Unlike previous posts I’ve mentioned here, this was a good list. Every one of the principles was about church health. In fact, as I read it, something started feeling very familiar. The feeling grew stronger the deeper I got into it.
As I finished reading, I realized where the feeling of familiarity was coming from.
“Hey, that’s our church!” I said with a smile – to an empty room. “We do all those! We’ve been doing them for years. Cool!”
Yes, the picture the author drew of a healthy, growing church was an accurate description of the church I pastor. In all but one way.
Despite years of following every healthy step on the list, our church hasn’t broken the numerical growth barriers.
All the Steps, None of the Results
But how can this be? If you do the steps, you get the results, right? I wondered if I’d misread something. So I re-read the entire post.
The post, by Carey Nieuwhof, was entitled 6 Keys to Breaking the 200, 400 and 800 Attendance Barriers. He’s a good blogger and the pastor of a spectacularly fast-growing church, who has tackled this subject before. I’ve never met him, but I’ve engaged with him in the comment section of one of his previous posts, and even though we disagreed, we did so in an agreeable way.
Some of his principles for breaking through church growth barriers in this post included:
- Give others more credit and responsibility
- Train others to do pastoral care
- Stop making excuses for what you can’t do
- Have an outward-focused vision
Those are all good principles. Healthy principles. No-excuse and no-blame principles. My second read-through confirmed my first impression. It felt like our church. These are principles our church has learned to do well – not perfectly, but well.
So the steps have been taken and the principles are in place, but no growth records have been shattered? No 200 barrier broken through?
How can this be?
No Guarantee Means No Guarantee
To be fair, Nieuwhof introduced his list with this qualifier, “While embracing all 6 things won’t guarantee your church will grow, every church I know that has successfully pushed past the 200, 400 and 800 barriers has navigated these changes.”
I’m glad he included that important preface. All churches that break through growth barriers follow those steps, but not all churches that follow the steps break through the barriers. There are no guarantees.
But in church growth circles there is a strong implication that church growth is very likely if we follow the rules. The implication is so strong that a pastor who tries and succeeds at all the steps, but doesn’t see the all-but-promised growth, often feels like a failure.
I know. Because I did. I felt like a failure for a lot of years, even though I pastor a healthy, missional church. Because the numbers never materialized.
If you’re wondering how I got past the feelings of guilt and failure, that’s the story I tell in the first few chapters of my book, The Grasshopper Myth.
The Real Goal
Here’s a hard truth that, despite the “no guarantees” disclaimers, many of us may not want to acknowledge and some refuse to believe. There are many churches who are following all the principles, but never break through the growth barriers.
There are no guaranteed steps to church growth or health. Because the church is people. And people never come with guarantees.
So, what’s a pastor to do? Here’s the only advice I know.
Stay faithful, no matter the results. Faithfulness doesn’t help us reach our goals. Faithfulness is the goal.
Keep doing healthy, innovative, outward-focused ministry. Stop comparing ourselves with others. Quit offering excuses.
And let God take care of the growth. That’s his job, anyway.
Pastors aren’t called to grow churches. We’re called to lead them. To nurture them. To help them become healthy, redemptive communities filled with passionate followers of Jesus. And to reach our community and world together, no matter how many butts do or don’t end up in our seats on Sunday.
If you’re doing that, no matter how big or small your church is, you’re fulfilling your calling.
Know that today. Because it’s true.
So what do you think? Are you pastoring a healthy church? Can you be content with that, even if the expected numbers don’t happen?
We want to hear from you. Yes, you!
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