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How to Grow Church: The Visionary Church

How to Grow Church: The Visionary Church June 16, 2021Leave a comment
strategies for church growth

This post on ‘How to Grow Church: The Visionary Church’ is part of a series on Growing The Church. This post looks at strategies for church growth that would serve a medium sized church. The other posts in the series are:

  1. Growing The Church: The Life Cycle of A Church

In this post, we are going to focus on how to grow a medium sized church. I refer to such a church as the ‘visionary church’ stage and unpack why here. The strategies for church growth in this post will strengthen or correct your existing foundations from your previous stages and prepare your church well for ongoing growth. I see this as progressive and illustrated by the chart below:

Stages of Church Growth

This visionary stage most often applies to medium size churches that are either still fairly new or who have never seemed to generate consistent growth momentum. Perhaps they’ve ebbed and flowed over the years in a cycle of growth then decline, then back to growth, and so on. If we want to know how to grow the church, we need to be aware of what the signs are of the season we are in. Our strategies for church growth must factor these in. So what characteristics typify churches at this visionary stage?

Characteristics of the Visionary Church Stage

  • People are gathering because of what is going on, as opposed to because they are necessarily committed to the cause. Some are curious! Momentum unites and excites, so new people will continue turning up, both drawn to the energy and invited by people excited by what is happening.
  • There is a palatable sense of community because even if the church is a medium sized church, it is still small enough for people to know many in it, especially for those who have been part of the church longer than others.
  • Ideas and creativity are not in short supply – partly because of the new people, and partly because there is now more money and manpower to implement things. Pioneers, creatives, and entrepreneurs will enjoy the atmosphere, and the church will be an attraction to people with such leanings.
  • Because many people are excited and united, many things will just work at some kind of level – often through sheer enthusiasm and passion alone. Ministries begin, and some succeed, whilst others don’t as enthusiasm peters out and passion dissipates. Many initiatives happen because of people’s passion and heart. They might not be the most gifted or skilled leaders, but they are faithful and committed. At this stage of church life, that is enough.
  • There will be a natural formation of visible and recognised influencers now. Certain people within the church just naturally arise who are looked up to and sought out by others in the church.
  • The Senior Leader may still ultimately be making the decisions and doing the lion’s share of the ministry direction, but he/she will have the potential power of a team available to him – if he/she recognises and embraces it correctly.

Leading Visionary Church Well

Some ‘good practices’ can help us navigate the visionary stage well and identify keys on how to grow the church are:

small church growth strategy

Influence By Leading Workers

The outwards focus that turned the missional stage into the visionary stage should still flavour the church. It is important that all the new activity and initiatives that are proposed are filtered through an evangelistic mindset, so leading and influencing those who ‘work’ in new start-up ministries is key to ensure that this happens.

Giving time and focus on your volunteers is essential. It is how you spread culture and influence thinking. Make it part of your strategy for working with volunteers. If you are the leader, lead through time and interaction. Be open to feedback and have a listening ear. You’ll build trust and credibility with your people, and your people will feel safe and secure under your leadership.

This means that not every idea should make the cut! Some areas may need to be amended or re-focused. This is especially dangerous for us as leaders if we don’t manage our gifts! Teachers will see new people as needing to be taught, pastors will see sheep to pastor, and prophets will see people to lead into an encounter. None of these is wrong, and all are needed to help disciple, but the main focus during this exciting time of momentum, energy and buzz must be the unbelievers outside.

It is worth stating that whilst you may be leading ‘workers’, this stage pivots on raising up leaders – genuine leaders! Too many ‘leaders’ at medium sized churches this stage are not really leaders, but glorified workers simply called leaders but not allowed to lead. I will return to this point later. But suffice it to say that the biggest cap to church growth I’ve seen in this stage is because of leaders in churches who are in reality, just workers with a glorified title. If you want to know how to grow the church, a great first step is to ensure your leaders are real leaders. This must form part of your strategies for church growth.

Encourage Innovation

As mentioned above, because there is a lot of buzz in a medium sized church, many creative, prophetic or pioneering people amongst you will have lots of ideas! The risk is that the excitement and energy lose their focus on the lost, and is redirected to the ‘new thing.’ Managing tension is always a challenge of leadership so encouraging innovation, ideas and creativity is a must, whilst focusing them to keep outreach in mind. Ultimately, if people feel they aren’t being listened to, they will leave. However, if you are able to work with creative leaders and maintain focus, you will develop a strong leadership culture where people feel fully engaged in what God is doing in and through the church. There is no culture of innovation or progress if there is no culture of risk. If you want to know how to grow the church, doing things differently needs to be part of it. This must form part of your strategies for church growth.

Clarify Vision and Values

Just as these initiatives need to maintain a missional focus, they also need to serve the vision of the church. Now is the time for this vision to be crystallized, because if there is a ‘vision vacuum’, there won’t be a shortage of ideas floating around looking to fill it! You don’t want your medium sized church to embrace ‘vision drift’ so it’s important to begin to consolidate the prophetic promises of God, the faith of the leaders, and develop a vision that can be clearly communicated in a vision statement. This defined target or goal will help bring focus to ministries, and boundaries to what you say yes to and what you say no to. Both are hugely important at this time.

This season will be very much driven by the senior leader, which means the leader’s personality, giftings, perspective, and character will shape everything in church life. Currently, the church values and culture will reflect the Senior Leader’s values and culture. This will have some benefits but also some drawbacks. A leader with a strong prophetic gift, for example, will find themselves leading a church strong in the prophetic. If the leader doesn’t have great pastoral skills, the church may not be the most pastoral. This aspect of self-awareness is essential to making wise leadership decisions if you are wanting to build something bigger than yourself.

It is, therefore, time to clarify the values of the church with an eye on creating the culture needed to see the fulfillment of the vision. Values will bring in ‘best practice’ guides that all leaders, irrespective of responsibility or authority, need to actively subscribe to and live out in their own personal lives. What is in us comes out of us, so any corporate culture we want to experience must first be incarnated in us personally. A values statement will be valuable in communicating and reminding each other of the distinctive cultures you are pursuing as a church. Doing this now, even as a medium sized church, is the best time. Your vision can help determine essential values and you don’t have too many people who could be part of you yet carry entirely different values, which can be common in larger churches. Doctrine doesn’t create culture; behavior does. Behaviour is shaped more by values than it is by doctrine. It’s why the Apostle Paul writes many of his epistles with the same structure of theological values in the first half to educate and inform, and behaviourial directives in the second half that now have the requisite understanding behind them. Culture is key in seeing how to grow the church, so give time and attention to cultivating and stewarding it.

This is important to ensure that each and every ministry in the church is sowing the same values and creating the same culture. We need a ‘culture shift’ or we will have a ‘culture clash’, and culture clash impacts our church growth and effectiveness. So this is the time to first identify the core values and cultures we need before we begin the leadership work of embedding them.

A cultural assessment is beneficial at this time. There is a difference between our actual culture and our aspirational culture. One is what we think we have, or would like to have, and the other is the reality of what we really have! Culture is always a work in progress, but to progress in the way we want to we need to have a cultural development plan. Simply put, a cultural assessment will show you the current values of the church, and how mature they are in terms of influence within it. Depending on what your vision, and your desired values, these actual values may be positive, negative, or neutral. For each identified current value, a plan needs to be created and implemented that cultivates or eliminates that value. There also needs to be a plan to grow any desired values not currently influencing the church or in existence. Creating culture must be intentional or you’ll have cultural drift, which is when your culture is determined by the loudest voices, who might not be the ones you want defining your church culture! Cultural focus must form part of your strategies for church growth. Otherwise, what seems like a medium sized church on the same page will deteriorate into ministry silos, cultural entrenchment, division, and then church splits.

Empower Leaders

In my experience, this is a key principle in the life of medium sized churches that are in a visionary growth season. If the Senior Leader has an organisational structure full of leaders instead of workers, then the church will be set up for continued growth. If the senior leadership team resembles workers and managers, then growth will be capped and the church will, at some stage, stop growing. The senior leader’s gifting and personality, as well as character and internal health level, will bring a ceiling over the church that will lead to it plateauing.

Because the Senior Leader predominantly shapes the culture of the church, the key to addressing any cultural imbalances growing the church is a team – specifically, raising up and empowering leaders to lead and create culture themselves. These need to be leaders with genuine empowerment. This means they carry genuine authority, responsibility, and are accountable to and serving the senior leader. If only one or two of those aspects is true of your team, then you have a disempowered team that is dysfunctional and that, in the long run, will harm the church. Empowerment as a culture at this stage is an absolute non-negotiable if you want to grow healthily. It is a growth engine and essential in how you grow a medium sized church. But it takes time. So patience is a must!

Cultural development is one reason why team leadership is so important. A healthy team multiplies each other’s strengths exponentially, whilst covering and diluting any one individual’s weaknesses. It takes self-awareness and humility to recognise this, and bravery to embrace a strong team of gifted people. But the church will benefit immeasurably both short and long-term.

One word of caution: make sure team members have different giftings, perspectives, anointings, personalities and strengths to the senior leader. I’ve lost count of the number of churches I’ve worked with that feel stuck and don’t know why, and it is partly because the Senior Leader has recruited mini-me versions of him or herself. This makes sense – a teacher will want people on the team who value the scriptures, pastors want loving shepherds, prophets want those with supernatural gifts, and so on. But all that will happen is that you will maximise your strengths AND weaknesses because there will be an overlap in both. A healthy church needs all the fivefold Ephesians 4 cultures, and these must be manifested through the lives of the senior leadership team or they won’t be a strong flavour in the life of the church. At best, they’ll be weak, and at worst, non-existent. Generating a healthy spiritual culture must form part of your strategies for church growth.

How do you know if you are leading leaders or leading workers? Ask yourself the following:

1. Who makes the ‘big calls’ over a ministry area? Who sets the direction, makes the key decisions, sets the teaching agenda, picks who is on the team, and decides what they do?
2. Who is responsible on a day-to-day basis for a ministry area? Who is the go-to person for it? If something goes wrong, who do people need to go to to get things sorted?
3. Who handles the finances, approves purchases, and, within a budget, determines how much is spent and on what?

If the answer is the Senior Leader to any of the above questions, then even if that ministry area has a nominal leader named, they are functioning as a worker or manager, running and maintaining it on behalf of the Senior Leader without any real authority to change, influence or direct. True leaders want to lead and influence, and if they can’t, then they won’t stay around forever. There are three keys to developing a culture of empowerment that will help raise up authentic leaders. This will benefit the leaders, the senior leader who now won’t be carrying as much responsibility, and the church.

With all this being said, the way I would recommend that these things are implemented is by beginning the process of formally establishing a leadership structure. This is the season that a medium sized church should begin to explore a leadership team of elders and deacons.

These words may trigger some of us, because of previous experience with individuals with these titles. So some clarity is needed to define what I mean by these terms. The terms aren’t important in themselves, but the roles and functions they describe are required to see a healthy church. I define ‘elders’ as the senior leaders in the church who are ultimately responsible for the guiding, guarding, and governing of the church. This is the group of spiritual leaders that includes the Senior Leader(s), and they set the vision and culture of the church. Think of elders as the senior leadership team in a church. In my experience, there are many medium sized churches that have ‘elders’, but these are not the same as elders described in the New Testament. I write more about how I see biblical eldership here, looking at what the Bible actually teaches about who they are and what they should do.

Deacons are those who serve the elders through various leadership, management, and administrative functions, and would be like a wider or junior leadership team. They are the ministry leaders if you like, who head up the individual ministry areas and serve practically, pastorally, and administratively. I write more about deacons here, looking at what the Bible says about who they are and what they should do.

Not all elders or deacons need to be on staff, but some might be. Also, elders and deacons are not jobs for life. They are not transferable from church to church, and they are dependent on godly character, gifting recognition from spiritual leaders in the church, and recognition from the believers in the community itself. The book of Acts and Paul’s letters to Titus and Timothy explore these qualifications more specifically. Forming a team of elders and deacons must be part of your strategies for church growth.

With this model of elders and deacons, which I believe is more biblical, the role of the church board needs mentioning. In some churches, board members are called ‘elders’ or ‘deacons’ and that has caused confusion. It is important that there is a clear distinction between the roles and responsibilities of elders, deacons, and board members. I’ve written more in detail about church boards, roles, responsibilities, recruitment, and how they relate to elders and deacons. You can find those writings here. But in short, the church board has responsibility for oversight of the financial and legal matters of the church. They do not lead the church, nor have authority over the elders and senior leader. Rather, they ensure financial health is constant, legal obligations are fulfilled, and seek to serve the elder’s vision and culture through financial means. They aren’t ‘yes men’ but neither are they ‘no men.’ In that sense, the Board is more like trustees who steward the affairs of the church, releasing and supporting the spiritual leaders (elders) to lead. Clear church governance will help bring clarity and focus as you continue to move things forward as you look at how to grow the church. Don’t let role confusion or blur distract you.

I know the terms may cause problems for some, so even if you don’t use the names ‘elder’ and ‘deacon’, the important thing is that the church moves towards a recognised senior leadership and wider/junior leadership model. It also means leadership continues to be ‘given away’ by the senior leader, and roles are clarified. I’m a big fan of job descriptions, even for volunteer / non-staff leaders. They bring clarity and protection through boundaries. Rather than making you sweat, a job description just needs to have four basic elements in it:

1. Role – what is their title? A title isn’t important for ego, but it brings a definition and focus to the job.
2. Responsibilities – what do they need to focus on in this role? What should they spend their time doing?
3. Expectations & Goals – what do you want from them? What does success look like? It might be broad or be a specific measurable, but make sure they know how you are assessing whether they are doing a good job or not.
4. Reporting Lines – who are they managed by, and who do they manage? Make sure that the other parties are also aware of this!

These four things can easily fit onto one page. If they can’t, either the job isn’t clear, or it isn’t well thought through and defined enough! I’ll also repeat something I said earlier: these job descriptions are needed for unpaid volunteers just as much as for staff. If a job is needed, it needs to be clarified. That will bring security and focus to everyone involved, and avoid many difficult conversations later down the line! I write more about effective job descriptions for staff and volunteers here.

Build Your Integration

As the church moves forward and grows, it can be tempting to add new ministries as more people resources become available and offer their services. There can almost be too many strategic steps forward! But not every good idea is a God idea. Hearing God and knowing what the key ministries are needed is essential. Not everything proposed will be key. The tension between the needs of the people in a medium sized church and the needs of the people outside the church will need to be managed wisely, otherwise, you’ll have one of two problems. Firstly, a large ‘back door’ where people leave as quickly as they join because they aren’t being served. Secondly, a believer-centred church that has all its ministries pointing inwards towards its own members. Both of these must be avoided as they’ll lead to church decline. Keeping your people and adding to them is key in how to grow the church and must form part of your strategies for church growth.

A good step, then, in the midst of any and all programs and ministries, is to ensure that there is a key path that helps people connect to the church and take next steps in integrating into the life of the community. This pathway should be evident at every meeting that may have first-time visitors or non-believers present. Think of it like a series of signposts, with each signpost offering information about that stage. This pathway invites people to journey deeper into the church. The phrase ‘saved and added’ from the book of Acts explains it well; a visitor is at one stage, but turning a visitor into a regular attendee is another. What information do they need? Are there any expectations or obligations they need to be aware of? What opportunities or conversations need to be available to them? These questions, and others, are applicable for every stage of your connection process. Leading attendees into converts, if they are not yet born again, is yet another stage. How can people seeking, asking, and knocking find places and people to help them in their journey? Seeing converts become active members who are serving, giving, and being discipled is the next stage, with one end part of that seeing mature members leading and discipling others in their journey. Smaller group meetings are essential in this, whether you call them home groups, small groups, cell groups or something else. It provides a place for people to find and establish community. Consider this: whatever bought the people through the front door probably won’t keep them around, but community connection will. Small groups matter and must form part of your strategies for church growth.

Another temptation with growth is to locate and move into a building. I understand this – a building brings a sense of security and a permanent resource that can allow ministry ideas a place to operate in and out of. Also, some leaders feel church growth is capped due to restrictive space when you are using facilities that are smaller and limiting. But buildings also bring with them recurring expenses in the form of rent or a mortgage, utility bills and maintenance costs, and time for upkeep for either staff (another cost) or volunteers (which can be unreliable or inconsistent.) I’m not against churches having their own ‘home’ buildings at all, but could there be another option instead of looking for space? What about adding another service, whether on the same premises or another location? This keeps the focus of the community outwards, which a building can sometimes work against. Seeing growth, and another gathering, can be a motivation to keep being missional. Instead of fearing growth limitation, could more services or campuses actually be a growth engine? These meetings also provide extra forums for leaders to step up and use skills and giftings previously restricted. In fact, some churches use this moment to plant another church. The new service or campus location may initially be an extension of the ‘main’ church, but normally the plan is for it to become its own separate entity once there is the financial and leadership capacity to do so.

My point is that the potential for the mission is doubled by adding an additional service rather than pursuing a building. A church can be capped by its building size restrictions, but if it thinks ‘service-first’, it will never be capped in its growth. It seems counter-intuitive, but there are moments when settling for a building can actually work against your goals in how to grow the church.

Develop Family Ministries

By family ministries, I’m referring to the ministries that serve people in certain stages of life. As the church grows, you’ll have more diversity in this regard. You’ll have both singles and marrieds. Parents and non-parents. Babies, children, and maybe teenagers. You might have twenty-somethings and students. Each has its own needs and contribution to the life of the church. Depending on your numbers, your family ministries might not be huge. But it is important you have them, and not too late. At this stage, consistent and reliable family ministries must form part of your strategies for church growth.

Most single people in your church will get married, and possibly to one another. How can you support those who are married or looking to get married? How can you care for those who aren’t married?

Soon after marrying, many will have babies. Then everything changes! How can you support those with babies who still are part of your community?

Babies grow into children, who have different needs in your meetings. How can you serve the children (and also the parents!)

Children grow into teenagers. How can you serve the teenagers?

Teenagers turn into single twenty somethings or even college students. They have their own needs as well.

As well as these groups, don’t forget older members of your congregation, and the long-term marrieds!

Churches are meant to be shepherding communities, so knowing your sheep and caring for your sheep is part of the job. If you don’t, the sheep will find shepherds that will care for them. Neglecting or failing to respond to the needs of your people is not how you grow a medium sized church. It’s great if you are wanting to be an apostolic base or a prophetic center as a church but if you don’t love and serve people, your strategies for church growth will count for naught.

Recruit Full-time Generalists

Typically, there may now be some consistency in finances. You could have consistent givers and a stable income. Potentially, you’ll have the capacity to hire some staff. This can be done proactively, or reactively. One is healthy, but the other can be damaging in the long term. Prudent hiring and recruitment must form part of your strategies for church growth. Missteps here are costly, and not just financially.

Reactive hiring happens when a church sees a need in their current season and hires someone to address that need in the immediate. However, if the need is a season one or a short-term challenge then once it has dissipated you could have an employee in a role that is no longer needed. You could redeploy them into a new role but it isn’t a guarantee they’ll have the needed passion, gifts or skillsets for the new role. Depending on the employment policies in your location, firing or releasing them might not be an easy option. Even if it is, pastorally it could be irresponsible. Reactive hiring is short-sighted and doesn’t factor in changes of church season or growth.

Proactive hiring has one eye on the future growth and development of the church, factoring in the church vision and where the ministry priorities are. Of course, you need to address needs in the immediate. But there needs to be mindfulness of tomorrow as well as today. For that reason, I would encourage a medium sized church in this phase to recruit a full-time generalist. This is someone with a broad-ranging skill-set. Versatility and flexibility are essential in this stage of church life. Hiring a ‘jack of all trades’ can relieve the senior leader of non-essential aspects of church life and bring support to any number of areas such as pastoral care, ministry leadership, teaching, and even practical help. Even if you can afford a ministry specialist, having a leader on staff who has a single focus and niche probably isn’t the best use of church finances. You’ll have too much going on to have someone on your team who isn’t available and willing to get stuck in with what is happening in the life of the church.

Avoid Disempowerment and Neglecting Structure

In the excitement of life, creativity, and energy, I see two significant errors that can influence churches in this season. Firstly, neglecting structure and systems. It’s exciting and exhilarating to be able to free-flow and improvise in ministry. Sometimes we can it ‘being led by the Spirit’ – and sometimes, it is! But sometimes, it’s a cover for a lack of organisation and administration. During this visionary stage of church life, begin devising and implementing policies, procedures, and systems that serve you. I’m not saying to over-organise, but implementing practices consistent with organic structure will instill good foundations that will set you up well for future stages of church growth. Failure to do this will lead to inefficiency, disorganisation, and failure to steward everything and everyone God is giving you. Don’t mistake improvisation and spontaneity become the drivers behind your strategies for church growth.

Secondly, avoid disempowerment. As I said earlier in this post, empowering leaders sets you up for success both today and tomorrow. It’s how you create a genuinely healthy leadership culture. Keeping control, refusing to release leaders, withholding information for power, never inviting feedback or other perspectives, and taking the lion’s share or best parts of ministry activity are all disempowering practices that will slowly eat away at your church health. A culture of disempowerment is not helpful if you are looking to see how to grow the church. It is ineffective as a thread running through your strategies for church growth.

Summary

This visionary season is an exciting time for a medium sized church, yet must be stewarded well. It can feel like no one can do any wrong because of the energy and excitement, but in the middle of the passion and zeal, careful consideration must be given to what we say ‘yes’ to, otherwise, there can be a trade-off further down the line. What seems like effective strategies for church growth can sometimes have long-term implications.

Seek God for the vision for the future – His vision, not man’s. Use the prophetic words, apostolic counsel, and passions of the committed leaders to shape this. Don’t rush it, and communicate it clearly and simply to the church.

Clarify the values of the church, ensuring that the values aren’t really doctrinal statements. The values should be an articulation of the uniqueness of the church and correlate directly to the cultures essential to the success of the vision of the church. Otherwise, they will be preferences and people will have no ‘hanging point’ to know why they are non-negotiable values to be embraced.

Begin thinking through leadership structure, using the Biblical model of elders and deacons. Don’t get hung up on the terminology, but look at those who have a leadership gift in the church. Who is looked to by the people as an example? Who has a heart for the church? Who gives, serves and attends consistently and wholeheartedly? Who loves the people? Who is living to serve the people, instead of building their own ministry platform? Who has clear spiritual character, godliness, anointing, gifting, and maturity? Who feels the call of God to lead His people in submission to Him? These people could be your elders, future elders and deacons.

Keep empowering people by creating new opportunities for ministry. Don’t create a ministry for the sake of it, but know your key ministries and ensure they are not bottlenecks. Leaders grow by leading.

Develop robust integration and family ministries to help people connect and join you. Whatever you are called to as a leader, you are called to be a shepherd as well.

If hiring, find versatile leaders who are adaptable and well-rounded in their skillset. Now is not the time for specialists.

Avoid disempowering others and ensure you aren’t neglecting principles of organisation and structure. Just because you can do things a little bit on the fly doesn’t mean that it’s sustainable or beneficial in the long-term.

Finally, enjoy the ride and enthusiasm. Don’t get distracted by the energy and excitement, and keep a clear outwards focus. This needs to be central within any strategies for church growth that you’ve identified. The Church exists to ‘re-present’ God to those who do not know Him – don’t let yourself or your people forget that.

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