What to Do When Your Building Is Full
What’s the correct size for a church? Is it possible for a church to be too big? What happens when a church grows to the point it no longer fits in one building? Here’s the popular answer: start another service. But let’s assume you are committed to one service only. Your building is full on Sunday. Now what?
The first thing to do is examine all the options. Assuming you’ve ruled out multiple services or multi-site, then there are really only four choices.
Option 1: Do nothing.
Option 2: Carve off part of the church and send them out to do a church plant or church revitalization.
Note: A variation of this option would include carving off part of your church and having them meet in the same building, but at a different time. You might be thinking to yourself, “That sounds like multiple services.” That’s true; it does sound like it. But if the second gathering has its own pastors and distinct membership, then you actually have two churches meeting in the same building. One church with multiple services is an oxymoron since the essence of the church is to gather.
Option 3: Move to a different building and location.
Option 4: Renovate or add on to your existing building.
Here are several factors to consider when deciding what to do when you run out of room.
The Strengths and Weakness of Buildings
Buildings have benefits and costs. Be aware of both.
Costs: they break and require maintenance. Over time, they can become an idol, a distraction, or a museum.
Benefits: over time, church-in-a-box is taxing to a congregation. Just ask any church plant who has been meeting in a school gymnasium for more than a few months. Buildings are more likely to enable a generational church; and they offer a standing invitation to the community.
The Unpredictability of Attendance
It’s hard to predict the size of a church and attendance on any given Sunday. So a building that allows some flexibility is helpful. We have an overflow room that we use strategically during our predictable weeks of highest attendance each year (our adult attendance can fluctuate from 400 all the way to 750 because of our proximity to schools and universities).
Packed Is Better than Potential
A crowded room is better than a sparse room. We could rent the Kentucky Convention Center and have plenty of room to grow, but our 700 people would suddenly seem quite small—and maybe a little pathetic.
No Solution Is Final
There's no silver bullet here. If the Lord gives growth, you'll eventually face the same questions with a church of 1500 as you did with 200. Don’t look for one solution for the ages. Solve one problem, then solve it again a few years from now if necessary.
So, given all that, what do you do?
This is a live question for us at Third Avenue. We inherited a decrepit building that had seating for around 250 on the main floor and another 200 in the balcony, if renovated. In 2010, there were around 100-150 people attending Sunday morning. Today, we are a church of around 750 members, and we have a main hall that seats around 675. Along the way, we chose to do incremental renovations that gave us the opportunity to keep growing. But now we are up against the wall, and we’re facing the same dilemma. We’ve looked at all the options and even sent dozens of members to both church plants and church revitalizations over the last few years. But we’re still growing, and we have no more room in our building.
So what do we do?
Plant another church! That’s the obvious answer, right? For a variety of reasons, we’ve decided that it’s worth it to plan another renovation that would allow us to double our size from 750 to 1400 members, even though it will cost us upwards of $10 million. Gasp! But we think it will be worth it. Why?
We’ve thought about moving locations, but we don’t think that would be best for our church. We’ve thought about big church plants, but again, we don’t think that would be the best thing for us to do right now. We want to affirm that we think church planting is both biblical and necessary. It’s a good thing! However, based on our experience and observations of churches in a similar position, we don’t think church planting is the answer to our space problem. We believe you should plant a church when there is a good, strategic reason to do so.
WHY NOT PLANT?
Why have we decided that planting a series of churches isn’t the next move for us? Here are a few reasons.
Large churches can do lots of good ministry. Believe it or not, bigger churches can do even more ministry. They can plant more churches, do more outreach, and train more people for ministry than an equal number of people divided into three or four churches. That's in part because of the often-overlooked fact that a large church will likely have much less overhead than, say, four smaller churches.
There are potential drawbacks that come with a church that continues to grow, of course. One possible difficulty is keeping track of more and more sheep. But for us, having grown from 100 to 750 over the last 10 years, that’s not our experience.
One marker we have tracked over the years is attendance at our evening service, which is a completely different service from the morning. It has a less formal feel and gives new members a chance to connect on a deeper level. As we’ve grown over the years, we’ve actually seen attendance at our evening service go up from 30 to 40 percent when we had 200 members to more like 50 to 60 percent now that we have 750.
Thankfully, we haven’t also seen an increase in church discipline cases on a percentage basis. Keeping track of the sheep is a high priority and something we keep a close eye on, and we're confident that continued growth won't cause us to compromise in this area.
Another common objection we hear is that when the church is larger, an individual member can no longer deeply know everyone in the church. That’s true, but it was true even when we were a church of 150 members. No matter how big your church is, especially once you get bigger than about 50 people, each individual member simply can’t know everyone the same. There will always be members you know on a deeper level and others you know on a shallower level. You can’t be best friends with everyone in the church, and that’s not the point of the church anyway.
2. Church Planting Isn’t Simple
Second, at least for us, we can’t plant churches fast enough to deal with our space problem. Church planting is a complex endeavor. You need to think through leadership, finances, and who will form the church. All of that takes a significant amount of time and resources to pull off well.
It may be different for your church, but for us, planting a church of 100-150 people every year is not something we are currently able to do. But that’s what would be needed to deal with our space problem.
3. Church Plants Should Be Healthy
Third, and relatedly, we’re not interested in just planting churches. We want to plant healthy churches. That means, among other things, we want the churches we plant to last for a long time. We’re not interested in planting a bunch of churches and hoping that some percentage of them will survive and thrive. We believe that successful church plants require significant leadership and resources, both of which are hard to come by.
On top of that, you need a new church to be comprised of healthy members, so we want those members to have been around long enough to absorb our ecclesiological DNA and be able to stay with the church plant for a while.
A quick look at the regular turnover of our membership reveals that the average church member only stays 3 to 4 years. In other words, we turn over 75 percent of our membership every 3 to 4 years! Why such drastic turnover? Because a large percentage of our members are here for school, and they plan to go somewhere else when they finish their studies. While we’re thankful that those members are with us during that time, people who are only planning to be in town for a few years aren’t exactly prime candidates for the core of a church plant. But if we were a church of 1400 instead of 750, then we could plant a church comprised of longer and shorter-term members without compromising the core of our own church.
Again, planting churches is a good and worthy thing to do. But a big, Bible-believing church is good, too! Your situation and analysis may differ, but we believe we can do more training, church planting, and missions from a larger base.
Each church will face different decisions and obstacles when it begins to run out of space, and each church must make its own decisions. But in the end, the goal—for all of us—is to follow Jesus’s marching orders to make disciples of our Lord. To God be the glory!