What happens when a church is healthy, yet the numbers stay in a holding pattern?
There are a lot of books, blog posts and seminars about how to assess and remove obstacles that hinder healthy growth. My church and I have been helped by many of them.
But is it ever possible that a church may have reached its optimal size? Is there a point at which pushing for greater numbers might be counterproductive to the life, health and effectiveness of a church?
And, if there is, how would we know that?
I struggled with that challenge for years. My story is detailed in The Grasshopper Myth, so I won’t go into it again, but one result of that struggle was that we realized our church is better, healthier and more effective at around 200 than we were at around 400.
Two hundred is our optimal size (let’s call it our shoe size). For now anyway.
It’s not that we aimed for this size or plan to stay at this size. It’s just that this is where we seem to do our best work for now. And it may be that way for a long time.
But how does a church know what their shoe size is? And, if we have in fact reached that place, do we just sit and settle? What about growth?
No Excuses Allowed
It was not easy for me to come to the belief that churches may have a shoe size. At first, it sounds like we’re making excuses for settling. There is not a strand of my DNA that will ever allow me to settle for less. Especially not in the church, when eternal lives are at stake.
So, after we realized that our church may have reached our shoe size, we had to decide what growth would look like now.
But if you’ve been striving for growth for years with no success, here’s my list of questions that helped us determine that we had reached our church’s shoe size. I hope they can help you.
1. Have We Removed All Obstacles to Growth That We Can?
This is principle #1 in every church growth book I’ve ever read. We don’t grow the church. Jesus does. But we can hinder growth in many ways. So every pastor and every church must always be asking ourselves if we’re doing anything to hinder what God wants to do through us, then remove those obstacles.
We’ll never remove them all, of course. But if you’ve removed all that you can for now, but numerical growth still isn’t happening, you may have reached your shoe size.
2. Has New Growth Started to Feel Artificial?
“All healthy things grow” is probably the most-repeated phrase of the church growth movement. And they’re right.
But not all growth is the result of health—or of removing obstacles. I’ve had church growth experts offer to help me get my numbers up, but many of their tactics felt artificial at best and dishonest at worst, so we rejected them.
Numerical growth is not worth it if it means sacrificing our mission or integrity.
3. Who Is God Calling Us to Reach?
Some churches have a mission to reach people who are “low-hanging fruit.” They’re called to reap in a place that is growing and/or to people who are ripe for conversion. Sometimes, to places where the Christians have enough money to pay for large facilities. That’s great. We need more churches that are taking advantage of such opportunities.
But some churches are called to plant and harvest in tough spiritual ground. Towns where the population is shrinking, not growing. Populations who live in great poverty and despair. Places that are antagonistic to the Gospel. People who don’t see their need for Jesus.
If God has called you to a place where the ground is hard, don’t let the slow growth discourage you. Be obedient. There are so many stories of faithful pastors, evangelists and missionaries who ministered all their lives with little to show for it. But God used their faithfulness for his long-term plans.
Some sow, some reap. If you’re a sower, stay faithful. If you’re a reaper, don’t despise the sower whose numbers don’t match yours. Someone softened your ground before you got there.