Every church has limiting factors. No church grows exponentially every year. Infinite expansion isn’t possible. Even the largest churches stay at the top of the list for only about twenty years. Each generation has its own group of biggest congregations or fastest-growing congregations.
Compare any lists of the largest churches from the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, or 2000s and you’ll find different churches leading the way. By virtue of their size, big churches are constantly shifting. Indeed, some of the largest churches from twenty and thirty years ago no longer exist today. They grew rapidly, declined just as quickly, and eventually disbanded.
No church should die, whether the congregation is large or small. God wants every church to be biblically faithful and grow both numerically and spiritually. The myth of exponential growth has its roots in the attention garnered by churches that grow rapidly over several years. Other pastors examine these growth models and try to emulate them. Truth be told, these churches often flourish because of demographic factors that don’t necessarily transfer to different locales. Maybe they’re in a fast-growth corridor of a large metropolitan area. What people tend not to examine quite as much is how many of these churches fade from the growth lists just as quickly as they arrived.
Rapid, exponential growth is impossible to sustain in the long term
The distinction may seem nuanced, but there is a difference between the mentality of multiplying disciples and growing a large church. There will always be an attraction to rapidly growing institutions, organizations, and movements. I cannot fault people for gravitating toward something that’s growing. However, every case of exponential growth — whether in business, religion, or the academy — eventually reaches an inflection point, a pivotal moment when the organization must make fundamental changes in its operations if it wants to continue. Consider Sears, Roebuck and Co., once the largest retailer in the United States. Their exponential growth began to slow in the 1980s, reached an inflection point with the emergence of Walmart on the national stage, followed by a rapid decline until the company faced Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2018.
It’s exciting when a church grows from 20 members to 40 in one year; then from 40 to 80 the following year, and from 80 to 160 the year after that. But, ongoing exponential growth is an unachievable goal for a local church. We should celebrate this growth but not expect it to continue to accelerate year after year. Churches tend to get into trouble when they construct campuses, build infrastructure, and hire personnel with the expectation of ongoing exponential growth.
You will need to be creative to reach your maximum capacity
Let’s assume your church can overcome leadership lids and systems limitations. What is left are the physical constraints of the campus. Your parking lot can only hold so many vehicles. The square footage of your facility can hold only so many people. You can only put so many butts in the pews of the sanctuary.
There is a point at which the physical constraints of a church campus become a significant problem. For example, a church with a 1,000-seat worship space and a parking lot that holds 50 cars will struggle because of the mismatch between its interior space and exterior footprint. Some urban churches have little to no parking, but mass transit enables people to get to the church with relative ease. Most churches, however, are not near mass transit stops.
How can you maximize your campus without feeling the burden of infinite expansion?
Churches will average 2 to 2.5 people per vehicle. If your parking lot is correctly sized, you will have twice as many seats in your building as spaces for vehicles in your lot. In other words, a worship space for three hundred requires about 150 parking spaces. If you can’t create enough parking, multiple services can solve the problem. Your worship space may never be full, but that only becomes an issue if you drop below 40% capacity.
For purposes of discussion, let’s assume a neighborhood church wants to grow to 600 people on a Sunday morning, but they have only 150 parking spaces and a worship space with 400 seats. This church can achieve its goal by expanding to three worship services.
8:00 a.m. Sunday worship: 150 people on campus occupying 75 parking spaces
9:30 a.m. Sunday worship: 200 people on campus occupying 100 parking spaces
11:00 a.m. Sunday worship: 250 people on campus occupying 125 parking spaces
Will some services feel a little light throughout the year in a worship space of 400 seats? Yes, but that’s not a huge deterrent for guests. Will the parking lot get crowded some Sundays when turnover between services doesn’t happen quickly? Yes, but the energy of a full parking lot will outweigh the negative impact of not finding a spot immediately. Does this church need clear signage and a lot of guest, handicapped, and senior parking? Yes! But these issues are quickly resolved with some budget funds and sweat equity.
If the church is willing to give up on the idea that everyone must be together in the same service, or that the worship space must be completely full, then the parking lot issues — though challenging — can be overcome. If this church were to add a Sunday evening service and another service during the week, even with only 150 parking spaces, they could grow to 1,000 in attendance. Remember, no church can grow exponentially every year, but established churches can grow much larger than many envision with some sacrifice and a little creativity.
I examine this myth and more in my latest book. The Surprising Return of the Neighborhood Church just released! If you lead or attend a neighborhood church or want to know more about this potential movement, you can pick up a copy now.
Originally published at Church Answers.
Sam Rainer is president of Church Answers and pastor at West Bradenton Baptist Church in Florida.