Church growth: it’s all about the pastor


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Common story: First ________Church gets a new minister – Pastor Joe. He’s not a very good communicator. People start leaving. Within two years attendance has dropped by half. Giving is down by a third. First Church descends into a malaise. Eventually Pastor Joe is fired and the search for his replacement begins.

A year later First Church hires a new minister – Pastor Daniel. He’s a great communicator. The church immediately starts growing. Happy days are here again. People love Pastor Daniel.

Why did this happen to First Church? Nothing else changed. The building remained the same. The worship times remained the same. The ministry programs remained the same. The key staff remained the same. The only thing that changed was the pastor. Yet First Church’s attendance and giving rose and fell in direct response to the quality of the preacher.

Can I be brutally honest? When it comes to church attendance, nothing matters as much as the ability of the pastor to deliver good sermons. If a pastor is a good speaker the church grows. If he’s a bad speaker the church shrinks.

Sounds unspiritual – but it’s true. It shouldn’t be this way – but it is. Each week is a referendum on the pastor’s ability to deliver an inspiring sermon.

Admit it – you’ve gotten into the car with your spouse and begun critiquing the sermon before you’re out of the church parking lot. Or you’ve been asked, “How was church?” What do you talk about? The sermon. Let’s be real: Protestants judge the quality of a worship service largely by the power of the sermon to move them. Nothing else comes close.

This is why the right minister can cause a church to sink or soar.

I liken it to a football team: an NFL squad has 53 men, but the team’s fortunes rise and fall on the talents of one man – the quarterback. If he can deliver lots of touchdowns, the team wins. If he can’t, the team loses. Granted, the signal-caller must have good players around him, but as the Washington Redskins learned last season, a great QB means everything.

The same is true with church attendance. When it comes to numbers, nothing matters as much as the ability of the pastor to deliver engaging sermons. Preaching is everything.

It pains me to write these words. In an ideal world, what SHOULD matter is prayer, the presence of the Spirit, the love of the people for one another and the church’s ministry in the community. In that ideal world a church should be able to take out one preacher and install another without a hiccup.

And while we’re at it, why does the size of a church even matter? Jesus would choose a church of 12 sold-out disciples over a church of 12,000 passive pew-sitters any day.

We can argue these points until Christ returns, but this blog post is about attendance. Numbers. And when it comes to putting men in pews, nothing matters more than pastoral quality. Every other consideration pales in comparison.

This wasn’t always the case.

In medieval times there was only one church in a given area, or parish. If your parish priest offered boring homilies, you were stuck.

After the Reformation, sermons became the centerpiece of Protestant worship, as they are today. Some preachers were interesting, and others were boring. But until the 1950s, that didn’t matter much. Christians were mostly loyal to their denominations. If you were born a Methodist you attended the Methodist church in your area. If pastor was a lousy preacher you endured it. You never even thought of going to another church because you were Methodist and that was that.

Fast forward to today. Parishioners are no longer loyal to their denominations. Here’s my story: I was born and baptized Lutheran. As a young man I attended an Assemblies of God Sunday school. I came to know Christ in a Free Methodist Church. In college I joined a Baptist church, where I was married. I moved to Alaska and became a Presbyterian, and ten years ago I joined a non-denominational megachurch, which I still attend today (although I visited a small Lutheran church this summer and enjoyed it).

This kind of religious switching would have been unusual a century ago, but today it’s common. People move to new cities. They have automobiles that will take them to a church (and a pastor) they connect with. People are less loyal to institutions.

Because parishioners now have access to better preaching (live or through the media) they are less willing to put up with boring, rambling, irrelevant preaching. This has led modern congregants to evaluate their churches based on the sermon. They stay or go based on whether they “are being fed.” If the messages consistently lag, they seek out another church that offers them more.

Many of you are seeing red by this point. “Today’s churchgoers are so shallow. They treat God’s holy church like a product to be consumed!” you say. And you’re right.

But this is the reality in today’s world. People come to church expecting to receive something from God. If they don’t, they move on. Can we blame them? People came to Jesus – and they always received.

Although we may condemn them as consumers, today’s parishioners choose a church with great care. The decision to leave a church is often a difficult one, fraught with emotion, doubt and uncertainty.

I have a friend in Texas (let’s call him Roger) whose church planted “daughter church” in a nearby town. Roger and his family agreed to move to the daughter church to help it get started.

The daughter church started with much enthusiasm but quickly began to sputter. Attendance dropped by 75% as the fledgling congregation struggled with its music and preaching.

Roger attended faithfully. He volunteered. He prayed. But the poor sermons exacted a toll on his walk with God. “Honestly, I wanted to be a good soldier and stick it out, but I finally had to be honest with myself – I was dying spiritually,” Roger said. “The worship was lifeless. The sermons just weren’t reaching me. In nine months I didn’t hear anything from the pulpit I hadn’t heard a thousand times.”

Roger eventually made the painful decision to abandon the church plant and return to the mother church. “I felt like a traitor,” he said. “But I’m regularly hearing from God again back in my home church. I know I’m being selfish, but I go to church to meet with God. If that’s not happening what’s the sense in going?”

Here are some questions for you to grapple with:

  • What do you think Roger should have done? Was his decision to abandon the church plant selfish, or is it more important to do the things that help us grow spiritually?
  • Why do we go to church? For our own benefit? For God’s benefit? For the benefit of others?
  • Should a believer persevere in a congregation that does not meet his needs “because it’s not about him?” If so, for how long? Weeks? Months? Years? Decades?
  • Should Christians be “self feeders” or should they expect to be fed Sunday morning?
  • Should churchgoers expect to hear something new at church, or should they be content to hear familiar truths they’ve long known?
  • Should believers “tough it out” in a church with lifeless preaching and music?
  • Churchgoers give up a lot of time to come to church. Should they expect a return-on-investment for their time?
  • Is it right for churchgoers to change congregations based on the quality of the preaching?
  • If a Christian decides to leave a church, what’s the best way to go about it? Should he simply disappear? Or should he write a letter to the pastor explaining his reasons for resigning?

I welcome your comments. And please share this blog by clicking on the share icons below. Also, join the conversation on our Facebook page. 

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  • Robert

    I have to disagree with the minister part of article…it isn’t always the minister. It could be the leadership. One church had a complete change in eldership and they began putting pressure on the minister (WAY too much). It forced the preacher to resign. Went from 220 people to 65! When asked, the leadership said, “it was going to be better!” The church is still struggling to regain the community’s trust.

    Self feeding is essential for the Church, but when you are having to “meet expectations,” it becomes hard to preach this, as many leaders would say, “You need to be feeding us!”

    • Your comment is much appreciated. And you are correct – many times church leaders will run off a preacher for one reason or another and the membership immediately plummets. But I think we’re both in agreement – the presence or absence of a good preacher will often determine the growth or demise of a congregation.

  • David MacKenzie

    At one point, this article infers that church-goers are consumers. At another, it infers that these consumers choose their churches with great care. I wonder, actually whether both can really be true?

    • Absolutely. Didn’t you choose your last automobile with great care? A congregation is a very important product in the lives of many people – it’s one you commit to for a very long time ideally (I am speaking in terms of consumerism; I’m not endorsing this way of thinking, but merely describing it.)

  • Wayne Daley

    My first position in response to the story of ‘Roger and the Daughter Church’ is that Roger should have approached the church leadership to find out how he could help. To ask what was being done about a 75% decline in attendance. The only way to solve problems is to ask questions in an effort to determine the root of the problem. Once the root is identified, then you can begin to fix what is
    broken. If the leadership is willing to be transparent and address the issue
    before the members, provide information about how they are attempting to
    correct the issues, and are willing to make whatever changes needed to affect
    positive results, regardless of how radical it might be, then I would say he
    left too soon. If church leadership was hunkered down and determined they were
    doing it correctly without a thought of changing, I think Roger was within his
    right to leave.

    We go to church to build the up the ‘body’ for the glory of God. As long as the
    leadership of the local church maintains the same focus it should never be a
    problem. We go to church to celebrate, worship and praise God as a fellowship
    of believers. You ask “why do we go to church?” and my answer is Acts 2:47 “praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.” I go to church and I do benefit when I am serving to reach a world that has not yet been added to our numbers. When I say ‘our numbers’, I mean being counted among those who claim Jesus Christ as Lord of their life.

    As I stated earlier, as long as the leadership of the church is willing to work hard
    to determine the cause of the issue and make any changes needed to uproot the issue to affect positive change, I think the believer should lean into the
    wheel and continue to push hard. I don’t think the question of how long is
    cookie cutter for all believers. I think it is on each person to prayerfully
    determine when he/she has reached the point of knowing their efforts are not
    bringing results. I submit that when it is time the person will know. They
    should also be prepared to have a conversation with the leadership of the
    church as to why they are leaving. Do not severe ties with the people you are
    leaving behind and make every effort to maintain the relationships.

    I feel that expecting to be feed at church is like expecting to have a sit down dinner when you go to the Grocery Store. You can get everything you need at the store, but you should be willing to take it home and serve it up for the family. The church is not responsible for the spiritual training of the family: that is the
    man’s job. The man should be working in partnership with the wife God has given
    him to feed and protect all members of the family, including himself and his
    wife. When we go to church expecting to get what we need, we become consumers and not servants of one another. It is our job as the body to build up the church to serve its purpose.

    I go to church expecting to hear something new about scriptures I should already know. The perspective of a dynamic speaker who might be able to hold it up in a way that makes me think about it from a different angle. If the teaching is on a
    book of the bible that I have not yet read, I should read it first. Most churches will let you know the series they are going through, unless they are a topical teaching type of church. When a believer goes to church with the mind that they do not have to pick up the bible and read it for themselves because somebody else is going to tell them what it says, they’ve missed the greatest opportunity of their lives in getting to personally know a God who lovingly pursues them and wants to have a relationship with them.

    This issue rests on the shoulders of the leadership and the key word you’ve used is lifeless. If a church is lifeless, it is without God. If a church is without
    God, is it really someplace we need to be? The answer is Yes if the leadership
    are willing to seek the changes needed to bring glory to God. The answer is No
    if the leadership is set in the path they’ve charted for their church. We cannot be personally loyal to any individual at the church when it perpetuates an environment that is less than what God desires us to be as a local church. “Lifeless” is not something God desires.

    Attendees should expect to be filled with joy. You know it is something worthwhile when nobody wants to go home when it is over. I always think about the times when I was a kid and I would risk getting in trouble because I stayed out with my
    friends playing football in the street or riding bikes in the vacant lot with dirt track. The return we should expect is to be with the people we love to serve, wants to laugh with and are willing to be uncomfortable for. When we change our focus from what we are giving to who we are serving, the church we experience changes to something joyful.

    I’m not sure how to respond to the question about ‘leaving a church’ other to say I have changed churches more than once. The first time addresses this question and the second the next question. When I got married, I was attending a large church in town where I lived. The church was very big in the community and served both local and international outreach, offered lots of activities and study’s for its members, and offered some of the best worship in the valley. The teaching was topical and did not go book by book through the bible. When I got married, my wife and I attended this church for a short time. The teaching style was not what my bride was accustomed to and she needed to return to a church that provided expository preaching. We found another church here in the valley where we could serve and grow together.

    My second experience leaving a church was after a year of submission to leadership and prayer regarding the decision. I attended, and served as an elder, a wonderful church that provided excellent teach and community among the believers. The church did not believe in gender ministries (men and women). At that time, I had started a para-church nonprofit organization intended to serve the local church as a resource to support ministry to men. Part of how I was building exposure to the ministry was to host Saturday breakfast. Of course, a majority of the men I attended church with would come to the breakfast. The leadership of the church requested that I stop hosting the breakfasts due to the fact I was an elder and it was causing the appearance of having a church sanctioned event for men only. I complied and stopped the breakfast, however I continued with the community outreach serving meals to the homeless. I then resigned as an elder and continued to serve the church for a year. When it became clear to me that I needed to be at a church that supported ministry to men in a manner I felt called to lead, I had to leave the church. I spoke to the lead pastor about my decision, then personally to each elder and other leader at the church. I also spoke to friends we had within the body to let them know why I was leaving. My bride and I will still visit the church from time to time for baptisms and special events. We still love that church and pray for them.

    Again…it is about who you are serving at or through the church and not what you are getting from being at church.

  • Coffee Kev

    I believe that after a certain point, hearing the truth from church leadership, one must leave the nest and become a self feeder. I cringe every time someone tells me they refuse to go to a church where they feel like they can be fed. But the fact of the matter is, that we are not all on the exact same level of spirituality. I no longer place any faith in any church leaders anywhere. Does that mean that I think they are worthless? Absolutely not! They are very important, and God still uses them to get my attention. $%*(“BUT!!!”)*%$
    I no longer seek their wisdom as my main course in spirituality. I am a sheep, a disciple, An eternal student. I am not in preschool, I am in college, and I have no excuse to act like a child anymore. I seek jesus’ face. Jesus is my portion, and my daily bread, and sometimes I will receive his message through people other than those that stand behind a pulpit, Like the David Murrows of the world. Or My friend Aaron Marshall, or my mother, my wife, and even my son. There are many branches in the vine of Christ. And I have grown enough so far to test the truth in those that preach to me. I love all of them, and I am thankful for them. Anymore, I just go to church to meet with other christians. This is a great article, we need more like them. Being real with each other is of utmost importance, it might not be long before the church is persecuted with burning ferocity in america. People are losing faith in God, and gaining faith in “Stuff” and money.

  • Pastor Dee

    I’m curious as to why you make all of your references to “pastor” and “preacher” as being male. Those of us who are ordained and women are ready and more than capable of communicating and leading. Perhaps the solution is as simple as searching for the right man OR woman for the church?

    • More than 95% of senior pastors worldwide are men. It’s the same tendency one would see when writing an article about registered nurses (92% of whom are female). My choice of pronouns is not a slap at women – it simply reflects the reality on the ground.

      • Pastor Dee

        Granted – given that there are denominations who do not ordain women, the vast majority of pastors are men. But as someone who is on the margins, serving God and preaching the salvation of Christ, it would be nice now and again for y’all to note that your co-laborers are not all men.

      • lebaugh4846

        The truth of the matter is that if Christ were here in the flesh, he wouldn’t condone women as pastors. The Bible is fairly clear that God wants men to be the leaders and pastors of His church. In one place Paul even writes that women should be silent during church. Am I not correct? If someone doesn’t like this, they should take it up with God, not try to reinterpret the Bible to say what it doesn’t say for their own personal agendas.

        • MsRevT

          LeBaugh, I’m not sure why I’m commenting, but you did ask, “Am I not correct?” To answer: In the readings of many millions of Christians over the course of a couple of thousand years: No, you are not.

  • Al Cruise

    Who’s fault is all this? It’s ours. We chose to move to the corporate model for our Church’s. In the late eighty’s, early ninety’s we moved full scale into what we have today and justified it by saying we were being “culturally relevant”. Maybe we should have been “Jesus relevant”. Jesus said his Church will not be overcome, maybe his Church is not the one you are writing in your post.

  • Parish Member

    With its own warts, absolutely, the Catholic church challenges one of the central themes of this article. That church is a huge harvester of Christian souls, and its approach to congregation building is more about tradition and community than about the ego of one central father-figure-pastor. Its call process makes the point, by moving pastoral chess pieces around at the will of the church superiors.

    Moving past the ideal of growth, let us also consider the moral obligation of the dynamic sermon writer and deliverer. That mere mortal may be able to seize credit for building a church attendance, based on his mark and his control of the channels of communication. With those important elements, he can subliminally brand the services and the congregation as a place to benefit by the quality of his preaching, and all his other great ideas. That dynamo certainly will have opportunities beyond “his” fold, and may eventually leave his lay”men” holding the virtual bag, with a swollen population that has arrived for the weekly feeding that is no longer possible. After his departure, the tradition and community that existed before his whirlwind tour may disappear in a very short time, further feeding the ego of the dynamic preacher, but doing a moral wrong to the church body.

    Such a man of God must approach his own departure as inevitable (either in body or in mind and talent), and build and strengthen the local congregation and the institution that supports it. Else, it’s not about God any more but about a demagogue who has lost sight of the essential nature of faith and spirituality as both private and community building and not about the worship of false gods.

    Pray in private. Do great works. Write great sermons. Deliver them with passion. And then be a mindful member of a community that deserves strengthening and protection from the flame of passion and pride that has had a part in its creation.

  • cypher20

    Um, well, I don’t think church is all about us. On the other hand, why continue attending a church that is not helping you to grow spiritually? Would I “tough it out” some if a church I was going to started to flag? Yeah, absolutely. Would I “tough it out” forever? I don’t think so, not unless somehow God told me I needed to be there. I don’t think one can give an exact time frame on that though, it will depend on the situation and on the individual.

    Of course you should “feed” yourself, you can’t eat one big buffet every Sunday and be fed for the week, not with real food and not with spiritual food. However, I don’t think it is ridiculous to expect to be “fed” on Sunday.

    As for hearing new things, frankly, I don’t think we should expect to always hear new things. Human nature hasn’t changed as much as we’d like to think from the days of Christ. Things that were true back then are still true today, so for me, it isn’t about always hearing something “new”, many times “new” teachings are actually against the Bible. However, you do want to be learning and growing closer to God, a “good” pastor can help with that.

  • Joe Scoggins

    Pastor Dee: your defensiveness speaks volumes.
    DM: You make a lot of really good points. Whereas church should be centers of worship and celebration, they have become centers of entertainment, and the ability of the pastor to keep them entertained often determines how many people show up. Sad in one respect, but challenging in another.

    • Lance Ellinghaus

      Joe: This is true out here in North Texas.. Not sure about other places.
      Almost all of the local Churches now have a Traditional and Contemporary service. My wife and I take our two youngest children to other Christian Churches so they have some knowledge of how other services are done and we went to a Catholic Contemporary service. Wow! Nothing like when I was going to the Catholic Church when I was younger… The rock band and the passing of the Sacrament in shorts.. Very different.
      I also noticed that most people don’t even get dressed up anymore to go to Church. Sad to see.

    • Pastor Dee

      Join me in preaching that in Christ there is no Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female…

      I’m not defensive in the least, but have decided that it is time to speak up as an evangelist and preacher. I’m just reminding those who are stuck in their comfortable niches that perhaps you are missing some folks who are available and skilled in sharing the Gospel.

  • Lance Ellinghaus

    I have seen how a pastor can make a huge difference in attendance through friends of ours. I thought this article did a good job showing what other people don’t want to talk about. As I grew up, I was baptized into the Episcopal Church and later attended the Catholic Church. After my parents split, I attended many different denominations wth my mother as she tried to find a new church. I eventually dropped out of attending any Church because of the confusion that this all caused. I did not attend any Church from about age 15 until about 24. I was recently divorced and my girlfriend introduced me to her Church: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
    This was a HUGE change because the person (the Bishop) leading the congregation (the ward) was not chosen by the members of the ward and is not paid for his service to the ward. He is chosen by the Stake Presidency and approved by Salt Lake City. He is only in that position for about 4 years and then is replaced. He does not give all of the sermons. They are given by members of the ward that are picked by the Bishop and his two counselors and given a topic to talk about that is assigned by Salt Lake City. So very different then anything I grew up with.
    Every ward is taught the Gospel through a set of manuals that come out yearly with defined Gospel topics for specific weeks. I can attend any ward anywhere (and I have attended a lot of different wards because of travel) and know what is going to be talked about in Gospel Doctrine class and Elder’s Quorum (Men’s Priesthood meeting).
    The impact of the Pastor on the congregation does not really pertain to the LDS Church because of the way the Bishop is called to serve and that his term is limited and his teaching is dictated by Salt Lake City. We just changed Bishops about 6 months ago, and everything keeps rolling along, just as it was before with the previous Bishop.
    It is really sad to hear about Churches that have problems when a Pastor changes. The Gospel should be the Gospel and not dependent on the Pastor, but I know how it happens. My mother still “Church Shops” looking for the Pastors that she likes.
    I just hope that everyone can find a place where they are comfortable and can learn about Christ and His Gospel.

  • JoelCannon

    Interesting. This is not my experience.
    In my church, we have no paid clergy, only a lay ministry. Virtually all members of the congregation serve – and this includes teaching and giving sermons. It takes over a year to rotate thru the congregation – some sermons are better than others. Knowing that you might be next keeps you humble and appreciative of the effort shown by others.
    Every week, I have something to do at church, and I feel connected and useful. The same is true for my wife and children. I go to serve and believe this is true for those sitting around me in the congregation.
    I believe attendance is proportional to how connected the members feel. Sharing opportunities to serve is the key.

  • lebaugh4846

    I would submit that it’s not necessarily the preaching directly that draws people in, but rather the ability of the preacher to spiritually inspire people by whatever means.
    I’ve know men, and women, who’ve inspired me by saying very little, or sometimes nothing at all, but by their actions and sense of presence they’ve inspired me.

  • StanO360

    I lived this as a church elder. Before we become smug and say “they shouldn’t be that way!”, I say yes they should! Sheep should come to church expecting to be fed, nurtured, challenged, informed. Why is it wrong to expect a pastor to use fundamental speaking techniques to spell out what God put on his heart that week?

    Why shouldn’t every sermon be clear, insightful and purposeful. That being said, does every pastor need to have the gift of preaching, not necessarily, but without it they need to be a hard charger, organizer, and extremely passionate to minister.

    Our church collapsed under the new pastor, while we implored him to use better techniques (not to be confused or conflated with his inspiration). Stubbornly, he finally rejected our advice and just said that’s the way I am. People were not being fed on Sundays, the church would have fallen apart much more quickly except there was a great tradition of love, and family among the body.

    Most of the reason that wasn’t the case 100 years ago was that 75% (95% 125 years ago) of people lived in rural areas where there were few choices.