Carey Nieuwhof: Invisible Barriers Keeping Many Churches From Breaking the 200 Attendance Mark

In Carey Nieuwhof’s viral article, “8 Reasons Why Most Churches Don’t Break the 200 Attendance Mark,” he dives into the super-charged topic of church growth in the small to medium-sized church.

You can listen to the complete podcast below and hear all eight invisible barriers that keep churches from growing, but here’s the first point to get you started.

Growth Barrier #1: When the Pastor Is the Primary Caregiver

Carey Nieuwhof: If I had to pick a big reason why some churches don’t grow past the 200 attendance mark it would be the fact that the pastor becomes the principle caregiver. I think seminaries train us to be caregivers, at least mine did. I think most of us, we had never been in a large church. I hadn’t been in a church over 200 people before I led one.

We’re all going in with our eyes wide open. We have no idea what’s going on. The expectation when you’re in a small church, when you have two people attending your church, you can’t say you’re too busy to do pastoral care, right?

What got you to 200 isn’t going to get you sustainably past 200, because pastoral care beyond 200 doesn’t scale. It just doesn’t scale. Carl George and Warren Bird in their book, “How To Break Church Growth Barriers,” I read that in the ’90s. Saved my skin, I’ll tell you, it was so good. It’s still in print. You should buy the book. It said, “Once you hit 200, you’re going to have to train your congregation not to look to you for pastoral care.”

The thing that got you there: great relationships with all these people being at their weddings, conducting their funerals, visiting them in their homes, all that stuff you kind of have to stop doing so that you can lead more of their friends and more of their family. That’s a very, very tough transition both for the church, but also for the leader.

Interviewer: It’s kind of a scary transition. Talking to pastors I know, it’s kind of like losing that control or even that amount of being needed in the church. It’s a tough leadership transition and a dynamic shift to accept at one point.

Carey Nieuwhof: It’s very, very difficult. You have to be prepared to become unpopular, you have to be prepared to disappoint people because some of those people who you went to their 20th wedding anniversary or whatever, you were at their parties, you just can’t do that when you have a church of 400, or 800, or us. Now 2,500 people call our church home.

It’s like, “I don’t even know who they are, so I can’t pastor them.” I have to now pastor the staff, I have to pastor the elders, I have to pastor the people in my immediate span of care, but I can’t do the whole church, or you artificially stunt the growth of your church. That’s a dynamic you have to do. In the same way you might train a puppy, that’s a bad analogy, but you also have to train your church.

I spent two years saying to our church, “Look, I can’t lead the Bible study anymore. You guys have to start leading it. I can’t be at all of your events. You have to look to each other for pastoral care. You should visit each other in the hospital. I can’t make all the hospital visits anymore.” That’s a tough transition for me but it’s a tough transition for them.

Also, be sure to check out Carey’s new book, Lasting Impact: 7 Powerful Conversations That Will Help Your Church Grow.

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Tony Ridgaway is a staff writer at ChurchLeaders.com