The Wisdom of Carey Nieuwhof on Small & Mid-Size Churches

I really appreciate Carey Nieuwhof's blog.  Do you know it?

Here is his latest post on small and medium size churches:

5 Tensions Every Small & Mid-Size Church Encounters

A recent post I did on why most churches never break the 200 attendance mark really seems to have struck a nerve.

tensions small church faces

People clearly have strong opinions and emotions about the size of churches.

When I began in ministry, I spent about 3 years leading a small congregation (under 100) that grew into a mid-sized church (under 500) and then grew into a larger church.

I remember the emotions that swirl around small and mid-sized churches. I also have lived through the tensions those congregations face.

This post (like the last one) is for church leaders and teams that want to reach more people.

It’s critical that as church leaders we understand the tensions we’re facing. In the same way that diagnosing that pain under your kneecap when you’re trying to run a race is helpful, diagnosing what you feel in the congregation can be critical to taking your next step forward.

Overcome these tensions and you’re closer to progress. Avoid them or fail to deal with them and you can stay stuck a long time.

So, here are 5 tensions every small and mid-sized church encounters:

1. The desire to keep the church one big family. This pressure is huge. People believe that the church functions best as one big family.  The reality is even when our church was 40 people, those 40 people didn’t know each other—really. Some were left out, others weren’t. Even at 100 or 300, enough people will still believe they know ‘everyone’. But they don’t. When people told me they knew everyone I would challenge people (nicely) and say “Really, you know everyone? Because as much as I wished I did, I don’t.” They would then admit they didn’t know everyone. They just knew the people they knew and liked and often felt that growing the church would threaten that.

The truth is, at 100-300, many people are unknown. And even if ‘we all wear name-tags”, many of the people in your church don’t really have anyone to talk to about what matters. The one big family idea is, in almost every case, a myth.

Once you get beyond a dozen people, start organizing in groups. Everyone will have a home. Everyone who wants to be known and have meaningful relationships will have them. And a healthy groups model is scalable to hundred, thousands and even beyond that.

2. The people who hold positions don’t always hold the power. This is a tension almost every small to mid-sized church faces. Your board may be your board, but often there are people, and even families, whose opinion carries tremendous weight.  If one of those people sits on the board, they end up with a de facto veto because no one wants to make a move without their buy in. If they are not on the board, decisions the board makes or a leader makes can get ‘undone’ if the person or family disapproves.

This misuse of power is unhealthy and needs to be stopped. In the churches where I began, I took the power away from these people by going head to head with them, then handed it back to the people who are supposed to have the power. In two out of three cases, the person left the church after it was clear I would not allow them to run it anymore. It’s a tough call, but the church was far healthier for it. The people who were supposed to lead got to lead. And we grew.

3. The pastor carries expectations no one can live up to. In most small to mid sized churches, the pastor is expected to never miss a wedding, funeral, hospital call or meeting, visit people in their homes, write a killer message every Sunday and organize most of the activities of the church and be present for all functions AND have a great family life.

The key here for those who want to grow past this is to set clear expectations of what you will spend your time on. I visited for the first two years and when we went to a groups model, explained (for what seemed like forever) how care was shifting from me to the congregation. I stopped attending every church event. We have a great counseling referral network. And I started focusing on what I can best contribute given my gift set: communication, charting a course for the future, developing our best leaders, casting vision and raising resources.

4. Tradition has more pull than vision.  This is not just about traditional churches—it’s true of church plants too. The past has a nostalgia to it that the future never does. Even the recent past. Remember how great the church felt when it was smaller, more intimate and met in the living room/school/old facility?

The challenge for the leader is to cast a vision that is clear enough and compelling enough to pull people from the familiar past into a brighter future.

5. The desire to do more, not less. As you grow, you will be tempted to do more. Every time there are more people/money/resources, the pressure will be strong to add programming and complexity to your organization.

Resist that. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should. Often the key to reaching more is doing less. By doing a few things well and creating steps, not programs, you will help more people grow faster than almost any other way. The two books that have helped me see this more than any other resources are Andy Stanley, Lane Jones and Reggie Joiner’s Seven Practices of Effective Ministry and Thom Rainer and Eric Geiger’s Simple Church. These two books helped our team resist the pressure to do more simply because we could.

Often complexity is the enemy of progress.

What tensions do you face or have you faced in small to mid-sized churches?

How are you handling them? Leave a comment.