Helping Your Church to Grow:  Specific Leadership Barriers

Previous articles have examined structural and general leadership barriers to church growth.  In this article, we want to examine some specific barriers for church growth at different sizes.  Carl George & Warren Bird wrote the classic book on this topic, “How to Break Growth Barriers” (Baker House, 1993) and much of the material below is adapted from that book.  

In excess of 85% of all churches in America are under 200 in weekly church attendance.  Therefore, our last article devoted time to general leadership topics and some specific concerns at the 200 barrier.  Here, in this article, we provide some direction for those facing the very significant barriers at the next 3 size plateaus.  The resources below are not exhaustive, but should provide some helpful illustrative guidance should your church be facing these specific growth barriers.

200-400 persons in worship attendance

  • Barrier of Self-identity

Churches between 200 and 400 in weekend attendance struggle more with identity than any other barrier.  “Who are we now?” and “What were we then?” are typical questions that are continually asked.  This is true because churches that have grown past 200 and are trying to grow past 400 are always facing primarily four different crises:

  1. Leadership Crisis: A leader of a church this size must have the freedom to try new things and experiment with different ways to bring people in.  Effectively communicating the evangelism mandate is also something a leader must live and breathe at this level.
  2. Service Crisis: Pastors which lead in this category of church size are often facing a multiple-service dilemma, and how to double the service times and double workers in and around services also (e.g. children’s ministry workers, ushers, etc.).  For a church to move from one service to two requires major shift in attitudes and priorities.
  3. Power Crisis: People in churches that desire to move past 400 must move past the tendency to cling to power and begin to release power so the lay leaders have the authority to make some of the decisions which impact their ministries.
  4. Change crisis: At this level the pastor has to move from the “pastor as chaplain” model to the “pastor as manager” model and begin to made authoritative changes that bring about change.

400-700 persons in worship attendance

  • Barrier of Delegation

Churches that have between 400 and 700 in attendance are known as “awkward size churches.”  They are too big to be small and too small to be big.  Much like a medium-size grocery store, people in these churches do not know everyone’s name, but there is still a struggle to lead the organization instead of manage all that goes on there.

The key word for this barrier is delegation, and the key principle is structure.  The pastor must become a leader and focus time and energy on leading leaders (who in turn lead other leaders).  Bill Eason said it well when he said, “Sacred cows make great hamburger.”  Church leadership must be willing to kill some sacred cows and organize ministry differently in order to break that 700 barrier.

The 200 barrier presents the key leadership with a barrier of heart (do we have a vision to reach unchurched people?).  The 400 barrier presents a barrier of hand.  Can we do ministry differently in order to reach more people?  Ministry at the 400 barrier requires a pastor to raise up key team members who direct specific program ministries.  Creating multiple program opportunities for people to connect in relationships and serve in ministry is key to breaking through this barrier.  Equipping key leaders for ministry and delegating power and authority to them requires the church to operate without the barriers of bureaucracy that so often inhibit churches at smaller sizes.   

700-1500 persons in weekend worship attendance

  • Barrier of Evaluation

Churches facing growth plateaus in this size category are facing an evaluative crisis and must ask the tough questions (and find answers) in order to become a mega-church.  This is a particularly difficult barrier to break through, probably the hardest.  The following are the questions leaders must ask to move to the next level of growth:

  1. Do we expect that every human being can and should become a fully devoted follower of Jesus Christ?   
  2. Are we intentional about doing all that we do in light of our size and our community environment?
  3. Are we relevant as we present the gospel?  Are we addressing the longing that people have to feel understood, to understand, to belong to something, and to find hope?
  4. Are we high quality in what we present through teaching, worship, and training?
  5. Do we offer a broad range of attractive choices in a variety of areas?
  6. Do we trust our staff and lay leaders?
  7. Do we ask, “Was that a good decision?” instead of asking who made the decision?
  8. Do we operate from an abundance model in which “resource demands” are met by challenging people to find creative solutions?
  • Barrier of Polity

Churches breaking through this barrier must change the way they organize and carry out leadership at the board level.  Boards of churches who are just arriving at this level tend to manage committees which coordinate volunteers.  They also tend to protect physical assets of the church and possess status as non-clergy members.

More helpfully, a growing mega church board will release the ministry to the staff (paid and volunteer) leaders of the ministry, who in turn lead growing teams of lay ministers.  The governing board of the church is largely responsible for establishing a climate of trust, authenticity, and support for the vision of the ministry.  They help to govern the life of the body in such a way as to make their primary focus the issue of “health” and not “mechanics”.

  • Barrier of Team

Change is needed in the staffing areas of large churches is the church is to break through this size barrier.  There are several transitions that the staff must make to move to the next level.  The staff must move:

  • From provider to arranger of service
  • From player to coach
  • From solo star to team leader
  • From privilege to accountability
  • From Area specialist to Age-Division generalist
  • From personal ministry to delegation
  • From committee appraisal (faithfulness) to results (fruitfulness)

Furthermore, it is the staff role to do the following:

  • Communicate mission, vision and values
  • Manage the church’s systems
  • Lead problem solving
  • Build relationships
  • Create new opportunities for ministry
  • Leadership Development
  • Discipleship
  • Perceive the membership in terms of lay-led teams
  • Train leaders in three areas:  Spiritual and Relational Vitality, Core Competencies and Change Management
  • Have a clear method and curriculum for teaching leadership

The challenges for this level of church are particularly onerous given that multiple issues can easily present themselves at any given time.  Fortunately, in the latter part of the 20th century and the first part of the 21st century, God has given us a number of healthy mega church models which we can now both celebrate and observe after one or more decades of ministry.  Utilizing other models for ministry as benchmarks, growing churches clarify their vision and focus their future in concert with God’s hand upon their ministry.  Adapting the principles you see in another mega church ministry for ministry for your context is the challenge of leadership.

Breaking growth barriers at all levels does not depend on the mechanics of ministry.  Ultimately the direction of a ministry rests completely in the hands of the Holy Spirit who calls, shapes, and gifts the members of the team.  It is my prayer that your journey with God will result in the breaking of every barrier to growth that God enables you to see and to challenge.  I hear the walls falling down even now! My book, “God Size Your Church” can be purchased here: https://leadershipbooks.store/products/god-size-your-church-maximizing-your-impact

Published by drjohnjackson

President of Jessup University (www.jessup.edu), speaker and author of books on leadership and transformation

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