Truth #1: Nobody knows why some churches grow and others don’t.
Church growth shares sociological territory with rock bands and publishing. You can’t always predict which books will sell, or which bands will go to the top of the charts. Remember the old publishing mantra: “There are three ways to make money in publishing… and none of them work.”
Sometimes arbitrary, sometimes serendipitous, so much of church growth remains inexplicable (apart from the work of the Holy Spirit).
- Some churches experience a mercurial rise and fall,
- a few grow and grow and grow and grow (less than 2% of all churches)
- while most get to a fairly standard size (these tend to be groups of 2-3, 6-12, 20-70, 150-250, 35-400, then huge), and then remain there. It happens, but there’s no formula.
Truth #2: We absolutely do know why some churches grow, and others don’t.
There are legitimate, tried and true reasons churches grow. Some of them are almost like social engineering formulas. You can bank on them. Others are more spiritual yet equally real.
- Denominations grow because their members have babies.
- Individual congregations grow under the leadership of a magnetic preacher.
- [Some] churches grow faster if they are started in urban (suburban) locations that are growing numerically also.
- Churches grow if they (mostly) match the dominant culture in which they are situated.
- Churches grow if they believe prayer works, Jesus rose from the dead, and Scripture is the word of God.
In 21st century North America, churches grow if they are already big.
Again, this statistic parallels larger sociological trends. I can remember driving across the United States when I was a child, and each state, each community had its own restaurants, its own stores, lots of mom and pops places. The landscape has shifted. Everything is a chain now, and many of the chains have merged.
People like to go to big box, one stop shops. It’s no surprise then that they look for something similar in their churches.
The basic theory in church growth as I understand it: these days, churches with more than 400 in worship are growing. Everything below 400 (roughly) are not. There’s a smaller barrier to break around 200 in worship attendance, a sociological barrier to move from a pastor centered (where the center of gravity for joining is around the pastor) to a program centered structure (where people join the community and events). Lots of churches bounce up into this category, then drop back down below 200, because ultimately they remain culturally a pastor-centered community.
But once a church breaks past 400, the sociological push is far more likely to facilitate their continuing growth.
You can see that in the chart of ELCA congregations above. Those with 350 or more in worship were much more likely to see substantial numeric growth.
I’d venture to guess that although the vast majority of churches in the United States will still be very small ones (because people are starting new churches all the time, and because small churches are sometimes very tenacious and fruitful), this means that there is a fairly regular pattern in play–people are moving from small churches to larger churches. Larger churches are growing because they’re attracting people from the surrounding smaller churches.
In 21st century North America, the vast majority of churches (and denominations) are losing members, not growing, and nobody knows how to stop it.
That’s the plain old truth. It’s not going to change. And it’s going to continue, and accelerate. Quickly. But analysis of decline is for another post.
Nevertheless, there are a few churches, at every size, that grow. We can learn from them.
One massive failure of the church growth movement in the 20th century was a hyper-focus on mega-churches. The biggest and most successful churches marketed their methodologies, and leaders all across the country went to their conferences. This was of course a solid strategy IF (and this is a problematic if) your church was already big enough to benefit from the methods.
But most churches weren’t mega-churches, and weren’t going to become ones, so the methods that worked so well as the large church size had a different effect on all the conference attendees–they elicited false hopes and dispirited the masses.
And it really overlooked a simple fact, that the largest churches often grow by attracting members away from smaller churches.
So, let’s say you are a small church, and you want to grow. You know it probably won’t work to use the church growth strategies of the 20th century, and you aren’t even sure if it’s a spiritually sound strategy to set “growth” as the primary goal of the church.
What are the factors for growth, the ones worth considering?
I conclude with this non-exhaustive list. If we take the two truths dialectic to heart (Truth #1 and Truth #2), I’m probably both right and wrong in this list. But these are the things that are working in our context. We average around 175 in worship right now. We have added around 50 members per year at our congregation over the past five years, this year closer to 70. We also had a major split in the congregation two years ago and lost about 40% of our people.
- Focus on the “why” rather than the “how” of evangelism and church. Martha Grace Reese points out in Unbinding the Gospel that if you don’t know the “why” of evangelism you’ll never get folks engaged in the “how.” In our context, the “why” includes a laser like focus on offering a progressive faith voice in our region and state.
- If you build it, they will come. Intentionality is everything. We plan for new people to come. We host an annual catechumenal process for faith formation with those new to us. We pray over them, cultivate community with them, sponsor them, empower our people to join in mission with those who are new, and more.
- Focus on a niche that swims in blue oceans. This may sound too business-like, so I could articulate it in a more religious mode. Reach the unreached. Don’t play to the 60% of churchgoers who are already connected to a community of faith but are thinking about switching. Instead, be a faith community in the kind of shape, and in those places, that connect to people not yet connected to a community of faith. Matthew says, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.”
- Your new folks will be your best outreach. Really. Rely on them. They will both teach you who you are becoming, and share with their neighbors (who are more likely to not yet be connected to a church) about what they love about your church. They are the ones who believe, as I heard recently about our congregation from a newcomer, “As a church, you have the reputation for being concerned with the teachings and actions of Christ, for advocating for the disadvantaged, and for creating a community that is safe and compelling.”
- Prepare for resistance. If you are proclaiming Christ and him crucified, if you are really focused on God’s mission, you will meet some resistance even within your own congregation, and definitely in the community. Plan on such resistance. Worry if you aren’t encountering it. Learn from it. Take it as inspiration.
- Focus on Christ. There are many spiritual resources out there. People look to religion to meet some kind of need they haven’t been able to meet yet in their life in the world they know. But church in the way I’m envisioning it has a particular and joyful center. It’s Jesus. He’s really that interesting. And intentional circling around the Christ in the company of that strange community who aligns themselves with him, does indeed make a world of difference. People will see that and will want to join you in the mission.