The Four Stages of Church Growth

Over the past few years, my focus has moved slowly from solely being on creativity within the church, to focusing on trying to see the overarching patterns in the Church world today. And as I’ve studied and asked questions and gotten to know certain ministries down through the years, I’ve come to realize there are 4 numerical growth stages churches go through in typical (if there is such a thing) growth patterns.

Now, obviously – as with most things in life – there are no rules, there are no constants… but I’ve seen this happen enough through the years, with a large enough cross section of churches to understand that this is the norm, not the exception. Now – obviously the numbers here are rough estimates and could happen earlier or later relative to a church’s history and growth pattern. But the basic stages are basically the same, I think.

Typically, a church starts with a small team of people and for whatever reason – dynamic speaker, loving people, programs, etc. – begins to grow. The handful of families involved at the launch slowly (or quickly) grows to roughly 200 people.

Getting over the “hump” of 200-ish people is, for some reason, a hump that a large majority of churches struggle to get over. Most (And by “most” I mean “nearly all”, statistically) churches in America are smaller than 200 people in weekly attendance.

Typically, staffing for churches of this size is minimal: a lead pastor and a whole bunch of volunteers.

To get over the hump over 200-ish, churches typically need to begin to flesh out a greater vision and focus on hiring people to create or build programs (children’s, worship, students, small groups, etc.) A church of this size typically has a full-time lead pastor, some kind of full-time administrator (could be an executive pastor) and a bevy of part-timers and volunteers creating and building the other departments.

Nearly always, as the church continues to grow, these positions are filled with people who were in their positions (part-time or volunteer) before the church reached the hump. They are typically not necessarily the most qualified for their positions – with the exception of the lead pastor and administrator – but they are bought into the ministry and are sold out for the cause of Christ and the church.

The value most churches have in this stage is not skills, but heart: do the people involved buy into the vision wholeheartedly; are they loyal to the leadership; do they inherently understand and get the culture of the church and – likely more importantly – the staff?

It should be noted that I am (hopefully) not making judgements about the good or bad of any of these choices; I am simply reporting what seems to be the “typical” patterns for churches.

The Stage 3 hump is somewhere between 1500-2000. At this point, the staff has filled out into full-time positions leading most departments. Typically, a church of this size has somewhere in the $1.5-2.5m budget and roughly 45% is spent on staff, and at 100-150 congregants per staff member, this means roughly 15-20 full-time staff positions + several part-time positions, on top of the now several hundred volunteers.

Typically, these 15-20 full-time staffers were hired form within, usually hangovers from Stage 2. The worship pastor who was there at 250 people is many times the guy who is there at 2000; same with the Kids’ director; same with students; and on down the line. Many times this means that as the church is ready to get over the next growth hump, they are harboring staff members ill-prepared or improperly-skilled to lead ministries the size they now lead.

At Stage 3, churches typically make tough decisions about which ministries have leaders most ill-prepared and improperly-skilled; or they make decisions about the KIND of church they will be. A church might decide the “front door” is the most important thing, and so the worship pastor since 200 people just isn’t “good enough” anymore, and so they let him/her go and move on to someone who will be better skilled to lead a larger congregation. Or maybe the church decides it will be a ministry for Families… so the old worship pastor makes the cut, but the Kids and Teen ministry is revamped with better, more skilled leaders.

Stage 3 is a difficult stage because churches are typically forced to cut people who are well-loved … and it’s the first Stage in which skill is more valued in certain cases than culture and loyalty (even if the church still values those things).

Many, many, many churches get stuck in the 1500-2000 range for various reasons. It’s an even more difficult hurdle to get over than Stage 2. It takes hard decisions by leadership to let people go and even wiser decisions on how to replace those long-held and loved (but lesser-skilled) leaders. Many churches choose to value longevity, loyalty and seniority over skill and calling, and this is a wonderful thing for the safety of the people who work for these kinds of churches. But many times it also halts growth.

(Again I am not making a judgment as to whether this is right or wrong, it simply is. I am not sure that I personally believe that numerical growth is the only call for churches. And as someone who has been let go from a church, I can tell you that my family and I would have loved to have had the safety of longevity.)

To get past the Stage 3 hump, many tough decisions will be made.

The next hump is at roughly 5000-6000 people weekly. This is rarified air. What, fewer than 100 churches are here? But when you look at Outreach Magazine’s list of the top 100 churches year after year, it really is amazing to see how many churches skyrocket their way to 5-6000 weekly, only to get “stuck” there for years.

This hump is as hard or harder than any of the other humps to get over because Stage 4 is coming to the grips with the reality that every piece of your ministry must be excellent and in line with a clear and concise vison and philosophy of ministry.

Look at every church on the Outreach list that is 7000+ and you’ll find churches that either A) have hired and fired (or to a lesser extent, grew from their leaders from within via either intern programs or leadership development) their way to fewer than a handful (if any) original employees from Stage 1 and 2, and maybe even from 3; and B) a church focused on making sure every single department in the church is run by highly-skilled leaders leading other highly-skilled leaders. At this point, few churches – with a  handful of notable exceptions – are building from within anymore. Most churches at this point are going out and hiring people from outside who are great at their jobs, and can transfer their greatness to people within the organization.

I think the Stage 4 hump is difficult to get over for a wider variety of reasons than the other humps. Every leader has a leadership potential of x amount of people. The better a leader delegates to other good leaders, that number increases exponentially. In my research and experience, leaders stuck in the 5-6000-ish range are leaders who want control and refuse to truly delegate, and in turn limit their leadership potential.

Another reason for the difficulty in getting over the hump is that purging good leaders to replace with great leaders is painful and heartbreaking, and – if done too quickly – can severely damage the health of the staff and, in turn, the church.

In a perfect situation, the staff re-tooling happens fluidly, along the way, as opposed to reaching the Stage 4 hump, realizing there’s a problem and then firing everyone who isn’t “good enough”. But I have seen churches do it that ways. You’d be surprised what happens when a church hits the first numerical growth lull in its history, and the things lead pastors will talk themselves into (or allowed themselves to be talked into).

If the church has found the right “great” leaders to replace the good ones, the new struggle becomes, “How do we keep the culture and heart of the church the same while bringing new people with different leadership experience and different ideas?”


So – what’s the point of this?

Well, in reality, this article is a set up for one to come. As churches in Stages 2-4 begin to hire people from outside their organization for key leadership roles, I believe it is vital for these churches to think about the long-term as well as the short-term. I believe that the culture of the church must be protected and the vision must be cast well, and that doesn’t happen if outsider staff members aren’t indoctrinated well enough to become insiders. And I believe that the onus is not on the outsiders to become insiders… it is on the insiders to know who they are and what their organization is, in order to best bring the outsiders into the fold and create a culture that the outsider can as quickly as possible grow to be an insider.


But again – that is another article that is coming.

For now, though – what do you think? You see the same patterns? Or would you describe the patterns differently than I? Comment and let me know!