When I was starting out as a pastor, I remember attending church-growth conferences which inspired me and filled me with dreams to build a great church, a church that would grow and storm the gates of hell—a “super-church”! (Pastors, remember those days?)
Much of such dreams and inspiration are often used by God to motivate us to grow into His purposes, although the way God guides us may not be exactly how we envisaged at the start. However, the purpose of this article seeks is not to deal with that, but rather to focus on something definitive that makes a “super-church”.
Every church has the potential to grow due to the DNA put into her by Christ, “…I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” (Matthew 16:13). This phrase in the Greek idiomatic language can be rephrased as “my church will not see death” or “my church will grow under any circumstances”. (quote)
Every church has this DNA and can keep growing. At multiple points in her journey of growth, however, the church will reach a point of slowing down and stalling. At this point, what the church does in response to her circumstance will determine whether she keeps growing or whether she plateaus. In fact, on any journey of growth, there will be multiple slow/stall points. They are not something to be avoided, but rather they are a natural crossroad that God brings the church to in her journey.
Such points allow the church to depend on God, hear Him, take stock, and partner God in her continued growth.
Such points also take the characteristic of the “S-Curve”  where growth slows to a plateau and then begins to climb again when there are healthy responses to the S-curve points.
“Super-church” can also be defined as a church that overcomes the blocks to growth to be an “S-curve church”.
I have pastored churches in various settings. I remember in one church where I put in great effort, vision and idealism. The church grew from 160-200 in the first year. However, soon after that, the growth began to slow, and then to stall. I was really stressed, desperate for fear of the loss of momentum. I wished I had wisdom and guidance on how to manage such a point. In retrospect, there were a number of reasons why that slowing occurred.
What are some signs that you may be reaching an “S-curve” crossroad?
If you have been seeing the church grow numerically and in enthusiasm of members for a season, let me share some indicators I have observed in my experience that may forewarn that you are approach such a crossroad:
1. Tiring Leaders
Leaders are motivated people who rise up to sacrifice for the church. They run the extra-mile, take responsibility for the sheep and give up much in their lives. Leaders are often more mature and have good inner resources. When leaders “burn out”, it is no small thing! When they begin to tire we must ask “what is it about the church’s care system that is insufficient to fuel and motivate these precious ones”?
In a church I consulted with that had a couple of thousand members, I observed that although the outreach efforts were strong in drawing people into the church, there was a 15-20% turnover in leadership. Leaders were stepping down and giving up. That was one clear indication of the church approaching a crossroad. Soon, the church growth numbers plateaued despite all the many outreach and revivalist activities of the church.
2. Resistance and Complaints to Ministry Direction
In another church I worked with, I observed that the pastor had brought unprecedented growth through championing a new ministry direction. However, there soon came complains against the ministry direction. I wondered, “why is it that despite growth momentum, changed lives and salvations that there would be dissatisfaction and unhappiness”? When I studied deeper, I realized that the new ministry direction had underlying philosophies that clashed with the church’s philosophical beliefs. The church was approaching an “S-curve” crossroads where such differences had to be worked out. Although there was still momentum and growth, it was just a matter of time before such differences would slow it down.
3. Losing Momentum: Decreasing Numerical Growth, Waning Enthusiasm of the Leaders/People
In a high momentum phase, people are excited about what God is doing, there is usually a “buzz” and people feel they have encountered God. One of the indicators of approach an “S-curve” crossroad is when one visits cell-groups and there is a lack of spiritual enthusiasm of the people/leaders at large. Another late indicator is when the rate of growth slows. Less people bring friends to church.
I remember in a couple of churches hearing people declare, “I’m so excited about what God is doing in this place!” or “I really like this season of learning, I keep inviting my friend to come join us”! When such sentiments are held by a majority, they—or the lack thereof—are indicators of momentum possibly leading to an “S-curve” point.
These indicators are obviously not exhaustive. But they represent what I have observed in a number of churches in their journey of growth as they struggled with plateauing.
God allows such indicators to point to us something inadequate in His community. There is something that has not been authentically engaged, something that does not resource as much as it requires. God calls leaders to have insight to address these concerns in good time despite the still-present momentum or the busyness of routine. Sometimes, the larger the church, the harder it is to spot such indicators due to the pre-existing positive momentum and many activities that make one feel the church is doing well. However, as shepherds, when God allows us to observe such indicators, we are called to reflect on the needs it represents in the community and how loving leadership can address them.
What is God trying to tell you about His church when see such distinct indicators in your church, or feel you may be nearing/in an “S-curve” point?
When the church reaches a point when requirements exceed resources, God wants to tell us something about His community and their needs. If you are a shepherd of God’s church, I believe He wants to tell you what to do to meet their needs in a loving way.
Here are some possible needs God may want to speak to you about at such “S-curve” crossroads. Perhaps as you reflect on them, some may apply to your situation:
1. Is there a lack of Leader-Care?
Leaders serve tirelessly and give to their sheep weekly. They meet pastoral needs or hold ministry teams together. There may come a time where continual giving exceeds the structures you have placed to meet their needs. To sustain serving for the long-haul, most leaders need:
- inspirational resource in their field
- coaching in their skills
- mentor for life and leadership issues
- time for sabbatical
What is lacking in providence for them in your church community? Are leadership meetings too much of instruction-giving rather than being positioned for the above? Is there too much information rather than inspiration?
2. Is there inadequate Mobilization?
When there are insufficient people playing key-shepherding roles, the load gets heavier on the leaders. When we mobilize and raise more people to serve, this spreads the load of service. Some thoughts for increasing mobilization in a church are,
- having a deliberate and identified pool of potentials for future leadership development and resourcing them
- finding assistants for all your leaders
- challenging the whole church to serve and play their part
- balancing “empowering people to play key-roles” versus “having strict protocols for appointing leaders”
Is there a lack of a structure to put the “right people in right places”? Do decisions bottle-neck at a few key people or are people empowered for decision-making in ministries?
In one church leaders often complained, “It’s the same few people serving, each wearing 2 or 3 ‘hats’”. After a year of applying some of the above, the mobilization of people serving in one area of ministry increased from 15-60%! In the second year, that leader’s complaint was no longer heard in the church, because more people played their part!
When leaders lead to start new projects, people jump in to help and to follow. However after the project is done, there inevitably comes a time of reflection. Even uninvited, those involved or observing will form an opinion. The opinion may result in support, or in some kind of objection. This objection may not be explicitly said, but it dampens motivation and enthusiasm. If the project has been done well, these objections may be held in check. However, over time it builds up to a kind of “resistance” and inertia. Such objections may be due to a number of possible differences. Let me share two.
3. Are there different Theological/Structural Under-pinnings?
The new project may have a philosophy or structure that is new to the church. For example, an outreach project may use styles that may be deemed a compromise to some ways of using Scripture, or a new ministry structure may change a previous structure deemed to be of denominational origin. While people want to give new projects that chance and to “move with the times”, a struggle with reconciling losing something of theological or structural value is also at stake.
4. Is there a discomfort with the Power-Balance of Decision-Making?
As a leader / pastor begins a new initiative, the way of decision-making may also be new. People who used to have a say in the process may be excluded for a variety of reasons, eg. Speed of decision-making, new areas of expertise required, dealing with situations that get bogged down with too many opinions. While many people understand the need to move quickly, some churches come from a background of more consensual decision-making. There needs to be a coming to terms with new decision-processes and how extensive that new process is.
In both the above situations, there could be an implicit snow-balling of lack of enthusiasm or motivation that can become a sense of resistance over the months. If this is observed, authentic conversation to understand people’s hearts and to honor how they feel can be a way to keep a positive momentum. In a church where I was tasked to have honest conversation with various leaders, some of these issues were raised and shared honestly. This then brought the issue up early so that it could be addressed and prayed over.
People want to be at their best for God, and they usually do not want to serve with such burdens on their hearts. They wish for a reconciliation that they feel comes from God. Honest and loving conversation in communities can be a channel for this.
5. Is there adequate Coaching of Leaders in Overcoming Difficult Situations?
I was ministering to a cell leader in a church whom I had the privilege to oversee for a season. He had been struggling with an issue in growing his cell group which he had faced for a year. It was not an easy situation, but he struggled with overcoming it. Over the months as he saw no positive result, he began to get a little discouraged, and his motivation waned.
Leaders face all kinds of situations in their ministries, and sometimes they may not have the skills or experience to overcome them. In such situations they need a coach to guide them to understand the situation, learn new skills, and observe a modeling of how that situation can be overcome. Such a coach may be a mentor, overseer or supervisor. However, some systems do not provide for such a coach, or the coaches are too overstretched that they cannot play that specific coaching role.
Is there too little understanding of the struggles faced by people on the ground? Is there resource provided to fill those specific gaps?
Training and enabling good coaches is a worthwhile investment in ensuring your leaders do not lose motivation and momentum.
6. Is there an Overly-used Style that has outlived the Season?
As things change, people’s needs and perceptions also change. Every style has its greatest impact for a season. With changing times, people’s perception may require a new way of presenting ministry to meet deep needs.
In a church that had run a particular outreach program for several years, while they saw great responses at the start, the responses had waned over the years. I advised them to take a break from that program and re-evaluate their resources for a year or two and build up outreach through other platforms, then to return to that program after a season. The new platforms would bring in different kinds of people and may then fuel the original outreach program again.
In Acts 6, the early church faced an “S-curve” crossroad. The underlying issue was a potential division between different people-groups (Jews and Greeks) and the needs of a ministry (serving poor widows). To prevent a bottle-neck, a new layer of leaders were raised and empowered (deacons). The group decision-makers was extended beyond the apostles for the first time to even non-Jews and some criteria was given in their equipping and selection (good men, filled with the Spirit). The complaints and decreasing motivation led the apostles to listen to the people and to God. Being sensitive to the needs of God’s church, they made key decisions that brought the church past the “S-curve” crossroad. As a result, “the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith.” (Acts 6:7)
May the church you are in be a church that navigates the crossroads and grows—that “the gates of Hades will not prevail against her”!
 The “S-curve” or Sigmoid shaped curve describes a situation where upward growth plateaus and slows. It then picks up to linear growth again. Such a growth when charted on a graph looks like an “S” in shape. This pattern has been applied to natural sciences, physiology and even business development. I am unable to source its origin.