We Followed the Steps – Where’s the Church Growth?

Dance Step ChartI read another one of those blog posts yesterday. You know the ones. A list of six steps your church can take to break through whatever growth barrier you’re facing.

Unlike previous posts I’ve mentioned here, this was a good list. Every one of the principles was about church health. In fact, as I read it, something started feeling very familiar. The feeling grew stronger the deeper I got into it.

As I finished reading, I realized where the feeling of familiarity was coming from.

“Hey, that’s our church!” I said with a smile – to an empty room. “We do all those! We’ve been doing them for years. Cool!”

Yes, the picture the author drew of a healthy, growing church was an accurate description of the church I pastor. In all but one way.

Despite years of following every healthy step on the list, our church hasn’t broken the numerical growth barriers.

 

All the Steps, None of the Results

But how can this be? If you do the steps, you get the results, right? I wondered if I’d misread something. So I re-read the entire post.

The post, by Carey Nieuwhof, was entitled 6 Keys to Breaking the 200, 400 and 800 Attendance Barriers. He’s a good blogger and the pastor of a spectacularly fast-growing church, who has tackled this subject before. I’ve never met him, but I’ve engaged with him in the comment section of one of his previous posts, and even though we disagreed, we did so in an agreeable way.

Some of his principles for breaking through church growth barriers in this post included:

  • Give others more credit and responsibility
  • Train others to do pastoral care
  • Stop making excuses for what you can’t do
  • Have an outward-focused vision

Those are all good principles. Healthy principles. No-excuse and no-blame principles. My second read-through confirmed my first impression. It felt like our church. These are principles our church has learned to do well – not perfectly, but well.

So the steps have been taken and the principles are in place, but no growth records have been shattered? No 200 barrier broken through?

How can this be?

 

No Guarantee Means No Guarantee

To be fair, Nieuwhof introduced his list with this qualifier, “While embracing all 6 things won’t guarantee your church will grow, every church I know that has successfully pushed past the 200, 400 and 800 barriers has navigated these changes.”

I’m glad he included that important preface. All churches that break through growth barriers follow those steps, but not all churches that follow the steps break through the barriers. There are no guarantees.

But in church growth circles there is a strong implication that church growth is very likely if we follow the rules. The implication is so strong that a pastor who tries and succeeds at all the steps, but doesn’t see the all-but-promised growth, often feels like a failure.

I know. Because I did. I felt like a failure for a lot of years, even though I pastor a healthy, missional church. Because the numbers never materialized.

If you’re wondering how I got past the feelings of guilt and failure, that’s the story I tell in the first few chapters of my book, The Grasshopper Myth.

 

The Real Goal

Here’s a hard truth that, despite the “no guarantees” disclaimers, many of us may not want to acknowledge and some refuse to believe. There are many churches who are following all the principles, but never break through the growth barriers.

There are no guaranteed steps to church growth or health. Because the church is people. And people never come with guarantees.

So, what’s a pastor to do? Here’s the only advice I know.

Stay faithful, no matter the results. Faithfulness doesn’t help us reach our goals. Faithfulness is the goal.

Keep doing healthy, innovative, outward-focused ministry. Stop comparing ourselves with others. Quit offering excuses.

And let God take care of the growth. That’s his job, anyway.

Pastors aren’t called to grow churches. We’re called to lead them. To nurture them. To help them become healthy, redemptive communities filled with passionate followers of Jesus. And to reach our community and world together, no matter how many butts do or don’t end up in our seats on Sunday.

If you’re doing that, no matter how big or small your church is, you’re fulfilling your calling.

Know that today. Because it’s true.

 

So what do you think? Are you pastoring a healthy church? Can you be content with that, even if the expected numbers don’t happen?

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(Dance Step Chart photo from Crossett Library • Flickr • Creative Commons license)

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11 thoughts on “We Followed the Steps – Where’s the Church Growth?”

  1. Loved this…”Pastors aren’t called to grow churches. We’re called to lead them. To nurture them. To help them become healthy, redemptive communities filled with passionate followers of Jesus”

    Absolutely true!

  2. “There are no guaranteed steps to church growth or health. Because the church is people. And people never come with guarantees.”

    “Pastors aren’t called to grow churches. We’re called to lead them. To nurture them. To help them become healthy, redemptive communities filled with passionate followers of Jesus. And to reach our community and world together, no matter how many butts do or don’t end up in our seats on Sunday.”

    * I learned the “No Guarantees” deal many moons ago! I find myself in the leading process to a path of health that is a ways away from happening.

  3. Good post. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with the six steps (or whatever), but we need to keep our eyes on the “real goal.” My most recent read claims that the nurturing pastor is only for the smaller “relational” churches. As churches get larger (200-400) pastors must be (or become) administrators, then (400-800) coaches to the other pastoral staff.

    1. Thanks, David. It’s true that pastors need to become more administrative as a church gets bigger. The problem I have with the way that is usually taught is that they seldom take into account that many (probably most) pastors, aren’t called to administrate. They’re called to nurture and shepherd – aka, pastor. But they’re made to feel guilty when they want to minister within their calling – as if wanting to be a shepherding pastor is somehow a hindrance to the growth of the kingdom.

      That’s why I keep pushing the idea that bigger churches aren’t the only way for the kingdom of God to grow. We also need a lot more healthy Small Churches, pastored by healthy pastors, working within their gifting.

      1. Yeah, I recoil at the idea of giving up the pastor teacher role for the administrator role. And I was an administrator in a secular organization. But the size breaks for those churches are pretty big – so it isn’t that common a problem for pastors, I suspect.

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