I was told it was a bad idea.
Honestly, I was told it would never work. Young men in the ministry normally don’t find success going back and working at the church at which they were raised. Regardless of those people telling me it was a bad idea, I couldn’t shake that I felt God’s Spirit leading me back to North Side to serve as a minister when I graduated college in 2003.
As a young minister, I was eternally grateful to this church for what they had done to help me grow in Christ over the years. I wanted to give back as much as I could. At the same time, I began my seminary training through extension work.
In one of my classes, the required reading was a book called The Everychurch Guide to Growth by Elmer Towns, C. Peter Wagner, and Thom Rainer. With a large reading load that semester, I intended to rush through this reading but it didn’t happen that way. As I read the pages, I felt like someone had been watching my beloved North Side during the years that I had grown up here and chronicled some of the challenges we had experienced and had overcome.
The book is broken down into 3 sections highlighting unique challenges for churches when they near or surpass the 200, 400, and 1,000 member marks. As I read each section, I was amazed at how much North Side’s history had experienced some of these challenges.
200 CHALLENGES Churches struggling to break the 200 barrier have common problems. They have a desire to preserve social intimacy, a desire to maintain control, a desire to conserve memories, a desire to protect turf, and a desire to remain comfortable.
I recently talked with a dear friend of mine who remembered when you knew everyone at North Side. While he was so joyful over the lives being changed every week here, he longed for that nostalgic feeling when he knew everyone and everyone knew him.
400 CHALLENGES As churches begin to near the 400 mark, they experience a new set of challenges. Some of these barriers are a desire to stay comfortable, a desire to maintain participatory democracy in church decisions, a fear from a “power group” losing their ability to lead the church, a fear of people joining the church different than original membership, the danger of a few people doing the ministry which should be shared by a larger number of people, and the desire for the senior pastor to still show the same amount of pastoral care he did when the church was smaller.
I look back over our years with buildings being built and ministries growing, and I am so thankful, but I can also remember those moments when we struggled with going forward. No one would ever say we want this church to stop growing, but for those who have been here a long time, it is hard to transition when new people and new challenges come our way. You are thankful for the new people, yet you still want that connection like you used to have.
1,000 + CHALLENGES According to their research, churches with a membership of over 1,000 members experience common problems. In these larger churches, here are some of the recurring barriers:
- Uncharted waters. “Any navigator will tell you that it is dangerous to travel in uncharted waters. You don’t know where the dangers are” (134). With rapid growth, churches experience situations on the horizon in which there was no way to prepare. How can a church anticipate challenges to disciple that many people at one time if they have never had that many people before?
- Growth itself becomes the barrier. “As the church gets larger, it becomes more complex simply because more people, more programs, and more options are present. Consequently, more problems arise. When you multiply the individual problems with organizational problems, the difficulty of producing growth increases exponentially” (135). With more people, a church runs the risk of having more personal issues between members, running out of space to have programs for all the people, and having to add services and programs since there are logistically not enough parking spaces.
- Lack of cohesion in the critical mass. “As the congregation grows beyond 1,000, new people are added to the critical mass, but they are not bonded to a small cell within the church…By attending without bonding, the critical mass grows without any ‘glue’ to keep the church members in a cohesive mass” (136-137). If we all come for different reasons, can we all unite under one cause?
- Platform growth without personal bonding. “People attend a large church because of the attraction of the sermon, special music, personalities, praise band and/or orchestra, drama, the worship/liturgy, identification with a special presenter, or any other platform attraction. One of the implied principles of the large church is: The platform attracts but small groups bond” (137). As we grow larger, how can we still grow deeper?
- Space limitation. “As the church grows larger, it must accommodate its growing population with additional seating. Usually, a church builds its first auditorium with approximately 175 seats…The second auditorium is roughly twice the size…When a church fills [that] auditorium, the middle-sized church often has the flexibility and leadership to continue growing through multiple services. Most churches cannot grow beyond two or three multiple services. Therefore they must build a third auditorium, which usually can seat approximately 1,000 worshipers” (138). Does that sound familiar, North Side? Now, that we have the stage 3 building, what’s next? Will we have to cap off one day? Will we have 12 services in a week? Where will we fit all the children? Where will we fit all the cars? Where do we go from here?
- Changes in leadership style. “A church of 100 in attendance needs a pastor who will minister to the needs of the people of that church. His primary role is ministering leadership. When a congregation becomes a middle-sized church of approximately 400, the pastor must possess managing leadership skills. The pastor does not do all the ministering; he has many ministers who work with him…When the church reaches 1,000, the pastor’s leadership skills must again change” (140). We all realize that one pastor cannot adequately care for every member and their families, but we still desire to be a connected church. How do we maintain a sense of oneness when there are so many needs?
- Limited pastoral leadership. “Because the senior pastor will not be able to minister to all the people, he must attract leaders who can minister to all people” (141). While North Side has been blessed with a great staff, there is always a greater need than we have the staff to address. What would happen if we never hired another staff person? Could the members of North Side step up their roles and could we still address all the needs in this community?
- Projection of needs onto the congregation. “For a church to pass the 1,000 barrier, the senior pastor must continually look to the diversity of needs within his community and realize that he cannot meet all the needs” (144). If the needs are still there, how are we supposed to address them? We cannot ignore them. We are the church and we must act.
As I type this, I’m sitting in my office. I used to be on the other side of this desk. I used to come in here and bug the pastors and want to learn from them. I watched God use them and those behind them to reach this community.
Now, on the other side of the desk, my heart is full of great expectations of what God could do next through us. But I also realize that we have challenges right now. As we strive to truly be one, what am I willing to do, to give up, to change, to sacrifice, for the benefit of others? Am I willing truly to be the church? Am I really willing to put aside my preferences for the preferences of others?