Over the years, I’ve worked with a lot of pastors and congregations who claimed they were ready to grow their churches. I’d love to tell you that virtually all of these congregations flourished, but the truth is, that’s rarely the case.
The fact is, most churches fail to grow because they miss out on one or more of the Bare Minimums for church growth.
Before I share the Bare Minimums, and there are only five of them, let me interject that there are dozens of things that can kill a church and only a couple that will grow one. For instance, great preaching won’t grow a church. There are a lot of really good preachers in some very, very small and struggling churches. (On the other hand, bad preaching will kill a church!) So will bullies. And controllers. And restless membership syndrome. And any number of hospitality faux pas.
That list can … and probably should … go on, but that’s for another post. So, let me shift gears and share with you the Five Bare Minimums that are necessary for any church to grow.
1. A Local Pool of Unchurched People
This is rarely an issue in the US, like virtually never. The last time a significant study of regional differences in churched/unchurched populations was done, Mississippi had the highest percentage of churched people in the nation. Most studies are based on self-reporting, such as Gallup and Pew Reports, but the one done by David T. Olson looked at actual attendance … and even in the Bible Belt state of Mississippi, there was nowhere near 30 percent who attended worship regularly, as is regularly reported. Back then, it was around 22 percent … and I can guarantee you that that number has not seen an increase over the past decade or so.
That said, even in your city, town, or village, at least 80 percent of your residents aren’t attending church regularly, and most of them aren’t attending at all. Of course, you can easily check this by connecting with the pastors of your local churches and asking them to share their annual average worship attendance with you and then compare that to the local population. (We did that for a town in Washington State and discovered that, although Olson reported a 10 percent attendance rate, the actual average in our community was closer to 7 percent. In other words, there was over a 90 percent chance that whenever we were having a conversation with someone, we were having a conversation with an unchurched person.
2. A Pastor Willing to Change the Way They Do Ministry
It should go without saying that if the pastor isn’t behind growing the church, then growth isn’t going to happen. However, it turns out most pastors “say” they’re committed to church growth but in reality aren’t willing to make the personal changes in how they do ministry that is necessary for church growth. For instance, as I said above, great preaching won’t grow a church. And the reality is that most congregational members have already invited pretty much everyone they know – several times. So if sustainable growth is going to happen, it’s going to begin with the pastor.
A study of growing churches by Paul Bordenin in his book Make or Break Your Church in 365 Days showed that the pastors of growing churches spent at least 50 percent of their time with people outside of the church building and outside of the congregation. That means the pastor is going to have to stop doing some of the ministries they’re currently busy with in order to designate significant time for growth. Unfortunately, few pastors are willing to make that shift and choose instead to try and preach, inspire, and/or cajole their congregation into growth. Truth:
3. A Congregation Willing to Reprioritize the Way They Do Ministry
Having a target audience (the unchurched) and a willing pastor can get church growth started, but if the congregation isn’t willing to reprioritize the way they do ministry, then church growth will not be a lasting part of their future. To begin with, the congregation has to support the pastor’s re-visioning of their role and responsibilities of ministry.
The reality is that when a pastor shifts at least half of their time to specific church growth activities, that means something has to go. Generally, that means member care (AKA “pastoral care”) takes a significant hit. Meeting attendance and administration tasks have to take a backseat to time spent with non-members and non-member events. Editing the newsletter and proofing the bulletin has to be handed off. In other words, Pastor Fetch has to come to an end.
But more than allowing the pastor to shift their priorities, the congregation has to embrace the reality that they aren’t the customers.
In the words of Jesus, disciples become slaves, giving up their rights for the sake of their responsibilities.
To use a more modern metaphor, members become the church’s employees, and those outside the church (Paul calls them “outsiders” in Colossians 4:5, et al) would be the customers that the church is trying to reach. That means that the primary responsibility of church members is to serve and host and scrape and bow in order to woo the customers into – literally – slavery to the Lord via discipleship and membership in the church.
Lest you think I’m overstating our role of servitude, let me point you to 1 Corinthians 9:19–22 and Paul’s reminder that our job is to be “all things to all people,” including being a slave “that by all means, we might save some.” That means it’s the congregation’s responsibility to accommodate the unchurched, not the other way around.
That means our vocabulary might need to change; our musical style might need to change; even our coffee brand might need to change.
Again, to paraphrase Paul, “Whatever it takes” to reach our neighbors has to be the church’s mantra. A congregation unwilling to serve, host, and scrape and bow in order to woo the customers into a relationship with Jesus Christ will put an end to any chance of the church’s growth.
4. Networking Without Ceasing
I wish there was some magic marketing program that worked so well that we could grow our churches from our office laptops. And yes, good marketing certainly can help get our church’s name and reputation out there, especially if we’re savvy social media influencers. But the truth is like it’s always been, relationship building is not only the most effective marketing program; it’s the most efficient way to grow a church.
As I pointed out in the second point, church growth today begins with the pastor, and it begins when they make the decision to get out of their offices and into the community with the primary intent of building relationships and building the church on those relationships. In other words, the pastor must become the face of the church in the community and the face of Jesus to the people of the community.
Don’t get me wrong, Great Commission evangelism is the responsibility of every person in the church, but in too many churches “every person” means everyone else other than the pastor.
The fact is, if the pastor doesn’t lead the church in its evangelistic efforts, there won’t be any evangelism at all. (Don’t forget that leaders lead, meaning they model so others will follow … if you’re not leading in evangelism, you can expect your congregation to follow you closely!)
Here’s how church growth tends to work.
The pastor networks in the community, builds some relationships, and shares their faith. In time, there’s fruit from their networking, and a couple of new or revitalized Christians make their way into the church. If the church does their part (see point 5), then the new people make connections with the congregation, and their enthusiasm for their new relationships and transformed lives becomes contagious. In fact, that enthusiasm bleeds all over everything and everyone, and they invite and inspire their friends and family to experience the faith and the church. A couple of those invites will bear fruit, and the process is repeated.
That gets the process started, but it can’t end there.
Just as there is no perpetual motion machine, evangelism and church growth both take a continuing influx of energy. In other words, the pastor never gets to stop networking.
In fact, until everyone in the community and beyond has been moved, touched, and inspired by the church and the faith, then the pastor’s responsibility to network in the community is just like prayer … it’s never ceasing. The more consistent and effective the pastor is, the more sustainable the church becomes.
Let me wrap this point up by saying this. Most pastors prefer to deprecate this point. “It’s not my job to grow the church; It’s my job to equip the saints, so they grow the church. And my response yesterday, today, and tomorrow will be … “So, how’s that working for you?” Again, your preaching and teaching and cajoling isn’t getting it.
In the end, if you don’t do it, it won’t get done. Don’t forget that the Great Commission was first given to the apostles rather than to the crowds. Although it’s everyone’s responsibility, it truly rises and falls on the church’s leadership – starting with the pastor.
5. A Congregation that Extends Itself to Friend-Making and Discipleship Mentoring
To badly paraphrase the late great Meatloaf, two out of three ain’t bad, or in this case, you might think that four out of five ain’t bad. However, like baseball and horse racing, close isn’t close enough. In fact, even if you are the hottest evangelist since Billy Graham, the apostle Paul, or even the great St. Peter, if your congregation isn’t adopting the new converts and members – if they’re friendly but not friend-making and disciple-mentoring, it’s going to all be for naught. In fact, this is the second-most common reason why churches don’t grow (the first being a pastor who’s not committed to church growth and opts out of spending significant time with the unchurched).
Many, if not most, churches get a stray visitor who walks through the doors every now and again; however, in the US, 15 percent or fewer of those first-time visitors never return – and that number falls to 11 percent in the Mainline church. The reason the vast majority of visitors don’t return isn’t that the music was bad or the sermon was irrelevant. No, the number one reason first-time visitors don’t become returning guests is because the church was Walmart friendly – you know, “Good morning, Welcome to First Church” with no genuine conversation, no invitation to lunch or coffee later, and no attempt to build a relationship beyond the confines of the sanctuary (or the Sunday school classroom).
In today’s world, it takes a lot of courage for someone inexperienced in church to walk into a church building for any reason, let alone to show up for worship.
When they do get there, they’re looking for something a lot more meaningful than a warm “Good morning,” a bulletin, and a smile. They’re looking for a connection … a connection with someone who has a connection with the Divine – someone who can help them make a meaningful connection. They may not say that on their first visit, but in the end, isn’t that what all of us want? A lasting connection with the Lord Most High? And if you don’t have a congregation who is actively practicing friend-making, your church simply will not grow.
So, there you have it. The Five Bare Minimums of Church Growth. If you have these five in play, you’ve got a better than average shot to growing your church – but if you’re missing any one of these, you’re missing the boat.