Barry McMurtrie is the product of a small church and has been a leader of small churches. A native Australian, he attended the Churches of Christ Bible College in Sydney and ministered in three churches “down under” at Berwick, Ballarat, and Wollongong (his home church). Each of those churches was below 50 in attendance upon his arrival and had grown to 600 to 1,000 at his departure. In 1994, Barry was called stateside to Corona , California , as senior pastor of Crossroads Christian Church which averaged 1,000 upon his arrival and runs in excess of 5,000 today.
Other than the sheer number of people, what’s the difference between a small church and a large church?
They’re entirely different animals. A small church is a single cell. Everybody knows which families “own” a small church. Nothing happens without the agreement of those families. A small church is best at nurturing, not at evangelism.
Would that be the primary strength of the small church?
Small churches are better at nurturing and caring for their own that’s what they do best. Getting accepted there can be tough work; it’s usually by birth. A small church will often reject very talented people who join it because they threaten the whole pecking order in the church and subconsciously they’ll often be frozen out of a small church. The small church is organized to plateau. There is usually a ceiling, 120 or so; after that it starts to threaten the single cell.
What makes a small church successful?
The question is: is the church growing? Obviously if you’re in a small town you’re not going to grow to a large number, but most churches are in places where there are thousands and thousands of people to be won. I don’t think growth is the biggest thing, but every church should grow. If everyone was able to take our church to the next level that would make an enormous difference for the work of Christ.
The simplest plan is the Great Commission. We’re not talking about big, we’re talking about dynamic. The church is not filling the commission of Christ if it’s not growing.
Do you think most churches want to grow?
No matter the size of the church, you have to address three issues. First, do you have people to reach? If so, does the church want to grow? Everybody will say yes, but actually most churches don’t want to grow. Then (third) you have to put the wants and needs of the unchurched ahead of the wants and needs of yourselves. The reasons churches often don’t grow is they put the needs of the churched ahead of the unchurched.
Are there negative factors a church should be aware of that come as a result of growth?
The hardest barrier to break is about 100. Normally when a church breaks that it becomes multicell. The church will rush away to 180 200. That’s the second most difficult barrier to break. You’ve made that change by pulling together some fabulous people. To go any further you have to start appointing staff. As soon as staff is involved, the lay people who have been your unpaid team become a little resistant. Normally when you get to 200 you’ll fall back to 160 180. As soon as there is any growth, the old guard, who generally hold the eldership positions, will influence things for the church to go back to what it was and the new people will leave.
What price must churches pay to make the transition from small to large?
The answer almost always involves new leadership. Thomas Kuhn says change always comes from outside of the perimeter, because people on the inside have too much at stake to keep the pecking order the way it is. The new minister usually fails because the small church never ceases to be what it is. The most common mistake ministers who come to a new church make is this: they have all kinds of ideas of what they want the church to be, but they don’t take the church with them. They don’t introduce change wisely.
How do you introduce change without “upsetting the apple cart”?
You really create the next cell without attacking the one that exists. If you attack the one that exists you destroy a living thing. You introduce some changes that will bring in some new people and you introduce changes that don’t need a vote. The minister who is going to succeed must love those in the church and honor what they’re doing, while fulfilling their expectations.
How would he do that?
If the church service is incapable of successfully reaching outside people, the best way to introduce change is not to force change on the people who are there, but to begin another service under the banner of outreach. You still pay honor to the existing order. At all three churches in Australia we did that and it quickly led to a change in the main service. The vast majority of people floated to the new service because they liked what they didn’t expect to like.
Was there a tipping point for you where you just thought, We have to do this some other way ?
I had never thought of changing traditional services until one day I was sitting in a church service listening to a totally irrelevant communicator talk and I was looking at people whom that week had been through terrible situations in their life. I realized that morning those faces were a montage of human need. With the thousands we needed to reach we had to be relevant for the people we needed to reach.
I think so often we go to seminars and get inspired by having a great church and we forget it’s about the Lord and about people. I think praying for people, anointing, and the personal touch in ministry make a big difference. Evangelism is empowered by loving and accepting people.
How can a church jump start growth?
There are two things I always did going into a stagnant church. First, I made the services much more positive and encouraging. This included what we said and occasionally having a great musical program that was better than what they were used to. The second was to give three or four nights a week to evangelistic calling, because people are not used to having baptisms in the church. Baptisms beget baptisms. You have transformed the DNA of the church.
What would your advice be to the young preacher who has the challenge of facing a new ministry in a smaller church?
When I talk to young ministers about preaching I say, “Look out at people and love them.” I think the major obstacle to growth in the small church when a young preacher takes over is his computer. So many of them spend hours a week making beautiful productions on their computer. They should put it in a box until attendance gets to 600. Then model what the church should be before you begin to change too much.
Are there only certain types of leaders who can take a church from small to large, or can it be taught to anyone with some drive?
Churches face different challenges at different stages; there is a science to that. You can learn the different stages of a church’s life. I don’t think it takes a great leader to lead a church to some growth. Some are 500 member men, others are 1,000, 5,000, 10,000, or even more. There are some who would never cope with a church of 1,000, but by the time they’re finished they can say we have reached more people and the church is stronger.
Church growth is not greatly connected to spirituality. If you think about it, some of the most godly people in ministry have never been able to lead a church to any growth at all. That’s why I think you can learn methodology that would help you take steps to lead the church to more growth. Otherwise you would say the most spiritual men in our movement are those who have led the biggest churches, and I don’t think that’s true.
Brad Dupray is senior vice president, investor development, with Church Development Fund, Irvine, California. “