Matt Lehmann tells the story of Trinity Church Colonel Light Gardens in South Australia, and how they broke the 200 growth barrier.
Colonel Light Gardens is a heritage-listed suburb which was settled after World War 1. When I was growing up, it used to be retirement central. But when we were looking to plant a church, we did the demographics on it and realised all the retirees were moving out and young aspirational couples were moving in, and there was a big bubble of people starting to have kids. So lots of young kids around, and primary-school aged kids, which is kind of us as a family. We decided to plant there about six and a half years ago now.

Planting out of Trinity City
We had a bit of an issue with the venues in the city. We lost a big cinema building next door, and five services had to fit back into four. So we thought, we’re not going to fit, we’re into church planting… Me, with all my ten months’ experience out of Bible College, got tapped on the shoulder to plant a church in Colonel Light Gardens.

Because of the unique circumstances it was the biggest core team we’ve ever sent out as a network to plant. It was roughly 120 on paper which translates into about 90 in attendance on a Sunday, given you’ve always got at least a quarter of your people away. And then we found that as you plant, you usually pick up 25-30% just in the process of planting, as you go into a neighbourhood, you advertise, you letterbox drop, you tell people what you’re doing. So post-launch we settled into around about the 130 number from week one of public launch, which is fairly big for a church plant.

What happened when we started to hit the 200 barrier
It was good to have the leadership team along. It was great to have Paul Harrington, our network boss along too. We talked through the options. We thought we’d love to plant another church, but the fact was we didn’t have a church planter on board, so whilst we wanted to get thinking about that, it wasn’t going to be a short-term solution. We knew things would drop off a little bit through winter, but we thought the next attendance spike in the year would be that spring September-October burst of enthusiasm before everyone gets busy for Christmas. We thought, well we need to do something.

We knew from our initial venue search, which was only 18 months ago at that point, that there wasn’t any obvious larger venue for us to move to. So we then thought we should get on with thinking about church planting. We also needed to think longer term about buying buildings and building and developing. But neither of those are quick fixes, and we needed a quick fix within a few months. So we decided to go to two services.

We used to have one 10am service, and we thought, ok, we’ll go to two for now and keep working on those longer-term things. And then we started a process of asking what those two services might look like. What are the time slots going to be? What do we want that to look like together as a church? And very quickly we heard back from people, we don’t want to have the ‘old person’s service’ and the ‘family service’ because people loved our all-age nature. So they said we want two genuine all-aged services.

So we said, well that requires us to double our kids’ ministry – two lots of crèche, two lots of pre-school etc. – which is going to require a lot of people jumping in and stepping up. In God’s kindness this was great, because we’d picked up a lot of people who were sitting around thinking that everything seems to be running fine. And then suddenly we’re saying we need thirty more kids ministry people now, we need more people involved in music because they’ll be playing in two services, we need more of everything. And this was actually really good for our growth in maturity and getting people involved in ministry.

Why 9am and 10:30am?
Our venue allows us to do it. Bear in mind our services run for about an hour and twenty minutes, so there’s only a ten-minute turnaround. We thought we could pull that off. The key thing that I’d picked up from working through what was going to happen in the City before, as they were thinking about changing services when they lost the venue and kicked us out to plant, was that you can convince committed Christians to do most things, but you really have to think about the people who aren’t there yet.

So in my opinion, and this might just be a local thing, you could plant an 11 o’clock service and you could convince your people to go to it, but it kind of sucks for anyone with young kids. They’re going to be nuts and hungry by the time the service finishes, the kids will all be ratty, and everyone will just gravitate to the 9 o’clock service. You could also convince committed Christians to do an 8:30 service, but that’s fairly unattractive in our part of the world. So we thought, let’s get them as close as possible to the premium times, which are 9am and 10:30am with a fast turnaround. I realise not everyone can do that, but we thought we could, so we went with that. Full kids programs across both. Some people were saying we could just do crèche at 9. But we want all at everything because otherwise people will come along at 1030 and think this is great, I love it, but there’s no crèche, it’s only at the 9 o’clock service, I don’t really want to go to a 9 o’clock service. And they move on. We were also thinking of your families with 5 kids, who will feel things are less than ideal when one service only caters for half their kids. It only slows down on your growth if you make those kinds of decisions.

People often look at the people in front of them and say, we could make this work. But you’ve got to be looking at the people not there yet. You’ve got to be looking at the people in the suburb who don’t know Jesus who you’re really trying to reach, and say we want to make this as convenient and as easy for them as we can, because that’s why we’re doing this. So I think we managed to hold up those bigger picture principles, which then had us landing on the decision.

Then we saw that this would require some pretty careful coordination, because we don’t want 40 people at 9am and 170 at 10:30am. So we surveyed everyone and said tell us what you’re thinking: I’m going to either 9 or 10:30, or I’m leaning towards one but open for a chat, or I genuinely don’t know. It very quickly gave us a snapshot of who was pretty settled at both services, and then as we tried to think about trying to balance out our kids numbers and things like that, it gave us a group of people who had told us they no preference and were open for a discussion, and we gently massaged people this way and that. As those numbers firmed, we had a pie chart on the screen and all that kind of stuff. Even with the best of planning though, 9 o’clock still started a bit smaller than we’d hoped and 10:30 a bit bigger. So we cooked a lot of bacon and egg muffins before 9 o’clock for a while there just to encourage people to think about 9.

On moving from rosters to teams
We had been the poster child for a perfectly organised system, and had grown, but we were convinced that we needed to move from that centralised rostering to a team-based ministry. This meant raising up leaders and leaders of leaders, using our staff to invest in them and give people a real sense of ownership and decision making over ministries, actually allowing them change stuff rather than hyper-organised Matt world. So we’re in the middle now of a fairly change management process that came out over that. I think that’s a multi-year thing, because it’s like a personality shift for how we run church, and we’re leading a few hundred people through that. 

We started rolling out the teams approach with kids’ ministry. There’s still a long way to go, but we’re seeing some really encouraging signs now of people who had just slipped into a regular pattern of ‘this is what being involved in church looks like,’ to now feeling like they have genuine sense of ownership over the preschool program, or how church is run, or our primary school programs. We chose kids because 40% of our church on Sunday is kids. It’s a huge percentage. On a big Sunday we have 125 kids in our programs. So we thought this is where we’re going to see the best wins. It is the highest fruit on the tree to pick, but I often start that way. I think if you can solve the biggest issue, everything else will just fall out. It’s just part of my personality I guess. But it’s great now seeing teams now that have all met and spotted problems that I never would have spotted, and come up with solutions I never would have come up with. Now when people come through our welcoming membership course process, we’ve got people saying, OK, we need 3 more people on this team and that team, and instead of it becoming a phone call for me to make to ring someone to ask them to be involved in serving, it’s just ‘expect a call from this person.’ And you hand it over to the crèche team leader who leads the leaders there. We still really need to embed discipleship and training into all of our teams, and we’re doing our best to do that, but early signs are really encouraging.

Our music and service teams on Sunday, 6 months in, are kicking some great goals. Last Sunday I thought was one of my favourite Sundays we’ve ever had, run by our team. Music was awesome, it was all tied together beautifully, and I didn’t have much to do with that. And there’s heaps of stuff now looking out across church where people are doing stuff far better than I ever could have done it.

Scott and Derek reflect on what Matt did well in tackling this growth barrier.
Maximising resources through two services. Unfortunately churches often don’t move past the 200 barrier because they’re unwilling to move to two services. It’s a tough move, because it requires greater complexity, it requires not being in the same service as the people you want to be in touch with, it requires complexity for the pastor who has to preach twice and get twice the amount of kids ministries and music ministries. And so often churches don’t go through that painful process of splitting into two services. But it is one of the key ways of moving beyond 200 people. For Matt, they’d hit the limit on their venue, so the next step was moving towards two services. It’s easy to make mistakes in this area. You need to understand the context of your environment, and be mindful of the 80% or 70% rule: the church space begins feeling full at this point, so don’t wait until it’s too late. We often only think of the main building space, but it also might be the car park or the kids’ ministry space. Churches often start hitting this barrier but don’t make the change that needs to take place. Another common mistake churches make here is starting an evening service from the morning, or a morning service from the evening. They’re actually trying to reach out to a different demographic of people. When you start trying to do this, you split your focus and make it harder. That’s why a service is often started and then goes back and shuts down.

Engaging people in the decision making process. Matt recognised the problem, started speaking about it from the front, spoke to his key leaders, pushed it out through small groups, and then surveyed people about the time slot.

Another great example of this comes from Tim Clemens, who created a survey tool that asked people three questions, which enabled him to put vision into their decision. He asked: 1) which service could you most invite friends to? 2) where could you most serve and use your gifts? and then 3) what is your preference? So he put mission at the front, and service, and then acknowledges that people do have preferences. We are human beings.

Making the decision not by asking ‘what is good for us?’ but by thinking about the people who aren’t here yet. This is the language Matt used when casting the vision to people. This enables you to make the sacrificial decision, because that’s what we started for. Two services gives people options, not options for the insider but for the outsider. Yes, church is for the insider, but having two services gives a lot more options for those people we want to bring in and reach with the gospel. Another service opens up more pathways into the life of the church.

Acknowledging the need for a team culture. Matt acknowledged that this move would bring complexity. Part of this meant acknowledging the staffing question and bringing on more admin staff. But he also started to develop a broader team culture as he hit up against that growth barrier. Ed Stetzer says that at 35 you need 1 leader and 3 volunteers, at 75 you need 3 leaders and 15 volunteers, at 125 you need 3 leaders of leaders, 15 leaders and 50 volunteers, and at 200 you need 6 leaders of leaders, 30 leaders and 80 volunteers. Matt acknowledged this, worked hard at putting the pathway together, thought about the role of team member and team leader, of ministry department leader and senior leadership. He started to build in the processes that identified people, equipped people and empowered them to make decisions. We can set these things up but then not actually empower leaders of leaders to actually make decisions and take responsibility. But we need to acknowledge that while you may think you could do it better yourself, you can actually get more done with a team. And it was actually really helpful for Matt to acknowledge that wow, people can do church better that I could pull off myself. And he’s excited about that. He’s not saying, wow I sucked at what I was doing. He’s going, isn’t it great that the body of Christ is doing what it’s meant to do, which is loving one another and making disciples. A big turning point for Matt was going to Team Pastoring last year, when they were talking about moving towards that teams approach so that not only did leaders own the vision, but everyone within the church owned the vision rather than just responding to a roster call.

Creating more heat for planting, not reducing it. Each time they sacrificed something in the process of starting a new service, Matt and the team took the opportunity to remind people of the desired outcome of seeing the lost reached. Vision needs to be there the whole way through in church planting, especially when you hit a barrier like this. You need a vision that you can’t just do by yourselves. So they’ve got a vision for the whole of Adelaide. They’ve got a vision to be a church-planting church. They’ve reached out to the young families, but now they’re seeing that there are a whole bunch of young professionals to reach. They recognise that they probably won’t be the church to do that, but with church planting, they can be a part of it by sending someone out. You can see with Matt that he’s forward-thinking. He’s not content to be sitting at 300, he wants to think about what it looks like to keep growing and keep being on mission. That requires energy. That requires you as a leader spending time with your leaders and with the lost. Vision heat comes from making the most of Sunday, and then letting that vision trickle down into everything: so teams own it, people throughout the church own it, so they can understand why the hard decisions are being made.

Delegating decision-making. A mistake that a lot of pastors make is letting every decision rest on them and their small staff team. You’ve got to push those down past the ministry department leaders to the team leaders. They need to be able to make decisions about the ministries that they’re involved in, and you need to have systems and processes for communicating those things back. So what does a church over 200 look like? It’s not a whole bunch of rosters but a whole bunch of meetings, where decisions are being made regularly, with boundaries, with communication and with accountability. Delegation is the key there. If you can’t delegate, you won’t get to this point and you won’t grow past it. It’s not handing off ministries. It’s handing on ministries while still being a part of it, praying for it, engaging with it.

Matt’s one thing about breaking the 200 barrier.
You can’t run it through one person, however gifted or capable they are. You need a team of people around you. You really need to seriously think about not just having team leaders, but investing in leaders of leaders that aren’t you. And it really is a false distinction whether they are paid people or unpaid high-capacity volunteers, but you need to start leading through others, not just hyper-managing a larger team.