The phrase “church growth,” sparks a variety of opinions.
On one hand, you'll find people who promise seven simple steps to explode growth now and organizations that will reveal the secret to church growth for three easy payments of $97.
And on the other hand, some writers use words like “abomination” and say the church growth movement usurps the Holy Spirit.
These are two distinct camps: the spiritualists and the pragmatists.
Spiritualists are quick to point out that the words “church growth” do not appear in the Bible. They remind us that because the church belongs to Jesus, church growth is something only God can do.
Pragmatists, on the other hand, love to talk about church growth plans and strategies. They remind us that while church growth is up to God, He uses people and systems, and technology to accomplish His purposes.
So, what is the right approach?
A Helpful Metaphor for Church Growth
Here’s what Jesus said in Mark 4:26-29:
“This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know-how. All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head. As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come.”
Jesus used a farming analogy to explain how the kingdom of God grows.
Growth happens naturally, but only after the farmer did the hard work of preparing the soil.
And that’s how church growth works.
It's a combination of the blessings of God and the stewardship of man.
Spiritualists focus on how God gives the increase. Pragmatists point out that Paul planted, and Apollos watered.
Yes, church growth was all up to God. But two humans both played a part in the process.
So, the pragmatists are right.
And so are the spiritualists.
Church growth is up to God because the church belongs to Him. But He chooses to use us in the process, allowing us to be great stewards.
Karl Vaters, the author of The Grasshopper Myth and an advocate for small churches, says, “Church growth should always be a part of every pastor’s prayers, passion, and strategy.”
Pastors should want their churches to reach more people. But that’s not the only kind of church growth in the Bible.
Numerical growth happens when churches reach more people and grow in size.
It's simple to track numerical growth, and many churches do. The Outreach 100 Fastest-Growing Churches list is based exclusively on this type of growth.
The 10 Fastest-Growing Churches (according to Outreach Magazine)
This kind of growth was reported in the early church and recorded in the book of Acts. Despite persecution, a lack of buildings, and little formal training, the early church grew as people shared the gospel with their friends and neighbors. Luke tells us that people were “added to the church” daily. That's church growth.
Spiritual growth happens when the people in the church come to love and follow Jesus.
People in a church should grow to love the Lord with all their heart, mind, soul, and strength and take intentional steps to obey His commands. That's discipleship.
Spiritual growth is much harder to measure, and there’s no Top 100 list. But when we talk about church growth, we must not limit our discussion to attendance and budgets. There’s something far deeper at work.
Kingdom growth happens when there is both spiritual and numerical growth.
When individual churches grow numerically and spiritually, there is an excellent opportunity for Kingdom growth.
The Bible says the Church grew through multiplication. For example, the church at Antioch prayed, fasted, and sent leaders out to start new churches (Acts 13:1-5). This intentional decision to get smaller resulted in the Church growing larger.
Since the formation of the early church, Christians have been arguing over where we should put our focus.
Church growth advocates often use phrases like, “reach the lost at any cost.”
The focus is often getting people in the front door. And even though there’s Biblical precedence, this type of passion can be easily misplaced.
After all, unhealthy things can grow too and much damage can happen in the Kingdom by adopting a “grow at all costs” philosophy.
Church health advocates argue that if you focus on the flock, growth will naturally occur. Well, there are a lot of inwardly focused churches who seem to have lost focus on the Great Commission. It looks like a focus on church health can lead people to live like the “frozen chosen,” unaware of the real needs around them.
Should we focus on church growth or church health?
Church Growth: Up to God or Influenced by People?
In 1 Corinthians 3:8, Paul writes, “The one who plants and the one who waters have one purpose, and they will each be rewarded according to their own labor.” This verse seems to indicate that pastors will be rewarded for their part in building the church.
Even though Jesus said, “I will build my church,” and Paul also acknowledged, “God gives the increase,” it's appropriate to view earthly leadership as a stewardship opportunity.
In Ephesians 4:12, Paul says that pastors and leaders are not to perform all the ministry in the church but should equip the believers to “do the work of the ministry.” Commenting on this verse, Eric Geiger writes, “In some sense, a pastor is to leave the ministry the moment the pastor enters the ministry.” This shift in thinking should result in a more distributed ministry and greater effectiveness.
To this end, God gives spiritual gifts to each Christian to use to build up the body of Christ. Building up should result in a healthier church, but also a church that’s growing in size and influence.
Church growth, then, doesn’t just depend on the pastors but also involves the people.
Since the tension between church growth and church health should never reach a resolve, it gives us the freedom to lean into both sides of the equation.
There are times to focus on church growth.
For example, churches that have lived on the discipleship side might need to willingly tip the scales toward evangelism, with campaigns, efforts, or even staff that might appear to favor an evangelistic model rather than the well-known discipleship model. In this case, intentionally being unbalanced for a season is a part of a broader strategy focused on healthy growth.
Maybe you need a greater focus on reaching people for this next ministry season.
In high-growth churches that don't have a fully-formed discipleship process, it might be wise to tip the scales toward health. Tipping the scales isn't abandoning your core values or changing your mission to reach the community; it recognizes that seasons of growth include a time to form roots.
You don't need to sacrifice church growth for church health and vice versa, but it might be wise to choose goals that focus on one side of the equation for a season to bring you back into balance.
Most books, articles, and podcasts addressing church growth barriers deal with visible and tactical issues.
You'll read about changing the worship style to attract a younger generation.
You’ll read about adding service times when you’re 80% full.
And while worship style, an aging facility, service times, parking lots, and websites are valuable issues, these are probably not the reasons that churches don't grow.
What are those real church growth barriers?
The church is about Jesus and people – and helping people follow Jesus. As simple as that is, it's incredible how easy it is to forget the people part of ministry.
- Church isn’t about a building.
- Church isn’t dependent on events and programs.
- Church isn’t even about sermons and music.
Ultimately, what we do is meant to help people follow Jesus.
Pastors and church leaders are always looking to reach more people.
And while evangelism, outreach, and inviting people to church should always be a part of our strategy, from a leadership and stewardship perspective, it is wise to start with the people you already have.
There are already people connected to your church.
There are already leaders.
There are already volunteers.
Don't let the quest for more keep you from being a good steward of what God has already given you. You may have 1, 5, or 10 talents, but God wants you to be responsible for what He's provided.
You may not have enough leaders, but you have some leaders.
You may need more volunteers, but there are a handful of people who already care deeply about the church.
Just like companies say people are their most valuable asset, churches must embrace this principle.
Your people are essential.
Let's dive a little deeper into the people you already have and how to lead them best.
First, there's your staff.
Whether you have a big staff, a small team, or volunteers acting as staff, the people in paid positions are vital to the health and growth of your church.
Whenever I think about church staff (and needing more people to do the work of the ministry), I remember a message from Bishop T.D. Jakes. In a way that only he can say it, “The staff in your hand is enough.”
He just says it much cooler than how you're reading it in your head.
You might have a small, young, or older staff, but God can use a church staff to do amazing things in your community. You might need more of them, but let's commit to developing the people who are already there.
If someone is on staff, make sure they're trained, appreciated, and indeed a part of the team. Developing your staff is one of your best opportunities to lead your church to growth.
The people in paid positions should be some of the most effective ministers in your church. But too many times, people in these roles coast through. We think because they are good Christians or good parents, that automatically translates into being good employees.
The secret is not better people; the secret is better development.
Before we try to start something new, we need to develop.
For this to happen, leadership development conversations and meetings need to make it to our calendar.
We have two resources that can help you put this into action.
First, here are some ways to make your next staff meeting more engaging, more productive, and even more enjoyable. It's a free resource called 7 Staff Meeting Ideas.
Second, every pastor who joins Church Fuel gets instant access to our leadership development curriculum. This carefully-researched material will help you walk your staff through 12 essential skills to help them lead themselves, lead others, and lead projects.
It's important to have a called, committed, and caring staff to oversee the work of the ministry. But you'll never be able to hire people to do all of the ministry in your church. That's why you need lay leaders and volunteers.
When it comes to leaders and volunteers, I’m afraid we’ve made this too complicated.
There’s a time to create pipelines and programs, but you can also start where you are.
The Volunteer System we teach at Church Fuel is simple but powerful. It consists of three parts.
Recruit. You need a calendar-based approach to inviting new volunteers to step up and serve. It's not about announcements or pleas for help…we've got an intentional strategy you can follow.
Train. Once you have people express interest, you need to train them. But adults don't learn the way most churches try to teach them. There's a much better way.
Pastor. Pastoring staff is the most critical part of the system. Your volunteers should be the happiest and healthiest group of people in your church.
This volunteer system works. And it's one of many systems you learn how to execute when you join Church Fuel.
“I think Life Church and North Point will thrive after Craig Groeschel and Andy Stanley are gone because both churches embrace team teaching, developing leaders, and establishing healthy systems. Many large churches lack all three.” – Tony Morgan
A system is a documented process that leads to a clear outcome.
Before you write off systems and processes, recognize that there are several examples in the Bible of God working through systems.
Exodus 18 describes how Jethro helped Moses create and implement a system for hearing people's cases. His method allowed him to serve and the people better. Luke 10 describes how 72 people were sent ahead of Jesus to help prepare the places he was going to visit.
I don't believe systems are unspiritual. Instead, they are part of God's created order.
God can do whatever He wants, but human beings benefit from good systems. And when you have sufficient systems in your church, great things will happen.
- Good systems solve problems.
- Good systems save money (this is when the church planters start paying attention).
- Good systems promote consistency.
A lot of the problems that churches face are system problems.
System problems can disguise as people-problems. It's a broken system, the wrong structure, or a process missing key steps that leads to a breakdown.
And here's the deal with system problems. You can't solve them with more preaching. I've seen this happen many times: Church finances aren't going well, and the church is getting behind in budget. The Finance Team or the Pastor decides to preach a message on generosity to right the ship.
But a few weeks later, it’s back to reality.
That's because low giving in a church is a system problem.
You also can't solve system problems with more vision. Too many pastors think casting vision for the future is a silver bullet that solves all problems.
Structural issues require structural solutions. You can only solve system problems by creating effective systems.
You need to design and implement systems that will sustain growth in the future. In other words, you need to structure your church, not for the size you are now, but for the size that you want to be.
Work on each of these systems, plus get practical training and templates, in The Systems Course. It's included for everyone who joins Church Fuel.
The third driver of church growth is culture. It's often ethereal and hard to define, but culture is the overall environment of your church.
Many churches struggle to attract new people because they don't have a welcoming culture. If your church has a culture that values existing members far more than people who are new to the church, you're going to struggle to grow, no matter what kind of Facebook ad you run or sermon series you preach.
Culture is not something you can download, purchase, or upgrade instantly. It takes much intentional work, hard conversations, and exceptional leadership.
There are things you can do to shift the culture from what you have to what might be more desirable. Although culture is esoteric, here are five tangible things you can use to create a great culture in your church.
- Values – Your defined core values are an excellent place to start. Values represent what is important to you.
- Language – Language is one of the most critical culture-creators, and too many churches don't recognize this. You need to give words to things you think are essential.
- Behavior. The actions you take daily, whether intentional or allowed, create the culture in your church.
- People. The people you have in leadership, whether paid or volunteer, create culture. Just like an employee with poor behavior brings down culture and drives away good people, intentional actions that reflect who you want to become will create a healthy culture.
- Budget. Perhaps your biggest culture creator is your budget. Show me your budget, and I'll show you what you truly value.
Ministry without a strategy can be a waste of time. Your selection of ministries must be strategic, not random. Your ministries should be on purpose, not merely at the whim of anyone's ideas. Ministry is your heart and passion. – Dan Reiland
Even though your church is much more than a business, this business-like thing can help you grow.
There are parts of your church that would benefit from proper planning and strategy.
The problem is that most ministry plans take a lot of work and produce few results.
An expensive consultant dazzles you with their terminology, and you're drawn into a comprehensive process, peppered with promises of change. But in the end, a fancy report is shared briefly in a meeting and then ends up in a computer folder somewhere.
Nothing happens. Nothing changes.
You might pull it out next year to see just how much you DIDN’T do.
It's a double fail—tons of work and minimal impact.
It doesn’t have to be that way.
And you don't need an expensive consultant to guide you through the process. You can achieve fresh clarity the Church Fuel way, with a simple two-page worksheet and an insanely practical course that will show you exactly what to do.
The Two Page Plan is our insanely practical tool that will help you clarify what’s truly important in your church.
We helped a church in Littleton, Colorado create a ministry strategy. Their pastor, Cody, emailed to say this:
“We finalized our ministry plan after chipping away at it for the last few months. Our leadership meeting yesterday featured the right amount of contentious and harmonious conversation 🙂 Thank you once again for helping us get unstuck! We started this process with one group of leaders, and we actually changed out about a third of our leadership in January, and we were able to generate buy-in and receive meaningful ideas from the new group very quickly.”
Church planting, church revitalization, and church growth are inherently spiritual endeavors.
Strategy, culture, and leadership can make a huge difference and drive growth, but ultimately that growth is up to God.
You can do all the right things and not experience growth. And many churches experience growth despite problems with leadership.
Think about how these spiritual traits intersect with the organized ministry of a church.
- Faith – Pastors must trust God, not their plans or skills. Losing faith is a terrible thing and can be a growth barrier in your church.
- Prayer – No church growth strategy should exist apart from prayer.
- Gospel – A real and deep understanding of the Gospel can not only refocus a church; it can re-energize a community. Churches who lose sight of the Gospel are facing spiritual growth barriers, and spiritual breakthrough is required.
- Loving others – The greatest commandment is to love God, and part two is to love others. Churches who forget this will face barriers to growth that no tactic will help overcome.
Your church might be facing system barriers, leadership challenges, and tactical obstacles, but you also are fighting a spiritual battle.
Now that we’ve talked about the real barriers to growth in your church, let's turn our attention to things that drive growth.
Many of these things are not expensive. You will need focus, and you might need support.
These principles are not formulas or steps, but we've seen churches that focus on these issues turn the tide in their church. Putting time, effort, and resources into these areas might yield positive results for you.
We work with churches of all shapes and sizes, and by far, the biggest growth barrier they are encountering is leadership. It cuts across every program and ministry and touches every corner of the church. When the leaders get better, the church often grows.
No one will make you do this and people aren't going to ask you to make time for it. But it's one of the most significant opportunities you have to lead your church.
In The War of Art, Stephen Pressfield writes about the difference between a professional and an amateur. He brings up the example of a professional golfer who develops a problem with his swing and says, “It would never occur to a professional golfer to try and figure it out on his own.”
Great leaders invite people into the development process and model the way for other leaders throughout the church.
I heard a mega-church pastor recently attribute church growth to the high number of engaged leaders.
“Every church has volunteers,” he said. “What makes us different is we have people that are engaged.”
Healthy and growing churches have a higher percentage of volunteers and leaders who thrive in their roles. These aren't people who show up on Sunday morning to do a task or reluctantly meet a need; they are people invested in the ministry outcome.
Volunteer and leader engagement is often a leading indicator of growth. It’s on the front end.
If you want to see church growth happen in your church, create a plan to develop leaders.
Start with yourself.
Again, nobody is going to make you do this. And there might not even be people to hold you accountable.
Great leaders take responsibility for their growth and development.
The good news is that you can take responsibility for your leadership development. You can adopt a growth mindset, create a plan, and lead yourself.
This free PDF will give you a starting point. It's one page, and you can fill it out today.
Train Your Team
When you've finished creating your personal growth plan, expand to your inner circle.
Whether you have a small staff, large staff, group of elders, deacon board, or volunteers, there are people in your church who need you to lead them.
Use the Team Training curriculum that is a part of Church Fuel to train all of your leaders on 12 essential skills.
An Inviting Culture
Every church and every organization has a culture that defines its behaviors.
In Andy Stanley’s leadership podcast on Keystone Habits, he says that these habits or systems are not always created on purpose, but rather evolve. They can often become a bad habit.
The truth is that we act like our culture. Culture determines behavior, and that's why the culture of your church is so vital.
One of the questions that Andy said they wrestled with at North Point was, “What habits do we need to turn up or what habits do we need to implement to impact the culture?” They asked this question because Charles Duhigg says in his book, The Power of Habit, you have to introduce a new keystone habit to change a culture.
He defines a keystone habit as something that triggers a series of related behaviors or habits.
These keystone habits could potentially change behavior or reaffirm current practices.
Andy said they wanted to find a habit that could galvanize their values and what they did as a church that tied back to their mission and vision as a church.
For North Point, their mission is to create churches that unchurched people love to attend. So their keystone habit is inviting unchurched people.
Building the Habit of Inviting in Your Church
A culture of inviting won't just happen overnight or on accident. You can build a culture of inviting in your church on purpose.
There is nothing more powerful than when a person invites a friend to attend your church. When people ask others to come to church, good things happen. But make sure to read this article before asking people to invite.
Make It Easy
The best way to make it easy for people who attend your church to invite their unchurched friends to church is to provide tools for inviting.
Here’s a ridiculous example.
Let's say you have a flat tire on the side of the road and wave me down to help you. Because I'm a nice person, I'm more than willing to stop and help.
So that’s what I do.
I pull over and get out of my car to help you change the tire.
You can cast all the vision you want for how your tire needs to be changed.
You can tell me a sad story about how you’re on your way to your last day at work to pick up your last paycheck so you can buy food for your family.
You can inspire me all day long to help you change your tire.
But without a tire iron and a spare, nothing is going to happen.
Casting vision, telling stories, or even a guilt trip won’t do anything if we don’t have the necessary tools to get the job done.
Expecting people to invite without providing the necessary tools is how too many churches approach the subject of inviting others in their church.
They cast vision, tell stories, and lay on the guilt. But they never give their congregation the relevant tools. They ask, but they don't equip.
Here are a few examples of great tools:
Make business card-sized invite cards advertising your church or current series. Be sure to put your website, times, and directions of the card.
Have a great website. Most people will check out your website first before visiting your church. Elevation Church in Charlotte, NC does a great job providing information to potential attendees.
Provide a few strategic times of the year when inviting is super simple. Do a few series a year where you push your people to invite their friends.
Write social media posts or create graphics for your people. Don’t just tell them to post; write the post for people. Put everything on a specific page on your website and then tell your people how to access the resources.
Teach People How
Teaching your attenders how to invite is often an overlooked piece of the puzzle. We church leaders assume that people know how to invite their friends to something.
Teaching them how to use the tools you give them and how they can effectively invite their coworkers, family, and friends will pay huge dividends in the long run.
A few ways to teach the art of the invite is:
- Do a message or even a sermon series on why it's crucial to engage with unchurched people.
- Set up a class or vision night where all you focus on is the power and how-to of the invite. Newspring Church has done a great job with this.
- Write a blog or Facebook post on “5 Ways To Invite Someone To Church Sunday.” Make it practical and easy.
The other way is teaching people how to have inviting conversations.
I heard Andy Stanley once teach his congregation to look for the three NOTS.
He said, “Anytime you hear one of these statements in casual conversation, that should be your cue to extend an invitation.” He went on to give lots of examples.
Andy recently cast a fresh vision for inviting and introduced the phrase “Come Sit with Me.” In a Sunday morning message more geared to the North Point faithful, he walked everyone through exactly what to say and how to extend a personal invitation. He gave people language and vocabulary to make it normal.
If you've heard it once, you've heard it a million times: what gets celebrated, gets repeated. Mine your attenders for stories like the one I shared above about how they invited someone. Ask people when they attend, how they heard about your church.
When a great story comes along, share it with your church. When someone invites someone and they show up, celebrate that both corporately and personally.
If you take the time to create a habit of inviting in your church, not only will your church grow numerically, but your church will grow in its faith as well as maturity.
Cast a Clear Vision for the Future
The third driver of growth is casting a clear vision for the future.
Growing churches are clear about purpose and mission, and those are two very different terms.
Your purpose is the deep reason you exist.
It comes from God and it's eternal. It will never change. It has nothing to do with where your church is or what kind of ministries you have.
One of my favorite leadership books is Simon Sinek’s book Start with Why. He says every organization (and I'd include churches) needs to clarify the WHY…the real reason they exist. He says it's more important to get clear about the WHY than it is to define the WHAT.
Before you talk about ministries and programs and strategies, you’ve got to have a clear WHY. You’ve got to have a solid PURPOSE.
Now, your church may creatively say this, but I would bet all the money in my pockets that your church's purpose is pretty similar to the Great Commission or the Great Commandment.
When we started the church in Atlanta, we had a sense of purpose, but we hadn't taken the time to clarify it in a memorable sentence.
We clarified our purpose statement and began talking about it all the time. We said our purpose like this: “We’re here to lead people from where they are to where God wants them to be.”
Someone said this phrase in our welcome and announcement time every Sunday morning. When writing thank-you notes to our first-time givers, I used it. We put it in our email signatures.
After a year or so, I would start to say it, and our church people would say it back. That's when I knew people were starting to understand it.
But here’s the thing about purpose.
It's never accomplished.
It's always going to be there and you're never going to finish it.
It's not like I was going to come to the church office on Monday and say, “Listen up everyone…we've led all the people from where they are to where God wants them to be…that’s done…what’s next?” You can't check the box and move on to something else.
That's why purpose isn't always the best motivator of people. It's so long-term that it's tough for people to grasp. It’s too big, too bold, or too ethereal.
The purpose is fundamental, but it's generic. That's why growing churches communicate a second thing…mission.
Your mission is what you’re trying to do NOW.
Your mission isn't about WHY…it's about NOW. It's about what's next. It's all about, “here's what our church is doing in this next season and how it's going to look.”
And your church needs a current mission that will push you on toward your ultimate purpose.
We’re all about keeping it simple and practical for you, so even if you adopt different terms, you need to communicate two things.
- The one never-changing, never-accomplished, deep sense of why we call “purpose.”
- The one time-sensitive, going to check it off the box, looks like a rallying cry we call “mission.”
Casting vision is just talking about the future, so you can use purpose AND mission to cast vision for the future. One is short term. One is eternal.
Every ministry, program, staff member, and department in your church needs to be involved and on board with your purpose and mission. You should have everything from a clear mission statement and a financial plan to make it happen.
Too many churches create a short-term mission that only involves a small group of people, then wonder why the whole church isn't moving in the same direction. Your mission still needs to be big and bold and involve everyone.
We've seen hundreds of churches lead their church to growth through clarifying a vision for the future that gets people involved. This is so important.
That’s why every church that joins Church Fuel starts with a course called “Building Your Ministry Plan.”
We walk through purpose, mission, and vision to help you create and articulate a strategy. Then, we help you get clear on your church's values and distinctive traits. And we work on aligning ministries and programs to all of this.
This single course results in all of the important stuff in your church written down on just two pages.
We call it your Two Page Plan.
Shift focus from inward to outward.
Just like culture is one of the most significant growth barriers facing churches, shifting that culture from an inward focus to an outward focus can lead to growth.
Simply stated, your church needs to focus on who is NOT there, not just who is there.
Friendliness here is not the measuring stick.
There are a ton of inward-focused churches that are very friendly. They are just friendly with each other.
I compare this to a family reunion. If you're a part of the family, it's a very friendly event. But if it's someone else's family, and you just stumbled in, you probably feel like an outsider.
This culture shift is a difficult change for many churches, and it must happen tactfully, because the people who are there are volunteering and giving, literally paying the bills and funding all ministry. It might not be wise just to run them off.
But leading your church to adopt an outsider-first approach is a great step toward healthy church growth. It looks different in all churches, but it could mean…
- You are intentionally designing your church services with outsiders in mind.
- You offer programs and ministries to meet the real needs of your current community, not just continue to provide legacy programs that worked 15 years ago.
- You are changing your website to be the front door for new people rather than a place for members to download a calendar of events.
- You are shifting resources from programs inside the church to supporting programs and organizations that serve your community.
- You are running all of your language, announcements, and communications through a “new people” filter.
- You stop programming that meets the needs of those already connected and starting programming designed to attract and get new people.
- You are listening to the voices of new people rather than merely relying on the most familiar voices who always speak up.
- You shift your attendance from a church event and repurpose that time to be involved with a community organization.
These changes are hard and will likely require a ton of patience.
All churches drift inward without the intentional effort to keep an outward focus on those who are far from God. – Dan Reiland
Being more outward focused has the potential to change your church for the better, but be warned…you'll likely create some waves along the way. That's why it's critical to be a part of a community that can give you great advice on all the tactical issues that will come to the surface.
Creating an outward-focused church culture takes disciplined communication and requires a spirit of prayer.
This rallying cry intends to spark care and concern within the church for one person outside of the church. They periodically organize and publicize “one more” weekends with a clear Gospel invitation.
The initiative, made sticky with consistent terminology and strategy, is a way to create an inviting culture.
He teaches people to pray for three friends, neighbors, and co-workers and that God would give them a “no-brainer” moment to extend an invitation or share their faith.
Both of these churches are leading their church to pray for an investment in members of the community.
Persona: who are you trying to reach?
Warning…this growth driver isn’t going to sound very spiritual, but it’s one of the most powerful on the list.
I want to challenge you to develop a PERSONA, a description of the symbolic person in your community you are trying to reach.
The business community calls this the target customer. Your church doesn't have customers, but the idea is still sound.
It’s a strange concept in the church because Christianity, The Gospel, the Bible, Jesus…they are for EVERYONE. It feels weird to say your church is targeting a specific person. It feels mean because, in clarifying who you are trying to reach, you're hinting that you're not trying to reach another group of people. And that feels un-Christian.
But if your church tries to reach everyone, it could be that you end up reaching no one.
When you step back and think about this, honestly, your church is likely positioned to reach a particular segment of the community.
I'm merely suggesting you recognize, clarify, and align with this.
Spiritually speaking, your church is a church, but your church is not THE church. There are other churches in town. That's part of the beauty of the Kingdom…it's not all on your shoulders.
When you get real about who you’re trying to reach, you can align your programs, ministries, and communication to this.
You’ll be more effective.
Think about big companies like Walmart. As big and ubiquitous as they are, they are not targeting everybody. They gear their messaging, store layout, and strategy to reach a specific segment of the population. Target sells similar products, but they are going after a different segment. They have a different target customer.
Walmart and Target are open to everyone, but they know that they are most likely to reach a particular type of customer and focus their resources in that direction.
Yes, anyone is welcome. Anyone can attend. But you can't create programs and ministries for every need in your city…it would be a waste of resources to try. You choose to focus.
A.G. Lafley, author of Playing to Win, says it this way: “You can't win the whole world or please everybody. Trying to be all things to all people is a recipe for failure. You have to strategically narrow the field to the geographies, demographics, and channels where your company is most competitive and can get the best possible results.”
If you want to know more about your community and use that knowledge to develop a persona, I highly recommend a tool called Gloo Insights.
This tool will give you a ton of demographic and psychographic information on your community. You can build a robust dataset and begin to understand your community. In addition to all the usual stuff, Gloo’s data engine can help you identify people who are likely to have a marriage in need or have a propensity for addiction.
The data is anonymized, so it’s not creepy, but you can use this to tailor programming or even run marketing campaigns.
Tailor Your Messaging to Who You Are Trying to Reach
When you know exactly who you're trying to reach, you can make your messaging match.
I read a statistic that said the average young adult today will take more than 25,000 selfies in their lifetime. That's a lot of duck faces and Clarendon filters.
The selfie might be a sign of the times, but it’s an example of how people of all ages like to see themselves in photos. A picture of the Grand Canyon will never be as popular as a picture of you at the Grand Canyon.
Too many churches have the camera focused on them—talking about their services, their ministries, and their events. It’s a selfie approach to communication. Instead, flip the camera around and start talking about people.
This subtle concept can be tough to grasp, so here's an example. We've all seen churches describe themselves as “a friendly church” to invite the community. But here's the thing.
People aren’t looking for a friendly church. They are looking for friends.
See the difference? The “friendly church” descriptor is about you. And more and more, people don't connect with that description. What they are looking for is friends.
So when you talk about your church, as uncomfortable as it might be, make sure you're talking about what it means to people's real lives. Don't just describe the programs and ministries; explain how those programs and ministries benefit and connect people.
People's first communication means you don't only describe the dates and speakers for youth camp. It means telling parents that this is the best chance for their rising high schoolers to make Christian friends who will be a positive influence over the next few years.
People's first communication means you don't describe how Financial Peace University works; it means you talk about what will happen in people's lives after they go through the program.
People's first communication means you don't just post pictures of your band or your sermon series; you post pictures of people having fun, praying, or singing. You put other people—not your church—front and center.
Keystone Ministries as Growth Engines
Have you ever seen a plate spinner?
Before America’s Got Talent, this was a popular trick at variety shows and county fairs. A guy would start out spinning one plate on a stick. Then he would add another, and another, until dozens were turning at the same time.
As one would slow down and begin to wobble, he would run across the stage to give it another spin. Of course, another spinning plate would require his attention, until it all became too much to manage, and everything came crashing down.
Plate spinners are a strong and sad metaphor for how hundreds of churches operate.
Ironically, many churches face this crisis of overload at the point when people are at their highest stage of involvement. Like the plate spinner, things come crashing down just as people are at their busiest.
Busyness is a burden for many churches.
And if you're too busy, there are some big-time consequences.
Consequence #1: Your volunteers will be spread too thin. The nursery workers you need on Sunday morning might already be serving on Sunday night. The high school students gathering for a second Bible study are your elementary volunteers. The men meeting for breakfast at 6 AM on Tuesday are also your parking team at 8 AM on Sunday. It's not that any of these things are bad things, but good things will keep your best people from serving the more essential things.
Consequence #2: Your own sanity is at risk. A busy church calendar leads to a busy life. It quickly becomes too much to think about, too much to attend, and too little time for healthy relationships. If you're too busy, running around from one program to another, you're functioning in a way that's not healthy for your mind, body, or soul.
Consequence #3: You settle for average. When you have a lot of ministries and programs, there's the risk that all of them will be average and none of them will be excellent. Diverting resources from something central to your strategy or deploying people in an area where they are not gifted is not good leadership. An opportunity is not an obligation.
Consequence #4: Messages get mixed, which means people do NOTHING. If you have too much to talk about in this weekend’s announcements, that’s not a Sunday service problem. That’s a church problem. If your handout has ten ways to get connected and seven opportunities to learn more and three next steps, that’s not offering something for everything – that's trying to be all things to all people, which rarely works. If you attempt to communicate “five important things to know,” people hear ZERO things.
Consequence #5: You can’t help but equate activity with effectiveness. If your church calendar is crowded with opportunities for people to do stuff, you can ironically communicate that the Christian life is about church activity. People can get so busy DOING church that they have no time to BE the church.
If your church is struggling with busyness, the biggest temptation you face is just to do nothing. Pastors say things like, “We're just in a busy season right now” or talk about what they will do “when things calm down.”
But come on…there might be a short reprieve in the schedule, but the “busy season” is a myth. The busyness isn't because of a season; it's the result of intentional or unintentional decisions.
1. Commit to simplify.
When Steve Jobs famously returned to Apple in 1997, one of his first goals was to streamline the overcomplicated product lineup. He realized that all of the products in the pipeline weren't necessary and cut it by 70%.
So he cut the product line down to just four key things. In retrospect, it was a brilliant move, but at the time, it affected people's products and people's jobs.
The result was that a company a quarter away from bankruptcy became a company with a $300 million profit.
There are dozens of stories like this. New leaders step into new roles and create focus by subtracting, not adding. Whether it's a major corporation, a small business, a non-profit, or a church, when new leaders step in, they usually trim first.
If a new leader would make the decision, why not lead the discussion NOW?
Take a look at all of your programs and ministries and ask which ones are driving growth. You can even implement these 5 programs that are completely inexpensive. Evaluate them based on effectiveness against the stated purpose, not whether or not someone “likes” them or if people simply show up.
2. Put your best resources on your most significant opportunities.
If you were to list all the programs, ministries, and events in your church, and then had to circle the five non-negotiable ones that would radically alter your DNA if they went away, you'd end up with a list of what we call “Keystone Ministries.” And you'll want to align these 3 teams to those ministries.
Keystone Ministries are the growth drivers in your church. They are the programs that attract new people and the ministries that help a lot of people grow in their faith. They are core, and if they went away, your church would be fundamentally different.
They are more critical than other ministries and programs.
Even now, you know there are programs and ministries in your church that don't matter that much. If they went away, a few people might ask questions, but your fundamental ministry would not be changed.
So instead of spreading your focus equally among things that work and things that don’t work, zoom in on what does work.
Give those Keystone Ministries an unfair advantage.
- Stop announcing the random, one-off things that don't help you accomplish your mission, and get serious about telling stories about the core.
- Stop asking volunteers to serve in areas that are off-mission just because they exist and need people to function. Put your best people on your greatest opportunities.
- Stop wasting money on ministries that used to work and deploy more financial resources on the Keystone Ministries.
Give ministries that are more important an unfair amount of time, money, and people. Instead of scattering your focus, zoom in on the core.
3. Shut down the non-core.
As you focus more resources, more people, and more communication on what matters most, you’ll have to pull that focus from somewhere.
You can't manufacture more. You have to redeploy the resources you already have. There isn't a list of amazing people waiting to serve or a secret bank account with extra funds…you're going to have to get the people and money from existing things.
Doing this is a stewardship moment and a chance to put your best resources on your best opportunities.
The temptation is to say, “This small thing over here…it's not costing much of anything…it's not a huge time commitment or a big expense…let’s just leave it alone.”
That’s certainly an option.
But those little things that don't take much time or money add up. They cost you more than you realize.
I’ve talked to pastors who insist sideways things aren’t the issue, but still devote hours every month to trouble-shooting and discussing. Those are hours that could go toward critical, on-mission endeavors. And by allowing off-focus things to continue, you signal to your leaders and congregation that your mission and strategy is up for grabs.
Stopping programs and ministries that are not on-mission might seem like a dramatic solution to the busyness of your church, but it might be the only thing that makes a measurable difference.
You'll likely need someone to talk you through some of this. That's where your Church Fuel ministry coach (available to all members at no extra cost) can be a tremendous resource.
You need to talk to someone with no emotional connection to your church…someone who knows your strategy but not all of your people…someone who can give you Biblical and practical advice on how to proceed.
Pouring money and people into things just because other churches are doing it isn't the right way to grow your church. It's the way to be stressed and broke.
What ministry in your church needs an unreasonable amount of resources? Maybe you're like my pastor friend and want to stake your claim on serving the community. Perhaps, you're in an area with young families and need to invest heavily in children's ministry. When you figure out your kingdom concept, don't try to fit it in—double down on it.
When you join Church Fuel and build your Two Page Plan, you’ll identify your top five keystone ministries.
You don't have to treat all your ministries and programs the same. That's poor leadership.
Focus on engagement, not just attendance.
Over the last few years, there's been a significant downward trend in church attendance. People are attending church less often.
This decline in church attendance isn't just because of the rise of the “nones” (those who claim no religious affiliation). Even those who say faith is an integral part of their life are attending less and less. People who are committed to your church are physically in the building less often than in previous decades. We discussed this topic in-depth on this podcast with Justin Trapp.
Whether there's a lower value perception or people are busier pastors and church leaders must face this new reality.
There are things you can to do increase attendance, but perhaps a better path might be to not just focus on physical attendance but overall engagement.
Carey Nieuwhof, quoted above, says that while, in the past, attendance has been the first step to engagement, in the future, it is engagement that will drive attendance.
In your church, engagement might take a variety of forms.
- It could be volunteering.
- It could mean connecting in a small group.
- It could be stepping into leadership.
- It might mean giving regularly.
No matter how you define “engaged,” it's important to highlight these next steps and make them evident in your church. Attendance alone shouldn't be the barometer for growth. Instead, take a look at how people are engaging.
North Point Community Church in Atlanta spent some time developing a model and looking at these numbers, specifically around three key actions that they challenge people to take (give, serve, be in a group).
54% of people who did one of the three activities were attending one year later.
97% of people who did two of the three were involved a year later.
That’s a significant difference.
These numbers show that engagement can drive attendance, not just the other way around.
People are more satisfied with their church experience when they are contributing rather than merely consuming.
That’s why focusing on engagement, not just attendance, can be a driver of growth.
There’s this little BBQ joint near me.
It’s a hole in the wall place, frequented by locals and regulars who know a thing or two about low-and-slow BBQ.
The food is fantastic.
The service is fast.
The sweet tea even tastes better. And a big part of me absolutely, positively wants NOBODY else to know about it. Because if more and more people start going there, it will probably change.
They might change the menu to accommodate different tastes. Or I might have to park farther away or wait longer for a table. This place is great because it’s not crowded. And if other people discovered the greatness, I might stop going.
That's precisely how some people view your church.
They like the preaching, the music, the people, and their favorite seat.
They like it the way it is, and if crowds of new people starting showing up, it would change. And people are averse to change as you'll read here.
See, while leaders love progress, people like stability.
A large group of people in your church like their church the way it is right now. They don't want it to grow.
They are proud members of the ninety-nine, not vocally upset that you are going after the one, but quietly saying, “What about me?” The ninety-nine resists change, hoping all that vision-casting and forward-thinking wears off soon.
So, what do you do when your church needs to change, but the people in the church resist change? What do you do when you believe the church should grow but the people in the church resist growth?
Here are six thoughts to consider.
1. Choose to be positive.
We all carefully construct the world around us to suit our preferences and desires. Both Millennials and Boomers like things the way they like them. Anytime something pushes up against our preferences and expectations, we push back.
Growth is hard because change is hard. And the very thing you want to change FROM is the thing someone fought FOR in the past.
Choose to believe people who are resisting growth are not against people, the Gospel, the church, or you.
They just like things the way they are.
Positivity in the face of resistance is hard, but it's best to deliver a message of hope with patience.
2. Be a pastor and a prophet.
Leading your church to growth will require courageous conversations and courageous decisions.
You know that.
You already feel that.
But depending on your personality, you’ll default to one of two positions.
The prophet points to the future.
The pastor looks to the people.
If your church is going to grow (and grow healthy), you need both of these voices of leadership. People need to hear a prophet's voice, clearly articulating the WHY behind the mission and vision of where your church is going.
But if your church is resisting change, they may need a pastor to help guide and shepherd them through transition. This kind of immense patience isn't always easy for a visionary leader.
You need to continually cast vision and clarify the current mission, but do it with the heart of a pastor.
3. Build a coalition.
I'm not saying this should be the case or that it's the best model for leadership. I'm just calling out what exists in reality.
Every church has power brokers.
It could be people in official leadership roles, or it could be influential or long-time members.
But if you want to move your church in any given direction, there are people you need to get on your side. They need to believe in you, not just the cause. They need to know the details, have a say in the decision, and know their part in the process.
- If you want to start a second service, you need influential representatives from every ministry involved in the decision.
- If you are changing the org chart or the structure of the church, you need influential leaders with relational equity to “sell” the change to people who have reservations.
- If you are making a bold move that will disrupt the status quo, you need tough leaders who will stand with you and say, “This is our decision.”
Many church growth initiatives fail because there was not enough private buy-in before there was a public campaign.
The more significant the change you're trying to make, the more people and the more time you need.
4. Talk about what is NOT changing.
The Church has been around for more than 2,000 years and has gone through many cultural changes. But through all of that, the Great Commission and the Great Commandant have remained the north star.
Amid your vision casting, remind people what is NOT changing. Reassure people that some things will stay the same forever.
No matter what kind of change your church needs, remind people that the Gospel will never change.
Your tactics will come and go, but your purpose will stay the same.
Your programs may change with the times, but your mission takes precedence.
Reminding people what will never change will comfort those who are worried about “losing their church.”
5. Get outside help.
Once a quarter, I participate in a strategy meeting for a local non-profit. It's an all-day meeting focused on reviewing the mission, setting quarterly goals, and breaking those goals into measurable, accountable tasks.
The non-profit's executive team participates in the meeting, but they bring in an outside facilitator to run the agenda. To be fair, this facilitator touches base in between meetings and runs those meetings according to a system.
Even though there are people qualified to run the show, and the agenda is the same nearly every time, they have an outside facilitator each time.
It’s not free.
It's a sizeable investment.
But as a participant in this meeting, I can honestly say it's worth every penny. A highly engaged, but unemotionally invested outsider can bring perspective to an organization that you will never get otherwise.
Despite the expense, if you want to lead your church through a growth barrier, get some outside perspective.
6. Draw a line in the sand.
It's crucial to believe the best about people.
It's vital that you act with patience, like a loving shepherd who cares about people.
It's important to get the right people on your side, including strategic advisors with an outside perspective.
With all of that said, there will still come a time when you have to make a decision.
At some point, you have to stop talking and start doing.
It might be time to make a decision and live with the consequences.
If you want to dive more into this growth mindset, check out The Senior Pastor's Guide to Breaking Barriers. Just fill out the form below, and we'll send you the PDF.
Not everyone in your church wants it to grow.
But that's not a barrier to stop you; it's an obstacle to overcome. It's an opportunity to steward the leadership God has given you.
Get some people around you to encourage you to keep going and give you good advice along the way, but don't give up.