Solving the ‘80% Full Problem'
What should leaders do when church growth exceeds their building space and begins to limit gospel ministry?
The ABC of practical church life – have you learnt it? Attendance, Buildings, and Cash.
This trio often frames, shapes, or curtails the gospel effectiveness of a church’s work. Leaders are rarely given training in how to deal with these areas – especially when they are causing problems.
What do we do if we have more people than we can accommodate? If lack of space is inhibiting our ministries? What about knowing we never have the money to resource all that needs to be done or could be done?
Welcome to the church leader’s world.
Of the problems raised in my discussions with other church leaders, some of the most common are the difficulties associated with not having enough space to manage numerical growth.
It’s not just the largest churches, either. I have seen buildings constrain vision, ministry, and growth even for quite small fellowships.
The ‘80% full’ problem
These are not easy problems to solve.
Building work of any kind is so expensive to pay for. Building ‘new’ is even more costly, and even that supposes you can get through the planning process. Hiring a larger space may be limited, certainly if you want premises that you can use regularly and are affordable, accessible and pleasant.
Given these problems, many churches tend to settle for what they have got, but they plateau at the capacity they have.
A key practical observation is this: when churches approach the 80% full parameter they can be lulled into a false sense of security. In theory, more people can fit into the building. In practice, you are already full. This is a problem now.
New people coming to a full-ish building can only see the front rows empty and conclude that you don’t need them. Regulars begin to feel that the church is quite successful because the place is bustling - but those thoughts betray a waning of the vision that, ‘we want to win as many as possible’ (1 Corinthians 9:19b).
Instead of having the 1 Corinthians 9 mindset, the unstated vision becomes: ‘When the building is full - job done’. Leaders then misjudge what is really going on in the minds of new members and old members. The new get labelled as ‘fringe’ and problematic. As the old are still supportive of gospel ministry, leaders don’t want to worry them by proposing change.
This means that growth begins to slow down, but it feels unnecessary to do anything radical because the problem presented by an 80% full building doesn't seem desperate. Further to that, taking action could be seen by some as presuming on the Lord, assuming that growth is bound to happen. Doing anything about the building becomes a headache at many levels. Leaders hope the problem will go away.
How do I know this? We faced it at Grace Community Church, and I learned the hard way.
Growth at Grace
Looking back now, we can see quite easily how a building (a school hall we hired) held us up. It was 80% full, and despite our best efforts, we couldn't overcome the constraints of space for years.
Eventually, we moved to a larger, more accessible space, and the church went on to grow significantly in terms of numbers. The gospel we preached hadn't changed, the prayerfulness of the church wasn't all of a sudden intensified, the philosophy of ministry hadn't altered, and the evangelistic passion wasn't any hotter. Fundamentally, the same church moved to larger premises which then unlocked the 80% constraint and we saw growth.
That hall, in turn, became full again. But this time we were fore-armed. We knew this problem could hold us back, so we knew we had to confront it. We had to find a practicable way forward so that spatial constraints (80% full) would not put the brake on gospel blessing as it had before.
Though only God can give the increase (1 Corinthians 3:6-7), leaders can, humanly speaking, interrupt progress by our failure to act. It is our responsibility to ensure we do not get in the way (Matthew 18:6-9). So, this time leaders and members began to think about it all ahead of time.
Options for a growing church
The leaders considered options. We verbalised five to the church:
We recognised that in our gospel responsibility to God, this could not be an option. It is easy for 'doing nothing' to become the default – everything else seems a headache, and gaining an agreement on any other option is hard. So, default becomes the status quo – watch out for that!
Plant a church
We looked at sending some members, with leaders and money, to start a new church in another location. This is usually a ‘strawberry plant’ option in terms of distance. Some members may live in a nearby village, or another part of the town or city, and the new work can be started where they live. It is an exciting option that many, in risk-taking faith, have gone for.
However, we had been involved in four of these and weren't in a position, for a number of reasons, to do it this time.
A ‘multisite’ church is one single church with congregations meeting in different places. Leadership, name, membership, and finances are unified; it's just that some meet elsewhere. We had tried this before and were observing others doing it now - in the short term, it can enable growth.
However, our reflection is that no matter how sincere the desire is to keep one church in different venues, the reality is that new people see the congregation they attend as ‘my church’. Over time the congregations inevitably grow apart, take on new identities, and want to go their own way.
So, in essence, multisite is church planting by another route. No problem with that, but best be aware that this will be the result so that people and leaders aren’t disappointed when they can't keep it all together.
In our part of Bedford doing multisite would have led to two gospel churches both trying to reach the same people, and we thought that was not right or best, for us or them.
Revitalise another church
Could we give money and members to help a struggling church? This is a crucial issue, especially when many smaller churches are facing demographic challenges - dwindling memberships with ageing believers. Many churches, including ourselves, have got involved in this.
But one of the key issues is leadership. Generally speaking, without new leadership in a dwindling church, just sending a few younger believers may not address the issues which led to decline in the first place. Receiving churches need to be open to making the changes necessary to go forward once again. This has to be clearly understood, discussed, and agreed on. If not, frustration, disappointment, and regret may be the outcome.
For the sending church, it may not deal with the problems of growing numbers for very long. Giving away 15 or 20 people and perhaps a leader may help a smaller church in a significant way. But the sending church may soon fill up again and need to re-address the 80% problem sooner than it might think.
Hold multiple services
In the multi-service model, the church develops another service in the same premises. It stays the same church, has the same leaders, has a unified membership, and one financial system. It's just that it meets as two or more congregations in the same location at different times.
This presents both theological and practical challenges but it’s the one we decided to embrace.
Next time: I’ll share how we implemented the multi-service model so that you can learn from our mistakes.