CHANGES AT GRACE
Grace Community Church is currently going through a significant period of change and will continue to do so for some time to come. As we grow numerically, many things will simply not be able to remain the same. The purpose of this document is to explore some of the changes that have already taken place and others that will inevitably occur in the days ahead.
It’s so easy to make assumptions. As leaders we assume everyone understands the changes that are happening and will yet happen. And we assume that everyone will happily embrace those necessary changes in order to pursue the mission that God has given us. Such assumptions are not well founded.
One of the biggest and most difficult changes that a church will encounter is numerical growth. Although we might all feel in theory that growth is exciting, in reality it can also prove to be confusing and uncomfortable. People often feel these negative emotions as their church grows and they’re confused as to why this might be so. This paper will explore some of the reasons for these reactions.
A paper entitled “Leadership and Church Size Dynamics (How Strategy Changes with Growth)” by Timothy Keller, former Senior Pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan New York, makes the surprising observation that a person will experience more change and discomfort when their church grows from 200 to 400 than they would if they moved to another church of a completely different denomination!
The following is a list of ten reasons why this might be so, followed by a more detailed explanation.
- Pastoral specialization
- Relational changes with pastor(s)
- Changing decision making processes in the church
- Ministry quality changes
- Changing patterns of relationships and care
- Changed process for integrating newcomers
- Different communication processes
- Increasing diversity and complexity
- Mission focus
- People turnover
Now, in greater detail:
1. Pastoral specialization
A significant thing that begins to change as a church grows from small (100-200) to large (more than 400) is the changing way that members understand the roles of pastors on staff. As a church grows, not every pastor can do everything. The pastoral team needs to begin to specialize in their roles, but when that happens, their relationships with the flock begin to change also. That can be confusing or even irritating for people who are accustomed to having the luxury of fairly quick and easy access to their pastors.
In a small church the pastor is usually a “generalist,” doing everything from preaching, to visitation, to counseling and vision-casting. But this is no longer possible when numbers increase. In Exodus 18, for example, Moses was admonished by his father-in-law Jethro for trying to do it all and was bluntly told, “What you are doing is not good. You and the people with you will certainly wear yourselves out” (18:17-18). If Moses had continued to try to do it all, he would soon have burned himself out and jeopardized the wellbeing of the whole nation. He was advised to identify and deploy a team of competent individuals to share the everyday governing task, so that he could specialize in the particularly difficult aspects of governing. To his credit, Scripture says, “Moses listened to the voice of his father-in-law and did all that he had said” (18:24). In the end, Moses was better off and the whole nation was better governed.
As pastors here at Grace, we have been adjusting ourselves in recent months to more specialized roles, asking ourselves, “What gives me life?” and “What do I do best?” For Todd, that’s leading and coaching teams, casting vision, reviewing ministry standards, and preaching. Bryan uses his gifts to manage projects, communicate with ministry leaders, organize people and events, and provide pastoral ministry to the church. John is focussing on pastoral ministry and care, visitation, small groups, and rites of passage such as weddings, funerals, baptisms and child dedications. Steve focusses on all aspects of Grace Kids and Grace Youth and their respective families.
It is important for as many people as possible to know of these specialization trends among our pastoral staff and to relate to each of them accordingly. This helps everyone to know which pastor would be the one to best address their questions and concerns.
2. Relational changes with pastors
As just noted, when a church is small the pastor is available to all. Visitation, keeping in touch, being available, being a friend … he’s there for everyone, and loves it. But as numbers grow, this arrangement is simply not possible. The lead pastor must spend much more time with staff members and ministry leaders so that more and more of the work will get done through them. But this will mean, for example, that people in need of care don’t get a personal visit from the pastor any more (or at least it’s not as common as it used to be), and sometimes this creates a discontent. It can cause people to wrongly conclude the pastor isn’t doing his job anymore, or he doesn’t care as much as he used to. (More on this in section 5 when we talk about small groups.)
These ministry workers need to equipped and trained for the work they do. They need to be encouraged and motivated. If these changes are allowed to happen and are accepted by the congregation, instead of having just one caring pastor, the church will now have many caring lay shepherds. Everybody wins! The gospel moves forward; the church grows. But there is a relational cost to pay. Jesus spoke often of paying a price to be his disciples. The changing nature of some of these relationships will be just one small part of that price.
A pastor can feel guilt for not being able to attend personally to everyone’s needs any more; guilt that he can’t be the close friend he would like to be to everyone. It’s not that all pastoral care is shifted out of his hands now, but there is a shift and it must happen. Everyone, including the lead pastor, staff, ministry leaders and congregation, needs to be willing to accept the necessary changes and help make them happen.
3. Changing decision-making processes in the church
When a church is small, everyone who wants a say in a decision gets a chance to be heard. Very democratic. Not so when a church gets larger. It’s just not possible. As a church grows in size, it also grows in diversity and to allow all the diverse points of view to be equally considered becomes cumbersome and very complex. Decision making becomes a frustrating process of watering down the original proposal to keep everyone happy until it’s hardly recognizable. As a church grows it becomes increasingly difficult to make decisions that are clear and timely. People will be heard to say, “We just keep going around in circles and getting bogged down. Nothing ever seems to get decided.”
As we go forward at Grace, decisions will need to be increasingly made by boards, pastoral staff and ministry leaders in order to avoid the trap of decision-making paralysis. Input and prayer should be invited from the congregation, but keeping everyone happy is not a realistic or biblical goal. Hearing from God and following his will is the ultimate priority. Competent, wise and godly men and women need to be placed in decision-making roles. The key ingredients to success will be good communication and congregational trust in the people who are making decisions. When people are willing to trust their leaders and leaders are committed to earning that trust and employing open and transparent processes, good decision-making is going to happen.
4. Ministry quality changes
The quality of ministry (preaching, music, kids care, etc.) in a small church will be quite different than in a large one. (Remember, this paper is being written because we are becoming a large church.) In the small church there is an intimate family feel. The ministry quality is far from perfect, but there are good vibes in the room, everyone gets a chance to participate and grace and tolerance cover any quality deficiencies. The class may or may not be well taught, the music may contain a few stray notes here and there, and the sermon may be a little confusing, but hey, we’re all together, we all know and love the preacher or the worship leader and it’s nice that everyone gets to participate. Warm and intimate relationships “cover a multitude of deficiencies.”
But it’s much more difficult to get away with such quality lapses in a larger church where a high percentage of the congregation isn’t a good friend of the preacher or the keyboard player (and that’s not anybody’s fault). Quality becomes more important. If you’re going to invite your neighbour to church, you are going to be more sensitive to what your neighbour will think about what he/she hears and experiences. Large churches have more visitors (that’s a good thing) and those visitors are accustomed to a high level of quality, whether it be at the theatre or concert hall, and they will expect the same high quality at church also.
Question: If larger churches have a reduced emphasis on warmth and intimacy in relationships and an increased emphasis on quality, is this then a bad direction for a church to be going? Without a doubt, loving and intimate relationships are extremely important (and biblical), but in order for a church to reach larger numbers of unchurched people (and larger churches typically can do that) the members may have to make some sacrifices when it comes to comfortable and convenient relationships. Those relationships can and must still be experienced, but perhaps in different ways (a greater commitment to small groups for example) and it may take a little more effort. Key question: Are we willing to make that sacrifice for the sake of the gospel?
Without a doubt, small churches and larger churches both have an important role to play in the spread of the gospel and the making of disciples. It’s not a matter of right or wrong but rather a matter of how God is working in a particular church and of being willing to embrace what he is doing. What God is doing is going to be different from church to church and is going to be his means of discipling and training his people in each of those churches.
5. Changing patterns of relationships and care within the congregation
In the smaller church everybody knows everybody. You belong to the whole congregation and the whole congregation belongs to you. It feels good. But as the congregation grows larger and it’s no longer possible to know everyone, you begin to notice that there are “strangers” in your church. Some of them have opinions that are different from your own. Not wrong, just different. They don’t understand our history and our traditions. And to make matters worse, some of them have become quite influential! Ministry is being delivered (worship leaders, kids’ leaders, etc.) by people we don’t know. What’s happening? Things are changing and we don’t like it! We understand in our heads that it has to be this way, but our hearts are struggling to catch up.
Belonging is so important. The primary sense of belonging has to shift from the whole church to smaller groups or ministry teams. They become our miniature church within the larger church. We learn to begin to look to these smaller congregations as our primary places of belonging, affirmation, encouragement and accountability. The larger a church grows, the more important its small groups become.
More care must begin to happen within the small groups. Consider the math: it is commonly thought that one pastor can provide shepherding care for about 100 people. This limitation will actually put a lid on the ability of a church to grow any larger. But if that pastor began to invest more time equipping, training and caring for the small group leaders, many more people would be cared for and the church could continue to grow. For example, one pastor can care for 100 people. But if that pastor equipped all small group leaders to provide basic lay level care for all the people in each of their groups, many more people would be receiving good quality care. And it’s not all up to the leader. The whole group is encouraged to get involved (just like the Bible says!).
For example, recently a situation occurred at Grace where a person had suffered a death in his extended family. That person was a member of a small group. The small group leader was actually the one who alerted our congregational care pastor (John) to the situation and then proceeded to tell him that he didn’t need to do anything, saying, “Our small group has it covered.” Of course John did get involved too, but it was so good to see the small group springing into action. Relationships and care delivery will change as we grow, but those changes can actually be for the better.
A classic example of this in scripture is found in Acts 6. The church was growing rapidly. The serving of food to the widows was suffering (ministry quality needed to be improved). The apostles (pastors) couldn’t keep up. So they appointed some responsible leaders to take over the job so it would be done properly (ministry quality improved and care improved) and the apostles were able to focus on their primary responsibilities of preaching the gospel and praying. The gospel kept advancing and the church continued to grow (Acts 6:7). The widows and their families might have liked being served by the apostles, but it was no longer possible. Patterns of relationships and care-giving had to change as numbers grew.
6. Changing process for assimilation of newcomers
When a new person begins to attend a small church they are noticed immediately. The members reach out to them, relationships are formed spontaneously and newcomers are attracted by the warmth and friendliness they encounter. Assimilation happens naturally and organically; there is no program of outreach or assimilation. A newcomer will begin to feel part of the church through these relationships, and often through a direct relationship with the pastor.
But as the church grows in numbers, this begins to change. The average person in the congregation doesn’t know everyone anymore, nor do they know who’s a newcomer and who’s been part of the church now for a number of months. Sometimes there are so many new people they simply don’t know where to start. Also, people begin to max out on their relationships and stop trying to establish new ones. Newcomers could find less friendliness and warmth than they would have when the church was smaller. It gets harder to assimilate. Is this bad and does it mean all churches should remain small? Not at all, but we must remember a few important things. Helping people belong and feel accepted are still as important as ever but new approaches are needed because of the changing realities just described.
The church needs to realize that relational connections are not going to happen as naturally and organically as they once did. Leaders will have to become much more intentional about helping people integrate into the church family. For example, some churches have implemented a “sponsor family” idea where newcomers are matched with a sponsor family who take it upon themselves to help the newcomers assimilate through hospitality, introductions to other people and proactively inviting them into ministries and small groups. Other churches plan special classes and events with the specific purpose of reaching out to newcomers and connecting them at deeper levels to people in the church. Here at Grace we now have “Connect Events” several times a year where newer people are invited to come to the Community Room after the services on Sunday morning to meet ministry leaders, pastors and small group leaders. Relationships are still the goal, but we have to be much more intentional about enabling them to happen.
I (John) remember my first summer job when I was a 16-year-old student. One of the older men on the job, who was not a Christian, found out that I went to a certain church and he asked me, “Do you belong to the ‘inner circle’ in that church?” “What inner circle?” I responded. He replied that he had gone to that church a few times some years previously and had encountered what he described as an inner circle of people that he couldn’t seem to break into. I didn’t know what to say to him, so I shrugged and said nothing. But strangely, I’ve never forgotten what he said. We will need to be increasingly intentional about helping new people fit in.
7. Different communication processes
As a church grows numerically so will the frequency of comments such as, “I didn’t know…I wasn’t told…Why wasn’t this announced?” Larger churches are more complex and people (especially newer people) need to know things like: “Who’s in charge of what? Who can I talk to? Where can I get my questions answered? Where can I find more information?” Business experts are continually encouraged to communicate better. “You can’t communicate too much!” they are told over and over. This is true for any organization of people, including churches. Communication needs to improve continually, in multiple formats with persistent repetition. The informal methods which work in smaller churches, such as pulpit and bulletin announcements and word of mouth, don’t cut it in larger more diverse churches.
Consider the many formats we use now at Grace: Sunday verbal announcements, bulletin announcements, bulletin boards and posters, church website, Instagram, Facebook, church-wide emails, roadside sign plus good old fashioned word of mouth. And it still barely seems to get the job done! We need to work harder at informing everyone of everything that’s going on, what the church is all about and what are the opportunities for getting involved. We need to be intentional, creative, persistent and organized in our communication. People place a high value on accurate information these days and it needs to be readily available.
Growth will require us to give more care to communicating important information between staff members, ministry leaders, small group leaders, administrative assistants and the general congregation. Diligence is needed to keep people “in the loop” and to give the appropriate “heads up” when needed.
8. Increasing diversity and complexity
In the small church people had so much in common. But the larger a church grows, the less its members will have in common. Some examples of the increasing diversity are such things as age, family status, ethnicity, church background (if any), sub cultures, etc. For example, during the first ten years of Grace’s history, 80% of the congregation were single students between the ages of 18 to 30, rode bikes or drove old cars and lived in apartments with roommates. But as time passed and life progressed, more and more people got married, bought houses, had children and settled into various careers. The church became more diversified. This necessitated more programs to meet the needs of the people. A Sunday school was needed, then before long, a youth ministry. Many more kinds of people and needs and requirements. More complex. Then came the need for multiple services (two now and counting). Different kinds of small groups were needed to meet differing needs and sub groups. More staff was needed to meet the increasingly specific needs.
Acts 6 serves as our example from scripture again. It begins with these words: “In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenistic Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food.” Note the increasing numbers (numerical growth), the two different ethnic groups with unique needs (increased diversity), the resulting complaints (problems!), and the need for a better food distribution system (problem solving). What followed was a revamped ministry structure designed to make sure the needs were met. The main point here is to show that increasing numbers will always result in situations like this. Nothing is “wrong” - it’s normal and we all need to embrace the needed changes. The early church acknowledged the problem, prayed, pivoted and acted. We never hear another word about this problem throughout the remainder of the book of Acts.
9. Mission focus
The small church’s great strength is its community focus and experience. It may not be so good at attracting large numbers of people to hear the gospel but members feel like they belong to a real family. That’s a beautiful and biblical thing. The large church through its size, presence, reputation, multiple services and ministries is more effective at drawing in non churched people to hear the gospel of Jesus, in one form or another. And that’s a beautiful and biblical thing too! There are a LOT of people that need to be reached and a strong mission focus is needed. When Jesus gave the challenge of the great commission, it was all about mission and the costliness of it, not about personal comfort.
There are costs a congregation needs to pay in order to be more mission focused. The price of not knowing everyone anymore and the subsequent loss of intimacy, spontaneity and sense of family are among them. There is the price of maybe not even knowing the senior pastor. And the price of sharing your church with people you don’t know and sometimes don’t see eye to eye with. The price of not always getting your own way (surrendering control), of having to compromise and of learning to give and take. These don’t sound like big things when it comes to pursuing the gospel mission, but they can become show stoppers if we place the wrong emphasis on the wrong things. Jesus never hid the fact that the pursuit of the mission would be costly.
Sometimes it takes time to adapt mentally to the fact that it’s not going to be as comfortable as it used to be. We need time to shift our focus from ourselves to those who desperately need to hear the gospel. We must remember Jesus, as he lifted up his eyes, saw the multitudes in their spiritual need, felt compassion and paid the price to reach them. I (John) can remember my older sister packing to leave for India for a multi-year mission term. She was leaving her friends, family, church family, favorite food and all the conveniences of Canadian living to go and reach people she didn’t even know on the other side of the world. I was a very non-empathetic, fifteen-year-old teenaged boy at the time but I do remember being struck by how much she cried, for days and days, as she packed. There is a cost to mission, and let us not forget, we have all been given a most important mission!
10. People turnover
Growth means changes, and not everyone is going to be comfortable with those changes. Some will be in such disagreement or discomfort as to feel the need to leave and seek another church. Some of our close friends may be among them and this can be both saddening and troubling. Because small churches value community and togetherness so much, they fear any conflict that might result in people leaving. In order to avoid such conflict, they avoid making big (and often important) decisions. As they seek to keep the church family together they fail to make changes that could benefit the gospel mission, and they stay numerically small.
But it is also a reality that people who were present in the days when a church was small are becoming adversely affected by the growing size of their church. Things just aren’t the same anymore. They are literally grieving the losses of the things that they loved when the church was smaller. They feel less important, disconnected from old friends and their pastor and they hardly recognize their church anymore. They might feel angry, confused, guilty or sad. These are not bad or selfish people and as we grow we need to make the effort to understand how they’re feeling and help them make the required transitions. Leaving is one option, but it need not be the only one. Helping them make adjustments and appreciate the value of the changes will be important. So will some good old fashioned listening and empathizing. Such valuable, faithful and long term servants need help to make personal adjustments and to find new areas of fruitful ministry in their changing spiritual environment. Their departure would be our great loss but their ability to make changes and continue to serve and contribute, is worth more than we can know.
In summary, growth is exciting and challenging in both personal and collective ways. We write this with the hope that it will help all of us understand more clearly some of the things that are taking place as the church experiences growth. And then as we understand more clearly the reasons behind the changes, we can respond with prayer and understanding and have stronger faith for all that God is doing.