May 3, 2023

7 Reasons Why Small Churches Get Stuck – Episode 294 | The Unstuck Church Podcast

7 reasons why small churches get stuck

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Breaking Through Church Growth Barriers

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It’s possible to grow a church that’s not healthy. It’s also possible for healthy churches to get stuck.

The only real win is for there to be both health and growth in a church. When that happens, we get to celebrate as churches continuously fulfill the Great Commission and make more disciples.

We want all churches, regardless of their size today, to be healthy and to experience growth. That’s why in this new series, we’re going to discuss how to break common growth barriers for churches of four different sizes: small,  mid-size, large, and very large.

Different churches wrestle with different issues, and many times those challenges are a reflection of the church’s size. The purpose for putting churches in these categories is to help you determine what your priority focus needs to look like at each phase of growth.

SMALL CHURCHES: BREAKING THE 200 BARRIER

Change starts by getting perspective—by trying to understand what is getting you stuck in the first place.

In this episode, Amy and I will walk through seven common reasons that small churches get stuck and offer practical ideas for breaking into the next season of growth. Tune in as we discuss:

  • Overcoming an insider-focus
  • Learning to give ministry away
  • The importance of moving to two services

"Church Growth Barriers" Webinar

How to Break Through the 4 Most Common Plateaus

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.

To grow beyond the small-church mindset, the pastor has to take the lead in equipping God’s people to do the work of God. [episode 294] #unstuckchurch Share on X One of the reasons small churches get stuck is that they want different results without any change. At some point, though, the pain of staying the same must be greater than the pain of change. [episode 294] #unstuckchurch Share on X Participation is attracted to preparation. The more prepared a church is, the more likely that they will get people to join in and then participate. [episode 294] #unstuckchurch Share on X If you're a church that is serious about impacting lives and reaching more people for Christ, adding a second service at the right time is an ideal option for achieving that goal. [episode 294] #unstuckchurch Share on X
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This Episode is Sponsored by BELAY:

As church leaders, we can often think that if we aren’t doing everything, we aren’t doing anything.  But that’s very far from the truth. No one accomplishes anything great alone. Great leaders delegate to the right person. There’s often people who can do some of your workload even better than you can! Your focus should always be on those things only you can do: leading your ministry and growing your congregation.

If you feel like you’re overwhelmed trying to do it all, BELAY can help. BELAY, a modern church staffing organization with fractional, U.S.-based Accounting and Virtual Assistant services, has helped busy church leaders do just that for more than a decade. To help you figure out where to start, BELAY is offering a free resource to guide you through what tasks you should delegate. Get back to your mission and your people. Delegate to a virtual assistant today and get out of the administrative weeds, and back to growing your organization with BELAY.


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We use #unstuckchurch on Twitter, and we start a real-time conversation each Wednesday morning when the episode drops. You can follow me @tonymorganlive and The Unstuck Group @unstuckgroup. If Facebook is where you spend your time, I’m there, too.


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Transcript

Sean (00:02):

Welcome to The Unstuck Church Podcast, where each week we are exploring what it means to be an unstuck church. The term church growth can often carry some unfavorable baggage because, as we’ve seen, it’s possible for a church to grow but not really be healthy. It’s also possible for a church that is healthy to get stuck. On today’s podcast, Tony and Amy begin a new 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, we invite you to head over to theunstuckgroup.com/podcast to subscribe to get the show notes in your email. When you do, you’re gonna get resources to go along with each week’s episode, including our Leader Conversation Guide, some bonus resources and access to our podcast resource archive. Again, that’s theunstuckgroup.com/podcast to subscribe. Now, before today’s conversation, here’s Tony.

Tony (01:00):

As church leaders, we get adjusted to the ever-growing list of to-dos and often want to get everything done ourselves. But that’s a recipe for burnout. Sometimes, the best thing you can do is to give that next task to somebody else. No one accomplishes anything great alone. We need a trusted team to make sure the church thrives. Great leaders delegate, and great church leaders focus on their ministry and leave the administrative and bookkeeping tasks to other qualified people. If you feel like you are overwhelmed trying to do it all, that’s where our friends at BELAY can help. BELAY, a modern church staffing organization with fractional US-based accounting and virtual assistant services, has helped busy church leaders do just that for more than a decade. To help you learn what you can start delegating today, BELAY is offering a free resource for our audience. It’s the top 25 tasks a pastor can delegate to an assistant. Just text UNSTUCK—that’s U-N-S-T-U-C-K to 55123 to get back to growing your church with BELAY.

Amy (02:14):

Well, welcome back to our listeners. Welcome to you, Tony. Good to see you. Good to see you on the screen at least. People often wonder if we’re in the same room when we’re recording this. But you’re in Atlanta, and I’m in Minnesota. But at least we can see each other when we record this.

Tony (02:27):

That’s absolutely right. But our, our, we were together with our spouses for a short time recently.

Amy (02:35):

We were.

Tony (02:35):

And that was a lot of fun. So, yeah, it’s pretty rare that we’re actually in the same physical location like that. So that, it was good to be able to hang out with Jason, and, and I know Emily enjoyed that time, as well, Amy.

Amy (02:47):

I was just glad you guys were driving. That’s, that was Jay and I, we were happy about that part. It was great to see you guys. And then we, I don’t know; I think I’ve been home less than 48 hours in the past two weeks. I’ve been in the Midwest. Tony, I’ve been to Indiana. I’ve been to Ohio. Going back to Indiana. Where have you been?

Tony (03:04):

So, several places. But last week I was in Augusta, Georgia, right after the Masters golf tournament. So I just missed that. But I did get to hang out with Pastor John Kenny and the folks at Quest Church. And my goodness, there’s just a lot of great things happening in that ministry right now. And this is one of the churches. There have been several in recent weeks that is now back to pre-pandemic numbers as far as the number of people engaging at the church.

Amy (03:37):

Yeah.

Tony (03:37):

And so, they’re actually bumping up against some of the growth barriers that they were experiencing pre-pandemic, which kind of lends itself to the conversation we’re about ready to start happening today, Amy.

Amy (03:50):

Yeah, it sure does. We’re starting to, our listeners, we’re starting a new series today, all about Breaking Growth Barriers in your church. And, Tony, just can you share a little bit the heart behind this and explain where we’re going in the series?

Tony (04:02):

Absolutely. I know that the term church growth, as an example, can have all kinds of connotations and baggage associated with it. So I want to clarify what we mean when we say we want the church to grow. The heart behind the series is this: it’s possible to grow a church that’s not healthy, but it’s also possible, possible for healthy churches to get stuck. So the only real win is for there to be both health and growth in a church. And that’s what, that’s what we’re praying for when we engage with churches. That’s the process that we’re working toward is to both see health and growth in the church. And when that happens, we get to celebrate as churches continuously fulfill the great commission and make more disciples. So I do; I want all churches, regardless of their size today, to be healthy and over time to experience growth. And that’s why in this series, we’re going to discuss how to break some common growth barriers for churches of four different sizes.

Amy (05:06):

Yeah. We’re gonna discuss breaking the 200 barrier, the 1,000 barrier, the 2,000 barrier and the 10,000 barrier. And, Tony, why did you choose to break it up that way, by the way?

Tony (05:16):

So the purpose for putting churches in these categories is to help you determine what your priority focus needs to look like because it’s gonna be different for churches of different sizes. They wrestle with different issues, and many times those challenges are, are a reflection of the church’s size. But these are tendencies. Not all churches in these four categories will be impacted by every factor that we’ll highlight through this conversation. And let me give you one example. Systems are a big deal for large, larger churches, but systems really are important when churches are smaller, too. But they’re not as important as they are for larger churches because everyone tends to know everyone in smaller churches. And we can kind of work, do some workarounds just based on those relational connections.

Amy (06:07):

Sure.

Tony (06:07):

In other words, systems may be an issue in small and mid-size churches, but they may not necessarily limit health and growth at that stage. But on the other hand, a lack of systems will certainly impact the church as it grows. And for the larger churches that we work with, I know that’s one of the common challenges that we’re working through, Amy. I’ll make one more disclaimer. I’m not suggesting that all churches in a particular range of attendance are stuck. Stuck means different things to different churches. Some are not seeing new people, particularly young adults. Some are not seeing people accept Christ and begin their faith journey. Some are not seeing disciples become disciple makers. Some are not experiencing growth as they expected. I believe, though, there’s hope for all of these churches, and change starts by getting perspective, by trying to understand why you got stuck in the first place.

Amy (07:06):

All right. Well, I’ll make a disclaimer then, too. I think it would be easy for any of us on this side of the prolonged global pandemic to assume our church’s stuckness is still rooted in the challenges we faced in 2020 and 2021. However, I don’t know if you’re hearing this, Tony, but what I’m hearing from churches across the country: things are actually normal—again, air quote, normal again.

Tony (07:27):

Mm-hmm.

Amy (07:27):

So I think it’s important to understand that the issues we’re gonna talk about in the series were true before the pandemic began and, if anything, have only become an even bigger issue because of it.

Tony (07:38):

Amy, I’m glad you said that. Now, I don’t have to. So, thank you for, thank you for sharing that.

Amy (07:43):

Yes. Happy to help. All right, well, let’s dive in then, Tony. Today, we’re gonna talk about breaking the 200 barrier and answer what distinguishes mid-size churches from small churches. In other words, what are some of the common challenges that get churches stuck at small and fail to keep growing?

Tony (07:59):

Yes. In each episode of this series, we’re going to offer seven reasons why churches get stuck at their current size, and at, at sometimes, it’s gonna be a little bit rapid fire on some of these. We’ll take some time to unpack a little bit further and provide some next steps. But here are the first two reasons that small churches get stuck. Number one, they maintain an insider focus. In other words, everything they do is designed with the person who already attends the church in mind. They use insider language. It’s reflected in the design of the worship and then also in the teaching. The ministry programming is for insiders. Guests in any of the church’s ministry environments really aren’t expected, and they aren’t welcomed because of that. And as you might imagine, the perception that church is for people who already attend church really limits then the incentive to invite somebody new to, to that church to experience a service or some other ministry program.

Amy (08:59):

Mm-hmm. Yeah. You know, we recently talked about the insider focus as being one of the key reasons churches head towards decline. And, of course, it all goes back to the why of why our churches exist in the first place. And if, if any of us lose sight of that, we certainly won’t be healthier growing. What’s the second reason, Tony?

Tony (09:16):

The second reason is that the senior pastor is doing all the ministry. And Amy, this is really pretty common in the smaller churches that we engage with. And really a key distinction between small and mid-size churches. When a church is small, the senior pastor can greet every person. They know everyone’s name. They attend every family celebration. They pray for every meal. They make every hospital visit, and they teach every Bible study. And because of that, the pastor is expected to do everything. To grow beyond that small church mindset, though, the pastor has to take the lead in equipping God’s people to do the work of God. And the senior pastor must learn how to give ministry away to others. And this is a learning that the church has to go through, but it’s really a learning that the pastor has to go through, as well.

Amy (10:09):

Yeah. So if you are a pastor of a smaller church, I hope that you heard that one; you do not have to do everything yourself. And I, and I hope that’s encouraging for you to hear because, of course, it can be nerve-wracking at first to give ministry away to others, but ultimately it’s where we’re called, it’s what we’re called to do as leaders. What else is on that list, Tony?

Tony (10:30):

So the third reason small churches get stuck is that they value busyness over relationships. And even smaller churches can quickly become over programmed with Bible studies, men’s or women’s gatherings, services on Sunday, services on Wednesday and so on. And the challenge in small churches is the expectation that everyone will attend everything. And that can quickly become overwhelming. So all that activity also limits the amount of time people have to build relationships outside the church, which is key to eventually encouraging new people to take steps towards faith and steps towards the church. Another reason why these churches get stuck is that everyone has a vote. And that’s the way decisions tend to get made in small churches. And even the decisions that don’t actually involve a vote, it still seems like everyone has a voice. So in instances where there are dissenting voices, even if they’re the minority, that’s enough to veto and stop a decision. And so, in other words, everybody has to agree or we can’t move forward.

Amy (11:40):

Right.

Tony (11:42):

Because there’s this expectation that you need consensus from everyone for change to be implemented. And that, Amy, really is one of the key reasons why in smaller churches there’s this hesitancy to make any changes, even positive changes, because we feel like everyone has to agree to move forward.

Amy (12:02):

Yeah. It’s exhausting probably just thinking about making change. So it probably gets stopped before it even gets started.

Tony (12:08):

That’s right.

Amy (12:08):

You know, this one really has potential to get churches stuck. In fact, in our work with churches, we often get asked the question, will you do any type of congregational vote or surveying, you know, surveys during our consulting process? And I know you’re already shaking your head, the answer is no.

Tony (12:26):

That’s right.

Amy (12:26):

Right? Because, unfortunately, getting consensus from everyone often prevents good ideas from moving forward. And as much as giving everyone a vote sounds biblical, it’s really not as it gives unbelievers and uncommitted Christians unequal voice with others in the church.

Tony (12:42):

Yeah, that’s exactly right, Amy. And the church really can’t function as a democracy, as good as that may sound, or maybe given our political circumstances today, as bad as that may sound. So, let’s talk about the fifth reason. The fifth reason small churches get stuck is because they’re unwilling to move to two services. And I actually wanna spend a bit more time on this one. Most pastors of small churches, let’s say 200 or less, want to reach and impact more people over time. And adding a second service at the right time and for the right reasons really can help in that effort to reach more people. However, church leaders and congregants and smaller congregations often raise passionate objections whenever this topic is considered. And a few of the common objections to adding a second service are these. There’s a fear of loss of unity, and this objection assumes that a close-knit family atmosphere is best created whenever you bring together a group of people in the same location at the same time. And here’s the thing about that. Unity within a congregation should be driven by a focus on the same, having the same vision, having the same mission, having the same values and shared teachings of the church. In the end, it’s more important to share vision and mission than a service time or a site location. A second reason why there might be some hesitancy is a lack of participation. And this objection revolves around the unknown. What if we add a second service and no one new comes? What, what do we do about the empty seats that we already see right now? What if we launch a new service but can’t rally enough volunteers to help? What I have come to discover is that participation is attracted to preparation. The more prepared a church is about change, the more likely that they will get people to join in and then participate. And then, finally, let me talk about this objection. It’s the, it’s the fear of maybe creating burnout. Adding additional services, it will take a lot of work. There will be volunteers to recruit and train, communications and talking points to prepare. And leaders sometimes object to adding another service because work is already piling up, and they’re not very interested in committing to the greater workload that comes with making this type of change. But I believe that the key to mobilizing people to take on additional responsibility is providing them with a clear and compelling reason, a compelling vision for doing this. And everyone longs to be a part of something bigger than themselves, and most people are willing to take on more work if they can clearly see a meaningful purpose in doing so. And in this case, Amy, we’re talking about the possibility of reaching more people for Jesus. And so, if we can connect that mission, that, that future vision to the work that needs to be done, I think it’s gonna be easier to, to encourage people to jump on board and be a part of that.

Amy (16:04):

Well, those are some convincing reasons, you know, for some leaders why they don’t add that second service. But do you have some more convincing reasons that small churches should consider this? You know, are the benefits truly worth the potential risk?

Tony (16:18):

So I can’t promise that adding a second service will be a silver bullet solution to every growth barrier small churches face. There are several key benefits, though, of making the move to two services, and here are just a few. Number one, it’s cost effective for leaders who buy into, into the belief that everyone should know everyone on the surface. Moving to a larger space may seem like a good approach to accommodating more people and keeping them all together. However, the cost associated with this approach can quickly add up. And adding a second service in your existing location is generally more cost effective than renting a bigger space or remodeling a facility or building a new one altogether. Second benefit is you’ll reach new people, and we see this time and time again. When a church can provide multiple service options, that can make it easier for new people to come and visit. And people in today’s culture are used to having options, Amy.

Amy (17:19):

Sure.

Tony (17:19):

And so from schools to gyms, people want to connect with organizations that do not lock them down to just one choice. And then lastly, at least for today, though I could offer several others, let’s just talk about that focus on the opportunity. When you have multiple services, you can then encourage people in your congregation to attend one service and serve one service. And having two services allows volunteers to attend a worship with their family, even on days when they serve, while at the same time being able to use their gifts to serve the body of Christ, to serve the mission. And this type of structure provides a healthy rhythm for church volunteers and allows them the time to be on the receiving end of the church’s ministry without any gaps in between. So if you’re a church that’s serious about impacting lives and reaching more people for Christ, adding a second service at the right time is an option that can help you achieve that goal.

Amy (18:22):

Yeah. And hopefully, hearing you’ll reach new people is convincing enough.

Tony (18:25):

That’s right.

Amy (18:26):

Alright. What are the final two reasons why small churches get stuck, Tony?

Tony (18:30):

Yeah. Number six is that the teaching doesn’t provide life application. It’s, in other words, the teaching, it’s biblical teaching, but it’s just focused on imparting biblical truth without helping people see how that truth applies to their daily lives. Now hear me out on this. I am a fan of biblical truth, but it needs to lead to practical next steps. The challenge is that teaching that offers life application is harder than teaching just to increase knowledge. And I can give the facts all day long, but helping you put that knowledge into action so it leads to transformation—that’s completely different.

Amy (19:11):

That’s such a practical next step. Tony. And the good news is pastors of small churches, you don’t have to get consensus to change the way you teach. You have decision rights there. So you can begin that this Sunday.

Tony (19:24):

Yes, you have permission to change how you approach your teaching this coming Sunday. But that leads then to the final reason that churches get stuck trying to overcome this barrier of 200 or so people in attendance. And it’s that they want different results without any change, and that’s not, it’s just not going to happen. I could give you all kinds of biblical references to new wine and old wineskins here, but that probably is not gonna help you either. At some point, the pain of staying the same needs to be greater than the pain of the change that you need to engage. So let’s pray It doesn’t take a crisis for you to get to that point as a congregation, but when the right group of people in the church feel that type of pain, there’s hope because now you can begin to consider what are the next steps we need to be taking to continue to reach more people for Jesus?

Amy (20:20):

Well, great words today. I think we covered a lot on this first episode of our Breaking Growth Barriers. And I think the idea for this series is, if you’re a church of this size, maybe not all seven of those issues are getting you stuck, but can you take these seven and see what one or two areas might be holding your church back specifically? Tony, any final thoughts we, before we wrap up today’s conversation?

Tony (20:43):

Yeah, as you mentioned, we covered a lot today. So if you’re listening to this episode and wanting to dive deeper into this topic, I wanna invite you to join us for an upcoming webinar on May 25th. It’s called Church Growth Barriers: How to Break Through the Four Most Common Plateaus That We See in Churches. And if your ministry has hit a plateau or you feel there’s something holding your church back from the next level of growth, this webinar is designed to help you identify that core issue and find your next steps towards health. So be sure to register now through the link in your show notes.

Sean (21:19):

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.

Tony Morgan

Tony is the Founder and Lead Strategist of The Unstuck Group. Started in 2009, The Unstuck Group has served 500 churches throughout the United States and several countries around the world. Previously, Tony served on the senior leadership teams of three rapidly growing churches including NewSpring Church in South Carolina. He has five published books including, The Unstuck Church, and, with Amy Anderson, he hosts The Unstuck Church Podcast which has thousands of listeners each month.

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