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7 Factors Your Church Needs to Break the 1,000 Ceiling

7 Factors Your Church Needs to Break the 1,000 Ceiling

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Has your church grown beyond 750 people, but seems to be bouncing up aimlessly against an attendance ceiling? Does it seem like you’ll never be able to see more than a thousand people attend the Church on a weekend unless it’s a big day like Christmas Eve or Easter Sunday? Have you wondered as to what happens so different in some churches that they are able to continue to grow beyond the size that your church seems to be stuck at? It is unfortunate that most churches will never get to this size; the situation is exacerbated by the lack of adequate resources that help church leaders surmount this critical growth barrier.

Helping churches cross this threshold has been core to my ministry experience over the last 20 years or so. I have noticed some similarities in terms of the factors that went into empowering our churches to grow beyond 1,000 people in weekend attendance. Although every church doesn’t need to reach this magical number, it is important for the broader Christian movement that we have proactive churches of this strength. There is ministry and impact that can only be implemented by large churches as opposed to smaller ones.

Replication of Repeatable Systems

The vital core of what needs to occur in the church to help it get beyond 1,000 people is a series of repeatable systems. Sometimes, church leaders who lead smaller churches are intimidated by the idea of systems and therefore, avoid them altogether; this ultimately impedes their ability to create an impact. A system is simply a documented process of how and what your church does to make it replicable time and again.

Systems are designed to …

Save

You

Stress

Time

Energy, and

Money

Systems do not need to be mysterious or mystical in order to create that elusive impact in your church. In fact, I’ve seen far too many leaders overcomplicate the building of systems for their ministry. Every system at its core entails a leader taking time to think through what is the optimal way to make something happen. It doesn’t need to be any more complex than simply writing out the steps outlining the important things that have happened at your church. Then you can look at those steps and examine what is working well and what isn’t.

Systems are important at this phase of growth because the people running the ministries are usually disconnected from the people who designed them in the first place. Systems are about making those implicit values and actions totally explicit so as to make them replicable time and again. If the leaders of a church of this size fail to articulate how the ministry transpires, the growth will eventually suffer because communication and leadership development will become bottlenecked around a few people.

A good place to start looking at systemizing a church’s approach would be to examine areas that appear to be attracting people to ministry. For instance, if your musical worship ministry is appealing to guests as they arrive, you would do well to begin chronicling what is going into making that ministry work. If people constantly comment about how welcoming your church’s “new here” process is, then you need to clearly pull that apart and be able to explain the steps that the guests go through upon their arrival. Over a period of time, your church will develop more systems that will help you understand and replicate your ministry.

Here are seven such systems that are critical for every church to think through and develop:

  • Outreach – How can we attract people to your church through social media, marketing and communications?
  • Weekend Services – How do we plan, implement and evaluate your music, preaching, transitions, offertory, etc. to help build an emotional connection with your community?
  • Connection – How can we take people from their first visit to feeling completely at ease in your church?
  • Service – How do we mobilise people for volunteering and service within the church?
  • Giving – How do we inculcate the vision of church to your attendees without begging?
  • Leadership – How do we move people from places of serving into volunteer leadership within the church?
  • Planning – How do we evaluate the above systems for constant improvement and growth?

The human body is just a collection of systems, such as circulatory, digestive, muscular, nervous, etc. All these systems work in harmony and cohesion to ensure good health. Similarly, a collection of systems is critical to the health of your church. What system do you need to focus on to ensure that your church grows as well as improves?

Future Focused Governance

Who’s thinking about the future? More pointedly, who is pushing the agenda forward about where the church is going in the coming years? Church leaders can often be embroiled the week in and week out pressure of running services. Oftentimes, they fail to take the opportunity to look above the horizon.

Churches that are able to go past 1,000 people in weekend attendance have someone asking these questions on a regular basis. Typically, the board or leadership team shifts its focus on the future and moves far beyond the mundane day-to-day operations of the church. It’s important for the health of the church that a senior leadership body asks questions about where the church is headed more than 12 months from now. This strategic leadership is often core to what God uses to further the growth of the church.

Here are some questions that senior leadership teams (at churches of this size) should be asking on a regular basis:

  • Where is God at work? What do we need to do to align with His purpose and will?
  • What aspects of our ministry are lagging behind areas that are driving our growth and impact? What resources do we need to marshal to add to that area?
  • What are the attributes that got us here that probably won’t get us to where we need to go?
  • What major funding initiatives do we see on the horizon? How can we begin to prepare in that direction in the months to come?
  • Does our staff enjoy working here? What can we do to make this the best place in our city to work?
  • What other ministries do we need to learn from?
  • In what areas are we reaching the next generation? Are there things that we’re doing which are hindering our ability to pass the ministry on to them?

Another critically important aspect of governance is the manner in which local church relates to either its denomination or family of churches that it is connected to. Typically, churches of this size begin to network beyond these “normal” networks because there aren’t enough peers to be found within the traditional structures. Denominational leaders can sometimes be threatened as their largest churches begin to build relationships outside of their tight knit community. Navigating this important governance and relationship change needs to be done delicately to maintain friendly relationships with leaders that have assisted the church up to this point. However, no hesitation must be shown in developing relationships that can catalyze the growth of a church .

At this growth barrier, it’s often difficult to see how the church governs itself with an eye towards structures that will aid going forward.

Staff Role Clarity & Specialization

As a church grows, the staff needs to move from being a collection of generalist staff to a team of specialists who are diving deep into their realm of expertise. Oftentimes, churches are built around a small collection of team members who seemingly “do it all”, but this will ultimately hold the ministry back as these individuals will bottleneck decision making and leadership development. Staffs who are unable to give parts of their ministry away through effective delegation and focus on their “one thing” will often transition out during this growth phase.

This increased specialization is accompanied by the need for a heightened sense of structure among the staff team. This structure will need to move away from a “band of brothers” to a “team of teams” with increased departmental focus and specialization. Staff leadership roles will shift and refocus as the team navigates its way of doing ministry. Senior leaders shouldn’t focus on finding the ideal organizational structure; they must focus on evolving their structure to meet the new needs of the ministry. Often, leaders will feel like their org chart is constantly changing and shifting in this phase because the church is attempting to find the right place for everyone on the bus!

Facing this reality can often lead to a series of awkward or difficult conversations that need to take place with team members. Leaders need to lean into these conversations with lots of grace to guide their team member through this phase, because if they don’t, it could stymie the growth of the church due to a misplaced team member. Here are some examples of the sorts of conversations churches at this growth barrier need to have:

  • Passionate Department Heads who are good at “doing” the ministry need to be moved on if they can’t elevate their leadership to “leading” the ministry.
  • Team members are moved “up” in the organization to the same “level” or above their supervisor.
  • Ministry areas are removed because they served the church at a smaller size, but are no longer helping the church move forward.
  • Supervisors with a wide scope need to reduce their area of influence and attempt to gain better traction for the future.
  • Family members who were on the team in a supportive role are no longer as effective and hence, need to improve their performance.

It’s around this size that churches also begin to put into place, formal human resource processes and structures. Unlike in the past, the team becomes too big to be managed like a cadre of friends. Here are five new areas of focus that a church around this size typically starts working through with its staff:

  • Organizational Culture // Taking time out to work “on” the staff team and not just “in” the staff team.
  • Planning for Change // Working through how the team will develop with the evolving needs of the church.
  • Training & Development // Augmenting the team’s knowledge and understanding in a more formal manner.
  • Health & Safety // Although most churches aren’t dangerous workplaces, the growing size of a team makes it necessary to closely address these issues.
  • Retention & Recruitment // Actively devising a strategy for building a productive team and retaining existing members!

Connection Pathway

Thriving churches revolve around getting people to remain connected to their community. They have designed a way for first time guests to be seamlessly integrated into a community. At this phase of growth, most churches come to the realization that they have lots of guests visiting on a regular basis, but the real challenge is to get those guests to stick and stay.

Do you know how many “new here” guests are attending your church?

The first step towards a clear connect pathway is to define how many guests are actually attending your church. The most effective way that I’ve seen is to offer a “new here” gift every Sunday that people would actually want and then exchange that gift for their contact information. (T-shirts are particularly great for this!) This step alone will typically generate enough internal drive within the church leadership which will then realize that they have nearly 8-10x the amount of “new here” guests than they are “keeping” through their connection process.

Is it clear & obvious to get your guests to stay connected to your church?

You can’t dumb down the process enough for people. The pathway to getting plugged into the church needs to constantly be simplified and clarified. Make the main thing, the plain thing. One of the largest churches in the country has their “new here reception” after every Sunday service. You get to the room by simply walking out of the front of the auditorium beneath a huge sign that indicates that reception for guests. Another church that I love bought the car dealership across their parking lot to enable the people walking out of church to see the “new here reception center” and join it. Many churches have done a monthly “new here” class that meets in an area that is seen by every attendee. The main consideration is to not obscure this process at all. You can’t make it too easy for people to get connected!

A Big Idea

Only about 1 in 20 churches ever make it to over 1,000 people at weekend services. [ref] These churches typically have a unique point of view that sets them apart from other churches. The key leaders of these churches share some core convictions that differentiate them from other churches in their community. Although it might be overstating the obvious, these churches have something “remarkable” about them that people are willing to share with others and that’s the key to their growth.

Senior leaders in these churches also tend to have a “core message” that they need to get across as many people as possible. In a lot of ways, that core message ends up expressing itself through the life of community. Here are some well know examples of some “big ideas” that have become core to the larger churches’ approach towards ministry:

  • Bill Hybels from Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago often talks about the fact that “the local church is the hope of the world” … and has invested deeply in training church leaders globally.
  • Andy Stanley of North Point Church talks about “creating churches that unchurched people love to attend” … and therefore, the church has a network of strategic partner churches they are working closely with to reach communities across the country.
  • Ed Young Jr. of Fellowship Church believes that the local church should be the most creative organizations in the world. Hence, Fellowship is constantly looking for new and innovative ways to develop ministry initiatives.

What is your core message? How has God uniquely wired you?

Although not as “tactical” as some of the other issues we’ve explored before, the idea of a “core message” is still as practical and important. Growing churches essentially are content driving experiences. At their core is a teaching ministry that transcends any given Sunday, message or even a series of messages. The overarching themes of that teaching ministry become a driving force for the church in building a community. Get clear about your core message and find ways to infuse it all the time. I used to joke with a pastor of a very large church (5,000+) that he really had just one message which he found a different way to preach about every week … he agreed. 😉

Multi-Everything

As a church looks to grow beyond 1,000 people, it needs to find multiple ways to be extend its community in new ways. Typically, smaller churches are defined by similar social, economic and location factors; however, prevailing churches have been able to cross the divide and diversify their ministry in a myriad ways to maximize its impact in new communities.

  • Multi-cultural // If your church isn’t as diverse as the community you’re based in, you will lose touch with the broader culture and sink into irrelevance.
  • Multi-service // You need to replicate your experience across a series of different times on a weekend in order to help people with a variety of preferences and schedules.
  • Multi-site // Most churches who are approaching 1,000 are considering launching their first campus if they haven’t done that already because it takes the church’s mission closer to people.
  • Multi-generational // Growth oriented churches span at least two generations and are wrestling with at least a third if not fourth! It is a delicate but possible balance to engage people from a wide variety of age groups!
  • Multi-lingual // A growing trend is to get churches thinking about adding multi-lingual services to help expand their impact.

The driver behind any of these “multi-” trends is an ability to understand the core “offering” of the church and replicating it in a new container. Once you’ve been able to “boil down” the essence of what makes your church unique to your community, you can replicate that in a number of ways. It’s an art to understand what is transferable and what it optional, but as your leadership would do well to invest time in understanding the fact that it can move towards extending the impact in exciting ways!

Thriving Family Ministry

Prevailing churches serve the needs of children and students with excellence. It’s a fact.

Most family ministries are under-funded and under-led. I’ve noticed that a lot of churches that are looking to cross this chasm and accommodate more than 1,000 people often have family ministries that are lacking. Regardless of the “style” of church, you can’t overlook the fact that large churches have amazing ministries to children and young people. There are a few reasons for this:

  • Families Travel Together // When you reach out to kids and young individuals, you are extending your ministry to encompass entire families.
  • Volunteer Intensive // Leading churches don’t shy away from more volunteer roles for their people because service is an important connection point. Kids’ ministry is a volunteer intensive area which allows people to connect to the church.
  • Next Generation // As mentioned before, churches that want to make an impact on younger generations have much stronger prospects. Family ministry is an integral part of that.
  • Training Ground // Family ministry requires a tremendous amount of training. It then becomes an amazing training environment for people just getting to the church.

Is your ministry to children and young people flourishing? If no, that could be what is holding your church back from getting over the 1,000 mark barrier!

What do you have to say?

We’d love to hear your thoughts and comments in the post. What factors do you see holding back churches? What areas would you suggest church leaders should focus on? Leave your comments below!


1 Comment

  1. Great insights. This hits right where we are right now. We can have big pushes that get over a 1,000 but we sit in the 800s. There are 2 factors that you mentioned that I believe are holding us back: connection and leadership. I recently took outreaches top 100 fastest growing churches from outreach magazine and I reached out to every church that broke the 1,000 barrier. I was amazed at how many of them were using a version of ARC’s Growth Track for connection. We have since created our own version and have begun to work it. However we have hit some bumps and it’s because we are missing a key staff position for connection. Rich, I don’t know much about you, but I shared this article with our pastor and we both agreed you seem to be well versed in this area.A lot of time when people write about church growth it’s just theory, you seem to actually have lived through it. Great article. Looking forward to learning more from you.

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