Instead of looking for invisible magic levers to pull to start growth, many experts advise organizations to look for the easier to identify obstacles and work to remove them.
These growth barriers aren’t just a thing for churches. They exist for businesses, non-profits, start-ups, and even relationships.
Breaking through these growth barriers, whether it’s related to attendance or structure, can be a challenge. First, you must identify them. Then, you must sift through conflicting advice on how to address them. And ultimately, you have to get people to the same page and ready to address them.
It’s no small task, partly because many church growth barriers are new.
Or at least different.
Today’s growth barriers are not external.
It’s easy to cite external forces like Covid or a changing culture as a primary roadblock to church growth. Much of the church leadership writing today deals with how to respond and react to Covid.
But many of the growth barriers facing churches today are internal rather than external. They were there before Covid, and if not addressed, they will be there after Covid. It's not outside forces, but internal factors that hold us back.
A 2016 Harvard Business Review article sums it up well:
“Most of these barriers resulted from complexity and bureaucracy that had accumulated as these leaders scaled up their businesses. The pattern holds true for some of the most studied cases of sudden business declines, like Nokia losing out to Apple or Sony getting outmaneuvered in video cameras by GoPro. The stall-outs point more to a loss of internal metabolism, speed, self-awareness, sense of urgency, and general bloat of staff rather than any outside factors they may have missed.”
Covid and other external forces out of our control have certainly influenced our churches. Ministry needs to adapt. But it’s our response to external pressure, not the pressure itself that often influences forward momentum.
Rather than blaming the shifting culture, leaders who adopt a growth mindset first look inside to the things within their circle of influence, focusing on how they are responding, adapting, and leading despite external challenges.
Today’s growth barriers are often not spiritual.
For churches, these growth barriers are usually not things like…
- A misunderstood calling
- A lack of passion or desire
- No vision for the future
- A heart for the community
While of course, it’s not always true in every situation, it’s typically not a lack of spirituality holding a church back.
Of course, we need to pray and preach.
This is a given.
But there are system, structural, and strategic barriers that are not directly associated with faith that can hold us back.
As we work with hundreds of churches across every state and multiple countries, here are some of the bigger internal obstacles we are seeing churches face. Focus on removing these four growth barriers.
Growth Barrier #1: An Unengaged Core
As you rebuild and rebound from Covid, the desire to focus on serving your community and reaching new people is understandable. This is central to the mission of every local church. But one of the biggest obstacles to sustained health in this area is the lost focus of members, attenders, volunteers, leaders, and donors.
In other words…the core.
Consider these words from a volunteer leader at a local church…
“My church pushed our reopening date back because leadership didn’t think enough people were signing up to volunteer. The number of people saying on the survey they want to come back vs. the number of people willing to actually help is a laaaarge gap.”
Every parent of young children understands how important self-care is to their ability to parent well. As much as children need love and attention, if mothers and fathers aren’t in a healthy place, their ability to be a healthy parent is greatly diminished.
Like the in-flight admonition to administer oxygen first to yourself before helping those around you, church staff might be well-served making sure the base is secure before trying to take new ground.
Intentional communication and engagement strategies might feel self-serving, but if you’re not self-serving early on in the rebound process, you may not be able to do the ministry you’re called to do.
One practical thing you could do is create a series of refocusing videos just for your core.
Andy Stanley recently did this for the congregation at Northpoint Community Church in Atlanta.
These videos weren’t for the community or the large congregation. Instead, they were aimed directly at the core. They focused on mission and strategy. They explained the plans behind the action. They asked for critical help where needed.
The videos were created to show “what we do, how we do it, why we do it, and where you fit in.”
You can watch it at northpoint.org/reset. Perhaps a series of informal videos on similar themes would help you re-engage your congregation.
If your core is not engaged, this is a huge internal barrier.
Growth Barrier #2: Discounting Digital
Brad Hill, one of the senior leadership team members at Gloo, says digital is both gathered and scattered and neither gathered and scattered.
This gets at the heart of hybrid ministry, which is where many growing churches are focusing efforts now.
Brad wonders if “where two or three are gathered” could extend to new definitions of “gathered.” He asks, “Could God still move through pixels?”
Consider this list of things you can do best in person:
- Face-to-face fellowship
- Corporate worship
- Community care and outreach
- Local ministry
And think about this list of things that work best online:
- Targeted communication
- Data-informed leadership
- Measuring growth over time
Now, think of things that can be better by intentionally blending analog and digital:
- Bible teaching
- Leader development
The barrier to break through is the mentality that digital is somehow not real ministry.
Nona Jones believes social media can be social ministry. We talked with Nona on season 3 of our podcast.
Jason Moore is helping Methodist churches create a both/and approach to worship, helping them create hybrid models.
And countless other churches are innovating in this area, intentionally blending the edges of digital and physical ministry, finding ways to extend physical gatherings into the week with digital best practices, AND helping live-streamed worship services dip into aspects of community.
If you fail to adapt, you’re not facing an external barrier brought on by Covid, you’re facing an internal barrier because of a stuck mindset.
Growth Barrier #3: No Plan to Develop Leaders and Volunteers
This was a growth barrier for most churches before Covid.
And now, it’s bigger than ever.
If you have a top-down culture, where a select few groups of professional Christians do all the ministry, you’re going to bump up against growth barriers every time. When the pastor and staff have to do all the ministry, ministry is limited to a few people’s time.
Instead, develop leaders to lead ministry and release control at the appropriate pace.
If you want your church to have a greater ministry impact, focus on involving more people in ministry.
Your job as a pastor is to equip people to do the work of the ministry, not to do all the ministry yourself. This requires a steadfast commitment and an intentional plan to recruit and invite people to participate.
Please don’t miss the fact there are two parts: A steadfast commitment + an intentional plan.
Today, there is so much talk about pipelines and philosophy and not enough focus on plans.
There’s a desire to do leadership development, but no actual plan.
The simplest way to get started with this is to put leadership development on your calendar, whether it’s repurposing some time in existing team meetings, scheduling after-hours dinners with purposeful conversations, or using our free 7 conversations guide to spur one-on-ones.
It’s also what Leader Pulse will help you do.
Leader Pulse is the only solution that gives you all the content you need, for use right out of the box or easily customizable to meet your needs, to train all of the leaders in your church. But it’s more than a library full of training materials…it will bring you a calendar-based approach. You will have an actual toolbox to DO leadership development, not just design a hypothetical system.
The bottom line… Leader Pulse combines practical leadership development content that’s ready for you to use plus an easy to customize calendar planning tool.
If you want to be notified when Leader Pulse is available, sign up here.
Leadership development in church doesn’t need to be some ethereal hope, complicated with pipeline diagrams and the elusive pursuit of the perfect culture. You can start by developing the people you already have, no matter how small that number may seem.
In every church, there are people who hold the position of leadership, and then there are people who are truly leaders (who may not hold any position in your church). Release people who hold titles but aren’t advancing the mission and hand the job over to real leaders.
If you don’t have the perfect pipeline, start with the people who do have, whether they hold official titles or not, and put real meetings on your real calendar with these real people.
Growth Barrier# 4: Chasing Tactics Instead of Clarifying Strategy
If you ask most conference speakers and church consultants what you should do if your church isn’t on the same page, most will talk to you about vision.
You need to cast a bigger vision for the future, they say.
You need to help everyone focus on the ultimate purpose, they advise.
And while this is true, I’ve found that while casting a vision for the future and talking about a bedrock purpose is important, you can make almost anything fit if you try hard enough.
If your purpose is to “change the world,” you can justify the use of almost any tactic or tool.
That’s why focusing on strategy is a better path toward alignment.
Strategy answers the HOW questions, and HOW is where you need to get people to agree. Not just the WHAT or even the WHY.
If all of your leaders want to get to the preferred destination using a different route, you’re not really aligned.
If everyone on your team wants to pursue the tactic of choice to pursue an end, you’re running the risk of running in circles.
Chances are, you don’t need to sign up for another service, buy another course, attend another conference, change your church database program, or launch a new website. Those are all tools and tactics, and while they have their place, without a strategy to hold them together, you’ll stay busy but not effective.
Instead of chasing tactics, step back and create a strategy.
If you want to get people on the same page, create an actual page.
Only then will you be able to choose and manage the right tactics toward the right end.
Learn more about planning and strategy in Building Your Ministry Plan, one of the most practical premium courses available to all Church Fuel members. You’ll also be introduced to The Two Page Plan® – our powerful and practical template that will help you align everyone on your team.