Pastors experience deep frustration and confusion when their churches stop growing.
Churches are certainly not alone when it comes to decline.
Many organisations get stuck and decline into maintenance mode and sadly even into impotence.
If that were not true we would never see new organisations starting up with the kind of frenzied activity we see every day around the globe.
What causes this decline?
Are there definitive reasons as to why churches stop growing?
What impedes healthy growth and accelerates decline?
What stops churches from growing?
7 Reasons Churches Stop Growing and Decline Into Impotence
1. Unhealthy Focus on Growth
When churches focus on growth as an end in itself they begin to obsess about numbers and focus on stats.
I’ve been in this unhealthy place.
It leads to comparison with other churches and leaders. The comparison game is most unhelpful when your church has stopped growing.
It is death to your soul as you ride the inevitable roller coaster ride of strong or poor attendance and other indicators such as people leaving.
As a consultant and coach, my focus is on church health.
While I don’t neglect growth I don’t see it as an end. Making disciples of Christ is our end goal.
I also refuse to neglect or ignore the need to grow however I recognise that every church has an optimum size. This optimum size is determined by a range of factors including demographics, leadership capacity, community connections and so on.
Karl Vaters has become the go-to small church guy. His prolific writings have been influential around the globe
His infographic shows perception can be quite different from reality when it comes to the optimum size for a church.
When churches run with the mantra of growth, growth, growth and more growth it breeds an unholy discontent with a relatively productive status. However, it’s not being enjoyed because of this wild chase after growth.
Conduct a health check on your church.
This will involve analysing key stats such as baptism numbers, attendance relative to membership, the percentage of adults serving and in small groups.
Also, check on the spiritual vitality of your key leaders. Healthy leaders will lead you to a healthy church.
A wise consultant or coach can help you conduct the analysis and bring fresh eyes to your church as it focuses less on growth and more health.
2. Neglect of the Primary Mission
The primary mission that Jesus has given us is to make disciples in the context of communities of faith.
When leaders and pastors neglect this primary mission their churches are destined for decline.
There are multiple reasons why this occurs.
1. Leaders get distracted by other priorities.
2. Pastors become lazy and switch into a maintenance mode rather than pioneering again.
3. Fear of failure can rob pastors of courage and cause them to retreat from their primary mission.
4. Leaders can also lose strength through no fault of their own by ill health, tragedy or fierce opposition.
Whatever the reason, churches decline when they woefully neglect turning people into committed followers of Christ.
You may be busy and have squillions of programs happening. However, the hard question to ask is, are we making disciples?
Aligning yourself afresh with your mission doesn’t happen overnight.
It takes careful and often methodical reflection of your current state and a willingness to lead change in both yourself and your team.
One way I used to keep myself aligned with our mission was personal reflection.
I would regularly step aside form from the day-to-day ministry and spend time in reflection.
I found these personal times of reflection to be a key in realigning myself with core values and primary mission.
Allocating special time to rethink your mission will lead to a healthier church.
You can use simple reflection questions to help you refocus on your key relationships and core values.
I know this process will guide you into a fresh focus on your primary mission.
3. Churches Stop Growing When Hospitality is Broken
This aspect of church life is an obsession for me.
The Greek word used for hospitality in the New Testament is philoxenia which literally means love of strangers.
Different New Testament writers admonish us to strengthen this aspect of Christian living yet I too often see ambivalence towards it or worse still, lip service.
Comments on my blog and Facebook posts about the care of church visitors often contain a bizarre (to me anyway!) mix of ‘you’re getting to business-like’ and ‘love doesn’t need to be organised’ themes.
I think it’s naive to think that people don’t need to be trained and assisted in turning their heartfelt desire to love people into practical realities.
Train your welcome team to use a simple Visitor Connect Card to get visitor’s contact details and follow them up in the most appropriate way for your culture.
While some churches don’t use visitor connect cards I think they are essential in growing a healthy church.
When you get a visiotr’s details you are able to follow them up and connect them to your church. Otherwise you have a little influence on their decision to return for a seocnd visit.
Some leaders think all visitors want to be left alone and not asked questions about their reasons for visiting or their contact details.
While it is true about some visitors, others are on the opposite end of the spectrum. They have come to check out your church and want to make the connection.
Use a visitor’s connect card to help them start the journey of joining your church.
Download our free and simple
Visitor Connect Card
You can use this card this Sunday
4. Irrelevance to Society
Today’s traditions were once groundbreaking, breathtaking new initiatives.
The organ once reviled as the devil’s instrument became the bastion of church worship.
The now iconic Eiffel Tower was once derided by Parisians.
We fiercely guard our traditions and remain trapped in a time warp that is increasingly marked by irrelevance and ultimately impotence.
Relevance in outward non-essentials (fashion, music, style, furniture, colours) must be coupled with traditional biblical values if we are to remain relevant and continue to see our churches grow.
I know that some people get quite upset with any focus on outward things that they see as irrelevant to true worship and following Christ. I know because of blog and social media comments I receive from folks!
However, while God looks on the outside we are designed to notice outward things and when churches neglect outward things then it sends a message of disconnect.
Audit your building.
How old are the styles, colours and furniture in your facilities?
What do visitors see when they come to your building?
Dated and worn out furniture sends a message of neglect to visitors.
Is there any artwork to brighten up the foyer?
5. Comfortable with the Status Quo
The favour of God prospers us and prosperity makes us comfortable.
As we get comfortable we realise we have more to lose so we’re less likely to ‘bet the farm.’
Minimizing risk becomes paramount.
The cultivation of our land is a priority rather than explore uncharted territory.
We pave well worn roads rather than forge new paths.
We till our known soil rather than plough new fields.
One of the reasons we handed our church over to next-generation leaders was to step out into new arenas of risk. We’ve discovered that Christ is faithful and will honour our faith that gives Him immense pleasure.
Take a risk. Follow the voice of the Holy Spirit as He leads you into uncharted waters.
In Romans 16 Paul highlights the couple, Priscilla and Aquila, as those who risked their lives for his sake. Safety-first dispositions don’t build the church.
Risk is a modern word for faith and we are called to walk by faith, not by sight.
6. Are You Optimized for Growth?
Churches, like individuals, like companies, can reach their optimum size.
Discovering the optimum size of your church is not an easy task because your church’s size is determined by a complex range of factors.
There’s the energy of the pastor, the demographics of the area, the sovereignty of God, the capabilities of your congregation, the recent history of your church and so on.
Some leaders think that this thought of optimization leads to fatalistic notions inducing attitudes of ‘what will be, will be.’
However, I find this concept empowers leaders to have a courageous heart and an inquiring mind as they discern their optimum size and maximise their capacity.
Discuss this point with your key leaders and consider how you can optimize your church.
Your call, context and capacity determine your optimum size.
The call your church has received is a sovereign assignment from the Lord. It is His church and there is not much you can do about it other than discover and obey it.
Your context is your environment around the church.
Is your demographic wealthy or poor. Is it high density or low-density living. What’s the median age? What are the traffic flows?
Your capacity is the element you can control. You can enlarge your capacity as you handle problems, grow in Christ and develop essential leadership skills.
7. Churches Stop Growing Because of Pastoral Leadership
Yes you read that right.
Pastoral leadership can prevent a church from growing.
I think there’s a reason Paul says God has placed in the church first of all apostles, 1 Corinthians 12:28.
Apostles carry a sense of being sent.
The word means ‘sent’ and thus the apostolic gift tends to be a ‘moving’ gift, stimulating movement and refocussing the church on her top priorities, namely evangelism and discipleship.
Pastoral and teaching styles of leadership tend to focus on shepherding and growth in wisdom.
While these two elements of the Christian life are vital I believe they should never hold first place in a church’s priorities.
Our First Priority
The first priority of communities of faith must be the mission of reaching lost people and integrating them.
This is exceptionally difficult for pastors who have a shepherding or teaching gift. They naturally lean towards pastoral care and godly instruction.
My natural bent of teaching the Word and discipling leaders caused me to neglect evangelism when I was pastoring my church.
Therefore, I had to intentionally move towards evangelism to ensure our church was focused on bringing lost people to Christ and assimilating them into our community of faith.
I understand the struggle those with pastoral and teaching gifts have in focusing on evangelism but if a pastor does not model this to their congregation then they will see their church decline.
I am a fan of all size churches. In fact, churches are like t-shirts, we need all sizes.
However, as Karl Vaters rightly notes, being small is not a problem, virtue or an excuse.
Small churches can wrestle with inferiority and failure because of their size. They think being small is a problem to be solved rather than an option to be optimized.
Small churches can take unwarranted pride in being small and accuse larger churches of being compromising and shallow.
Being small is not an excuse to refuse to change and maximise your situation. Jesus expects a return on the investment of his life and death on the cross. His has given this life so we can advance the Kingdom and build His church.
Find a pastor or leader who is gifted in an area in which you lack confidence and get them to coach you into a stronger place.
Personal coaching is one of the most potent methods of bringing change in a customised and relevant way. Coaches bring fresh eyes to your church and help you see more than what you are currently seeing.
They can help you avoid pitfalls and encourage you to focus the things that grow a healthy church.
These are my 7 reasons why churches stop growing and decline into impotence.