Our Church May Have Reached Its Shoe Size – Now What?

shoes on cliffIf some churches have a shoe size, what do you do when your church reaches yours?

Sit back and take it easy? The temptation to do that is one of the main reasons many people (and by “people”, I mean “me”) feel very uncomfortable with the idea that a church can have a shoe size at all.

But a church doesn’t have to settle for less just because they’ve found themselves at a numerical size that works well for the kind of ministry God has given them – at least for a season. Maybe for longer than that.

And by the way, shoe size isn’t limited to Small Churches. I’ve noticed that a lot of people who bristle at the idea of a shoe size for a church of 25, 50 or 100, are just fine with a church that’s stayed at 2,000 for a decade or more. Different churches have different shoe sizes.

In my last post I gave you 5 Clues Your Church May Have Reached Its Shoe Size. In today’s post we’ll follow up with the three foundational principles that have helped the church I pastor make sure we’ll never use our current shoe size as an excuse for settling, laziness or compromise.

But first, our shoe size story.


What My Church’s Shoe Size Looks Like

The church I’ve been pastoring for 22 years has spent 50 years on its current site, in heavily populated Orange County, California. A county that’s often called “megachurch central”. This is where megachurches from around the world are now coming to plant new megachurches. Seriously, they’re doing that now. And we welcome them to our beautiful county as we reach people for Jesus together.

With all the people around us and all the opportunities being seized by so many megachurches within an hour’s drive of my door, there’s no legitimate reason for us to stay small, right? Well… Here are some facts.

We have less than an acre of land, completely hemmed in by houses right up to our property line. Our biggest room is our sanctuary. If you visit us on a Sunday and want to sit in the back row, you’ll be 6 rows from the stage. We hold two services on a Sunday, averaging about 200 people in combined attendance. We run out of parking when we have 125 people in one service (65 spaces, with no street parking allowed).

Every room is multi-purpose, including the sanctuary, which gets set up and torn down 8-10 times in a typical week. It holds Sunday services, a preschool class every weekday, youth night, kids’ night, women’s night, worship team practice, dinners and more. It is our worship space, cafeteria, classroom and play room, all in one.

Recently, I had a visiting pastor ask me why we don’t sell our facility and move to a larger building, since we obviously need one. Being from a small town with lots of land, that was a reasonable solution for their church. I explained that we could easily sell our property for up to $3 million. But, to make the move worthwhile, we’d need property 2-3 times our current size. Meaning, we’d need to raise another $3-6 million or more just for the land – if we could find it for sale in our very crowded city. Aside from direct, divine intervention, how are 200 middle-class people going to raise that kind of money? And, even if we could, I don’t believe it would be a good use of our time, money and energy to spend the better part of a decade doing that.

If and when a door opens for us to get a bigger facility, we’ll walk through it. We’ll even help jam it open, if needed. In the meantime, we’ve reached our shoe size.


No Excuses Allowed

None of this is an excuse. It is simply an acknowledgement of our reality. A reality I refused to accept for many years. I fought that reality and, as I outline in The Grasshopper Myth, I nearly killed everything that was great about our church.

Our church has a shoe size. Almost literally, due to the limits of our building, the restrictions of our property and the cost of moving.

Now what?

Over the years, we’ve tried hundreds of ideas. And we’ll try hundreds more. But out of all of those ideas (some that worked, many that didn’t) we’ve discovered three principles that make all the difference for us as we strive to be the best possible church at our current shoe size.


1. Stop Thinking Like a Big Church

A Small Church that’s thinking like a big church is less likely to become a healthy Small Church. Our decision to think and act like a healthy Small Church has been the most liberating choice we’ve made in the last decade or more.

Healthy Small Churches have a lot in common with healthy big churches. But there are a lot of things we do differently, too.

Many Small Churches struggle because we’re trying to do the same things the big churches are doing, just on a smaller scale. But the differences between a church of 2,000 and a church of 50 aren’t just a matter of scale.

Small Churches act differently than big churches. We organize differently, reach different people and face different challenges.

No Small Church will ever be a great Small Church until they stop thinking like a smaller version of a big church and start thinking like a great Small Church.


2. Redefine Success In Ministry

This may have been the toughest hurdle for me to overcome –  the realization that butts in the seats and bucks in the offering are not the best indicator of the health and strength of our church.

I’ve outlined many ways to redefine ministry success in 23 Non-Numerical Signs of a Healthy Church. But the foundation of them all is this.

Do small awesome.

Bigger isn’t better. Smaller isn’t better. Only better is better.

We’re determined never to let our size limit our impact. If we’re small, we’ll do the small things with excellence. We’ll be the best church of 200 we can possibly be. And, with God’s help, we’ll be even better than that.

One of the ways we’ve redefined success in ministry is shifting from an emphasis on adding butts in the seats, to adding souls to the kingdom and disciples to the body of Christ. Whether they end up in our church or not.

Our church is successful when the church is blessed. Ministries like our internship and NewSmallChurch.com have grown out of that redefinition.


3. Figure Out How to Do Ministry From Your Church, Not Just In Your Church

This was a huge turning-point for us. The biggest restriction for the numerical growth of our church is the size of our building. After trying and failing for many years to move to a larger facility, we realized that even if God is keeping us where we are, that didn’t mean our ministry had to be limited to what we could fit inside our building.

Seeing our building as a place from which to launch ministry, instead of the only place where we do ministry has been one of the most healthy, live-giving and community-reaching decisions we’ve ever made.

If we’d been able to move to a bigger building years ago, we probably would have become a much bigger church. But we’d probably be doing church-as-usual.

Having to figure out how to do ministry from our church because we couldn’t fit it all in our church has forced us to think outside the box – literally. It’s pushed us to be creative, innovative and maybe even more like a healthy New Testament church than we would otherwise have been.


What About Your Church’s Shoe Size?

Your church may face challenges very different than ours. But I truly believe that these three foundational principles can work anywhere. Because they’re more about our mindset than our geography, our denomination or our finances.

If we listen to God as he speaks to us in creative ways, our church’s shoe size will not limit our ministry. It may even help us discover and do things we never thought possible.


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1 thought on “Our Church May Have Reached Its Shoe Size – Now What?”

  1. Good thoughts Karl! I think launching ministry from your church is really important. It reminds us that the church building is NOT the church – the people are. So, the “church” is all over the community each and every week. We really limit ourselves when we equate the church building with the church.

    I love the way you adjust your room to suit whatever ministry needs you have for the day (or hour). Fully utilizing our facilities is key to ministry effectiveness in our day. Gone are the days of having a room big enough to fit everybody in at one time. As our churches grow, we just multiply the services.

    You’re right about shoe size. Saddleback and Willowcreek settled in at the 20,000 mark in attendance for quite a while. I did not hear many people complain. I think they each hit that dreaded “20K Barrier”! 🙂

    We see it in sports too, size doesn’t always matter, health and effectiveness matter!

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