Why Small Churches Get Stuck: 3 Changes Leaders Avoid Making

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I am fortunate to serve as a ministry consultant with The Unstuck Group. Helping churches get unstuck is very fun and rewarding. I also serve as a coach, where I get the privilege to talk with pastors on a monthly basis to help them fight for healthy growth within their church. Although I work with churches of all shapes, sizes and flavors, they all have one thing in common: they want to grow.

It’s not uncommon for a client to ask, “How long will it take to see growth?” That’s a loaded question and one that I can’t answer with a number. The bigger question is: how willing are you to lead change?

It’s easy for people to get excited about growing a church, but when the change begins, it often brings more hesitation than excitement. I’ve learned something really important: growth and change are synonymous.

I remember when our youngest daughter lost her first baby tooth. Actually she didn’t lose it; we had to pull it, which no kid enjoys. Although there were tears, pain and blood involved, my wife and I knew there was no serious medical issue at hand, but understood that losing a baby tooth is a natural part of growth. This change was necessary in order for her to have permanent teeth.

Church growth isn’t much different.

Growth brings change that often includes painful experiences. Sometimes it means losing tradition and routine that have been around since the beginning. Or, it could include losing people that have played a significant role in the development of your church. While none of this is easy, losing in order to gain is a natural part of growth.

Unfortunately, I have seen many pastors sacrifice growth to keep the people happy and to avoid discomfort. They want results without change, which is completely impossible by the way.

Here are three changes leaders often avoid to prevent pain, but in doing so, prevent growth.

1. Releasing a Team Member

There is nothing enjoyable about terminating a staff member. If you do enjoy it, you’re likely the wrong person for this job. To have a team that is effectively leading a church, it is extremely important to have each member on the same bus and in the right seat. A few years ago, Larry Osbourne shared this analogy:

A small church is like a pickup truck. The pastor is the driver and there is usually a couple of guys in the cab with him who have been there since the beginning. More people begin to climb in the back of the truck; growth is happening. Because the truck becomes so full, people begin to fall out. The pastor thinks, ‘I need to get to the next town so I can buy a bigger truck!’ Unfortunately, the pastor doesn’t know the way. He looks in his rear-view mirror, and sees a guy in the back with a map and thinks to himself, ‘I need that guy in the truck with me.’ However, there’s only one way to make this happen. The pastor must be bold enough to ask one of the two original guys in the truck to go to the back and make room for new guy with the map.”

As a leader, you must have the right people in the truck or you will never break growth barriers. This means there will be times when you have to ask long-term staff members to move to the back of the truck and make room for the next hire. This can be extremely uncomfortable. But, then again, no one said leading a church is about comfort.

2. Removing Sacred Cows

Every church has their sacred cow, and sometimes that’s plural. For some reason, we have a desire within us to protect tradition and routine because it is what worked in the past. It’s not uncommon for churches to end up with programs and ministries that have been around for a couple of decades that produce little to no life change because of our protection of these sacred cows.

While lifeless ministries may appear harmless on the surface, they can starve new ministries from thriving by absorbing significant resources. I often see this play out in many churches with Sunday School programs. Many of these churches make Sunday School a hill to die on; not because Sunday School is making an impact, but because it’s their sacred cow.

Sacred cows can’t be left to graze. They eat resources that thriving ministries could be using. If you need help with this, I’ve written before about How to Bury a Dead Ministry Program.

3. Refocusing on the Right Audience

Most churches agree that their target audience should be people who aren’t Christians; however, a large majority of churches are not reaching unchurched people. I have learned that every church loves the idea of reaching unchurched people, but not every church loves reaching the unchurched.

The weekend experience at a church is vital to reaching non-believers. Worship styles, preaching styles and facility changes are just a few things that make a significant difference. I recall one church in particular that had two people on their team who wouldn’t support this change in the church’s mission. After a long, high-tension conversation, the majority of the team agreed their focus needed to be changed, resulting in shifting various routines in their weekend experience. The disgruntled team members turned in their keys the following day and left the church.

Today, that church is laser focused on reaching their unchurched target audience. As a result, they are experiencing people follow Jesus on a regular basis and even needed to add an additional service to handle their growth. This change caused pain within their church, but was necessary for the growth of church, and ultimately, the Kingdom.

Will changes like these and others produce pain and bleeding? Yes, they will. But then again, that is a natural part of experiencing progress.

Getting unstuck requires more than a desire for growth. It requires changing the way you think, moving beyond your ministry routine and taking action that best leads your church.

 


 

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About Author

Chad Hunt

Chad is a Ministry Consultant at The Unstuck Group. He served as the lead pastor for sixteen years in a town of 2,000 people, where he grew a church from 60 to 600 people. Chad currently serves as the executive pastor at Eagle Heights Church in Somerset, KY and leads strategic planning sessions for the rural pastors at the Center of Rural Church Advancement at the Nebraska Christian College in Omaha.

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