Space to Grow:  What are the potential barriers to growth?

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In my last article, I wrote that we can end up putting barriers in the way of a church doing what we might naturally, legitimately expect it to be doing. It is natural for churches as living, healthy entities to grow.  So, what are some of the barriers or constraints that might be in place:

Barrier 1 –  A lack of health/vitality

This should be the obvious 101 answer. If the church is not healthy, if there isn’t a love amongst the members, if there isn’t a vibrant prayer life, if there isn’t spiritual growth then there either won’t be numerical growth, it will be short lived or it will be growth that you don’t want. 

So, the first thing we should do is look at the spiritual health of the church.  Spiritually well fed church members are more likely to feel equipped and motivated to share their faith with others. They are also more likely to see the value in inviting people to come along to your gatherings and outreach events.  The first thing I would prioritise here would be the teaching of God’s Word. Is there a good solid diet of expository teaching. Then I’d look at things including corporate worship, the prayer life of the church, healthy leadership and church discipline to encourage godly discipleship.

Barrier 2 -The church culture

I remember opening up a conversation with people within a church about growth and them openly telling me that they didn’t expect or want the church to grow. They’d got by quite happily maintaining the status quo on a one in one out basis. When we began to talk about what this meant for community and opportunities to hear the Gospel, they began to see the problem. But at one level I’m glad that they were able to be honest about this. Not every church family will be so honest about preferring not to grow.

Yet, that preference to stay small can be very much present in the church. This can arise out of a fear of change and out of a belief that if more people join then there will be less love, less grace, less care for us.  We enjoy being a group of people who know one another and keep an eye out for each other. 

This will be reflected in the way that the church functions. A church where the culture is against growth will be one where everyone expects to know everything about each other. It will be a church where we try to please everyone. It’s likely that every event and activity put on will be expected to cater for everyone.  It’s likely to characterised by “in jokes” and break downs in communication because we assumed everyone would have been told.

It’s important before you attempt to change structures to also think about culture and attitudes. This brings us back to our first point, we need to look at what is communicated in our teaching. But it is also important to think about how those structures affect the culture too. Are there things we can do to change that.

One practical thing I believe we can do is to look at the role of small groups. Often the challenge as a church grows is that people worry about loss of relational intimacy.  So, you need to find ways in which to grow small in order to grow big. Create space for intimacy, interaction, care, service so that the burden of delivering those aspects of church life isn’t carried by the main gathering. At our last church we were able to multiple the number of functioning small groups from 2 to 8.  

Barrier to Growth 3 – Sunday capacity

The primary way that people make first physical contact with your church is still likely be the Sunday gathering.  So here are some things to consider.

  1. Do they know how to find you?  Look at your communications.  Do you have a clear, attractive and accessible website with information about when and where you meet? Are you communicating in other ways such as through newsletters and flyers? Do members have invite-cards to hand out?
  2.  Is your venue easy to find and is it warm, welcoming, clean?  I’ve heard of churches where people would turn up to visit but not return bluntly because the building was dirty and smelly.
  3. Consistency:   Often the temptation is to go all out for special events, to do something different, to have a larger group of musicians etc. The problem is that people come back the following week to something completely different. They don’t return on the third week.
  4. Seating.  Is it easy for people to find a seat when they arrive.  A good rule of thumb is that church attendance tends to plateau when you hit 80% of your seating capacity.  You see, if people are having to hunt around for a seat they are less likely to come back. If your average is 80% then that probably includes Sundays when every seat is taken and then Sunday’s when people decide not to come along. Remember it isn’t about packing everyone in, people like their personal space too!

So, if you have about 80 people attending then you need to put out at least 100 seats.  If you find that you can no longer do this comfortably and safely (allowing for leg room and safe egress) then you will need to look at your options.  This might include enlarging your venue, finding a new venue or increasing the number of Sunday gatherings. At Bearwood, we went with the last option and saw a church of about 70 grow to around 180 meeting over 5 weekend gatherings.  Of course, hitting capacity might also indicate that it is time to plant out as well.

Barrier 3 – Leadership capacity

You also need to look at the capacity of your leaders, especially the elders and pastoral leadership within the church.  There are two aspects to this. First of all, what do the leaders have equipping, appetite and faith for? It is good to ask yourself this question and to talk about it with others among the leaders.  Think about whether or not you think you have the skills, gifting and emotional resilience for the complexities and challenges that come with a church of a certain size. Just as we think in terms of the 80% rule for seating capacity, so too, I think it is wise for leaders to give themselves spare capacity and not to push themselves to the limit. The concept of allowing spare capacity in these areas seems to me to be rooted in the Biblical principle of Sabbath rest.

Secondly, having the right number of people involved in leadership -is important too.  Now, over the years I’ve seen charts showing ratios of staff to church attendees. These can be helpful to our thinking but I would be careful as well as these can assume that the work of pastoring/leading is done solely by the paid pastor/workers.  It does help to increase the number of paid workers but we should also be thinking about how we increase the number of and availability of other leaders with a focus on elders and deacons.  Increasing availability might include finding ways to delegate aspects of church work, including administrative tasks.  A good rule of thumb seems to be that we aim for 1 pastoral leader for every 10-12 members.  Don’t just look at numbers but also look at diversity as well. Does the leadership of the church reflect the membership and the community?

So, I would give significant time to recruiting, training and caring for leaders. Indeed a primary responsibility for someone in pastoral work is identifying, training, discipling and caring for other leaders.


I would encourage church leaders, especially where they are not seeing any signs or promise of growth to give some time to thinking through these barriers and considering whether they need to take action in their church.

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