A few weeks back, well maybe months, a fellow minister suggested I read a book entitled ‘Ready, Steady Grow.’ He, having lead a church plant to become a large church, felt it gave a very interesting insight into the different sizes of church. Many people have pointed out that the size of a church will have direct bearing on the church culture. Timothy Keller says the following for instance, ‘A church’s functional style, its strengths and weaknesses, and the roles of its lay and staff leaders will change dramatically as its size changes.’
The the interesting thing about ‘Ready, Steady Grow’ is that it places CBC in a particular category. It suggests there are five sizes of church; small, medium, awkward, large and mega. It appears that we fit into the ‘awkward’ sized church. Encouraging right?! But it is insightful to read.
So why not make some time and have a a read of what follows. Yes it’s a little long, but you know what they say; ‘rake and you’ll get leaves but dig and you’ll get gold.’
“The A- sized church, with a grade ‘D’ for difficulty
I thought there was just one more category – small, medium and of course…large? No, I discovered that there is the awkward- sized church! What exactly is that? It’s the size in which, no matter how hard a full- time pastor works, things seem to come unstuck. Even the highest capacity worker will struggle with much more than 150 attending, unless things change. Indeed, it takes more than leaders with good people skills to take the church through this phase.
Could this glass ceiling be why many churches remain the size they are? Could this be why many plateau and then slowly decline, with lots of frustrated members, as they approach this size?
The awkward- sized church needs exploring in some depth. Whereas there is a lot written about planting and growing small churches, there is little help for leaders at this point. Now is when important leadership skills need to emerge and some very big ‘re- engineering’ changes have to happen if the church is to go forward – either into a larger- sized category or into vigorous church planting.
The awkward- sized church (about 150 to 400 attendees) will present three main problems, and it will not feel as if it provides many positives to its members for some time.
Problem 1: mindset
Essentially, the problem is this: the church is growing beyond everyone knowing everyone by name. For many, belonging to a church in which this happens is a sure sign of relational failure, and for some even a mark that the church is straying from a biblical pattern. In a medium- sized church that is slowly growing, this creeps up on people. To start with, core people keep expanding their network circles to connect to new people. The pastor may work hard, spending extra time with visitors. He may exhort members to be better at welcoming, better at talking to people they don’t know and better at hospitality. But the church which had been so good at embracing the new, the needy and the neglected begins to fear that such people are now falling through the cracks.
Compounding this, new people don’t even start to get to know everyone; they realize that this is a receding target. They settle into the habit of talking to people like themselves, those with whom they most naturally connect. Many, attracted by the positive aspects of a healthy church, just benefit from what it offers. To core people, these new members seem to be part of a growing fringe that doesn’t commit to helping in the way that everyone had to do when the church was growing from small to medium.
People are coming up against the thing they assume is true of a large church and which they fear is happening to them, namely that the church, their church, is becoming impersonal, and consumed by a chasing after numbers.
Many conservative evangelical Christians in the UK seem to have a strong aversion to such growth pains, and the thought of their church really growing is not what they desire in their deepest heart, whatever they may say.
Problem 2: leadership capability
The pastor now feels that the visitation and counselling and organizing of the growing number of meetings are becoming past him. Everyone still wants him to be their personal pastor/chaplain. He will have to work at speed; what is going to get missed? Which of the many spinning plates is going to crash to the ground first? What else will fail? Will it be his health or his family life? Will there be a sharp comment to a disgruntled person? By now there are quite a few of those, as people are raising all kinds of concerns, in short: ‘The church isn’t what it used to be!’ It all seems so bizarre: ‘We have prayed for growth for so long, so how come it feels so negative ?’ This is the unspoken question that many, including the pastor, are asking.
The leadership of a church approaching the awkward size will begin to notice the organizational complexity. Larry Osborne, an American pastor who has written extensively about this issue, talks about leadership teams that were once very small- scale. He describes the sole pastor being like a ‘track athlete’, with members cheering him on to perform well. That moves on to a form of leadership which he likens to ‘golf buddies’, where a small leadership team is built around personal friendship, shared and tacit understandings of many key spiritual issues, and where decisions are made informally. This gives way, in the awkward- sized church, to a leadership structure more akin to a basketball team, where there are some specialists and roles which are clearly mapped out, and where orders are given and taken by the other leadership ‘players’. Finally, he likens a large- church leadership structure to an American football team with its offence, defence and special teams (a UK equivalent might be a rugby union team with its front row, backs and fullback). If a ‘track- athlete’ sole pastor is to change his leadership style to manoeuvre through all these required leadership level changes, this will take some adjustment.
Problem 3: organizing tasks
On top of this, one of the great frictions in the awkward- sized church is the way work gets done. Typically, in smaller churches, active members often have their fingers in many pies and will be aware of most things going on; this dynamic structure works really well. It is impossible to make this work now, because what brings stability to a smaller church will stifle the progress of an awkward- sized one. So, as it transitions, the church has to make one of its biggest structural changes: no- one can possibly know all that is going on, no- one can meet all the needs, yet jobs still need to get done.
Without knowing how to handle this issue, the leaders will be blaming all the wrong people or the wrong things. We will see how to negotiate these serious structural problems in several of the next chapters.
The strong temptation is to ignore all of this and just enjoy the benefits of no longer being small and struggling. David Anderson has observed that medium- and awkward- sized congregations tend to lose the evangelistic focus they once had, and instead adopt what he calls a ‘club mentality’. ‘You have just enough people not to be missional anymore [and] you don’t have to grow anymore to sustain your budget.’
Having ‘just enough’ – did you spot that? It’s the subtle danger. Enough people to get the jobs done and pay the bills, enough work to keep one pastor busy, enough visitors to create the impression that mission is happening, enough problems not to want any more. It takes a strong sense of urgent purposefulness not to want to stay in this relatively safe place, but to tackle the challenges of growing the church.
However, if the temptation to become self- satisfied can be resisted, the church may, by God’s grace, grow large.”