Why Most Churches That Start Small…Stay Small

by Carey Nieuwhof


So…you want your church to grow, right?

When I ask ministry leaders whether they want to see growth, almost every leader I’ve ever talked to says yes. Most leaders want their churches to grow…and for goodreasons most of the time. They want to reach people with the life-changing love and forgiveness of Christ. That is awesome.

But most churches don’t grow. And most churches that start small stay small.


Once and for all, size doesn’t determine how significant your ministry is.

Rather, size becomes relevant only for those who are attempting to reach their community.

If you’re going to reach your community, you’re going to grow.

And if you’re going to grow, you have to figure out why certain things make a church grow and why certain things curtail growth.

1. Big Hopes…But Small Strategy

There isn’t a single leader who’s planted a church (or started anything) who hasn’t had big hopes. The challenge is that often those hopes have no strategy to back them up.Or if they have a strategy, it’s a strategy that isn’t designed to take the community past 100 or  200 people.

You can’t operate as though you were a church of 500 when there are 50 in the room, but you have to plan for the day when there will be 500, not 50, in the room.

Some questions:

  • What’s your strategy to reach your community?
  • What’s your organizational chart look like at 50 people, 100, 200, 500, 1000?
  • How will your role change as your church grows?
  • How will your team change and develop as you grow?
  • What will you NOT do as you get bigger?
  • How will your structure change and adapt?
  • What will you DO as you get bigger?

Those are all strategy questions. And many leaders haven’t sat down with their team to answer them.

As a result, you start small and often stay small. It doesn’t matter how big your dreams are. Strategy trumps intention. And hope is not a strategy.

2. Underfunding

I understand poorly funded ministries. One of the churches I started at had a $4,000 annual budget. And no, I’m not making that up. I also completely understand that vision always precedes resources and people. That’s a great thing. You should always have more vision than you have money and people. But here’s what’s true: I’ve seen well-funded church plants flop and shoe-string plants thrive.You can start on a shoestring, but often churches never make it past that.

Ultimately, if your church is going to thrive, it’s going to need the resources to accomplish all it can.

And that’s where most ministries languish. You need to figure out how to raise money that goes beyond just paying the light bill.

3. Pastors Who Do Everything

For three years, I was the only staff member at our church. Then we brought on two very part-time people, and I still ran nearly solo for 4 more years (7 in total) until we hired our first other full-time staff member.

There is a season in which the pastor does ‘everything.’ But that season will rarely get you past 200 people. It got us to 300 people, but I almost burned out.  And it’s completely unsustainable.

To get sustainably past 200-300 people, I had to:

  • Stop most pastoral visitation, except for a small circle of people within my care.
  • Restrict the number of weddings and funerals I did.
  • Pull me off of almost every team in the church.
  • Stop leading Bible studies.
  • Stop doing much except communication, vision casting, and leading leaders.

Who did all the other ministry? People. Some staff, but mainly volunteers.

Delegating and empowering people around a common mission, vision and strategy releases the ministry to people who are gifted, called and equipped to lead that ministry. When you release ministry, it’s liberating for everyone. It’s the way the church is designed to run.

4. No Plans For Anything Bigger

Many leaders are currently leading the biggest church they’ve ever attended been a part of, right now.  So how do you plan for anything bigger when you haven’t experienced anything bigger?

That’s true if you’re part of a church of 100 people or 1,000. Even when I led a church of 6 people, I had not actually led a church that was bigger than that (it was my first assignment as a student). But just because you haven’t led more doesn’t mean you shouldn’t plan for more.

Plan today for what you want to be a part of tomorrow.

5. A Selfish Drift Inward

This is actually an issue for a large number of churches, both church plants and existing churches. Even when you start a church from scratch, it tends to be led, populated and funded by members. And so it’s completely easy and natural to lose focus on the people you’re trying to reach.

And because self-centeredness is a natural pull for all of us (at least it is for me), unless we have a white-hot searing mission in front of us, church can quickly become about satisfying our needs, our wants, our preferences and our desires. And that fuels a spiral in which congregational or organizational life can become about satisfying the competing preferences of members. Some want it this way. Some want it that way. And people threaten to leave.

Let that go unchecked and soon you find yourself focused on the people you’re trying to keep, not the people you’re trying to reach.

The casualty in all of this? The very people you were hoping to reach.

The only way to check this that I know of is to prayerfully keep the unreached front and center in all your discussions and your actions.

  • In your off time (and maybe in your work hours) hang out with the people you’re trying to reach.
  • Invite them. Regularly.
  • Speak for them when they’re not in the room and you’re trying to make a decision.
  • Budget and staff with them in mind.
  • Plan every Sunday like it’s someone’s first Sunday, even if right now, it might not be.

If you keep this front and center, you will resist the trap that so many churches and organizations fall into; the selfish drift inward.

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