In this series, we’re focusing on why churches of different sizes get stuck. Today I’m focusing on large churches, those between 800 and 3,000 in attendance. The majority of churches we serve at The Unstuck Group are in this size range. These large congregations only reflect less than five percent of the churches nationally.
By the way, there’s nothing magical about 3,000. It’s really more of a mindset that churches need to transition through if they’re going to continue growing. There are some churches with a larger attendance that I’d still put in this category because they’ve not appropriately wrestled with these challenges yet.
When our team engages with a church this size, we go through an assessment process and an initial strategic planning process to discover what’s working and where there are opportunities for next steps toward health.
As I’ve mentioned previously, that combination of core issues is different for every church we serve. That said, here are the common challenges we find in large churches:
1. The span of care of the Senior Pastor is too large.
There are many times when we’ll find Senior Pastors trying to directly supervise eight, ten or more people. This is usually a carryover from when the church was smaller and all ministry leaders reported directly to the Senior Pastor. As the church grows, this becomes impractical. Particularly because of the teaching responsibility, the Senior Pastor does not have enough time to lead that many people. The answer involves reducing the span of care and empowering other leaders of leaders.
2. The discipleship path is not defined.
When the church is smaller, the path doesn’t necessarily need to be defined. In small churches, next steps are driven relationally–people develop a relationship that leads to a next step. In large churches, people will need to take a step before those relationships develop. That’s why it’s essential that the path is clearly defined, supported by systems and structure (leadership) and routinely communicated.
3. They have too many programs and events competing for attention and resources.
An ill-defined path typically compounds the problem of over-programming. I recently wrote about the difference between discipleship programs versus a path, so I won’t repeat it here. That said, it’s not enough just to clarify the path. Large churches must also get focused with their programming and events. This becomes particularly necessary if the church is going to embrace a multisite strategy.
4. Systems and strategies have not been developed, particularly around communications.
I mentioned the need for systems above as it relates to spiritual formation. The reality is that healthy systems need to be developed around every key touchpoint within the church. Examples of touchpoints include connecting new guests, registering new kids, connecting into a Sunday School class or home group, volunteering on a team, etc.
Developing a communication strategy and systems may be the most important need because it touches every area of ministry. Without a solid communication strategy, churches either try to give every ministry an equal voice or the ministry with the loudest voice wins. In either case, the most important next steps don’t get the priority messaging and promotion that they deserve.
5. Their model leans too heavily on large group gatherings that don’t foster relationships.
It is really impossible to engage discipleship outside of relationships. The challenge is that when churches are smaller, most of the environments were small enough to foster relationships. As the church grows, there needs to be a strategy to encourage people to step into environments where relationships can develop. That may be small groups, ministry teams, one-on-one mentoring or some combination of the three. Eventually, people will become dissatisfied if their only connection to the church is a large group gathering or service.
6. They have not shifted to a staff-led structure.
As churches grow, the demand for paid professionals to drive day-to-day decision-making also increases. At some point, it becomes impractical for volunteer lay leaders to continue making day-to-day decisions regarding people, property and money. By the time most churches get to this size, they’ve already eliminated ministry-specific boards or committees. At this size, though, the next step is for lay leadership teams to release day-to-day decisions to the staff and instead elevate their focusing to overarching mission, vision and ministry resourcing.
7. They haven’t developed a sustainable multisite strategy.
To reach more than a few thousand people, churches really need to consider a growth strategy that includes multisite. For one church to be healthy in many locations, a healthy multisite strategy and structure will be needed. That involves answering some key questions like: What’s our overall discipleship strategy? Are we committed to replicating every ministry in every location? What are the roles and responsibilities of both campus and central teams? Just opening a second or third campus doesn’t constitute a healthy multisite strategy, though. Without a solid strategy and structure, that’s, at best, just an exercise in church planting.
If you’re interested in what I shared about small, mid-size and very large churches, you can read about their key challenges following these links:
Churches get stuck — for lots of different reasons. But we recently analyzed our data and we found 12 core issues responsible for getting most churches stuck—large churches too.
So, we put together lessons, exercises and discussions around these issues.
We dive into leadership, developing a discipleship path, establishing healthy finances and many other issues we see in large churches.
This and more is discussed in our Leading An Unstuck Church Course.