This post on ‘How to Grow A Small Church: The Missional Church’ is part of a series on Growing The Church. It looks at creating an effective small church growth strategy. The other posts in the series are:
In this post, we are going to focus on how to grow a small church. I refer to such a church as the ‘missional church’ stage. The suggestions in this post form a small church growth strategy that will bring good foundations and prepare your church well for ongoing growth. I see this as progressive and illustrated by the chart below:
This missional stage most often applies to church plants, new launches, and start-ups. What characteristics typify churches at this stage? What are essential steps you can take as part of a small church growth strategy?
Characteristics of the Missional Church Stage
- Everything is new and exhilarating – a new leader and new people mean a new church! There is a sense of excitement and nervousness that comes from the sense of ‘pioneering’ faith.
- A strong sense of unity in the core group because of shared values, practices, and experiences. There is a resultant family feel generated because the same people meet regularly. This allows everyone who is consistently part of the proceedings to have a voice.
- In a church of this size, all hands are on deck and everyone is involved. There isn’t the luxury of ‘passengers!’ There is an energy and excitement amongst the busyness of church life, powered by the faith of the few. These are the ones who are committed to what they believe God is doing.
- Because of the felt need for growth and expansion, the priority is on reaching new people. Ultimately, the hearts of the people are for others to join them in their big adventure, so they see growth not just amongst themselves in spiritual maturity, but also numerically.
- Church life revolves around the central gathering. In the early days, this might be a meeting in someone’s house. Over time, as more people join, this might need to move into a larger space. Irrespective of location, this meeting is where the bulk of the worship, teaching, family ministry, and guest engagement happens.
- Organisation and administration systems don’t need to be highly developed. Typically, decisions will be made on the fly by the Senior Leader in the moment.
- Because the size is small, money is usually tight as well. Occasionally there are a few key benefactors who are primarily funding the church, but not always, and it might feel a little ‘hand to mouth’. It can be a faith adventure!
Getting through this stage is key to building a healthy and sustainable church. On one level, there is exhilaration and excitement. On another, it is really hard work! Perseverance and battling disappointment is key during this time. Don’t be fooled – gritting your teeth and pressing forwards is going to be a key part of your small church growth strategy!
Leading Missional Church Well
So how do you grow the church? Some small church growth strategy ‘good practices’ can help us navigate the missional stage well.
Influence By Leading
Because of the size of the work, everything involves the Senior Leader – whether directly or indirectly. The Senior Leader’s main way of influencing the church is through his or her leadership. He/She will know most, if not all, people, and all people will know him/her. Access and proximity are both easy. Because of these factors, a senior leader needs to be wise in how they lead. Leading in a style the church isn’t ready for will minimize influence and cause problems. For example, being difficult to connect with or get time with will be more harmful at this stage than others. Facetime is important for relationship building and developing trust. Consequently, a lack of facetime or availability sows the opposite feelings and will work against your efforts in how to grow the church.
Leaders also need to be wise in how they employ their giftings. Many of us have strong gifts that we love to use, but if we aren’t careful then we may cause more problems. As a general rule, the smaller the church, the more generalist all leaders need to be. As the church grows, specialist ministers can be released or hired, but that is in later stages of growth.
In the current stage, if the leader functions more as a teacher than a leader, you will have a small church that is very well taught, but just that – small. Most non-believers aren’t attracted to deep Bible studies on the Hebrew of Leviticus. It’s a generalisation, but unless they have an evangelistic gift and understanding, teachers aren’t naturally great at evangelism. Sometimes it can seem as if they are just quoting evangelistic scriptures at people who don’t see the Bible the same way as they do.
The same principle is true for leaders who are primarily pastoral. Their natural focus will be the believers already with them. All churches need pastors, but not all churches need pastors leading them. Unfortunately, many churches demand pastors as their leaders because they have an inwards, ‘feed me’ mentality. A pastoral culture that is dominant will be geared towards the needs of the people in the church, and not the needs of the people outside it.
In the same way, a leader with primarily prophetic gifting will lead the people into experiences and encounters with the Spirit of God. But having a primarily prophetic culture will gather around signs, wonders, and experiences. A small club of people will be excited about exciting things but will lose the main goal of reaching the lost. At the missional stage, the church needs a leader who can adapt to the season. This now demands an evangelistic focus prioritised above pastoring, the prophetic, or teaching. People do need pastoring, the prophetic, and teaching, but not above reaching the lost. Otherwise, the church begins to turn inwards, instead of honouring the outwards call of the Great Commission.
These things add up to a conclusion: don’t call your main leader ‘Pastor’. Call him or her a Senior Leader. If you call them ‘Pastor’, the expectation of people will be that they exist to care for them. ‘Leader’ avoids this trap and is adaptable for the needs in future stages of church growth. This stops non-pastoral leaders being forced into a straitjacket they aren’t gifted for and protects people from feeling hurt by a pastor who doesn’t seem aware of their deepest needs.
These culture-shaping decisions not only affect the leader, but also the people. An evangelistic culture that focuses on reaching new people is essential. This is especially true if the existence of the church has come from any other reason than as an intentional church plant.
Some churches form because people have been hurt in a previous church, maybe because of leadership excesses, or disappointment. If these congregations do not maintain a focus on evangelism, the culture they will gravitate towards will be pastoral. They’ll serve each other’s needs, protecting themselves to avoid repeating what has happened before. Churches that form because of doctrinal differences, or divisions over teaching or theology, will gather around a teaching culture. Churches that exist because of a hunger for more of the Spirit of God, and desire charismatic gifts or experiences of God’s presence, will focus on a prophetic culture. None of these cultures is bad – in fact, each of them is essential for a healthy church. But at the missional season of church life, none are meant to be the central focus of a church.
The energy during the missional season is a whirlwind of dreams, hopes, and ‘what-ifs’. Hope and expectation will bring life to the work, so as the leader, steward and respond to it. Conversely, disillusionment and discouragement will quench joy and enthusiasm so fight them ruthlessly.
There is an energy and excitement and as people are drawn to what the leader, and the people, are stirred about, the zeal is multiplied. There is a beautiful tension between the prophetic imagination and the scale of some dreams when facing the current reality of being part of only a small number of people. Any vision that is held will only flourish with the addition of more people. Whilst this season is a season for dreaming and imagining, it mustn’t take over the actual work of winning souls. Enthusiasm and passion, as well as focus, are essential as you look at how to grow the missional church.
During this stage, the church mission is the key growth engine. Adherence to it will determine if the church succeeds or not. If the church mission isn’t focused on reaching new people, and activity isn’t primarily geared towards outreach, over time the church will diminish. It will shrink as members of the congregation age or move away due to life’s circumstances.
Key questions to clarify your apostolic mission during this stage include:
1. As a church, who are you called to reach?
2. As a church, how do you reach out to them?
3. As a church, after reaching out, how do you meaningfully connect with them?
4. How do you stay connected to them?
The Great Commission – which is the foundation for all authentic church mission statements – is pretty clear. Jesus said ‘GO into all the world.’ He didn’t say ‘STAY and wait for the world to come!’
A clear, concise mission statement that is built on the apostolic purpose of your church will help keep this focus front and centre as you look at how to grow the missional church. It also cements outreach in your DNA early and keeps the mission flowing now as part of your small church growth strategy. This is beneficial as you grow and step into later stages of church growth.
Another cultural reality at this stage of the church is the leader-driven nature of the work. Whether a full or part-time employee or a volunteer, there will be a clear leader or leadership couple. By nature of this stage of church life, all the significant ministry and decisions will be placed at the leader’s feet. Whilst this isn’t unexpected, it’s important to begin modelling training, delegation and empowerment. The alternative is that the leader(s) become burnt out and stressed because they are the go-to people, decision-makers, and implementors across the board.
To prevent this, give ministry opportunities and decision-making authority away to trusted, committed people. This will inject a value for empowered people – the priesthood of all believers – into the DNA of the church. Trying to do this later on, when reacting to too many demands, means a leader is fighting against an unhealthy expectancy that has been created of the leader being the point person for all the preaching, pastoring, visiting, counselling and even building maintenance! If you don’t take active steps now to create a culture the opposite of this expectancy, it will prove to be a much bigger uphill battle further down the road.
In reality, churches will not grow past the missional or visionary stage at best if the primary leaders keep control of every decision, every key ministry occasion, and every opportunity for influence. Anyone with any kind of leadership gifting won’t stay in that environment for long. Nor will the prophetic voices continue to speak, because they’ll know and sense there isn’t a heart for change. Empowerment is key to prevent any culture of control from rising up. So as leaders, as we look at how to grow the missional church, our role is to identify, train and release other gifted people into leadership roles.
Build Your Main Gathering As You Look To Grow The Missional Church
Because of the limited time and finances available during this season, it is important that the church strategy doesn’t overcommit and have too many events or meetings. Not only will this use crucial funds, but it will tire people out who find more evenings are swallowed up with church events. More church meetings mean less time for people to spend connecting with those outside the church.
Additionally, the more meetings that run, the more meetings will naturally drift away from the focus on non-believers and centre on the people in the church. This subtle shift will cause the church to plateau if left unchecked. This may seem harsh, but it will be a natural response to voices who want more teaching, more pastoring or more of the prophetic. Again, good things but at this phase of church life, not the main things. With these very real tensions in mind, focusing on two ‘wings’ of church meetings seems wisest.
The first ‘wing’ is to develop a strong main service. In one sense, it is your ‘shop window’ to demonstrate who you are to visitors. In another sense, it is the primary ‘family gathering’ to foster connections and community for newer people. Make it easy for you to connect with new people, but also for new people to connect with you! Let the people with you who have gifts of hospitality use them to make your meetings welcoming and friendly to all. Warmth and hospitality are powerful parts of an effective small church growth strategy.
I don’t subscribe to a ‘seeker-sensitive’ model of church service where everything is geared towards non-believers. I’ve seen this ethos manifest itself as short worship, no demonstrations of the power of the Holy Spirit, and elementary preaching. The people of God – the church – gather together to worship Him first and foremost. Out from that place of encounter, we minister to other people, whether they are saved or unsaved. Therefore demonstrations of spiritual gifts and strong, excellently crafted but entirely biblical preaching are essential. However, as a missional church, you do need to be ‘seeker-sensible’. Avoid any language, practices, or behaviours that would confuse, distract or put off unbelievers. It is possible to have meetings that are accessible yet powerful – the two are not in opposition. Clear leadership can deliver both.
Develop Small Groups
The second ‘wing’ to develop are small group-type meetings. Small groups that meet in peoples homes, or another informal but welcoming location, will help build community and deepen relationships for those who are with you, and those who are looking in. These groups are ideal as a small church growth strategy for discipling people – whether new converts, young believers, or those with you who can be discipled in the use of their leadership, teaching, pastoral and prophetic gifts. Encourage people to be part of groups, and let them be places of life, risk and fun. All three will bring connection and growth with them.
Recruit Generalists To Help Grow The Church
Staffing is always tricky during this stage due to the often limited finances. Employing a Senior Leader, earlier and part-time if possible, is a good move and an effective small church growth strategy. Later, increasing the hours or hiring full-time will enable the leader to exclusively focus on the church. Their role will be a bit of a jack-of-all-trades; preaching, discipleship, visiting, general leadership, and even some administration tasks. Because of the stage the church is at, the leader needs to accept covering a lot of bases instead of specialising in the role he or she truly feels best in. That time will come later.
If money allows, bring in part-time support who can manage administration, finances and general help. This ensures the leader has some capacity released and isn’t spending time on these functions, away from the main focus of the work.
Avoid Becoming Inward-Looking
Because there is a core group of people wholly subscribed to the work, there is a real sense of family. A culture of family is very attractive to many people, who are seeking to belong to a community, feel part of something bigger than themselves, and have a ‘tribe’ they can support and be supported by.
A risk is that this ‘family-feel becomes an unhealthy clique, and the church develops two-tiers. The upper tier is formed by those part of the ‘family’, who are on the inside, control the money, and make all the decisions. The lower tier is those not part of the circle of trust, who not in word but in practice are treated as outsiders. A true missional church focus on reaching new people is an effective small church growth strategy. Incorporating them into the church will prevent such an inward-looking, self-serving, church-killing mentality.
How to Grow The Missional Church: Summary
The missional church stage is a key time in the life of a church, but also a vulnerable one. The enemy likes to distract or destroy churches and will often dangle nice, exciting ministry ideas on the path. Keep a missional, outreach focus and cultivate an evangelistic culture. If possible, bring in evangelists to teach, train, model, demonstrate and impact your people.
Resist the easier and more immediately successful results that come from exclusively focusing on the apostolic, prophetic, pastoral, or teaching ministries. This stage of church life will shape your DNA going forward. Over-specialisation in one area will lead to a deficit in another area later down the line. Have these gifts and ministries, of course, but as ‘sub-cultures’ for now. Their time for profile and development will come.
Fight control and leader-centrism by empowering people in ministry. Identify fellow leaders quickly and form informal teams that have genuine authority, responsibility, and accountability. To paraphrase John Wimber, get others ‘doing the stuff.’
Don’t overcommit with activities. Prioritise creating a good main service that is accessible to visitors so they can meet God and yourselves, and small groups that are discipling and training people through experiences. Think practical workshops rather than Bible studies or inward-focused sessions.
Lastly, keep pressing on. The missional church stage is like a snowball rolling down a mountain. It takes time to start moving, but once it picks up momentum, it turns into an avalanche! So keep going. God is with you!