7 Common Growth Barriers in Small (“Normative”) Churches

In God’s economy, there are no churches that are small in power or small in value. There are, however, those who are comparatively small in number of weekly worshippers gathered. Most researchers estimate out of the 47,000 Southern Baptist Congregations in the nation, between 75-85% will average around 150 worshippers this Sunday morning. It is to these churches I now turn my attention—none of them small in value or power, rather, small (though arguably “normative”) in number of average weekly worship attendance.

DISCLAIMER: I understand that a numerical increase in average weekly attendance is not the best measure of success for a church body. However, increasing numbers of Jesus followers is something measured, recorded, and praised throughout the New Testament. It is in this spirit I write the following.

While I am not a fan of church growth gimmicks, it is true that all medium sized and large churches were at one time, small. Jesus is the One who builds His church in such a way that the gates of Hell cannot prevail against it. He does this in our day through the power of His indwelling Holy Spirit as His churches focus prayerfully and practically on evangelism and missions.

Satan is the enemy. The advancement of the gospel knows only the prince of the power of the air as its great antagonist. What follows are several tools he employs to stunt the growth of the church that Jesus intends to build.

7 common growth barriers in small (“normative”) churches:

1) Communication Issues. This barrier to church growth is both deep and wide in its impedance. Communication barriers include what we say, what we don’t say, how we say what we say, and when we say what we say. Sometimes communication barriers exist within leadership teams. I remember sitting around a table of church leaders one time and thinking, “These men and woman just don’t know how to listen and talk to one another.” Often, communication barriers also exist between the church leadership and the church membership. Effective leaders understand that how you get the message out is just as important as that you get the message out. For practical tips on being a better listener, click here. For practical tips on effective communication, click here. In many normative sized churches, Satan becomes the author of confusion by simply hijacking or complicating communication systems.

2) Power Struggles. The apostle Paul lamented over this as he wrote to the church in Philippi, “For I have often told you, and now say it again with tears, that many live as enemies of the cross of Christ” (Philippians 3:18). Their problem? They were focused on earthly things. Specifically, he called out Euodia and Syntyche (4:2) for arguing to the point of hindering the mission of the church. These women were previously both gospel-centered coworkers with Paul. But when they became competing matriarchs in the church, they simultaneously became enemies of the cross of Christ. They wanted the same things. But in pursuit of these things, they worked against each other instead of with one another. With my own eyes I have seen men and women in local churches become so drunk on perceived power that they have muzzled the gospel of Christ. You may have witnessed this, too. The Holy Spirit of God is the only source of power and control in the church that honors God and advances the mission of Christ. The Holy Spirit’s power cannot be tamed. Rather, it must be unleashed. If someone is holding onto power or control in the local church, it’s not the Holy Spirit’s power; it is power from some other spirit. Power plays and power struggles hurt the church. So with Paul, let us urge those leading influencers to “agree in the Lord.”

3) Spiritual Immaturity. Spiritually mature people reproduce disciples of Christ. There is no spiritual maturity without spiritual reproduction. Spiritual maturity is not a point of arrival, but rather a measure of deep knowledge of and dependence on God that overflows with intentional Great Commission engagement. Spiritual longevity does not equal spiritual maturity, but spiritual maturity does not happen apart from spiritual longevity. Many of our churches have produced perpetual infants or adolescents in the faith by not challenging Christians to continue to grow and reproduce. If the growth of your church is stunted, and there is not a rhythm of reproduction from the church membership, you may have a membership full of people who have been Christians for a long time but have never developed into spiritual maturity.

“Spiritually mature people reproduce disciples of Christ. There is no spiritual maturity without spiritual reproduction.”

4) Poor Leadership. Let’s be honest. Sometimes churches do not grow because the leader is just not getting it done. Leaders lead. It’s what they do. Even if you do not have the spiritual gift of leadership, or if you do not possess the natural charisma of a typical leader, if God has called you to pastor the church he has also invested in you everything necessary to lead the church to reach her community and impact the world with the gospel of Jesus Christ. God has always been in the business of calling men and women who are poor leaders into positions of leadership. “Not many are wise from a human perspective, not many powerful, not many of noble birth. Instead, God has chosen what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen what is weak to shame the strong… so that no one may boast in his presence,” (1 Corinthians 1:26-29). There are no excuses for poor leadership in the local church. If God has called you to it, he has entrusted you with it and equipped you for it. You are the leader. So lead. It’s what you do.

“There are no excuses for poor leadership in the local church. If God has called you to it, he has entrusted you with it and equipped you for it. You are the leader. So lead. It’s what you do.”

5) Prayerlessness. What happened in Acts Chapter 2 that set the church—and the world—on fire? God’s people prayed with focused desperation and God breathed on them. Anything of eternal value that happens in a local church happens because God’s people cry out to him in focused desperation and God, in his mercy, chooses to breathe on them. God breathes on the church who calls out to him in desperate, focused prayer. But the church in the West has all but lost her sense desperation on God. We have no problem saying that we are desperate for God. But we certainly do not pray like we are desperate for God. In many local congregations, prayer has been relegated to nothing more than a transition between elements of the weekly service, or a quick addendum to the production of human hands. Pay attention to this next part carefully… Your church can put all the right systems in place, have the most engaging music, the most current technology, the most dynamic children’s programs, and the most charismatic preacher but if God does not breathe on it, nothing of eternal value will happen. Many churches see no growth because they just don’t pray like they are desperate for God’s presence and God’s power.

6) Unnecessary Complexity. As an organization ages, it generally grows in complexity. This includes a constituted, autonomous local church. Bylaws that were once short and sweet become elongated and cumbersome through amendment or rewriting to add committees here and processes there. Checks and balances are fleshed out more specifically in reaction against this pastor’s actions or that deacon’s attitude. Unspoken expectations and unwritten rules become ingrained in the collective memory of those stakeholders who have invested decades of time and money into the sustainment of what they value. And before you realize it, the church is locked-in to a tedious structure of governance that hinders ministry instead of unleashing it. Such a church begins to serve the governing documents instead of the governing documents serving the church. Many normative sized churches can never seem to break growth barriers simply because the organization of the church, whether written and unwritten, has become so complex that it chokes out ministry instead of fueling it.

7) Failure to Evangelize. You knew it was coming. This had to be on the list. While an active strategy for evangelism will not guarantee church growth, a church will not grow without active evangelistic engagement. Every born-again church member has everything he or she needs to effectively share the gospel with friends, coworkers, and neighbors. But statistics say that most of your church members have never shared the gospel with a single person. Strategies, trainings, and tools for evangelistic witness abound. But many churches still simply do not evangelize the lost in their communities. Conversion growth is not guaranteed in an evangelistic church (the results are up to God). However, churches whose membership do not share the gospel regularly are churches that do not experience conversion growth. It really is as simple as that.

“Conversion growth is not guaranteed in an evangelistic church (the results are up to God). However, churches whose membership do not share the gospel regularly are churches that do not experience conversion growth.”

Some normative-sized churches are strategically located in very small communities where numerical growth of average Sunday morning attendance is just not feasible. They are faithful as they evangelistically reproduce faith through the generations, preach/teach the whole counsel of the Word, call their membership to Spirit-filled weekly worship of the triune God, and give/go sacrificially that the ends of the earth might know the Lord Jesus.

But some normative-sized churches are strategically located in larger communities where lostness abounds. Perhaps one of these seven growth barriers is what is stopping your church from reaching the lost in your community. Or perhaps it is something else. Let’s do everything we can to break down barriers and build bridges for the advancement of the Great Commission in our local communities.

What’s your next step?

Grace and Peace,
Tony

  One thought on “7 Common Growth Barriers in Small (“Normative”) Churches

  1. November 21, 2020 at 8:31 AM

    Breaks my heart reading this.

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