Follow the Leader
By Brad Ransom
Recently, one of our church planters made a statement I’ve heard at least a hundred times from other church planters and pastors of established churches: “I’m stuck!” I looked up the definition of stuck in the dictionary. The word had half a column of variations and definitions, but in essence, the word stuck comes from the word stick: “To be or remain fixed or embedded; to be puzzled.”
I think this fits the statement pastors are making. “I’m stuck, fixed, embedded, and puzzled.” Basically, “Our momentum is stalled. We aren’t moving ahead. We’re stuck right where we are.” Many pastors are content with stuck, as long as it doesn’t shift into reverse. Being stuck, however, is the first step toward reverse. If you are not moving forward, you’re in decline. If your growth chart doesn’t show any increase over the past couple of years, you’re stuck. We can call it many different things, but when all the layers and excuses are peeled away, it’s the same—stuck.
I don’t claim to have all the answers, but I can tell you I’ve been stuck. I pastored for many years, with definite times without forward momentum. I’ve studied momentum, growth barriers, ruts, and many other issues related to stuck, and I’ve learned some things along the way. I would like to share three:
Most stuck churches have lost their focus. If your church isn’t reaching people and growing, it has lost focus…I can almost guarantee it. The focus of every church should be outreach. The goal of the church is to fulfill the Great Commission. Matthew 28:19-20 is clear: “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you.”
We are to win and disciple others. Winning and discipling people has many pieces. It would take pages to scratch the surface of the subject, but let me share a few ways the church can do this successfully.
Focus on evangelism and discipleship. Everything your church does should be motivated by evangelism. If a ministry is using up valuable resources and volunteers in an effort that doesn’t aid the evangelistic efforts of your church, stop!
Teach your church to be friendly. I’ve never been to a church the pastor describes as unfriendly, but many are! Every church thinks it’s friendly, but the truth is, many are not. People are friendly to friends but not to guests. Invite a “secret shopper” to visit your church for an honest evaluation that may be brutal but informative.
Clear the calendar. Most churches are wearing their people out. Activity is not an automatic sign of spirituality. Church members need time to connect with people outside of church. If your church family is involved in activities every night of the week, when will they have time to engage with neighbors? Slow it down and don’t wear out your people.
Have an intentional plan for discipleship. Evangelism is first, but discipleship runs a close second. The church must become more intentional about discipling believers and moving them toward service rather than casual attendance.
Several important areas of organization have implications on momentum and keeping a church moving forward:
Physical barriers to growth. Scores of things can be physical barriers to church growth from seating and parking capacity to printed materials, website, and marketing pieces.
Seating. Remember the 80% rule? When you’re 80% full, you’re full. Recent studies have actually lowered that number to 70-75%. If your sanctuary seats 120 people, you can only run 90 consistently. Americans want their private space. They’ll crowd in for special occasions, but they will not do it on a regular basis. If you have reached the limit in your seating capacity, you have to do something to create more space either through multiple services, building, or relocating. It’s a simple fact of math.
Parking issues are real issues, too. Today, many families drive multiple cars to church. A general rule is 2.25 people per parking space. If you have 50 parking spaces, you can average 112 people. Don’t fight this simple rule. If you’re full, you’re full. Figure out a way to create more space. Don’t ignore the fact that full is full and act as if you can’t figure out why you can’t average 150 when your sanctuary only seats 100.
Printed material and website. We live in a culture of information overload. You need quality printed material for your church. Bulletins with print lines, crooked type, and out of date clip-art won’t attract or keep new people. All printed material must be high quality, attractive, and correct. Your website is the “storefront” of your church. A visitor’s first impression will likely be through your site. Younger generations will naturally visit your website to find location, service times, how others dress, what will happen to their kids, and what to expect. Your church must have an up-to-date website, or it likely will remain stuck.
Structural barriers to growth. I’m a “congregational rule” guy, but many churches have too much congregational rule. Congregations want leadership to be accountable, but to lead when appointed or elected. Most church members find it cumbersome, even insulting to vote on maintenance items and issues that can and should be handled by leaders. If the congregation has to vote on everything, your church likely will become stuck.
Change is hard enough, but when a church creates multiple steps to making change, it becomes really difficult. If a Sunday School teacher can’t paint her room without a vote by the body, the church probably has too cumbersome a system. Changes should make sense and allow for accountability, but they shouldn’t require an act of congress. Reserve congregational votes for big issues such as calling a pastor, incurring debt, building or relocating, adopting a budget, and so on. Church structure should be established in a way that allows the church to be congregational without being micromanaged.
Another structural barrier to growth is staffing issues. Staffing needs change over time. I remember the day when the second most important and sought after staff position (after pastor) was music and/or education. Years later, needs shifted, and teen or student pastors moved into second place. Today, children’s pastors seem to be in that spot. If your church is stuck, look at your staffing and see if adjustments need to be made in personnel and resources.
Personal barriers to growth. How do new people “break into” leadership at your church? In his book, One Size Doesn’t Fit All, author Gary McIntosh describes three types of church sizes: single cell, with only a few people in leadership and few new people; stretched cell, where new people are allowed to gain certain responsibilities but the main core remains in charge; and multiple cell, which embraces new leadership at all levels. Single and stretched cell churches rarely grow beyond 200 people, stuck because their structures don’t allow new people to become leaders.
Every morning, I go through a routine. I shave, shower, fix my hair, brush my teeth, and pick out clothes that are clean, ironed, and (hopefully) match. I try to keep my car clean and my office presentable. Why do I worry about all these details? I want to be ready in case company drops by. The same should be true at church.
What message does it convey to first-time church guests if your facility is unkempt, the bathroom stinks, the nursery is unattended, and leaders aren’t on time or prepared? It tells them what you do isn’t important, and you weren’t expecting guests. People care about how things look. If your church doesn’t show well to visitors, they probably won’t come back for a second visit. If they don’t come back for a second visit, you likely won’t win them. You’ll be stuck.
All churches get stuck. The problem comes when leaders allow them to remain that way. A couple of years ago, I lived in the country and had a lot of grass to mow. I had a zero-turn riding mower that made the job easy, but I encountered a problem. I had places on my property that stayed muddy for a long time after it rained. Many times, I would be riding my mower, cutting grass, when all of a sudden, I’d bog down and get stuck. When this happened, I had two choices: I could sit on the mower, open the throttle full speed, spin my wheels, and tell myself I was mowing the grass. Or I could get off, get some help, and get the mower unstuck. Only when I chose the latter did I make any real progress. If your church is spinning its wheels, I trust you will get some help and get unstuck.
North American Ministries stands ready to help churches that become stuck. We would love to come alongside and help you get your church moving forward again. We don’t have a one-size-fits-all program, and we recognize that every church is different. If we can assist your church, please contact us.
About the Writer: Brad Ransom is director of church planting for North American Ministries. Visit www.fwbnam.com for more information.