Why Aren’t We Growing?

In his seminar notes, “How to Break the 200 Barrier,” C. Peter Wagner mentions 5 institutional factors that keep a church under 200. Let’s unpack his list…

1. The desire to preserve social intimacy

One of the great strengths of the smaller church is the close relationships that form. Church becomes a place where “everybody knows your name” and that’s very comforting. But for a church to grow beyond 150-200, those attending have to be open to new relationships, and they also must be okay with not knowing everyone themselves. The down side of knowing everyone is that people end up not being very friendly to those they don’t know. Sundays are a chance to hang out with my good friends, so the guests in the room are often ignored or barely encountered. Growing churches build close relationships through smaller groups and maintain an open door for anyone to connect.
2. The desire to maintain control

Those who lead in a smaller church often struggle with growth because their role as a leader isn’t yet established among new people. If we grow, there will be more people that must be taught to do things “our way.” Now, this issue sounds pretty negative, AND IT IS! Often in the smaller church there are one or two leaders or one ruling family that dominate decision-making. In such cases, these leaders are often not capable of leading the group as it gets larger, so the growth is a threat to their capacity, and they will often try to exert a level of control that runs off new people. The more people a church has, the less control one person can wield.
3. The desire to conserve memories

One things about new people is that they haven’t been with us in the past. They don’t know the things we have come to value or understand why we do what we do. Now, when our memories lead us to sensible choices, there’s seldom a problem, but if our well-worn path doesn’t make sense anymore, new people won’t understand it or stand for it. For example, if we’ve always loved the organ as a primary instrument of worship, new people may not understand that. They may not value organ music any more than people in our community value organ music, so our sub-culture ideas don’t make sense to them.
4. The desire to protect turf

If you are on the worship team in a smaller church, you may be demonstrating your ministry every single week. But once a church grows, there will be a need to get others involved and that can mean you are needed only every other week, or even as little as once a month. Suddenly growth makes you feel less needed, less valuable, and less involved. Making room for new people to be involved in ministry is a major reason why small churches don’t grow. People may be willing to share the ministry tasks they don’t want to do, but when new folks get involved in “my thing,” well, that’s another story.
5. The desire to remain comfortable

We like what we like. The pursuit of new people usually means things need to change so we can create environments that will engage those we haven’t reached. And that change may mean we don’t do things the way some of us like them. There’s a common reality among churches that don’t grow. We think church is about us, so we do things our way. In fact, some have become so mired in this trap that in their minds they have “created God in their own image.” These well-meaning folks have decided that God likes what they like, so changing anything is an affront to God. Of course, it’s not, but inward focus can teach us many unhealthy lessons.

Fresh vision and outward focus can lead a church into its greatest days, but Wagner is correct in observing the barriers that most commonly stand in our way.

Remember, Jesus designed His Church to be about “Him and them.” He said when we focused our hearts on Him and on those He’s called us to reach, He would take care of everything we need. When Church becomes about us, we find a powerless drifting, full of frustration. But when we seek first His kingdom (the Him and them assignment), then He brings the “all things” that make our life meaningful and joyous.

C. Peter Wagner, How to Break the 200 Barrier Seminar Notebook, Breaking the 20 Barrier May 1987 8-9.

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