Ready Steady Grow
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Ready Steady Grow

Equipping Today'S Gospel Churches

Ray Evans

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eBook - ePub

Ready Steady Grow

Equipping Today'S Gospel Churches

Ray Evans

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About This Book

Do you love your church and want to see it thrive?
Are you keen to learn from someone whose own church has grown and started others too?
Are you ready for the downsides as well as the inevitable joys?Ray Evans takes us on an interesting and exciting journey. He looks at the barriers to growth, as well as the hurdles of reorganization and structural changes that growing churches face. His findings are anchored in the Bible and the real world which we all inhabit.'Many have learned how to lead what they have, ' says Ray, 'but they don't know how to take it forward. You don't see the glass ceilings until you crash into them, and the splinters bring pain everywhere.'In Ray, you will find a humble, wise and warm-hearted guide. This book will not only equip your church to grow, but will help prevent unnecessary disasters.

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1. Recognize that size matters: the good and bad of small, medium, awkward and large churches

One of the most common reasons for pastoral leadership mistakes is blindness to the significance of church size. Size has an enormous impact on how a church functions. There is a ‘size culture’ that profoundly affects how decisions are made, how relationships flow, how effectiveness is evaluated, what its ministers, staff, and lay leaders do. We tend to think of the chief differences between churches mainly in denominational or theological terms, but that underestimates the impact of size on how church operates.
(Timothy Keller1)
I thought I knew about small churches (up to fifty people or so). Our church had been there. (It had started with just twelve people in 1972.) Indeed, many other Christians know this reality too, given the size breakdown that statistics reveal. For example, the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches (FIEC), a grouping of over 500 churches in the UK, estimates that its constituency is 69% composed of small churches (memberships of fifty or fewer). In terms of congregational attendance, the overall average is sixty-nine in the morning and thirty-nine in the evening, with a median membership of fifty members per church.2
Even in the United States, home of the internationally famous mega-churches, the median church comprises ‘just’ seventy-five people in attendance.3 Dave Murrow comments, ‘Ninety percent of churches are under 150 on Sunday morning’,4 and Lyle Schaller states that 75,000 Protestant churches in the US average forty or fewer at worship.5
This is not a criticism in any way, just stating the fact that many Christian believers live their corporate church life alongside a relatively small number of other believers, and with them seek to take forward what have been called the two challenges given by the Lord to his church, namely ‘the Great Commission’ and ‘the Great Commandment’ (Matthew 28:18–20; 22:37–39).

Small is beautiful

Many Christians in churches of this size would say there are numerous plus factors in being small. Indeed, some even adamantly advocate a ‘small-is-beautiful’ strategy for church life and growth. Small missional communities, it is argued, can reach out more effectively than large, impersonal, programme-oriented churches. For some, small seems more authentic, more New Testament in feel, more manageable, more direct in terms of relationships within the community of faith and more effective in impacting outsiders.6 Much of this resonates with a postmodern culture wary of the institutional and the impersonal. So, far from ‘small = failure’, small can be advantageous. Shawn McMullen notes, ‘In an age when human interaction is being supplanted by modern technology, many younger families are looking for a church that offers community, closeness and intergenerational relationships.’7 Ed Stetzer’s research has established that ‘about 6 million people [in the USA] meet weekly with a small group and never or rarely go to church’; that is, they relate literally to a house church and nothing more.8
So what are the positives of small churches?
First and foremost is the strength of the relational glue that holds the small church together. ‘It’s a nice day; why don’t we have a church picnic?’ can be an on-the-spot decision at a Sunday morning meeting. What’s more, most people will come as part of wanting to maintain group cohesion. When our church was this size, we would have a games afternoon in the local park. Everyone came, to play or watch, those in their eighties and those still in prams! The sense of togetherness was palpable.
Typically, members will socialize with one another as well as meet formally. And even formal meetings can have an informal air about them, with members being glad that they don’t have to watch time as their larger-church cousins do.
Everyone knows everyone else. At its best, this means that each and all get prayed and cared for during life’s joys and sorrows (Romans 12:15). New people are easily recognized, and the scale of this seems manageable. The church can spend time praying for those they know and love who are not yet Christians. And when somebody becomes a believer, the group can meaningfully rejoice as a whole.
A second strength is shared knowledge. Often there is a shared belief-and-values system to which members subscribe deeply. New people are helped to adopt these, either by a formal process (‘This is our doctrinal statement which we all believe’), or informally through tacit knowledge (people picking up what is expected through an assortment of verbal and visual cues). The power of group behaviour means that people either align themselves or soon pull away.
Thirdly, it is obvious that a small church has to work together to maintain itself: tasks are shared out and often done together. It may be arranging chairs in a member’s home, contributing to a lunch, looking after someone’s child during a talk or clearing up after coffee. If the small group has grown beyond a home’s capacity (in the UK, given the relatively small size of homes, this can happen quite quickly), there will be many tasks to accomplish for the Sunday worship service to function.9 Even a relatively small church may soon have to hire, buy or build. This, in turn, can be another opportunity for developing binding relationships.
Another advantage is a communal sense of sacrifice. Financial expenditure becomes a shared bond, when the small church pays for things together: a building to meet in, expenses for visiting speakers, help for a needy person in debt or a child in another continent requiring health care. The finances are not just lost in a big impersonal system, and this kind of pooling of resources will strengthen the group.
I could talk of other benefits too, and so could you if you are in a small church.
It all sounds idyllic, and some Christians from small churches will tell you that it is. Yet you know what is coming: the proverbial ‘but’!

Small may not always be beautiful

Why so? The big issue for the small church is that it doesn’t and can’t easily stay that way. Even if numbers remain about the same, people will inexorably age, young children will grow up and pressure will increase on all those ‘shared’ things. The group will have to face problems associated with its size dynamics, perhaps sooner than it would like to think.10

So what are the negatives of small churches?

Cohesive small churches?

Even some of the positives can, after a while, become negatives. For example, small-group cohesion can become a problem. The military historian, Richard Holmes, described how small-group unity can work against the mission of the overall organization if members lose heart and work together to reinforce poor behaviour traits. And group members will generally fight for one another, but not if the group mindset becomes negative. Holmes refers to Marc Bloch’s observation of soldiers in small groups when he says:
I believe that few soldiers, except the most noble or the most intelligent, think of their country while conducting themselves bravely; they are much more often guided by a sense of personal honour, which is very strong when it is refined by the group. If a unit consisted of a majority of slackers, the point of honour would be to get out of any situation with the least harm possible.
Holmes adds: ‘In short, the creation of group spirit is no guarantee of military performance, for there is every chance that the group’s norms will conflict with the aims of the organization of which it forms a part.’11
Similarly, small churches might find themselves feeling quite comfortable in their small and cosy world. Their purpose tacitly becomes keeping the group ‘as we like it’, rather than seeing themselves as a means of fulfilling the Great Commis­sion and pushing hard to make more disciples.
If a leading light or a group-within-the-group sets norms of belief and behaviour other than biblical ones, then the small group can become what some have labelled toxic.12 The small church becomes hardened to its missional calling, unwelcoming to outsiders who might challenge things and unwilling to adapt to a changing world. Small groups are notoriously prone to the excesses of immature or doctrinally unbalanced leaderships, and may end up feeling like the minor fiefdom of a dominant personality.

Rewarding small churches?

Another problem is that repetitive tasks can feel onerous and unrewarding. Results may appear meagre, and the group may feel like giving up because of a lack of sensed effectiveness. Others just ignore this and soldier on, but with little honest assessment of their own cherished practices. I recall visiting an established church which had seen better days. There were about twenty in the congregation (spread around a building that seated 600 or more). The weird thing was the insistence on a children’s talk, for which I had to come down from a very high pulpit and along a back corridor, and re-enter the auditorium to speak child! Members at the core of a small church, unchanged for a number of decades, have become both worn down by the continuing demands of keeping it going and used to seeing little growth.

Effective small churches?

Another problem has to do with the numbers dynamic of small groups. In one sense, a group of over thirty is not really a small group at all, but has already progressed to a size where cohesion and loyalty work differently. Fascinatingly, studies in small-group cohesion all put the ‘small number’ somewhere between five and twenty. After that size is reached, taking part, doing things together and keeping unity just change the dynamics. Holmes’ studies suggest that army fighting units have coalesced around this small-group number for many thousands of years. It seems to be the size which can achieve tasks with everyone being part of it.
‘The importance of the primary group of ten, whose members were in regular face-to-face contact, was recognized long before psychologists or sociologists had turned their attention to the question of group behaviour,’ says Richard Holmes. He goes on to describe the Macedonian battle order where soldiers manoeuvred in groups of eight or four. ‘In every case, though, the pikeman fought between comrades he knew well.’ The Roman army was organized around ten eight-man mess units (the conturbenia). Over 1,700 years later, the Prussian army was formed around the seven-man Kamerad­schaft, and the British army today still fights as units of small squads.13
So a church that feels it is going to maintain effectiveness as it grows from twenty to around fifty has already lost some of the greatest benefits of small-group intimacy. Medium to large churches, through a well-run small-group structure, may actually be reaping more of the benefits of this form of organization, and may be able to motivate and disciple people more effectively than small-church advocates may realize. Ed Stetzer argues that because today’s large churches emphasize small groups and community, thus creating a small-church feel, they offer the best of both worlds.14

Vulnerable small churches?

Another issue is the group’s vulnerability to small fluctuations in numbers. Core members often will nervously think, ‘It will only take one family moving away for us to lose viability.’ One couple with children move in, and it feels wonderful. Yet if that happens in reverse, disaster. Without realizing it, small churches invest a huge amount of energy in retaining people. The unspoken contract is: ‘Please don’t leave, because if you do, you may be responsible for closing this church.’ Leadership’s goal becomes keeping people, whatever the cost. If change might upset a group member, the group won’t change.
This pattern of behaviour doesn’t happen overnight, but develops with the passage of time. Sometimes desperate leaders are tempted to adopt a very controlling and directive approach to pastoral care.
Church trends commentator, Peter Brierley, notes in his analysis of the 2005 English church census, ‘The smaller the church, the much more likely it was to have declined; virtually three-quarters, 74%, of the smallest churches did so...53% of them declined very fast.’15

Small becoming something else

If, however, the small church does see growth, it faces a stark choice. Does it plant again, now that the group has grown to around forty, by ‘splitting’ into two groups of twenty, for example, or does it grow into something larger, say a medium-sized church of fifty or more? That’s no bad thing to face up to, but it does need some clear thinking.
The greatest challenges come from two things: the provision of leadership and the instability of the dynamics of groups of a certain size.

The provision of leadership

Where does one small group find enough good leaders to take two groups forward? Many churches of forty would struggle to support one full-time leader financially, never mind two. Most groups of twenty certainly wouldn’t be able to do that. Now it is easy to say at this point, ‘Leaders need to be open to the reality of being “tent-makers”.’16 That is absolutely true and valid. But if we adopt the plan that small churches will grow to just about medium-sized, where they then plant small again (and then again), the leaders will likely face a lifetime of being tent-makers. That may well be a necessity in some places, yet it is a big ask – especially so if the church aspires to have well-trained leaders committed to the theological, missional and leadership training required to take it forward.
It seems a waste of capability to have gifted men leading very small churches, with no real expectation that they will ever be supported by their members financially and devoting lots of time to doing something else to earn a wage.
I was a window-cleaner for two years, with over 400 houses on my books. It was an honourable and necessary job, and I studied when it was raining. Then I was released to only have to clean windows for three days a week, as the church could afford to pay for two days. By some marvellous providence, I was contacted by a distant acquaintance to do research for the Regional Directorate of the EU. Overnight, my status changed: I officially became a consultant! This too was an honourable post (even if you are a Euro-sceptic). But I found it all very tiring. I was trying to squeeze too much into my limited hours. My mind was always on both jobs at the same time. It was a privilege eventually to be fully supported so that I could concentrate on what God had called me to and gifted me for. Tent-making may well be a sacrifice some have to make, but I think we need to be wary of playing down how hard it is.
For some, the solution to the finance problem is to find outside money, gaining support from larger churches elsewhere. This is hard to sustain over a long period, however, and churches that stay small do not support full-time workers. The early Brethren system turned this reality of small-group life (non-stipendiary elders) into an almost mandatory biblical requirement, seeing it as a blessing, not a curse. Others have realized that it may not result in well-trained leadership, and the small church can end up being led by well-intentioned, but not necessarily capable, preacher-leaders. Alternatively, the small-church leader who does want to be supported may be in danger either of exerting undue pressure on members to give to the cause (namely, his salary) or of being nervous about mentioning money at all, because it is so personal.

The instability of small-sized groups

One answer to the problem of small-group instability is a model that keeps such missional communities working together as they grow and replicate, and meeting together as one (‘the gathering’).17 This plan is really more a method of growing a large church, consisting of large sub-units: the size dynamics, financial requirements and leadership provision will mirror those of a larger church. It is important to be aware of this, so that leaders can grasp the likely size problems they will face, rather than ignoring them.
Growing large small-group sub-units will bring its own tensions. When we, as a church at one phase of life, sought to keep three large sub-groups of twenty to fifty organizationally together, we found it very difficult to maintain cohesion once new people started coming and shaping things. New­comers didn’t relate to those parts of the church that met in different places from their own. Each group soon began to develop different characteristics. Though we tried, we could not keep the groups under one umbrella for long without difficulties surfacing. As groups reached a critical mass of more than thirty people, there was a strong desire to order their own values, make their own decisions and appoint their own leaders. In a sense, they began acting as churches do, rather than as small groups do.
In the end, one group became a separate sister church, and the other two groups recombined and started meeting together as one medium-sized church.
If we had maintained a strong, controlling type of joint leadership, things might have been different. But the key issue affecting this developmental stage is the point where group aspirations and decision-making responsibilities coalesce. This is especially so once it has its own distinct leadership, recognized or appointed by the group, rather than imposed by others. Though an organization can maintain cohesion for a while, once such leaders really start leading on their own initiative, then a new church is birthed and it may want to go off (sometimes rapidly) in a different direction from its mother church.
To maintain other patterns will require exerting a more authoritarian style over the groups than may be justified from the New Testament. In the later decades of the previous century, when this plan was experimented within the so-called ‘House-church’ Movement, this became one of its major problems.

Medium-sized church bliss

An expanding small church which does not quickly opt to plant another small church will find itself growing into a medium-sized church with around fifty to a hundred and fifty attending. A church plant which starts with, say, thirty people could real...

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Citation styles for Ready Steady Grow
APA 6 Citation
Evans, R. (2014). Ready Steady Grow ([edition unavailable]). IVP. Retrieved from (Original work published 2014)
Chicago Citation
Evans, Ray. (2014) 2014. Ready Steady Grow. [Edition unavailable]. IVP.
Harvard Citation
Evans, R. (2014) Ready Steady Grow. [edition unavailable]. IVP. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Evans, Ray. Ready Steady Grow. [edition unavailable]. IVP, 2014. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.