I've had the privilege of preaching at churches from coast to coast over the last 25 years of ministry. In the process I've talked to countless pastors, church leaders and youth pastors about how their churches are doing when it comes to growth and the reasons for it. On one side I've seen churches that thrive. They grow every year both deeper and wider.
These are not always the "mega-churches" but, in my book, they are the "mighty churches" because whether they number at 200 or 2,000 they are truly Gospel Advancing on every level. These churches have that "new believer smell" in that there's always a little edginess in the foyer because it's usually peppered with people who don't necessarily look like they should be there.
After having co-planted and co-pastored a church for ten years in the Denver area and having preached in churches across the nation, quietly evaluating what makes them work (or not), here is my list of non-scientific reasons why some churches don't grow.
1. They're not friendly enough.
There have been far too many times I've walked through the foyer of a church and NOT been greeted or said hello to or helped to find my way around. I've felt like an outsider floating in the midst of a group of insiders. Even if somebody just said "hello" and pointed where the auditorium, the nearest bathroom and the closest escape routes are (in case the service really goes bad) I'd feel more at home. On the other hand when I walk into a church building, am warmly greeted and engaged, my defenses go down and I immediately feel more at home (and that's important because usually I'm there to do the preaching that day!).
There've been many times as the visiting preacher I've seen a person or a family with that same deer-in-the-church-lights look meandering in a large church foyer, trying to find their way around. There have been many times I've greeted them, welcomed them to the church and said, "Let's find the auditorium together" or "Let's talk to somebody who looks like they know what is going on and we'll get your kids in Sunday school…if they have one…I don't know…but welcome!"
By the way, the guest preacher shouldn't be doing that job!
Churches that are friendly have a much higher chance of growing than churches that are not. First impressions matter.
2. They're not intentional enough.
I've talked to many pastors who have assured me that they want to grow with new believers but they have no plan to make it happen. They tell me of their vision and their new sermon series and their exciting Easter outreach. But these three things are like making a plan on "How to have an effective huddle" in a football game. No, you need the actual plays you and your congregation are going to run day in and day out (not just on Sunday morning) if you are going to intentionally grow with new disciples being made and multiplied.
Here are three quick ideas: Give the gospel every week sometime during your church service so your people know that anytime they bring someone who doesn't know Christ, they will hear the Good News of Jesus and have an opportunity to trust in Christ. Secondly, train your whole congregation how to share their faith. That's right, if you make it a sermon series (instead of an optional small group) then the entire church (not just those already engaged in evangelism) will be on the same page. Finally, have stories in every service of how your church members are engaging their friends, co-workers, classmates and family with the good news message. This 3-minute segment of your service will elevate the value of relational evangelism in ways you could never imagine.
3. They're not organized enough.
Some churches lead people to Christ but don't have an assimilation plan that is robust enough to get these precious new believers clicked into the life blood of the congregation. As a result there are precious babies out there without the shelter of the church and the milk of God's Word. In a past post I called this "Punting the Baby." We would never clap at the birth of a beautiful new baby and then punt it! But we do the same thing when we celebrate a new conversion and aren't organized enough to follow up. We also need to be followed up with the visitors who are already believers (Hint: The best person to follow up is the person who invited them to your church to begin with!).
And, of course, we need to be organized in our church services, small groups, parking, etc. so that things are done, as Scripture reminds us, "decently and in order" (1 Corinthians 14:40)…just like the Holy Spirit likes it.
4. They're not relevant enough.
Another reason some churches don't grow is that they are not relevant enough. If I have no church context and walk into a building where pipe organs rule the day or the Scripture reading sounds like Shakespeare or the service feels like I'm a part of a museum exhibition, then there's a good chance I won't come back.
But even these fade into the background compared to sermons that don't hit the mark. Not only must the Word of God be exegeted, but the needs of the people must be too. I'll put up with choir robes and stained glass if the sermon is hitting the mark in my soul. But if the Word of God remains a distant, confusing, religious relic instead of a sword that opens up areas of my life (Hebrews 4:12-13) for the Spirit of God to change me in powerful and practical ways, then there's a good chance I won't be back.
5. They're not meaty enough.
Some churches grow initially because they're services and sermons are relevant but their sermons tend to be light and fluffy. As new believers grow in their faith they get a hunger for God's Word on a level beyond the surface. Now when I talk about "meaty" I'm not talking about hour long doctrinal diatribes unpacking the theological implications of angelology for a postmodern culture. I'm talking about being willing to "rightly divide the Word of God" beyond just topical series that tend to skim the surface.
I'll never forget visiting Flatirons Church once on a Sunday morning just about 20 minutes from where I live. This church is one of the fastest growing churches in the nation and has a weekly of attendance that hovers around 18,000 or so. To be honest I was expecting a "light and fluffy" service but, instead, the sermons were both meaty and practical. Soon I was scrambling for a pen and taking notes. And so were the believers and seekers all packed in around me. Nobody could ever accuse this "lights, camera, action" highly produced church service, full of pounding music and tattoos, of being irrelevant. But nobody could ever accuse this church of failing to be meaty enough. Maybe this church was growing because it found the sweet spot between being both practically relevant and theologically riveting.
6. They're not loving enough.
Churches can seem friendly, but when you dig under the surface, a lack of love can rule the religious roost. They may attract people at first and even seem friendly but, once in, the newcomers become grossly aware of the politics and relational dysfunction that is systemic in the congregation. Seekers and new believers often opt out for a more loving church, just stop going to church altogether or, worse yet, stay and become just like the other members of the church.
7. They're not praying enough.
Although I listed this last it really should be first. Why? Paul told Timothy with his instructions for setting up and organizing the many churches that they planted together to make prayer a first priority. He tells his younger protege, "I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people— for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth."
Churches that pray together grow together. They grow spiritually and numerically (with new believers!) Why? Because they are fueled by divine wisdom and power, instead of the latest church growth techniques and tactics. This gives them holy momentum that starts in the hearts of the people as they begin to pray for the unreached people in their lives and communities. These prayers create room in their hearts for more compassion and room in their lives for more Gospel conversations, and soon they have no more room in their churches because of all the new believers who are growing deep and going wide in the power of God.
Sadly, many churches spend more time on Sunday morning doing church announcements than intercessory prayer.
These are seven of my observations. Again, they are not scientific but purely observational. What are some other reasons, from your perspective, that some churches don't grow?
By the way, for help in building a Gospel Advancing ministry go to gospeladvancing.com and take the diagnostic. Although this is a youth ministry tool that Dare 2 Share developed most of the questions apply church-wide. Here you'll discover the 7 values of a Gospel Advancing ministry that is growing in all the right ways. If this blog unpacked the seven reasons some churches aren't growing, this website will unpack the seven values that are alive and thriving in every ministry (whether church or youth group) that are truly and effectively advancing the Gospel.
May both youth ministries and churches across the nation start growing in all the right ways!