How Your Building Is Killing Your Growth

What new strategies do you need to come up with to help your church's growth from being stunted?
What new strategies do you need to come up with to help your church's growth from being stunted? (

Senior pastors typically underestimate the impact their building has on their church's future growth.

Building Too Late

Church planters believe the lie that they don't need a building to grow, ignoring the fact that your chances of survival begin to plummet drastically after year six outside of a permanent facility (whether owned or leased). We will always find growing church plants past that age in rented/temporary facilities, but those outliers are breathing rare air.

Senior pastors of established churches, likewise, face their own unique challenges.

Expecting A Silver Bullet

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Many assume that simply "rallying the troops" and building a new building, or relocating to another location, will automatically ignite growth. What happens, more often than not, is the increased debt and facility expansion doesn't overcompensate for the fact that the church hasn't addressed the underlying issues that stalled their church's growth in the first place. As the old Buddhist proverb states, "Wherever you go, there you are."

Inevitable Bottlenecks

Others assume they can overcome the size limitations their facility places on their ministry. The rule of thumb when it comes to facilities is that there are three things that impact a church's ability to grow: parking, seats in the auditorium, and children's ministry space. If any one of those three becomes a bottleneck, it is worth considering expansion.

What many realize, too late, is that expansions in these areas rarely cause growth. They simply allow it to keep happening if it is already occurring.

Too Much Room

Still, others are often in the unenviable position of having too much space in their worship area stemming from building too big or shrinking in size. Ministry friends will tell you what a delight it is, Sunday after Sunday, to have too few people in a room three times too large.

Growing churches always manage to keep their seating occupancy vs. capacity in the "40-80 zone" (never allowing their services to drop below 40% seating capacity and rarely more than 80% capacity). Allow your services to drop below 40% of your seating capacity very long and you'll eventually sputter out. Push the envelope beyond 80% very long and you stop retaining new people, in addition to losing existing attenders.

There are two more issues facing senior pastors of churches in their own permanent facilities that are more devastating than the others combined: ugly facilities and excessive debt.

Too Much Debt

Church leaders often succumb to "magical thinking" when it comes to buildings. While they might argue for months over how to save money on facility maintenance, it's astonishing how quickly leaders will go into debt without fully mapping out how that added weight will impact the church's future five, ten, fifteen and twenty years on down the line. I've seen the allure of quick potential growth cause even the most financially astute leaders to make dumb financial decisions. Beware of that siren's call.

Holy Cow, That's Ugly

When one looks at "church" from a neutral, purely sociological perspective, "church" is nothing more than a building that human beings gather in. Rarely do people frequent stores, restaurants, doctor's offices and the like that have ugly facilities. We have a word for those entities in our culture: "CLOSED FOR BUSINESS." Why should your facility be any different?

Here Are Some Solutions

Listen, almost every senior pastor I know, including me, has struggled with one or more of the issues above. Why? We're pastors, not construction professionals. We're funded by free-will offerings, not by selling products and services. We can't raise venture capital. Communities change. Priorities shift. Culture reinvents itself.

Building and maintaining relevant, effective ministry space is simply hard work. There are no easy answers. And we're all in the same boat.

But there are a few things I think Senior Pastors and church leaders can do to make cost-effective, workable changes:

1. Identify and rebrand your facility's "red zones" every seven years. In the same way updating a home's kitchen and master bath will provide your strongest returns on investment, churches have similar areas that provide the biggest bang for the buck. I call these areas "red zones" because they have the greatest ability to attract and/or detract people to/from your church. Fortunately the "facelift" for each of these areas is pretty small compared to new construction.

Here are the areas of your facility to focus on:

Church facility "Red Zones"

  • Road Sign – This is the first thing new people see when they approach your complex. Usually it's a pre-done, cheesy looking thing from the '50's. My suggestion is to take pictures of 25 different corporate signs in your region and make your sign almost indistinguishable from the best on that list.
  • Front Entrance – The best thing I can suggest is to go to our friends at Plain Joe Studios and have your entire team look at what fresh graphics can do to simple box structures. The addition of 3-4 large banners at your entrance could transform even the most dated looking church building.
  • Lobby Space – Space is more important than what's in it. Remove absolutely everything that's in there – walls, chairs, etc., until you have enough space to move traffic freely. Once that happens you can slowly add back Guest Services areas, etc., if they fit.
  • Children's Ministry Entrance/Lobby – Wowing parents of children is one of your highest priorities when contemplating facility renovation. Have your entire leadership spend a few hours together combing the pages of our friends World of WOW! and you'll walk away brimming with great ideas you and your volunteers can implement with a little bit of money and elbow grease.
  • Kid's Classroom Doorways/Entrances – See above.

2. Take a leadership field trip to get ideas. When you realize there are changes you need to make to your facility, the first thing I tell senior pastors I coach is to put their leaders in a van or bus and hit the road. It's one thing to see ideas on a website. It's a completely different experience to see the same thing live.

Three years ago we rented a bus and took 60 of our most dedicated volunteer leaders to visit LCBC Church in Lancaster. We attended a service, met with their staff, and then had a wonderful dinner in the home of a sweet Amish Family. We took away a number of great ideas from that experience.

Seeing and feeling the vibe of a place breeds vision. It breaks through what psychologists call "groupthink." It helps your people walk back into your facility with fresh eyes.

In the past two years I visited 30 different churches in six different metro areas to simply see what churches in the 2000-5000 range are doing, and to bring video and pictures back to my team. You may not have the resources to do that, but you could do a "virtual trip" with your team. Find people that are willing to Facetime or Skype while walking around their building.

3. Get outside eyes to give unfiltered feedback.  One of the exercises I do with Senior Pastors I coach is have them record a video of every aspect of their building. Then we watch it together as I have them take notes while I give unfiltered observations about what comes through my mind first. I quickly notice "low hanging" fruit that can be quickly changed – paint, too much "junk" in the facility, outdated signage, etc. You can do this with anyone.

4. For oversized worship venues, create "virtual capacity." Virtual capacity is a phrase I coined to describe the attempt by church leaders to make our worship facility venues feel like they are near capacity, regardless of the number of people in the room. We always want our buildings to feel full, even when they're not.

Room too big? Space out your chairs and rows and hang floor to ceiling cloth barriers on the sides of the room to block peripheral vision.

Have pews? Rope off sections. Cover them. Move the stage closer by placing a temporary smaller stage in front of a portable backdrop.

Ask your people to help provide creative solutions to your "too much space" problem and I'm confident you can shrink the emptiness of the room.

5. For with too little ministry space, challenge your people's assumptions and priorities. I'm shocked how recalcitrant church members can get when asked to reconsider what is "necessary" for Sunday morning activities.

For instance,

  • Will you REALLY not grow as disciples of Jesus if you are encouraged to give up coveted adult Sunday School space so that your church has the children's ministry classes it needs? You may have not been told this but in the grand scheme of things children's classes are more important than adult Sunday School classes. Read Matthew 19:14. Get over it.
  • Will your church's ability to fulfill the Great Commission be hampered if you redecorate that ugly worship space you've grown to love? Of course not. Get uncomfortable.
  • Will the world really end if you put up a Sprung Structure for a few years to create more lobby space? Churches all over the country are doing it. I have a friend whose church grew from 1,000 to 3,000 meeting in a tent. A TENT.
  • Will you really be unable to worship Jesus if you ripped the carpet and pews out of your sanctuary and replaced them with polished concrete and chairs so that space could be used 7 days a week by multiple groups? Of course not. Make the change.

Challenge your people (and yourselves) to maximize the space that you do have to reach as many people as possible in your area.

Challenge yourself to not become the pouting, self-centered Christians caricatured throughout the world.



Do hard things.

That's what disciples do.

Moving Forward

Will redesigning your church's "red zones" every seven years cost money? Of course it will. But it won't be nearly as steep as the cost of church decline, which is exactly where you're headed if you do nothing.

The reality is where there's a will, there's a way. You CAN do a lot of this yourself, but you have to drive this.

If you want it bad enough you'll find affordable solutions that will allow your facility to continue to enhance your ministry, not detract from it.

But you have to find a way to win. If one, two or twenty different options don't work, the 21st one just might. Keep pushing and don't become apathetic about this.

Like I say all the time, you can do this.

You can.

Brian Jones is the founding Senior Pastor at Christ's Church of the Valley, a church that has grown from 0 to 2,000-plus people in the northwest suburbs of Philadelphia. His personal passion is to encourage and coach fellow senior pastors in the trenches. He is the author of several books including Second Guessing God,  Hell is Real (But I Hate to Admit It). Connect with Brian at or on Twitter @brianjonesblog.

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