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No vacancy

The church I was visiting had grown from a plant to over 1000 attenders. I sat with the pastor before the Sunday morning celebration and listened to him express both the blessing and challenge of leading such a large congregation. As I probed his current needs, he suddenly said, “I need help. I find that the systems that worked well when the church was at 250 people are no longer doing the job for us now.” What he meant was the systems that had been set up to handle 250 people lacked the capacity for 1000 and were now overtaxed and workers were being burned out. People who were looking for ways to connect more deeply with the church were finding “no vacancy” signs on the doors of the growth systems—small groups, ministries and missions—that formerly had absorbed all who sought entry in the past. After months of frustration, they would wander away to another congregation.

Maybe you have had a similar experience with people who explored joining your church family. You feel like you are a good pastor and that your congregation is pretty healthy. Maybe you are averaging 60 or 120 or 200 in attendance right now and believe the current influx of visitors could strengthen your church’s impact on the community. But it just appears that people who would have stayed and become part of the congregation—maybe they attended for numerous months—wandered away to another congregation without a reasonable cause. I suggest that a possible reason is that your church has systems that prevent the congregation from retaining people. In short, you lack capacity for more people.

Churches face growth barriers when they add people through conversion and transfer growth. Barriers are not just about where you find more people to lead and shepherd. Barriers exist when you fill up all the slots that can comfortably be filled in a system. If your systems can take care of forty people, the forty-first will spill out. The hypothetical question, “What would you do if God sent one hundred new people to your church today?” is answered by most churches with the probable answer, “Lose them.” Why? Because for most churches, their systems will just not absorb more people.


It is probable that you have never grasped that this is a valid reason explaining why certain churches grow and others do not. As you think about the church of which you are part, you may not have a clue about the systems with which you have an increasing-capacity issue. You may even feel defensive about the way you “do church.” If I asked, you would probably point to all kinds of reasons people should have stayed—your theological depth, your commitment to the family, or even the classic, “We are a friendly church!” You like your church family and its ways of getting things done. If those visitors had stayed, they would have discovered that your church is a fun place to be.

Let me clue you in—what is fun and functional at one growth level may keep you from going on to the next. Children are fun when they are toddlers. But you would be concerned if your teenager had the skeletal make-up or the brain capacity of a two year old. You should have the same level of concern if you want your church to grow. The systems that you develop and use have to match the needs of your congregation’s growth into its next stage of life. Church systems must grow and change to allow the church to grow. This is the decisive issue. Upgrading a variety of systems in your church is critical for overcoming each progressive growth barrier.

Increasing a church’s size also means becoming a different kind of organized organism. Do not misunderstand the implications of this truth. Every time a church grows to another level in size, the speed of the leaders’ decisions and the pressure on systems increases. Think of this in terms of baseball. When a child plays in little league, he or she is doing the same things a pro baseball player is. The child fields, throws and bats, just like a big leaguer. But a child, even a teen, could not hit a fastball thrown by a professional pitcher. Or run the bases at the speed needed to beat the throw of a pro outfielder. Church size has this same aspect. To lead and maintain the next size up church, the pastor and leaders have to gain speed in diagnosing problems, shifting system approaches and implementing changes.


Leading a growing church means figuring out how to do what is needed to be a healthy and spiritually alive congregation differently than the way it has been done up to now. Otherwise, the lack of attention to capacity-increasing systems will not only limit growth, it can reverse growth. Not having the appropriate systems to consolidate new growth can also burn out staff and volunteers trying to meet all the emerging needs.

Before discussing what systems you may need to upgrade in order to increase capacity at your church, it is helpful to categorize church sizes. Different studies have offered diverse groupings, so the one offered here is only a guideline to help you determine where your church is currently. In each category of the kind of church mentioned, the median range of attendance is bolded.

2-35-50—A family church where everyone is still able to meet in a house together. This kind of church tends to be tightly knit and have people involved in all decisions. Often the pastor is bi-vocational at this size.

51-110-150—A single-cell church in which the pastor partners with a changeable lay team to offer leadership. Connection to this church for new people is often through the pastor, who functions as a shepherd.

151-250-350—A multi-celled church, in which people may not know all the attenders anymore. The leadership is often given by a select group of people who work with the pastor. Connection in this church is through its small groups. The pastor often functions as the equipper.

351-600-900—A large church, which is led by some form of eldership (but not necessarily called that). Connection with this church is through a variety of growth systems (small groups, ministries, missions). The pastor functions as a leader over leaders.

901-2000-plus—A mega-church, which is staff-led. Connection to this church is through mini-congregations. The pastor functions as the primary vision-caster.

Each size church has unique challenges which call for a different way to do its systems. If you are seeking to grow to the next size, then you will not want to set up your church’s systems to fit the size you are now but where you plan to go. Otherwise you are not increasing capacity and will bounce up and then back down to the level you are now. In the next several blogs, you will be exposed to the main systems that need to be developed to move through the growth barrier affecting your church.

Want more on systems? Check out this book…

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