Counting the Cost of a Growing Church

By Eddie Lowen

Before you decide you want your church to grow, let me tell you the price you will pay.

After taking the staff and elders of a former church to a leadership simulcast in the late 1990s, I learned that I still had a lot to learn.

For several years, Rick Warren’s book The Purpose Driven Church had been making a huge impact on churches applying its principles. The simulcast was a way for our leaders to catch this kind of vision. Our church was already growing in size and health, but I knew there was another level awaiting us. The simulcast event would be part of the next step. I was certain our leaders would have their vision lifted and their determination strengthened by the event.

I shouldn’t have been so certain.

Man Overboard

Within days of the simulcast, I learned one of our elders was responding very negatively to what he heard. He didn’t like the emphasis on change, even though our church had already experienced a lot of change. Also, he had done some “research,” which led him to believe this Warren guy was not to be trusted. Ambitious pastors were being seduced, and I had fallen under a spell, he feared.

12_Lowen_JNDespite our established value of bringing leadership concerns directly to the leadership team, the man did not approach me or ask our elders to meet. Instead, he expressed his alarm to his family, friends, and the folks in his Sunday school class. You know where this is going, don’t you?

I’d love to tell you it ended well. The man was likeable and sincere. His children were friends of my wife and me. In his professional role, he had been important to our family. I admired his generosity with our church. But in just a few weeks, he did significant damage to the unity of our body. Not far into the future, he stepped away from the leadership team and, ultimately, left our church.

This story line could never produce a best-selling novel because it’s far too common. When churches grow, challenges always increase, especially in the early years of growth. Every church struggles, but church leaders who are passionate about reaching the unchurched experience opposition more often and with greater intensity.

Jesus said it’s wise to count the cost before building. So, before you decide you want your church to grow, let me help you forecast a budget. In other words, allow me to help you anticipate some specific ways it will cost you.

Your Motives Will Be Questioned

As your church grows, some people will admire your growing ministry. However, you’ll sense the opposite tendency in some people, too. Without reason or evidence, some will view you more skeptically. Are you willing to be appraised more cynically by more people with each new phase of growth?

When I was invited to speak for a university graduation ceremony several years ago, I arrived a day early. That night, I attended an event for graduates with a friend. During the event, another guest speaker took some cheap shots at large church pastors during his talk. After he appeared to be moving on, I leaned toward my friend and whispered, “Ever been the victim of stereotyping?”

A few seconds later he whispered back, “Yes, some people think I always sit with jerks.” Nice one.

If your church grows—and especially if it enters a category that includes the term mega—get ready. Your motives will be impugned.

People Will Leave

Whether your church grows or not, people will leave. The reasons are many, but there is also a sense in which it’s basic math. People leave churches. But, oddly, the rate of departures may increase during seasons of growth.

My primary concern is how people leave. Some leave poorly (without concern for how they discourage others or damage the ministry). But there are some people who leave well. The best-handled departure I remember was by a woman whose husband was not a believer. When he formed a positive impression of another local church and said he would attend it with her, she wisely chose to go. She made no comparative statements about the two churches. She spoke to me before she left to explain the reason.

Based on that experience, I plan to add a segment to my church’s newcomer event called “If You Ever Leave West Side.” We should train people how to leave well.

I can’t pretend to have never been stung by a church departure. Some have hurt. Some who’ve left have wanted it to hurt. But over time, I am more able to see how losing people who are decidedly opposed to the church’s direction blesses our church. So, if you want your church to grow, accept the likelihood that even more people will leave.

Complexity Will Come

You may think I’m referring to problems. Not really. I’m referring to everything! The more people you have on your campus, the more people you involve as volunteers, the more people you add to your staff team, the more complications you’ll encounter.

Adding one person to your staff team doesn’t seem like a big deal. But even one additional team member multiplies the number of staff and congregational relationships that exist. It can strain your administrative resources. Adding staff multiplies complexity. What’s the answer? Paradoxically, growing complexity requires leaders to find ways to simplify the organization so that its energy can be channeled into ministry, not processes. But making the complex simple is complicated work.

The primary difference between pastors who serve small churches and pastors who serve large churches is not talent. Neither is it work ethic. The difference between small and large church leaders is often the level of fulfillment they derive from engaging complex challenges. While the large church pastor is energized by these challenges, the small church pastor may feel overwhelmed or oppressed. Some people are wired to enjoy the madness of larger ministries, so they gravitate in that direction.

If structures and strategies don’t fascinate you, consider whether or not you really want your church to grow.

Morphing and Moving Roles

Growing churches require adjustment. As the church I serve has grown, we have sometimes needed to ask members of our staff team to surrender familiar responsibilities and accept others. We’ve even taken the radical step of asking people to move to different office spaces to allow teams to be together! But even for church staff who keep the same responsibilities, growth requires flexibility.

One of the biggest shifts in a growing church involves volunteer leaders. In smaller churches, volunteers often hold most or all of the decision-making authority. That’s how they like it. But the reason some small churches do not gain momentum is because there are too many cooks in the kitchen. Too many people are clamoring to be decision makers, while too few are seeking to truly serve in ministry.

In a larger church, the staff receives a set of broad boundaries within which they are free to make strategic decisions about day-to-day and seasonal ministry. In other words, there are fewer daily decision makers and many more actual ministry-doers. I believe this more accurately represents the New Testament model of church leadership. It also just happens to produce healthier, faster-growing churches.

Eddie Lowen, lead minister of West Side Christian Church, Springfield, Illinois, writes the “Ministry Today” column semimonthly in Christian Standard and serves on Standard Publishing’s Publishing Committee. 

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