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I love church growth.

I also love the Church Growth Movement. It’s brought some wonderful benefits to the church in the last 40 to 50 years. A renewed emphasis on outreach, accurate assessment tools, and an openness to try new methods are just a few of the positives.

But every good idea also has unexpected consequences. For the Church Growth Movement, this has included a tendency to overemphasize numerical increase to such a degree that it discourages pastors and churches when they don’t hit expected numerical marks.

Plus, since every movement has a vested interest in promoting its success stories rather than its typical results, we’ve often overlooked one big reality...

Church growth principles don’t work in most small churches.

Why is this?

The tendency is to blame the churches and their pastors. We must be doing something wrong.

Of course, we are doing something wrong. No church or pastor does everything perfectly. But some churches get it 90 percent right and grow exponentially, while others get a different 90 percent right and continue to remain static numerically.

Plus, we all know of some cases where churches grew dramatically, only to discover a cancer on the inside that, once exposed, sinks the ship entirely. They were doing the basics wrong, but still grew like crazy.

Meanwhile, thousands of faithful, godly pastors are leading healthy, vibrant churches with no skeletons in their closets, yet they continue to struggle numerically.

Something else must be going on.

From my decades of study, pastoral experience and conversations with hundreds of small church pastors, I’ve discovered three primary reasons church growth principles fail in small churches more often than they succeed.

1. Small Churches And Big Churches Are Very, VERY Different

Most church growth advice comes from bigger churches. This is understandable. They’re the ones that it’s worked for, after all. But because of that, their ideas usually apply best in a big church context.

So if you pastor a church of 1,000 you can use the principles taught by a pastor of a church of 10,000. Just drop a zero. But if you pastor a church of 100 or less… that’s a different story.

For small churches, it’s not a matter of scale. Using big church ideas in a small church is like substituting peaches for pumpkins in a recipe. Sure, they’re both orange(ish)-colored fruits (I Googled it – pumpkins are a fruit), but they’re hardly interchangeable.

Methods and strategies that work in big churches seldom work in small ones. But most church growth conferences, books, podcasts and blogs come from a big church context.

There’s nothing wrong with that. Just be aware of it before you get discouraged trying to apply something that wasn’t meant for your situation.

2. Changing Tactics Mid-Growth Is Extraordinarily Difficult

This is why church growth barriers are such a challenge.

A pastor arrives at, or launches a church. It gets healthy and strong, even experiencing numerical growth, because they’re great at applying small church leadership principles.

Then you hit a barrier. The church sits under 50, 100, or 200 for longer than you expect.

So you read a couple blog posts and books about breaking growth barriers. And they all tell you the same thing. To push through to the next numerical level (especially from a small church to a mid-size church), you have to unlearn everything you’ve spent years learning, putting into practice and getting good at. This often includes many of the things you love the most about pastoring.

And, to make things worse, they’re not wrong! You absolutely cannot guide a church through the 200 barrier using the same methods and structures that got you there.

But the changes required aren’t subtle, gradual or easy. They require massive shifts in thinking, action and strategy. Not just for the pastor, but for the church leadership and congregation.

And it’s not just a matter of picking up and applying new skills. Moving from shepherd to rancher, or pastor to manager is a 180 degree reversal of many of the skills you’ve learned. Often it involves a denial of your God-given gift-mix. It was for me.

In his very helpful book, One Size Doesn’t Fit All, Gary L. McIntosh writes at length about the awkward stage between being a small church and being a big church. He calls this middle ground a “stretched cell church.” And, like anything that’s stretched, it’s a pressure-filled situation.

Certainly, such barriers can be overcome when new skills are learned and applied. That’s how big churches got big, after all. But making those transitions is much, much harder than we’re usually told.

And it isn’t always necessary, either. A healthy small church doesn’t have to become a big church in order to fulfill its mission.

3. Numerical Growth Is More Like Art Than Science

Church growth principles are often presented like a scientific formula. As if growing a church was similar to losing weight. Difficult, to be sure. But once you make the commitment, it’s ultimately a matter of mathematics.

To lose weight you have to burn more calories than you take in. To grow a church numerically you have to remove as many obstacles to growth as possible.

Follow the formula and the results are inevitable, right? Wrong.

While there are valuable principles we all need to learn and apply, church growth isn’t formulaic. There are too many variables.

Church growth principles are more like teaching someone to paint or play an instrument than helping them lose weight. They can learn the principles, try really hard, and get everything right, but never become the next Henri Matisse or Eric Clapton.

Church growth is the same. Getting the principles right is helpful, even essential. But they’re going to come out differently in every situation.

Church growth is not inevitable. And that’s okay.

Because, while you won’t duplicate the numerical successes of a Rick Warren or an Andy Stanley, you can accomplish something just as vital and important in your context as they have accomplished in theirs.

Any artist who tries to duplicate the work of Matisse or Clapton can only become a lesser copy of the original. But when you learn their principles, then apply them properly for your context, something new and wonderful can emerge.

So keep learning, praying, equipping and striving. Not just for more, but for better.

Even if the numbers don’t show it, a small church can become healthy and vibrant – even innovative and ground-breaking.

Your church’s success won’t look like any other church’s success. Because your church isn’t like any other church.

Besides, it’s not really your church anyway, is it?

Karl Vaters is the author of The Grasshopper Myth: Big Churches, Small Churches and the Small Thinking That Divides Us. He’s been in pastoral ministry for over 30 years and has been the lead pastor of Cornerstone Christian Fellowship in Fountain Valley, California for over 20 years. He’s also the founder of NewSmallChurch.com, a blog that encourages, connects and equips innovative Small Church pastors.

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Jarrod Baker

commented on Aug 30, 2017

Great Article! Take away: FOCUS ON BETTER, and the rest falls into place!

Dr Robert Ballard

commented on Aug 31, 2017

The main reason a small congregation does not grow into a bigger congregation is the people do not want to grow. I have been told many times "if I wanted to go to a bigger church, I would have gone to a bigger church. I like this size." Therefore, I leraned the joy of pastoring a smaller congregation. We still got new members but mostly to replace those who died or otherwise no longer attended.

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