s holding you back from the next level of growth, we wanna help you identify your pain points and make a plan to move towards sustained health. And that’s why we’re continuing the conversation around this topic of church growth barriers at an upcoming webinar on May 25th. At this live event, we’ll be discussing how to break through the four most common plateaus. So if you’re interested in diving deeper on some of the topics we’ve been discussing in the series, sign up to join us for the webinar through the link in your show notes.
Well, thanks for joining us on this week’s podcast. Again, like Tony said, we’d love to have you join us for our upcoming webinar on May 25th on Breaking Church Growth Barriers to register. Just use the link included in your show notes. And if you don’t yet have the show notes, just go to theunstuckgroup.com/podcast. Next week, we’re back with another brand new episode. So until then, have a great week.