There are many incremental barriers to church growth – problems that add up over time to drive people away. Examples include a poor sound system, out-dated decor, dirty restrooms, lack of needed programing, poor preaching, etc. These are things that, by themselves, will merely slow growth down, but won’t start to kill your church unless they are allowed to add up. For example, bad preaching, poor music, and an unfriendly atmosphere each may not completely stop your church from growing, but added together they certainly will! This is the nature of incremental barriers – they add up incrementally. Fortunately, most of these kinds of problems are easy for church leaders to spot and can be solved with enough initiative and political will.
If you have been spending a lot of time and effort to overcome these kinds of barriers and are still not experiencing significant growth, you might be facing two absolute barriers that each, on their own, are capable of completely killing church growth. The insidious nature of these barriers, is that they are very easy for church visitors to see, but almost impossible to see if you happen to be a church leader – especially if you happen to be a pastor.
Absolute Barrier #1 – The Parking Lot
Last year I had a conversation with a colleague of mine who was unable to grow his newest church. Because of his years of experience he had managed to overcome virtually all of the incremental barriers to church growth within his first year. However, they were now stuck with attendance of 500 in a sanctuary that fit more than 800. In his moment of frustration I asked what his parking lot looked like 10 minutes after the service started. He confessed that he had no idea – and why would he? As the pastor he always arrives early and leaves late. The only parking lot he ever sees is an empty one. It’s pretty safe to say that no church leader really has any idea what the church parking lot looks like 10 minutes after the church service has begun. Fortunately for my friend, his Children’s Pastor piped up at that momment and said that he had seen pictures of the church on Google Maps and that the parking lot was packed without room for a single additional car. That is when the light came on!
We don’t live in the 1800’s where we all walk to the local neighbourhood church. We drive. We park. We go to church. If people can’t come to your church, they can’t go to your church. It’s really that simple. It doesn’t matter how big your sanctuary is, and it doesn’t matter how good of a preacher you have. In fact, your pastor could preach standing on his head while juggling fire and it won’t make a difference. If your parking lot only holds 100 cars, your average attendance will never exceed 180 (1.8 people per car is the rule of thumb here). If people can’t get into your parking lot they will never get into your building.
Because parking lots aren’t very exciting they are often over-looked. Too often have I seen church expansion plans for a sanctuary that holds 700 with a parking lot that only holds 300. The limitations of your parking lot form an absolute barrier to your church’s growth. If your church is considering building or expansion think about the parking lot first! This is part of the reason why our historic downtown cathedrals are so empty – seating for 2000, parking for 30. They were built in an age when parking was not a consideration – don’t follow their example!
How do you overcome this barrier? Several ways. One is that you buy up adjacent land and expand your parking lot. Another is that you start a second (or third) service and use the same parking lot more than once. You could also consider church planting or becoming a multi-site church. Finally, you can sell your property and build again – this time with decent parking. Going to multiple services is the least expensive and the fastest option, building a new building is the most expensive and slowest option – everything else fits in-between.
Absolute Barrier #2 – The Sanctuary
Your sanctuary is smaller than you think. And for a visitor, much smaller. When we think of the seating capacity of our sanctuary we typically imagine how many anorexic super-models we could cram in there – if we used enough force. We forget that real people don’t like rubbing thighs together with strangers and they might actually want room to put their Bibles and purses down beside them. Real people never sit in the front row, crawl over 5 or 10 people to get that last seat in the middle, or split their families up in order to find the last remaining seat here and there. Real people abide by the 80% rule – that is, once your sanctuary is 80% full – it’s full. Sure, you can get people to cram in like sardines for a big funeral, but no one will choose to attend your church that way.
The problem for church pastors in particular, is that we may only get a good look at the congregation when the service begins – and not everyone has arrived, and when we are preaching – and the children have already been dismissed. And when we do see things, we see everything – especially those few empty seats right in the middle. However, our visitors see something very different. They only see from the back of one of the aisles. They see things when most everyone has already gotten a seat – before the children have been dismissed. And they can’t see any empty seats right in the middle, because their vision is being blocked by those who sit along the aisle. Once you have reached 80% seating capacity, a visitor can’t see any room at all – especially if they are looking for a block of four seats so they can sit together as a family.
The 80% rule is an absolute barrier to church growth that will completely kill your potential for growth – even if your pastor can juggle fire. If people can’t find seating for their family, they can’t find seating for their family. It’s that simple. You cannot grow beyond 80% of your seating capacity.
How do you overcome this absolute barrier? You can expand your sanctuary (and your parking lot). You can go to multiple services and use the same sanctuary more than once. You can plant a daughter or become a multi-site church. Or you can build another building. Just like our solutions to our parking dilemma, launching another service is fast and inexpensive, building a new building is slow and costly. Of course, how you spend your time and money is your business.