8 ways to shrink a church

this is a reprint of an article we shared in our august 07 vertigo, the online journal of spiritual dizziness at the refuge. we know some of you have already read it but we wanted to put it up for those that don’t get vertigo (if you are interested in subscribing, click here). plus, this way you can comment, too.

when we planted the refuge 15 months ago, there were many people who thought (and secretly hoped) we’d replicate the “attractional” church model that we had been part of. it could have been so simple–a few good messages, amazing, upbeat music, a few light trees and fog machines, and we would have been golden. good communicator, solid care pastor, it was the formula for success. one problem–it violated so many of our core beliefs about what “church” is supposed to be. so instead we have chosen this harder path in the wider Christian community. at this point we aren’t sure if we’re smart or stupid.

but we do know there are many church leaders out there who are overwhelmed by the exponential growth they’ve experienced in the past few years (they definitely followed the manual we seem to have misplaced). they don’t quite know what to do because their budgets and staff keep increasing, they’re running million dollar building campaigns, and sunday programming continues to ramp up to near-hollywood levels. we have heard their cry and offer our heartfelt and sympathetic advice. you see if there is anything we feel competent at, it is managing rapid growth. in fact, we are confident we can solve the problems of churches that are too big. our answer? our area of expertise?

we call it “Church Shrinkage”….

just apply these 8 easy principles and we’re 100% sure your church will shrink (but who knows, maybe in the end you’ll live out some of your dreams of the way you’ve longed church could be)

1. shoot the sheriff.

don’t build what is called a faith community on any superstar other than Jesus. remember, He said He was the head of the thing, although people usually want a more tangible and handsome superstar, one hero who makes all of the decisions. hmm, no telling where it all went awry, but as far as we can tell the early church was just a group of men & women who loved God and each other and wanted others to know Him, too.

2. tell the truth.

be more honest about where each dollar goes, who gets the biggest salary (and the least), what the real agenda is. do 25 million dollar buildings really help poor Jesus out, or are they in fact ways to proclaim power and comfort? what is hidden is always bad news for the poor.

3. embrace brokenness.

sounds good when it is a program for others, but is confession a way of life for leadership or are the stories of brokenness someone else’s and the speakers seem to have more “victory” than the average schmoe? what happens to people when they aren’t getting “healed” fast enough?

4. demand equality.

look around, do women have equal status & power? enough said.

5. defer to the least of these.

are the folks in charge the ones Jesus would notice, or do they seem more from wall street? are poor, uneducated, but loving servants of Jesus on the elder board? or does the board look more like a fortune 500 company? is success measured in dollars and numbers? whose phone calls get returned? who is getting invited to play golf with the pastors?

6. be generous.

where does most of the money go? what is spent on “the show”, programming, creating comfort versus single moms, struggling families or hungry children?

7. let people speak.

why are we so afraid of dialogue? why do only the “professionals” get to speak?

8. value people above strategy.

what happens when someone is passionate about something but it doesn’t align with the personal preferences of church leadership? do staff people seem to come and go on a regular basis? someone is being sacrificed for a strategy, and that strategy is about being bigger.

see, anyone can have a smaller church, if you lay down power, control, and personal comfort. if you are willing to be honest about what happens behind closed doors, then your church can also have the joy of shrinking. we’ll be glad to help.

15 Responses to “8 ways to shrink a church”

  1. gartenfische says:


  2. Anonymous says:

    a year and a half, i have to admit, my desire was to have a mini version of the my old church. it seemed like it would be so easy to have 500 people and be on our way to the next mega church does. but something got in the way. a new dream. a bigger vision. a harder path. less security. but an AMAZING journey with real, hard, messy and broken people. what a journey it has been. if you look at the acts church, of Jesus’ day, i’m thinking we look more like it than the mega church. they only thing different is we don’t have that one person, in our church, that plays Jesus. i could never go back to just playing church. God’s way always seems backward to our way of thinking. ie. “humble yourself to be exalted”. “give up your life to save it”. “the last shall be first”. etc. maybe in His economy “less is more”.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Gee, if I knew there was a “market” for church shrinkage, maybe I’d be rich and powerful…and still in the ministry and still loving god. oh well.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Stop grinding the ax! Your message is “come with us, we’re not like them.” Just leave it at “come with us.”

    It clear you’ve been hurt, lay it at the cross, and walk away. Jesus came so that we can have life and healing of hurts, not a life of hurts that we embrace as identity and as a reason to start a new church.

  5. [...] so maybe everyone else in the blogosphere has see 8 Sure Ways to Shrink a Church over at The Refuge, but I just discovered it for the first time, so there’s a chance you [...]

  6. Lisa says:

    I’ve got to admit, I do like to be entertained. But I have asked myself on more than one occasion, what is the purpose of setting the stage for this message series or retreat or vacation bible school, etc… other than eye-candy and a sense of excitement like I’m at an amusement park. I suppose the staff or volunteers who put it together are expressing their god given talents. That’s a good reason. but I’ve never understood the “we must grow so we can build that cool new sanctuary…” mentality. And for that matter, I don’t understand why during stewardship campaigns (which basically means…we’re going under could you please us the 10% of your monetary income that God asked of you) usually feature some members of the church who say they didn’t think they could afford to give and then voila…after they started giving they found that they had more money, magically.

  7. Elaine says:

    Hi Kath,

    Just read this one…love it.

    As someone who attended a mega church for 15 years (on staff the last 5 yrs) - and is no longer attending there…

    I have to say you have it right. After trying to change the system from the inside, I finally realized they didn’t want to change. It was mind boggling to realize they were harming staff and volunteers (and themselves) and the response was - “get in line with the program”. Ugh!

    Your list of 8 really calls out the things I found lacking in the megachurch.

    I have 2 I would add - and there is some overlap here - but I find I begin with these 2 items in measuring every new church, company, association, etc. that I am thinking of becoming a part of:

    1. Transparency - transparency in finances, in hiring and firing, promotions, who gets to speak, problems - NO SECRETS -

    2. Dissent - is there space for people to disagree with leadership and each other - does leadership model respectfully disagreeing with each other and with others AND are open to admitting when they are wrong - and still remain friends, that the dissenter is not punished.

    If the church/company can pass these first 2 items - then I know it is a place where we can have conversations about your 8.

    thanks, E

  8. Elaine says:

    Clarification - in re-reading - I realize my closing statement “if the church/company can “pass” these first 2 items”…

    Well, I don’t mean it as a pass/fail kind of thing - more of if these 2 qualities are “present” - then I can live in this environment. It is almost like needing air and water. Without these 2 elements, it speaks death to me.

  9. Laurie says:

    This article makes me want to jump and down. Of course, I drank espresso this afternoon. But seriously, what you guys are writing about is enormous. I left a great-looking missions organization in the summer because it only looked good on the outside. The least were still the least. The PR was great, but the programs were empty. It was enormously disturbing. Since then, God has been amazing me every day with his grace. Support has come from old and new friends. I am overwhelmed by his grace.

  10. [...] our dreams.  we really showed them, ha! (trust me, when it comes to numbers, we’re good at church shrinkage & they’re good at church growth).   then, we’ve spent the past couple of years [...]

  11. [...] a series on 8 ways to shrink a church, one of my all-time favorite refuge blog [...]

  12. [...] it doesn’t sell.  it is hard.  it is messy.  it is costly.  it’s a sure way to shrink a church.  but in so many ways, as Jesus reminds us of in the beatitudes, we’re somehow blessed [...]

  13. [...] popular.  it doesn’t sell.  it is hard.  it is messy.  it is costly.  it’s a sure way to shrink a church.  but in so many ways, as Jesus reminds us of in the beatitudes, we’re somehow blessed living [...]

  14. [...] to-because-it’s-always-so-nutty-here,  like the 8 ways to shrink a church series, a few more view from the margins interviews, and some stuff that got stirred up at our [...]

  15. [...] and yes, some day my teammate karl and i are going to focus on 8 ways to shrink a church in some fun way (every time i re-group i talk about it but it just hasn’t happened yet). [...]

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