3. Domination by a few strong members.
The process by which a man (it’s almost always a man) becomes a church “boss” is subtle and rarely, if ever, the result of a hostile takeover.
Say the pastor of a small church leaves for another town. The pastorless congregation looks within its membership for leaders to rise up and "take care of things" until a new pastor arrives. So two or three faithful and mature (we assume) members are chosen. They do their job well. If the next pastor leaves after an unusually short tenure for whatever reason, the congregation resorts to the fallback position: They enlist the services of those same two or three mature—and now experienced—leaders.
That’s how it happens that one of them—or possibly all of them—begin to make important decisions for the body, and everything works out. When the new pastor arrives, they let him know that for anything he needs to know, he should call on them. The pastor quickly sees that these men have set themselves up as a layer of authority between the hired man (the preacher) and the congregation.
These “bosses” explain that they are protecting the congregation. "We don’t like to upset them with matters like this." "These things are better off handled by just a few." Pity the young idealistic pastor who walks into that church unsuspecting that they lie in wait to—ahem—"give direction to his ministry." Or, as one said to me, "We thought you would like to have some help in pastoring this church."
Such self-appointed church bosses tend to frustrate the pastor’s initiatives, block his bold ventures, and control his tendencies to want the church to act on (gasp!) something he calls faith! Result: The church stays small. No normal family coming into the community would want to join such a church.
The remedy: The congregation must see that key lay positions in the church rotate, that no one stays chairman of deacons for thirty years or church treasurer for a generation. Members of the congregation should feel free to respectfully ask questions about why decisions are made. Church bosses cannot stand the light of day shown on their activities (“They wouldn’t understand”), even though they convince themselves what they are doing is in the interest of the congregation. Read about Diotrephes in the little epistle of III John. He "loves to have the pre-eminence."
4. Not trusting the leaders.
Interestingly, the opposite phenomenon often occurs with the same result. I’ve seen this phenomenon occur in small churches (and never in large ones) at the monthly business meetings. In the small-and-determined-to-stay-small church, discussion centers on why 35 cents was spent on call-forwarding and $2.00 on paper for the office. Leaders and pastors alike are always frustrated that the congregation doesn’t trust them with $20.00, let alone $200.00.
The determined-to-stay-small church is far more concerned about the dollars and cents in the offering plate than about the lost souls in the community. This church would never step out in faith and does something bold to reach the lost and unchurched, and if they did, unless their mindset changed, they would then harass their leaders into the grave demanding an accounting of every dime spent. Instead, small churches should elect good leaders and—within reason, as mentioned earlier—trust these leaders to do their work.
5. Inferiority complex.
I was a seminary student when called to my second pastorate, a church, which had been stuck at 40 in attendance for years. I discovered that small churches often are stymied by inferiority complexes. "We can’t do anything because we’re small. We don’t have lots of money like the big churches in town." So, they set small goals and ask little from their members.
One day, I was visiting in the First Baptist Church of a nearby community. In no way was it what we would call large, but it was three or four times the size of mine. The pastor and I were chatting about some program or other. He said to me, "My people won’t attempt anything like that. They’ll say, ‘We’re not large like the First Baptist Church of New Orleans.’"
That’s when it hit me: Feelings of inferiority can be found in any size church. I wouldn’t be surprised if the members of FBC-New Orleans were excusing themselves for their inaction by saying, "We’re not Bellevue in Memphis or the FBC of Dallas."
The remedy is to put one’s eyes on Jesus Christ and ask, "Lord, what do you want us to do?" Peter said, "Lord, what about John here? What do you want him to do?" Our Lord said—and thus set a wonderful pattern for all of us for the rest of time—"What is that to you? You follow me!"
Want your church to reach people and expand and grow? Get your eyes off what others are doing. Many of them, to tell the truth, are declining at a rate so fast it can hardly be measured. You do not want to take your cues from them. Ask the Lord, "What would you have us to do?" Then do it.
6. No plan.
The typical, stagnant small church is small in ways other than numbers. They tend to be small in vision, in programs, in outreach, and in just about everything else. Perhaps worst of all, they have small plans. Or no plans at all.
The church with no plan—that is, no specific direction for what they are trying to do and become—will content itself with plodding along, going through the motions of "all churches everywhere." They have Sunday School and worship services and a few committees. Once in a while, they will schedule a fellowship dinner or a revival. But ask the leadership, "What is your vision for this church?" and you will receive blank stares for an answer.
When Peter and John were threatened by the religious authorities who warned them to stop preaching Jesus, they returned to the congregation to let them know of this development. Immediately, everyone dropped to their knees and began praying. Notice the heart of their prayer, what they requested: "Now Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to…(what? How they finished this is how we know their plan, their chief focus)…to speak your word with great boldness." (Acts 4:29) When the Holy Spirit filled that room, the disciples "were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly" (v. 31). Clearly, this means they spoke it into the community, the world around them, and not just to one another.
A number of leaders have shared with me why they think so many small churches do not grow: "They need to focus on the two or three things they do best—not try to be everything to everyone." Some churches need to focus on children’s ministry, others on youth or young adults, young families, or even the oldsters. Some will focus on teaching, others on ministry in the community, some on jail and prison ministries, and some on music or women’s or men’s work. This is not to say that the church should shut down everything else to do one or two things. Rather, they will want to keep doing the basics, but throw their energies and resources, their promotions and prayers and plans, into enlarging and honing two or three ministries they feel the Lord has uniquely called them into.