One way to grow a congregation is to create outposts into the community to attract seekers, and then invite them to participate with the parent church (even if they never actually join).  This takes a mix of business innovation and marketing savvy, but is not hard to implement.  A good place to start is an article by Outreach Magazine, “The Church Needs a Skunkworks.”

A skunkworks is a group within the organization that is given broad powers to try out new ideas.  There is an expectation that some of the ideas will fail, or will never achieve popular approval, buy by allowing the group to think way outside the box, they have the opportunity to find disruptive ideas that make major progress.  It was a skunkworks that created the atomic bomb.  Another one created the laptop.  The copying machine (Xerox) came from one.

Dean Kelly, the late former leader of the National Council of Churches, in his book Why Conservative Churches are Growing (1972) suggested growth could come by creating an ‘eklesesia’ – a congregation within a congregation, and allow them to worship differently, reportable only to the pastor or a small group of elders, until the ideas being tried are evaluated. (The Oureach article notes “it  is better to establish some boundaries in the beginning rather than let them be discovered…by hitting a brick wall later.”)  It may be their ideas are later adopted church-wide, or that they eventually become a new church plant sponsored by the church, or that the group dissolves, leaving the leaders better trained for future service within the congregation.

One phrase from the Outreach article argues for this group to start outside the church:  “Once you start on church grounds, the likelihood of ever getting off campus is weak. But if you start off campus, you will find fewer restrictions in the future and more opportunities in the present. Besides, it is healthy if the church finds itself out in the community figuring out ways to bring the kingdom of God to a place.”

The other reason comes from in internet marketing space.  Savvy marketers will establish multiple ‘feeder’ sites whose only purpose is to attract a subset of the market and draw them toward the main sales site.  By establishing themed ministries in the community, we establish connections on topics that interest them, and then use those relationships to introduce them to the church itself.

If you need help establishing your own skunkworks, let us know.

Brandon O’Brian has a book out describing how a church can be effective by choosing to be small, and adjusting how they do church into that context, measuring success by effectiveness not size.

your church–whatever size–has everything it needs to be used in extraordinary ways for the Kingdom of God. You don’t need more resources or more volunteers; you just need the imagination to see how God has equipped you uniquely to carry the gospel to your neighbors.

OBrien says there are lessons for large churches as well.  The habits of fostering intergenerational dialogue, of working together in small groups, of focusing on projects where a mass of people would overwhelm the ministry.  It changes how you plan.

The key lesson, though, is to affirm to congregations that small is not bad, if  you are small for the right reason.  Rural churches, size constrained churches, targeted community churches.  God can use churches of all size if they are operating his way.


Thanks to Ed Stetzer, for including an interview with Brandon O’Brian on his website.

The year is well under way, and we’re getting plans in place for the summer and beyond.  The city today had the last of a week of planning meetings to hear citizens’ priorities as it crafts next year’s budget in a down economy.  It’s all about the plans and costs.

A few years ago I led a community outreach with a struggling congregation to provide a city-sponsored lunch to any child that walked in the door.  I was hoping to get a consistent 150 children aged 2-18 to come at lunch, 5 days a week, for 19 weeks.  The members wanted to know why we were doing it.  Here’s what I told them:

We were going to get 150 children in the building…

So that we might meet them and learn how to meet their families,

So that we could minister to those 60-90 families

With hopes that at least 10% of those families will join us for Sunday church

So that  when visitors come, they will see a vibrant children’s program, and stay

So that  we can begin to attract children’s leaders

… and gain tithing members

… and restore the church to long-term viability

Some understood.  Some didn’t.  One complained about having a story hour in the library, and kept us out.  Another didn’t want the kids to mess up the floors, and locked the door after lunch was over.  Another didn’t trust teenagers to help run simple recreation with grade-school aged kids.

We never got more than 75 kids to come.  We did get 40 to come back on Wednesday night, where we played games and gave them the Gospel.  We got 10 to come on Sunday, and 2 brought their parents.  One got saved.

You don’t have to use my model, but you should know why you’re doing what you’re doing, and prepare for both distractors and results.

I’ve been thinking through what it means to be church, what size is appropriate, and what forms are most useful for particular peoples.  This came in part from a lecture by David Garrison on Church Planting Movements, where an essential form of church can be constructed and rapidly reproduced (sometimes several generations a week).  The following weekend, Rabbi Sam Nadler, President of Word of Messiah Ministries, came to give training on planting a Messianic congregation.  Christmas eve, I an Episcopal midnight mass.  Neither of these models match what I see in my current congregation of 2700.*  Even the home congregation’s Christmas eve vespers service was atypical of them.

While shopping this week, I picked up Dan Kimball’s Emerging Worship.  Since it was Kimball and on the topic “emerging” I knew it would be different from my current experience.  I’ve only skimmed the book, but here’s what’s already working minmy brain:  What is the difference between big box church and what can be reproduced in smaller churches with very little budget?

By Big Box, I mean the megachurches that do everything, especially those that do everything for the attender.  There are some very large congregations that act like nimble smaller churches. 

For example, Central Christian Church (Henderson, NV) is quite large – the 3000-seat auditorium is filled 3 of its 5 services, and nearly so for the other 2.  They have 2 satellite campuses, and one of those has multiple services.  Yet they seem to spawn ministry easily to match needs.  They use ordinary people int he congregation to spawn new acts of service and study.

But more common is the auditorium church, with Disneyland parking lots to hold the thousands that come to their arena seats and watch the jumbotron of half a dozen professional singers and a well-paid preacher give just enough Gospel to make them feel good.  They pay a nominal admission fee (not quite the tithe) and go home, feeling good that they’ve met their minimum weekly requirement.

Kimball likens this to taking the car to the minimart service station – get a full tank of gas & a cup of coffee, and then on your way until next week.  You’ll come in periodically for the oil change (seminar) or periodic maintenance (conference).  But that’s all the level of participation that’s required.

I’ll take that analogy one step up, to the full-service Super Big Box (WalMart, KMart, Meyers, etc.)  There’s a gas station, true, but also a restaurant, coffee bar, bank , eyewear, electronics, books, food, etc.  It’s a one-stop experience.  In the variety of churches, I’ve seen snack bars open the public, Starbucks franchises, bookstores, DiscoveryZone kids’ playspaces, music schools, etc.  I applaud these services, and have used each at least once. (The Starbucks had a dollar-a-cup self-service honor station! Would that work outside the church?)

The question I will explore in the coming days is what alternatives are available to the Bix Box, and what Big Box practices are good and reproducable.  (Let’s not discount their value simply in reaction to the excesses of a few.)


*Note:  I’m not the pastor, but an active layman in that congregation, and a worker to strengthen other congregations.

I’ve been considering when a strugglng church becomes too small to effectively turn around. Not that God can’t do miracles when only “two or three” are gathered, but there should be a general rule of thumb for when a church comes into being and when it should be laid to rest.

This is a concern because the average size for a church in North America is 75 attending. It is less in some other countries – or even this country – where the house church is the model; you are limited to how many people can fit in your living room or garage.

But in general, have the churches are less than 20 families, and many are a lot smaller: 35, 25, 15.

Which brings me to my question. How small can a church get before it’s not economically viable to keep it open?

With a congregational style church, part of the answer depends on whether the pastor and staff are full-time, part-time or unpaid. If your congregation is 5 families, making about $35k a year each, a tithe of the gross only nets the church $18 grand. What pastor can support a family on that?

If the church is in a denomination where the diocese or synod pays the salary, the congregation can get smaller, because someone else is frontloading the expenses to maintain a presence in that neighborhood. But that also means the local congregation is at the whim of someone else on whether to keep the building open or not. (I remember the furror when a local Catholic diocese tried to close an underperforming facility. Ten times the number that ever attended protested the closure of “their” church, the one they wanted standing when they needed to be married or buried!)

What I’ve been considering is the concept of a minyan. In Jewish practice, the minimum for a synagogue is 10 men. Similarly, in Islam, it takes 10 men at prayers to sustain the mosque. Jesus had his 12, but “one was a devil” and another a betrayer.

With 10 men, that’s probably 30 people: the men, their wives, one or two children for half of them, plus a few widows. Perhaps you can get as small as 10 family units, counting the Singles / single parents and widows, meaning about 15 adults.

In my opinion, if the church gets below 15 and stays below 15 for several weeks, it’s time to consider closing the church. God can still raise up dry bones, but only if the leadership is committed to nurturing the new growth.

One of the problems facing struggling churches is the feeling of not knowing what else to do.  You wish someone would come help, but there’s no money for a consultant and no time or money for attending conferences.  And even if you go, it’s just you.  How do you remember enough to carry the same vision & excitement back to you church leaders?

One of the joys of the current internet is the amount of teaching that’s available online,  much of it for free.  One site I recently discovered is from the Southern Baptists in Maryland.  The BCMD equip site is full of really good short courses – videoed workshops – that are geared to the small churches in that region.

For example, tonite I learned that putting on a play or special program can be done without a lot of money.  Five dollar costumes that don’t look like bath robes.  Wooden boxes to add visual interest as portable staging.  Where to find scripts and music that won’t break the bank.

Youtube is another place to find teaching.  Browse the bookstore for church growth / church health authors and then search for them on youtube.  Chances are, someone has posted one of their conference lectures there.

I’ve also started listening to chapel lectures from seminaries and Christian colleges.  It’s inspiring to hear how pastors and teachers are working out their faith in small churches, and I pick up ideas and have my preconceived notions challenged.  Or affirmed.  David Bycroft spoke at Ozark Christian College about being a formerly small church that held auto shows and tractor pulls and family festivals to attract people to come hear the Gospel.

The resources are there.  If you can’t find one, drop me a note and I’ll help you find some.

Not to rejoice in another’s misery, but the Center for Congregational Health reminds us that “this economy of shrinking budgets is also one of expanding ministry opportunities.”  The upside of the downturn – if there is one – is that people are hurting, and hurting people are more open to receiving ministry from the faith community.

The danger in the opportunity is that some regions may be so affected they overwhelm the availability.  Think of the first days after a major hurricane or blizzard.  The damage in those natural events is so widespread that relief has to come from a distance, but the infrastructure to get the relief there (roads, etc.) are themselves hindrances.  What is able to be mobilized quickly is woefully inadequate to meet the initial demand.  And then, if the disaster continues beyond what is normal, the reserves begin to wear out and those providers become hopeful recipients.

For example, the first days after the 9-11 attacks saw widespread confusion and a lack of services until response to overcome the inertia.  Then, as the relief continued over time, I’m told that the emergency feeding began to run out of supplies, that there were literally were no more institutional-sized #10 cans of food available on the east coast to ship to NYC.  The demand had overrun the supply.

Churches, in their desire to minister to their community, must look first to their capability to respond.

Prov 22:3 – A prudent man sees danger and takes refuge, but the simple keep going and suffer for it.

Luke 14:28-30 – Is there anyone here who, planning to build a new house, doesn’t first sit down and figure the cost so you’ll know if you can complete it? If you only get the foundation laid and then run out of money, you’re going to look pretty foolish. Everyone passing by will poke fun at you: ‘He started something he couldn’t finish.’

CCH Consultant Beth Kennett says not to wait until your church is in decline to reorder your finances. Be aware of what’s happening in your community and in your congregation. Like Joseph preparing for a famine, if your congregation is small and the income potential is fragile, begin making adjustments early.

Look to the needs of your congregation. In your evaluation of their capabilities, you will likely discover one or more families whose financial future is more uncertain, or perhaps is already tenuous. We are to care for one another first – our own household. It will not be a good witness if you give away what you have to prospects while members are suffering.

Then you can take your informed understanding of your congregation and your community, you can begin to partner with other churches and social service agencies to provide support to those in need.

Kinnett reminds us, however, that not all ministry has financial costs. “As people become stressed and fearful, faith communities can offer peace and hope as well as practical support, like food pantries and clothing exchanges. During tough times, it is helpful for congregations to know that they offer a relevant ministry.”

She told the story of a church in a small town where a local plant closing devastated the community. The congregation offered support groups, stress management and financial management classes, and hosted networking opportunities for job seekers. “When individuals’ economic situations change down the road, a church that has embraced such outreach opportunities may be bigger and healthier than it was before the economic slump.”

Source: article library.

If you lead a small church, and haven’t been to one of the websites that support / value small church vitality, you’re missing valuable insights and encouragement.

One such site is the Energizing Smaller Churches Network (ESCN).  They quote a Barna Research report that the typical church in America has an average worship attendance of eighty-nine adults, and that a full 60 percent of Protestant churches in our country are attended by one hundred or fewer adults in worship.

A hundred may not seem like a lot, but considering the strength of the house church movement, where congregations rarely exceed 30, that’s huge.  Even in the 2500-member church my family attends, ministry rarely happens in groups much larger than 40 or 50.  Discipleship is broken into groups of a dozen or less.  (There were 15 in prayer meeting last week.)

Hear the encouragement of ESCN:  “every church in every community in a strategic position. By virtue of its purpose and location, each church in each community is uniquely qualified to influence those closest to it for Christ.”

The church I used to serve at in Massachusetts is land-limited to a couple hundred attendees.  The youth groups runs a couple dozen.  Yet they were named one of the best in the country, and the youth pastor told me they found they were effectively penetrating the High School and ministering to around 200 students.  Similarly, the summer camp for 5-12 year olds maxes out each year at over 100, influencing the community for Christ, even though only a fraction are members of the church.  (That camp has drawn in some community residents to become strong leaders, and many children have been saved over the years.)

Helping smaller churches achieve this goal is the purpose of the ESCN.  I recommend it to you.