by Carey Nieuwhof
Leadership is a little like life. There’s a picture in your head of how things will go, and then there’s how they actually go.
The same is true when it comes to church growth.
While church growth has its share of critics, I’ve rarely met a church leader who didn’t want his or her church to grow. And ultimately, growth matters because people matter and the mission matters.
That said, navigating growth is full of surprises; it’s always more complicated than you think it’s going to be.
Five Big Surprises About Church Growth Nobody Told Me About
The good news is that once you understand the unique dynamics of growth, you can handle the tensions of reaching more people far more effectively.
If you want super-practical help navigating growth barriers, my Breaking 200 Without Breaking You course provides key strategies and insights on how to tackle eight practical barriers (including a more nuanced and practical dive into everything I covered in this blog post) that keep churches from reaching more people.
Whether your church is 50, 150, 200 or even 500 people, the course designed to walk your entire leadership team or elder board through the key issues you face as you reach your community.
You can gain instant access here.
In the meantime, here are five truths about church growth that surprise most leaders. At least each of them surprised me in my first few years in leadership as we grew from a handful of people to 500 and beyond.
What’s fascinating is no one told me about them. As in nobody. Zero. So I’m sharing them with you. 🙂
1. WORKING MORE HOURS WON’T HELP YOU BREAK BARRIERS
There’s something to be said for grit, hustle and determination.
But even hustle has its limits.
I made a near fatal mistake in my first decade of leadership. I assumed that more people equals more hours, and that more hours equals more faithfulness.
Guess where that led me as our church grew? It was a major contributing factor to my burnout a decade into ministry (I tell that story in detail, and offer practical help for people burning out, here).
Pastors, unless you’re lazy (which I assume you’re not), more hours does not equal more faithfulness. And working more hours will not help you reach more people. It actually might help you reach less.
This is a huge issue for leaders who pastor a church with attendances between 150-300.
What used to be manageable isn’t. There are simply too many people to care for, too many events to attend, and too much responsibility for one person.
At some point, trying to do it all will, paradoxically, stunt your church’s growth, not fuel it.
Well, there are many reasons and nuances (I outline them in Breaking 200), but here’s one dynamic you can’t ignore: Your hustle and ability will lead you into a place of unsustainability. Ironically, your raw energy and ability will lead you into a place of unsustainability if you think more hours will help you reach more people.
At 200, the issue isn’t hustle anymore: It’s structural (see below).
You can’t out-hustle a flawed system.
2. STRUCTURAL PROBLEMS REQUIRE STRUCTURAL SOLUTIONS
One of the major reasons growth can be so confusing and frustrating is that few leaders realize they’re running into structural issues.
Particularly in the church, we deny that there even are structural issues at work, but there are.
Let’s offer an example anyone can relate to. Ever been to a local mechanic that’s so overwhelmed by the volume of work he’s facing that he can’t get your repair done until a week after he first promised?
Almost always, that’s a structural issue. Maybe he started his business after moonlighting, doing oil changes in his home garage for a few friends. That led him to start his business, and at first, he got all of his customers in and out in a day. Even transmissions only took him two days.
But because he was good, he got a reputation and more customers. And now, three years in, he’s completely overwhelmed, always late, exhausted and thinking about shutting down the business because he just can’t keep up.
The problem? He’s running the business as a one-man show, but he has enough work to keep three people busy full time.
It’s not a hustle issue. It’s a structural issue. He needs a new system.
And that’s what happens when your church starts to grow. What you used to be able to manage easily became a little more tricky. So you buckled down and worked a little harder and a little smarter.
Then, that stopped working so you worked even more hours.
Continue that and you’re exhausted all the time, less efficient and out of ideas on what to do next.
Meanwhile, even though you keep attracting new people, you’re not really growing. Your attendance is stuck at 100, 150, 200, maybe 300. Pick a number.
You’ve got new people, but you don’t really have new growth.
That’s a structural issue. And if you’re ready to stop reading this post because you think God doesn’t do structure, read point 5 and come back.
If you fail to solve your church’s structural issues you’ll eventually have a people issue, and, ultimately, you’ll have a mission issue.
3. PEOPLE WILL LEAVE IF YOU DON’T SOLVE STRUCTURAL ISSUES
So what happens if you ignore structural issues or pretend they don’t exist?
You lose. That’s what happens.
More particularly, people lose and your mission loses.
You already understand this. Back to our mechanic friend…if he’s a good guy and promises that you’ll get your car back on Wednesday, but doesn’t deliver because he’s overwhelmed, you’re frustrated.
But you like him, so you give him some grace. But Wednesday becomes Friday, and Friday becomes Monday, and soon you just drive over, pick up your car and take it to a place where it can get fixed the same day.
People behave the same way with your church.
If you don’t solve the structural issues, new people will leave. They feel like they’re a cog in your small but growing machine.
They want someone to engage them, but you’re overwhelmed and you haven’t trained up a team or equipped others to engage new people personally, so they shuffle out the back door, quietly.
New people leave when you fail to solve structural issues. That’s why structure matters.
New people leave when you fail to solve structural issues. That’s why structure matters. CLICK TO TWEET
4. PEOPLE WILL ALSO LEAVE IF YOU SOLVE THEM
Remember that leadership is full of surprises?
Well, you think, if I solve the structural issues, no one will leave, right?
Chances are when you do solve structural issues and you stop being the one person show, doing everything yourself, the new people will stay. In fact, your church will likely grow faster than ever.
But that doesn’t mean everyone will stay.
Some of the people who were with you in the beginning might leave.
And here’s why. Back to our mechanic. Say you were the mechanic’s neighbor. He used to do your oil changes on a dime and for a dime. Come home from work, drop it in his driveway, and minutes later you were on your way.
You cheered for him when he set up shop and again, you were in and out in a flash.
But now he’s solved his structural problems and he has a shop with five mechanics, and it’s just not the same anymore. Sure, they’re getting your car in and out fast, but you miss dealing directly with Joe.
Generally speaking, healthy people are fine with that. They’re excited for Joe and his growing business which is finally being run well.
Unhealthy people have a harder time with it. They think the world revolves around them, and they want Joe to revolve around them. So they leave.
Fix your structural issues, and some people may leave. That’s understandable.
So you need to decide who you’re going to lose: the people in your community who don’t know the love of Christ, or the church member who thinks the church revolves around him (or her).
As much as I hate losing anyone, I know what I’m doing.
5. STRUCTURE IS SPIRITUAL
I probably hear this more than any other criticism of people who do what I do: help church leaders think through the leadership issues.
Structure isn’t spiritual. Systems aren’t spiritual.
God absolutely does systems. He created them.
Look at the universe. It appears to have some order, structure and intelligence behind it. Apparently, God likes systems.
Same thing when it comes to people. Just ask Moses. Just ask Jesus or ask the disciples.
Moses was wearing himself out and the people of Israel out leading the entire nation single-handedly. Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, suggested a new structure that solved the spiritual problem of an exhausted Moses and a frustrated Israel.
Jesus intentionally organized his followers into groups of 70, 12, three and one so that when he was no longer with them physically, God’s purposes could be accomplished.
And the early church ran into issues of growth and overwhelm, very much like Moses. They come up with a structural solution that furthers their spiritual purposes. As a result, far more people were reached.
If your issue is structural, why wouldn’t you deal with it?
Speaker and podcaster Carey Nieuwhof is a former lawyer and founding pastor of Connexus Church, one of the largest and most influential churches in Canada. With over 6 million downloads, The Carey Nieuwhof Leadership Podcast features today’s top leaders and cultural influencers. His most recent book is “Didn’t See It Coming: Overcoming the 7 Greatest Challenges That No One Expects and Everyone Experiences.” Carey and his wife, Toni, reside near Barrie, Ontario and have two children.