7 steps to church growth is a series of conversations to have with your team about the future.
Why is church growth such a difficult thing to talk about? On one hand, we want to dismiss it . . . after all, it’s spiritual growth we want for our congregation, not just attendance. On the other hand, it’s our mission to reach people for Jesus. Attendance figures are a partial indicator of that.
Everyone agrees that church growth is better than church decline. To help churches grow, influential pastor Carey Nieuwhof is about to release “Lasting Impact – 7 Powerful Conversations That Will Help Your Church Grow.” I was able to get an advance copy of the book when it debuted at the Orange Conference. The book will be published later this summer. Meantime, here is a sneak-peek at the wisdom Nieuwhof offers:
Conversation #1. Why Are We Not Growing Faster?
Church growth isn’t a mystery. There are patterns we can spot in both declining and growing churches. For instance, declining churches are:
> In conflict.
> More in love with the past than the future.
> Not that awesome to be around.
> Focused inwardly.
> See culture as the enemy.
> Afraid to risk what is for the sake of what might be.
> Can’t make a decision.
> Talk more than act.
> Don’t think there’s anything wrong.
> More focused on growth than God.
To get a stagnant church growing:
> Consider structure: Most churches are structured (organized) to remain small. You can’t be a supermarket if you are structured like a small “mom and pop” grocery story.
> Rethink the pastor’s role: Many congregations see the pastor as the only one who can give care, counseling and perform weddings/funerals. Consider equipping congregation members to handle most of the caring. This way the pastor can focus on higher level functions and growth strategy.
> Develop a strategy: Many churches are clear on mission and vision (the “why” and “what”), but lack a widely agreed upon strategy (“how” you will accomplish your mission and vision).
> Many small churches are not led by true leaders. Growing churches move people with the gift of leadership into positions of leadership.
> Empower volunteers.
> Stop micromanaging.
> Simplify programming. Most churches attempt to do too many things. Activity does not equal accomplishment. Cut “good” programs in order to focus on just a few “great” ones.
To grow, address the real issues. Don’t simply make a change in form, make a change in substance. Questions to ask when a church stops growing:
> Is our sense of mission white-hot?
> Has our strategy or approach become dated?
> Are we on top of the constant change in our culture?
> Are we focused on unchurched people or on ourselves?
> Have main services that engage teenagers. If teens find your service boring, so will unchurched people.
> Are good with questions. Embracing the questions of unchurched people is a form of embracing them.
> Are honest about struggles. Unchurched people are suspicious when church leaders appear to have it “all together.”
> Have easy, obvious, strategic and helpful steps for new people.
> Have dumped assumptions. Unchurched people don’t know the basics of the Christian faith.
> Don’t do outreach as a program. Unchurched people know when “insiders” are putting on a show for outsiders.
> Are flexible and adaptable. We are never done reaching people. Churches that are adaptable and flexible in their strategy (not their mission or vision) will have the best chance of continually reaching unchurched people.
The main causes of church stagnation and decline are:
> Internal dysfunction that is sapping the community of its life, such as conflict, wrong people in the wrong places, and unrealistic expectations of staff, boards and volunteers.
> Structural issues, such as boards, that micromanage or pastoral care being vesting in a handful of leaders.
> An inward focus that refuses to acknowledge the need to change in order to be effective with outsiders.
Conversation #2. How Do We Respond as People Attend Church Less Often?
Even if you are successful leading people to Jesus, people are simply attending church less frequently. Here are some reasons:
> Greater affluence. People with more money have options, technology, travel and kids.
> Increased kids’ activities. Many children are playing on traveling sports teams. Parents are choosing kids’ sports over church.
> More people are traveling for business and pleasure.
> 24/7 culture. Working on weekends is common. Society no longer has a common pause day.
> Blended and single-parent families. When custody is shared, perfect attendance is 26 weeks a year.
> Online options. Churches with an online presence negatively impact physical attendance, but likely increase their overall reach.
> Cultural disappearance of guilt. People used to feel guilty about missing church. No longer.
> Self-directed spirituality. Postmodern thinking wants a self-directed approach over an institutional one.
> Failure to see direct benefit. People always make time for what they value most. They may not see value in attending church week after week.
> Valuing attendance over engagement. Engaged people attend more. People who merely attend fade away with time. Place the value on engagement and attendance may take care of itself.
> A massive culture shift. Our culture is shifting seismically.
Characteristics of today’s unchurched people:
> They don’t have big “problems.” Many people’s lives aren’t falling apart. They are content with their lives without God.
> Most are spiritual. Most believe in some kind of God and are offended when you see them as atheists.
> They aren’t sure what “Christian” means. You can’t make any assumptions about what people know about the Christian faith.
> You can’t call them back to something they never knew. “Revival” assumes there is something to revive.
> Many have tried church, but left. They had a negative experience the first time. This influences their expectations if they return to church.
> They want you to be 100% Christian, not some watered-down version.
> They’re intelligent, so speak to that. Don’t speak down to people that are new.
> They hate hypocrisy.
> They love transparency.
> They invite their friends if they like what they’re discovering.
> Their spiritual trajectory varies dramatically. Give people a chance to hang in the shadows for a while, then provide multiple jumping-in points throughout the year.
> Some want to be anonymous and some want immediate connection.
Tips for connecting with infrequent attenders and unchurched people:
> Embrace them. An unchurched person can initially seem very different than Christians who have been to church all their lives.
> Show empathy. If a person who has never gone to church is coming 12 times a year, that’s real progress.
> Separate the mission from the method. Our mission is to lead people to Jesus, not simply to get them to show up for an hour on Sunday.
> Celebrate wins. When a child takes their first steps, we applaud wildly. Do the same when people take steps spiritually.
> Elevate relationships. Create meaningful relationships through small groups.
> Love people. Don’t underestimate the power of simply showing love and grace.
> Create a culture of serving. Serving connects people to something bigger than themselves.
> Prioritize kids and teens. The more you prioritize families, the more families will prioritize Sundays.
> Create an irresistible experience. Many churches are resistible and don’t value excellence. Are we content with being mediocre?
> Create an awesome online presence. Have a quality social media program. Be the favorite person in their inbox and their favorite thing to see in their newsfeed.
> Offer offline surprises. Do something unique or fun just for those attending the physical location (not available online).
> Start measuring spiritual growth results.
Conversation #3. Are Our Leaders Healthy . . . Really?
Healthy leaders create healthy churches. The demands of leadership push you towards becoming unhealthy. Watch for these signs of burnout:
> Your motivation is fading. The passion that once fueled you is gone.
> Your main emotion is numbness. You no longer feel the highs and lows.
> People drain you. Nobody energizes you anymore.
> Little things make you disproportionately angry.
> You’re becoming cynical.
> Your productivity is dropping.
> You’re self-medicating (overeating, working more, gossip, spending, under-the-radar substance abuse).
> You don’t laugh anymore.
> Sleep and time off no longer refuel you.
10 healthy options for self-care:
> A great daily time with God
> A healthy diet
> Proper sleep
> Intentional white space in your calendar
> Healthy friendships. When was the last time you hung out with a friend you didn’t need to minster to?
> Margin. You are at your most kind when you have the most margin.
> Family time
> Coaching and counseling
Conversation #4. What Keeps High-Capacity Leaders from Engaging Our Mission?
Churches are volunteer organizations. Many churches maintain a mediocre volunteer culture, which deters high-capacity volunteers. Volunteers ask 5 questions. If you answer them in a healthy way, high-capacity volunteers will stick around.
> Are the personal relationships around here healthy?
> Will serving help me grow spiritually? Pray for and with your volunteers. Share your journey and encourage theirs. Mentor them.
> Am I just a means to an end? Care about people, don’t just use them.
> Will you help me develop the skills I need? People need a little training to do the task well.
> Am I signing up for life? Put a time limit for serving when you ask someone to volunteer.
Reasons high-capacity people leave your team:
> The challenge isn’t big enough.
> You vision, mission and strategy are fuzzy.
> You’re disorganized.
> You let people off the hook too easily. For everyone’s sake, you should hold volunteers accountable (like you do with staff).
> You’re not giving them enough personal attention.
> You don’t have enough other high-capacity volunteers around them.
Conversation #5. Why are Young Adults Walking Away from Church?
Half the students who are actively involved with church during high school leave after graduation. Here are some things that will help them stick around:
> Inter-generational relationships. Young adults want mentoring and to serve with older adults.
> Giving and receiving grace. Research shows that churches that show grace to teens do better than those that do not.
> Expressing doubt safely. Young people need to be able to express doubt. This is part of developing faith. It is unexpressed doubt that is toxic to faith.
Why many young people have stopped attending church:
> The church is irrelevant, the leaders are hypocritical, and leaders have experienced too much moral failure. Counter this by creating a culture of integrity, authenticity and grace.
> God is missing in the church. Young people are looking for God and can’t find Him in the church.
> Legitimate doubt is prohibited. Conservative churches dismiss questions with trite answers. Liberal churches answer with too much ambiguity.
> People aren’t learning about God. People can’t understand anything the pastor teaches . . . as if he is speaking a foreign language.
> They’re not finding community.
In the past you could improve your church by making it more cool (band, lights, etc.). Now most cities have a lot of cool churches. Cool no longer works as a way to attract unchurched people. Here are things that will work:
> Authentic leadership and connection.
> An elevated sense of mission
> Elevated community
Conversation #6. What Cultural Trends Are We Missing?
Culture is changing rapidly. Churches that thrive over the long run will study culture, and in that process, they will become flexible, agile and adaptive. Here are some cultural trends that church leaders can’t ignore:
> Online is the new default. People check you out online before they come through your doors.
> Wi-Fi and smartphones. Your audience is Googling you during services. Do you assume your audience is intelligent, literate and has options?
> Dialog. People want to talk, not just listen. What venues do you have for real conversation?
> Loyalty. Brand loyalty is low. Being around for a long time can be seen as a liability. How are you showing the relevance of faith?
> Lack of guilt. Guilt used to motivate people, but no longer does.
> Declining trust in authority and institutions. People start out with suspicion as their primary approach to the church and its leaders.
> Personalized, eclectic spirituality. People are starting their spiritual journeys with minds open to many different faiths and their own ideas of what spirituality should be.
> Personal mission. People aren’t waiting for some leader to change the world. They just do it themselves.
> Trust in user reviews. What you say about your organization matters less than what others say.
> The death of cash and checks.
What will the future church look like?
> Gatherings will be smaller and larger at the same time. Large churches will be large because they are a collection of dozens of smaller gatherings under some form of shared leadership.
> Churches will have a quicker, lighter footprint. Portable church and innovative gatherings will prevail over multi-million dollar mega-facilities.
> Churches will be about what they want for people, not about what they want from people.
> More church staff will come from the marketplace rather than seminaries.
> Churches that love their model more than their mission will die.
> The church will still gather on weekends.
> Consumer Christianity will die and a more selfless discipleship will emerge.
> Sundays will become more about what we give than what we get.
> Attendance will no longer drive engagement; engagement will drive attendance.
> Simplified ministries will complement peoples’ lives, not compete with peoples’ lives.
> Online church will supplement the journey but not become the journey.
> Online church will become more of a front door than a back door.
> Online relationships will be valued as real relationships.
Conversation #7. What Are We Actually Willing to Change?
Here are things we can do when people want a church to grow but not to change:
> Tell the truth. Your patterns, habits and level of effectiveness as a church got you to where you are now. Point out the truth nobody wants to talk about.
> Plot trajectory. Map where the organization is going. “If we continue doing what we’re doing today, where will we be one year, two years and five years from now? If we change, where will we be one year, two years and five years from now?”
> Ban delusional talk. Refuse to allow people to divorce themselves from reality.
> Get an outside view. Read a book with your team, attend a conference or bring in a consultant.
> Offer constant feedback. Continue to point the group back to the truth.
> Draw a line and call it for what it is. At some point you have to stop talking and start doing. Put a do-by date on your conversations.
How to lead change when you’re not the boss:
> Think like a senior leader. Think about how an idea impacts the greater organization.
> Express desires, not demands. Show respect and share how you feel, don’t tell your leader how you think they should feel.
> Explain the ‘why’ behind the ‘what’. Click here for an excellent TED Talk on this.
> Stay publicly loyal. Public loyalty buys private leverage.
> Be part of the solution.
> Change yourself. Don’t just focus on the changes you want to see in others.
“Lasting Impact” is designed to be read with your staff. Each chapter includes questions to work through with your team. Click here to obtain a copy as soon as it is published.
There is great value in thinking about the future of our churches and making changes that improve our organizations. As Nieuwhof concludes, “The best is yet to come, and you have the potential to play a meaningful part in that amazing story.”