#BestOf2014: Why Some Great Churches Grow Big, But Most Don’t

big churchThere are two elements needed for a great church.

1. People who love and serve Jesus

2. People who love and serve others in Jesus’ name

That’s it.

If you have those two elements you have a great church. No matter the size, the denomination, or the liturgy.

Sure, we can break those elements down into more bite-size pieces, allowing us to implement and assess our progress more accurately. The most common way of doing that is using the five elements of Worship, Ministry, Discipleship, Evangelism and Fellowship. But loving Jesus and loving others is what those five are all about.

But when it comes to breaking through that dreaded 200 Barrier and building a big church, there are a whole lot more ingredients needed. Such as:

  • Lots of people
  • Lots of money
  • Lots of land
  • A large facility (or network of facilities)
  • Years of hard work and sacrifice
  • A government that hasn’t outlawed the church
  • A culture that doesn’t persecute Christians
  • A large base of wealthy, generous Christians
  • Architects, designers and contractors
  • A cooperative city government
  • Lack of opposition from neighbors
  • Leadership that’s gifted in administration, multi-tasking and fundraising
  • Multiple departments for multiple ministries
  • and more

Big churches are great. None of the elements needed to build a big church are wrong. But those two lists show us some important points to keep in mind when we’re tempted to use numerical growth to assess the value of a local church.

This article was originally posted on October 1, 2014. It wasn’t one of the most-read posts of the year, but I think it’s worth a second (or first) look as one of the overlooked #BestOf2014.


Bigness and Greatness are Friends, but They’re Not Married

Yes, there are two separate lists. One for a healthy church, one for a big church. And, while they’re not mutually exclusive, they don’t overlap.

First, the two elements needed for a great church aren’t required for a big church – or even for a growing church, even though they’re required for a healthy church. After all, there are many big churches, including some out-and-out cults, that grow big without truly being Jesus-worshippers.

Second, there are great temptations to compromise or appease on core issues in order to maintain many of the elements in the big church list. No, that doesn’t mean that all, or even most big churches are compromisers or appeasers. But the temptation is very real. I admire pastors who have built large churches without succumbing to those temptations.

Third, just because a church isn’t big, doesn’t give them the excuse to be lazy. As I’ve written previously, Small Churches Are Not a Problem, a Virtue, or an Excuse. But, just as some big churches can be tempted to compromise to keep the numbers up, there’s the equal, but opposite temptation for Small Churches to use posts like this as an excuse to become lazy and self-righteous. There are many great churches that are small (including mine), but smallness is never an excuse for not loving Jesus and loving others with all our heart, soul, mind and strength


Great, But Not Big, Is Normal

Take a look at the second list again. Not every church leader is able to do that. I know I’m not. As I wrote in The Grasshopper Myth, it wasn’t because I didn’t try. It just wasn’t in my mix of gifts, skills and personality type. I’m a Small Church pastor by calling, gifting and temperament.

Now look at the first list one more time. Every church is not just capable of doing those two items, but we’re required to do them by Jesus himself in the Great Commandment and the Great Commission.

Too many good pastors of good churches have been living in guilt, frustration and self-condemnation because their church isn’t getting bigger. They’ve been told that a healthy church will always grow. That any church doing list #1 will inevitably become a big church.

But list #2 shows us that’s just not true. There’s an entirely separate list of skills, assets and exterior circumstances needed for the kind of consistent church growth that leads to bigness. And, while it’s great when those two lists combine, they rarely do. To refer to yet another of my previous posts, Growing a Bigger Congregation Is Hard, Rare and [Gasp!] NOT a Biblical Mandate.

So, if you’re pastoring or attending a healthy church, possibly even a great church, but it’s not becoming the big church you were told was virtually inevitable, that’s OK. You’re not failing. You’re normal.

Keep loving Jesus and leading people to love him and love others in his name.

Big churches are great. But bigness isn’t necessary for greatness.


So what do you think? Have you struggled with whether-or-not your church is a good church because it hasn’t become a big church?

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(Raised Hands photo from Keoni Cabral • Flickr • Creative Commons license)

2 thoughts on “#BestOf2014: Why Some Great Churches Grow Big, But Most Don’t”

  1. Thanks Karl for another great post. I knew when I moved to my present location I would never become a mega-church pastor because there are only 1000 people in our village and probably 18,000 in our entire catchment area. I still think we can become much larger than our current 110 or so average attendance, but if growth is in our future our location and culture make explosive growth highly unlikely. I’ve tried to focus on health for our ten years of existence but discovering your blog has made that process easier simply because it helps to know we’re not alone. Thanks and keep up the good work of encouraging small church pastors.

  2. A church does not need lots of land or a large facility to break the 200 barrier. I know of a number of churches that rented modest-sized buildings and broken that barrier. They increased the number of services they offered on Sundays and added weekday services for folks who could not attend church on Sundays Each new service translated into a new congregation and more people. What may be more critical factors is the availability of parking, staff, and volunteers. Other churches have chosen to grow not by increasing the number of congregations or increasing the size of existing congregations but by planting new churches.

    Another critical factor is that everyone is on the same page and shares the same vision for the church. A church is not going to grow if the pastor, other key church leaders, and the church’s members have conflicting visions of the church and are not committed to a common vision of the church, which involves the church reaching and engaging new segments of the unchurched population and growing numerically as a consequence.

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