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10 Very Possible Reasons Your Church Isn’t Growing

Sometimes you and I make life out to be more mysterious than it actually is.

You ask why you keep getting speeding tickets (why me God?!?) when the simple truth is you usually speed.

You ask why your friendships are so conflicted when the truth is you gossip.

You wonder why your kids don’t talk to you when the truth is you haven’t been around to build a relationship in the first place.

Often problems whose origins seem mysterious to us are really not that mysterious to others. We just can’t see the truth.

The same is true for many of us who want our church to reach new people and are puzzled why that just isn’t happening.

Maybe it’s not as mysterious as we think.

The same is true, by the way, for personal growth. Growth in effectiveness and impact as a leader is not as mysterious as you think.

My new High Impact Leader Course, which will gives you a strategy to get time, energy and priorities working in your favor, is open for new registrations for just a short window. You can check it out here.

 reasons your church isn't reaching new people


A Few Things First and a Motive Check

Every time church growth surfaces as a subject, some leaders defensive.  What’s wrong with small churches? Why are so many people obsessed with growth? And then people go hyper-spiritual and start quoting scripture verses to justify why church growth is a bad thing.

I write posts like this because I love the mission of the church, and I truly believe Jesus is the hope of the world.

I have met with countless church leaders who want their church to grow for great reasons (because they love Jesus believe people’s lives are changed by him) but are puzzled at why their churches aren’t growing. That’s why I write posts like this. (If you want more posts on growth, you can check out 8 Reasons Most Churches Never Make it Past the 200 Attendance Mark and 6 Keys to Breaking the 200, 400 and 800 Attendance Barriers).

And, yes, I have also met church leaders who want their church to grow for questionable reasons too. God knows the hearts of people, and just because some people might want a church to grow because because of ego does not mean all growth is bad.

And, in the end, healthy things grow. The mission of the church at its best throughout the centuries has been an outward mission focused on sharing the love Jesus has for the world with the world.

That’s why this matters to me (and to so many of you).


10 Very Possible Reasons Your Church Isn’t Growing

So with that in mind, here’s a list of ten things that might be holding your church back from realizing the potential of its mission. We’re often the last to see what so many others see, and once we see it, we can deal with it. Progress often ensues.

Here are ten very possible reasons your church isn’t growing:


1. You’re in Conflict

Ever been in someone’s home as a guest only to have your hosts start to argue with each other? It doesn’t happen that often, but the few times it’s happened when I’ve been around have made me want to run out the door.

Why would church be any different? If you’re constantly bickering and arguing, why would any new people stay? It’s not that Christians shouldn’t have conflict, but we should be the best in the world at handling it. The New Testament is a virtual manual of conflict resolution, but so many of us prefer gossip, non-confrontation and dealing with anyone but the party involved.

Growing churches handle conflict biblically, humbling and healthily.


2. You’re more in love with the past than you are with the future.

This can be true of churches that are in love with tradition and churches that are have had some amazing days recently. When leaders become more in love with the past than they are with the future, the end is near.

If your church is a museum to 1950 or even 2012, the likelihood of reaching the next generation diminishes with every passing day.


3. You’re not that awesome to be around.

Fake. Judgmental. Hypocritical. Angry. Narrow. Unthinking. Unkind.

Those are adjectives often used to describe Christians, and sometimes they have their basis in truth.

There are certain people who are energizing to be around. Unfortunately, too many Christians today don’t fit that description. Jesus was mesmerizing. Paul caused conflict for sure, but he had many deep relationships and incredible influence. The early church was known for compassion and generosity.

If people truly don’t want to be around you, don’t let the reason be because you haven’t let Christ reshape your character or social skills.


4. You’re focused on yourself.

Too many churches are focused on their wants, preferences and perceived needs. They are self-focused organizations and self-focused people. It should be no surprise that outsiders never feel welcomed, valued or included.

If you want to reach people, you can’t be self focused. After all, a life devoted to self ultimately leaves you alone.


5. You think culture is the enemy.

If all you ever are is angry at the culture around us, how are you going to reach people in that culture? Christians who consistently expect non-Christians to act like Christians baffle me (I wrote about that here.)

If you treat your unchurched neighbour like an enemy, why would he ever want to be your friend?


6. You’re afraid to risk what is for the sake of what might be.

Let’s face it, at least you’ve got something going for you. You’re paying the bills. You at least have X amount of people.

And if you’ve had any modicum of success recently, you’re going to be hesitant to risk what is for what could be. The greatest enemy of your future success is your current success.

When you’re perpetually afraid to risk what is for the sake of what might be, you might as well cue the funeral music now.


7. You can’t make a decision.

Governance will become a major issue for future churches. When your decision making is rooted in complex bureaucracy or congregational approval for every major change, it makes decision making difficult and courageous change almost impossible.

To get a glimpse of the kind of constitutional set up effective churches will need in the future, don’t miss Jeff Brodie’s awesome post on what every church constitution needs.


8. You talk more than you act.

Most church leaders love to think and love to debate issues.

Effective leaders add one more component. They act.

Most church leaders I know overthink and underact. If you acted on even a few more of your good ideas, you could possible be twice as effective in a very short timeframe.


9. You don’t think there’s anything wrong with your church.

I still run into a surprising amount of leaders and church members who love their church but can’t figure out why anyone else does.

Well, those churches are on their way to soon having not much more than a small club for the already convinced.


10. You’re more focused on growth than you are on God.

Some leaders get so jacked up about growth that they forget it’s about God and his mission. This is just a danger every motivated leader needs to keep in mind.

We’re leading people to Jesus, not to ourselves or our awesome church. Keeping the focus on Christ ensure genuine life-change happens and lasts.

These are 10 things I see holding our churches back.

What would you add to the list? Leave a comment!

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  • Cane Pastor

    Big Killer: Good pastors mistaking a call to lead through a challenging season (where maybe you won’t grow for a time and don’t look awesome for a year or two) for a call to leave. There usually aren’t enough like minded gospel advancing pastors to go around to replace ones that leave too early.

  • JJ truth

    Another false guy out to make $$$$ from Christianity. Non of his reasons were rooted in Scripture. “You will know them by their fruit. The church and its leaders don’t need more books, sermons, speech making and courses. Relational, Bible focused, Christ obedient, Holy Spirit filled, servant leadership is what the church needs badly.

  • Mmwebster

    You have no interest in members as individuals and don’t have time to get to know them. Your pastor doesn’t call on people or invite them to join in service personally. Most people and even animals are very uncomfortable approaching a new group of any kind. Someone needs to welcome them and include them. If someone stops coming, make a call and invite them to a specific function. No one likes to feel that their absence isn’t noticed. If they’ve moved elsewhere they can tell you that.

  • minstrel Amoh

    God cannot be mocked, some church leaders think they can deceive God. The church is for God, not man, so in a case where you tHink the church is business establishment the Holy Spirit Power Will leave the church. God kNows our minds. We, clay, cannot deceive the potter.

  • chercher

    I don’t know why Christians won’t open up their Bible instead of letting someone tell them what’s in it. Jesus told the early Christians that the world will hate them just as they hated him. He didn’t tell them that if they didn’t do this or they didn’t do that then they would be hated.

    Also, the Scripture said that there will be a great falling away ….so even believers will turn their back on the church and we have seen plenty of that. Jesus tells us that broad is the way that leads to destruction but narrow is the way that leads to life and few will find it.

    So christians, don’t sweat it ….there are about 2 billion of you still around and even if you go to a church and there is only 6 good people in it, that’s fine….better to have 6 than have 6,000 of pretenders.

    I don’t really get these so called pastors who form their own opinion as to how Christians should conduct themselves, instead of going straight to the source….the Bible.

    • TheTruth!

      Wow… Amen! Powerful post.

  • ChiefRagamuffin

    I like the article. Very good. One thing that pops into my mind is … people are not making enduring relationships with lost people. Therefore any invite is more or less cold call selling, which doesn’t go over big with people. When I surveyed people formally, the number one reason that came up was that they didn’t have regular, good, deep relationships with lost people. Cloistered Christians syndrome.

    • YES!

    • JJ truth

      Christians aren’t being properly fed to disciple the lost. Another thing Christians are called to have deep, enduring, loving relationships with one another not with lost people. If the lost choose Christ then that is another subject. Read your Bible woman.

      • Josh Scherer

        Having fun JJ Truth? No-ones listening. Go troll somewhere else.

  • GABoy

    The pastor is lazy! Too many pastors I’ve met seem to know what is going on in every single church in town – how many come, the dumb thing the pastor believes, the “rejects” that left his church for the other one. He claims that his church could grow too, if they did what the big church in town does, but he is too lazy or proud to change anything. Change means work. Too many pastors are just lazy. The miinistry is a job you can do poorly and still get just as much money as if you did it well. So some get lazy.

    • Some pastors are lazy for sure. Many work incredibly hard. But it can be a reason for sure. Most I know work hard.

  • TxPastor

    My suggestion as an additional item is somewhat of a mix between your number 10 and Jeremy’s 11. So number 12 for the list: “Lack of Spiritual Leadership.” And this is especially for the laity. Yes, many churches have leaders, but are the Spirit minded? I have seen a rural church near collapse a year after its spiritual leader passed away. The church had not raised up new spiritual leaders, part neglect and part reluctance of the “old guard” to hand over the reigns to the next generation.

  • Damien

    You want your church to grow? This is a very serious idea from one of the many, in your church pews…

    Next week, without warning ANY of us first, have all of us, get off our ASSES and actually do something! Sunday, instead of parroting phrases and boring unintelligible songs to back of blue-heads in front of us, get us out of our stale, boring church! Rent a bus and take us – even for an hour – take us to do what Jesus wants done. You and I know, Jesus didn’t want us to repeat stories about helping others – He wants us to ACTUALLY help others. Do this, in a dramatic way, during the time people would be sitting in church will force members to talk about it. Imagine, just imagine every single member of your congregation enthusiastically telling their family, friends, workmates, neighbors, etc… about how exciting church was? … finally!

  • Jeremy

    I would add 1 to this list. (By the way, I think all the above is true).
    11. We don’t train our people to reach out. At most churches, the only expectation of a church member is to “Invite people to church.”
    What about training our people to intentionally make disciples?
    In most churches there is 1) No expectation for Christians to reach out to non-Christians and 2) If there is an expectation, there is no formal training to help people do so.
    Until we get out of the mindset of just telling our people to invite people to church, our churches will not grow.
    Having sermons on how we should be evangelizing without training people to do so just makes people feel guilty. We need to help them be effective.
    How many churches have any kind of training whatsoever in teaching members how to make disciples?

    • Great point Jeremy. Been thinking about this a lot lately.

    • sisteract

      In my experience it starts with friendship. Otherwise it will be just cold calling which, as the person above posted, is awkward and mostly ineffective. Not sure about yet another meeting to formally train people. Us families are busy enough. Start with being a good neighbour and friend. Then an invite can naturally flow. And make sure the intent isn’t just to put bottoms in seats but instead is from a genuine caring and wanting them to know who Jesus is.

  • toby

    Awesome Article. …

  • Tim

    Katherine Harms,

    I think you are confusing the term culture. Culture isn’t the enemy. That is not to say that Christianity isn’t counter-cultural, in many aspects it is. But where there are people there will be a culture and subcultures of that culture. Christianity is part of its culture wherever it is. Culture isn’t the enemy, sin, death and their father within that culture is. If what you say is true than our purpose in this life is to fight cultural wars (same-sex marriage, abortion, conservatism). I think that we are to live and tell the Gospel in our culture in a way that redeems it, not defeats it. When people believe the gospel and experience gospel transformation they will affect the culture…but the culture will remain albeit reshaped if the church is being the church.

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  • This very well applies to Christian businesses

  • Peter Pearson

    Excellent! Thank you,

  • Katherine Harms

    I firmly believe that the culture IS an enemy. That doesn’t mean that I think people enslaved by the culture’s lies are enemies. You actually point to this same truth. You don’t suggest we accommodate the culture; you insist, as Christ did, that we love the people — like Zaccheus and the woman caught in adultery. Jesus didn’t say we should go along with theft and adultery, but he did way we should love the people. So we agree, but I would say “Don’t think that people who disagree with you are enemies. The culture is the enemy. The people are the unwitting dupes of the culture, because politically correct language sounds so nice.”

    • David Snead

      I think you’re confusing the ideas of “culture” and “world”. Culture is just the style in which we do things. The world, however, leads us into sin. Making style (culture) an issue is the same as what the Pharisees were doing, and Jesus rebuked them sharply, telling them that they were teaching as doctrines the traditions of men. Even the church has its own culture, and that is often a stumbling point for people coming into the church. Things like “girls HAVE to wear skirts” or “men HAVE to wear suits” aren’t in the Bible. Neither is “all church music has to be hymns.” Those are cultural things.

  • ron

    Am not in the ministry, saw this post from my daughter.
    Probably more than any time in the recent past churches seem to be splitting into 2 major camps. The ‘old’ main line denominations and the ‘fundamentalist”.
    You seem to be speaking to the first. Which as can see from reports are declining. The Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans, etc. Meanwhile the fundamentalists are growing.
    It is a split in culture and mindset. The main liners stress an individual relationship with God, introspection, silent prayer, ‘christian’ attitudes towards people and culture that has been open and inclusive. Answers to BIG questions will vary based on individuals and their understanding who God is.
    The Fundamentalists in today’s world have all this figured out. The denomination, the church or a leader has the answers to all BIG questions. The Bible is referenced as the source, but it is all based on a specific way of reading and interpreting it. (even the word interpretation is unacceptable for them, it is FACT, unquestionable by believers).
    One group requires introspection, the other faith not so much in the Bible, but in the leadership who has heard and read the word from God himself.
    Fundamentalism by it’s own definitions is exclusive, not inclusive. The rules for membership requires this.
    One requires hard work, talking and more importantly listening to other’s.
    The second is better served by minimizing interaction with others to avoid infection.
    The more difficult culture becomes, gays for example asking to be treated the same as all others. Exactly the same as blacks, women, inter-racial marriages in times past. The more enticing the fundamentalism mindset becomes.
    Science challenges as harshly as culture, but like culture accepting a portion creates a crack in the belief system. For some science is a way to understanding the world and universe around us from genes to the history of our earth and universe.
    For the fundamentalist it is a challenge to belief systems. It becomes EASIER to accept all or reject all. Accepting, being inclusive is creating cracks in this system.
    The things listed here to me seem secondary to first making it known that you are inclusive and challenging. The challenge isn’t attacking members, but asking them not just ask questions, but share insights.

    • Ron, I had no idea this post was about mainline v. fundamentalists. I’m just trying to help Christian leaders from various backgrounds. Thanks for your input.

      • ron

        I read it that way, because the things oyu discuss are not an issue within the fundamentalist mind set…..

        • Micah

          Ron, fundamentalist churches are declining as well. And fundamentalist youth have absolutely no use for the homophobia.

          • ron

            on the second statement I agree…..

      • con howerton

        Too often people confuse “Conservatism” with “Fundamentalism”. The word “fundamental” simply means “rudiments” or “basic tenets”. True Biblical Fundamentalists do their dead level best to impact people with the love of Jesus. It seems the “Conservative” mindset (which does find itself within the “fundamental” core) is the one which establishes exclusivity based on unBiblical ideals. Hate will always attract a crowd – loving people like Jesus requires work, patience, long-suffering, thick skin, humility and an understanding of who we are in Christ. I am a Biblical fundamentalist, we happen to be more “conservative” than most Churches around us – but that is based on a desire to be separated unto God but NOT to keep others out. WE are commanded to go, to love, to share the gospel, etc. I am a Biblical fundamentalist but I can’t stand most Fundamentalists…

        Thank you for the article – we are trying to get to 200 – we’ve made it to the 150 mark and are just having difficulty breaking through that. It is not about “Church growth” it is about reaching souls and impacting lives for eternity!

  • Taser

    I think our little church is stuck on no. 8 and there’s an element of no. 1 too. But as 4 of us lead the church, we can’t seem to break through what feels like apathy but is constantly presented as waiting on the Lord. I feel sure after 7 months we should be able to retain and grow but we keep losing people. Very disheartened!

    • Sorry to hear that. I hope you can find a breakthrough soon!

  • Rory

    You forgot one. A small church in Texas that is almost all elderly and white surrounded by neighborhoods now of 99% Hispanics and mainly Catholic.

    • A perfect opportunity for them to reach out far beyond their culture and into the world.

  • Michael

    changing the Bible to fit your agenda
    preaching at the people all the time for not giving or doing enough
    making the worship something else like a concert or funeral
    prayerching – pretending to pray but just still preaching
    being a performer especially for a camera
    thinking that it is you that is moving peoples hearts and not the Holy Spirit

    • Jackie Raimondi

      Yes! The blaming your congregation is awful. I was around leaders who constantly blamed their congregation for “not getting it”. My response was that if they aren’t “getting it”, that is reflection on leadership not them. But the excuse was always there to explain away failure after failure in the mission. They also exhibited a host of other issues from the list, but that one was a biggie.

  • Deron

    I might be possibly reiterating what others have said or alluded to, but I might put it in different ways. It will be problematic if we are so concerned about being “relevant” that the gospel and what it means to be a disciple becomes so watered down that IT becomes virtually irrelevant. If we just preach the whole counsel of God as it is and refuse to ignore the parts that are difficult to swallow, that itself will cause enough waves to “stifle” growth. The gospel is offensive to an unbeliever and while we shouldn’t go out of our way to make it more offensive than it already is, we don’t really have to go out of our way. I can’t remember the last time I heard a sermon in a church on the wrath of God.

  • tone

    Nice one Carey.

    But what about the main reason, which is that many people think that going to church requires one to believe in obvious impossible things which nobody who has any integrity could do.

    The remedy is I think is clarity – what in those beliefs is symbol, and what is physical. We have several clergy and they regularly mix these up, suggesting they don’t actually understand this themselves. I suppose the most obvious one is ‘Jesus is alive’ – he is not physically incarnate today, but he is obviously symbolically very much alive. Some people get upset about Jesus being ‘insulted’, as if he were a physically alive ‘friend’ – it is not possible to insult a symbol.

    Our preacher last Sunday preached about not judging Christianity by people who call themselves Christians, but by one’s relationship with Jesus himself. Great I thought at first, then I thought that people who are not christians are obviously going to look to christians to see what a life supposedly in relationship with Jesus is like. Your point no 3. And I am not expecting a sermon on exactly HOW one has a relationship with Jesus any time soon. ‘Read the Bible’ and ‘Pray’ are meaningless to non-christians, who can plainly see that the Bible contains much contradiction, know that it was written decades after Jesus’s death, and that large parts of the original have been removed.

    Some people are prepared to suspend critical thinking faculties and go to church anyway for the benefits of ritual, community, support etc. Others aren’t.

    Still your point no 3 – many people who come across as being those seven things you say are either not aware of it, or justify it using ‘scripture’, which is perfectly possible if you really do believe that ALL of the Bible was written by God. Which introduces another problem: double standards – why are some Bible verses referred to to justify prejudices (anti-gay for example – a major reason people often cite first when you ask them what is wrong with the church) and not others (women are unclean when they have just given birth, and more so if the baby is a girl, etc). This last one is, I think, generally regarded by everyone as ridiculous. On what grounds are we spreading the message ‘Love your enemies’ when ‘Smite your enemies’ is also prevalent in the ‘scripture’? People want reasonable answers to many things which they do not get from their churches.

    Whoops – I think i’ve gone on long enough….!

    • Jess

      There are great answers to the questions that you allude to. One must ask who determines what good is? Do you, or does God? A faithful person believes that God determines good. A secular humanist believes he determines what good is. That is an example of the age old sin called pride, inherited from Adam. The OT cleanliness laws which you refer to had there place for a time to establish a nation called Israel, God’s chosen. Through this people God would bless all nations (Gen 12), this is understood and fulfilled in the NT appearance of Jesus the Christ.

  • Len Hjalmarson

    great post Carey 🙂

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  • bob pearson

    People who think that growth is a bad thing have to realize that what we are working for is to make the Kingdom of God a reality on Earth as in Heaven. We pray this every Sunday Actually!! So growth to make the Kingdom more of a reality for more people is in every Christian’s prayers every week. Eliminating these ten barriers to growth in each church is only an answer to our most basic prayers.

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  • Nathan

    I think it is also very important to establish what you mean by church growth. We can match the culture, work at being very “relevant” and bring people in to a very socially acceptable environment for them. But does that mean they are truly being made a disciple of Christ, or just a familiar social environment?

    On the other hand…we can so ignore opportunities to advance in our methods that we not only drive people away, but we drive away the freshness of the Holy Spirit. Neither extreme has biblical backing.

    Growth needs to be about seeing people bear spiritual fruit. That is the sign of a church that is maturing believers. The parable of the sower lets us see that there are many cases where the seed actually takes root, but does not endure. But those churches who generate ongoing believers who become spiritually mature are the ones who are really showing “growth”.

    • I think you’re right to keep the focus on life transformation, Nathan. Where I personally have been convicted lately is for the need to make more disciples, not just to deepen the faith of those who already believe. Would you agree that growth should include both?

  • Rob Sellitto

    Once again it feels like you are writting right into my situation. If you are following me around we could atleast grab a coffee!

  • We’ve been ticking these off the list one by one. This process has taken exactly five years to date, and we still have about 3 items to go. For others reading these posts, take heart. It takes longer than you’d like, but your church can change.

  • D.F. Yates

    Great article, cause these 10+ reasons are very true. A lot of churches need to read this.

  • #BOOM!

  • Best INotSay

    Oh my! I think I might have attended this church!