5 Big Attitude Differences That Separate Growing Churches From Declining Churches

So what’s the difference between churches that grow and churches that decline?

Well, there are many, but—crisis or no crisis—one of the biggest differences I see is in the attitude of the leaders.

The leaders of growing churches almost always share a common attitude. So do the leaders of declining churches.

And the attitude has a huge influence over the results each church sees.

Attitude may or may not be everything, but it’s close.

Here are 5 attitude differences I see again and again in growing churches and declining churches.

1. We Can v. We Can’t

Perhaps the biggest difference I see between growing churches and declining churches is the attitude around what’s possible.

Growing churches believe they can.

Declining churches believe they can’t.

They’re both right.

One of my all-time favorite quotes is Henry Ford’s “Whether you believe you can or believe you can’t, you’re right.”  He’s correct.

Growing churches make a way when there’s no way, which seems to be what God specializes in if you read the Bible.

When you sit around your leadership table, do you come up with 20 ways to make it happen or 20 reasons why it won’t work? That tells you far more about your church than you probably want it to.

Growing churches believe they can. It’s that simple. And even if they’re wrong, at least they tried.

The mission is important enough to take significant risks.

2. Them v. Us

Declining churches focus on themselves.

Growing churches focus on the people they’re trying to reach.

If your leadership table conversations are all about the needs and wants of your members, it’s a sign that your church is insider-focused.

The mission of the church is to reach the world. Growing churches not only know that; they live it.

The instability we’re living and leading through makes that difference even more pronounced.

Some churches moved immediately into preservation mode. Others moved into mission.

The future in all likelihood belongs to those who moved into mission.

Besides, who likes to hang out with selfish people?

And ironically, selfish people almost always end up in a very surprising place: alone. Because a life devoted to self ultimately leaves you alone. That’s also true for selfish churches.

If you’re becoming smaller and smaller, is it because you’re selfish?

3. Principles v. Preferences

Declining churches focus on their member’s preferences.

Todd didn’t like the music. 

Allison thinks we’re not deep enough. 

Jon thinks our services are too short. 

Bill says he’ll never watch online. 

And so the leaders respond, trying to please everybody.

Declining churches bend to the preferences of their members.

Growing churches don’t.

Instead, they focus on the principles (even strategies) that will help them reach new people.

It’s not that growing churches ignore the needs of their members, it’s that they realize the needs of their members are best fulfilled by making their lives about something bigger than their preferences (i.e. the mission).

Is your leadership team principle-driven or preference-driven? There’s a world of difference between the two.

4. Proactive v. Reactive

This is a close cousin of points 2 and 3 above, but the difference is deadly or life-giving depending on where you land.

Growing churches are proactive. They choose their agenda and immediately take action on issues that can impact their future.

Declining churches are reactive, letting members determine the agenda and reacting to problems as they arise.

In fact, most declining churches are so busy reacting to problems other people raise that they never get around to charting a course for the future.

If you never get around to charting a course for the future, you will have no future.

Growing churches have a strong bias for setting their own agendas, not in the selfish sense, but in a way that determined leaders see what the mission requires and decide to deal with it.

The leaders in a growing church simply refuse to yield to the agenda of others that would take them off mission.

And as a result, they are far more effective.

5. Today v. Someday

Growing churches act. And they act now.

Declining churches don’t.

Declining churches don’t actually say they won’t act, they’ll just say they’ll get to it ‘eventually’, or someday, or ‘when the time is right’—which means never.

By contrast, great leaders and great teams banish the word ‘someday’ from their vocabulary, because they realize that someday usually equals never.

If you want to be effective, you act.

If you want to be ineffective, you don’t.

Talk without action has little value. And too many church leaders specialize in talk.

In addition, too many church teams meet for the sake of meeting.

If you can’t remember the last time you made a major decision that changed the course of your church, your leaders are wasting their time.

If you talk about the same issues meeting after meeting with no resolution, you’re spinning your wheels.

Does that mean you have to act on everything? Well, yes and no.

If you’re not going to act, strike the item off the agenda and move on.

If you are going to act, act. Now.

Don’t get stuck in the no man’s land of believing the lie that talking about things solves things.

Action produces traction. So act.

By the way, this simple framework will help you break the habit of talking with no action for good.


How’s your team?

What attitudes do you see in you and around you?

Leave a comment below!

5 Big Attitude Differences That Separate Growing Churches From Declining Churches


  1. Harry Morris on June 25, 2020 at 8:41 pm

    Very good and interesting read. …it does apply to our Church

  2. Cameron on May 20, 2020 at 7:30 am

    I’d add to ‘Declining churches don’t actually say they won’t act, they’ll just say they’ll wait until they’ve ironed out bugs first. Sounds great but actually procrastination. Best tip I’ve learnt is to just start. You can always improve on a bad plan. With digital moment some seem to think they need studio quality before starting but I’d say just start and then work on improving things. One positive at moment is people are more gracious with quality as understand many changes came in quickly and accept imperfections but don’t rest with what you set up in first few weeks of covid-19 but seek to continually improve.

  3. John Engberg on May 18, 2020 at 5:18 pm


    You bring up very relevant topics. Every time I open up your emails recently, I’ve been thinking of the same topic. I’m in a local pastors network. We meet once a month and discuss how we are doing. And all five of our churches have been in a slow decline before COVID-19. Some of us have been taking this time to re-evaluate the purpose church.

    If I was to add one point to your blog it would be: The mission of growing churches is VERY CLEAR–Relational Discipleship. Over the last six months, I’ve been fostering disciple-making, doing it myself and encouraging others to do it. God is moving! I went to the Relational Discipleship Network’s DiscipleShift conference in October and it changed my paradigm for what the mission of the church should be. It is so easy to get sidetracked with various initiatives and activities. The book, DiscipleShift by Jim Putman was eye-opening.

    • Simon on September 27, 2021 at 11:40 am

      DiscipleShift by Jim Putman, will look that up Thanks

  4. Tyler Daniels on May 18, 2020 at 11:57 am

    How about this attitude change: Be a man after God’s own heart.
    The Lord is speaking to church leaders today: Come after me. I am calling you to bring life-changing miracles. Listen to my voice. There is freedom when you walk in my Spirit. I created the world with a word. Don’t try to build your own world. Trust me to move the mountains for you. Proclaim the Good News boldly. Have a heart for the lost. Care for the widows and orphans.
    Give it all away and see that I will open the windows of heaven and pour out upon my people a flood of love and grace.
    Young pastor – remember the day of your calling. The tears of joy as you heard me speak to your heart. Return to your first love.

  5. Felton M Smith on May 18, 2020 at 9:03 am

    Thank you for providing pertinent information that helps us to successfully focus on winning strategies for our future

  6. Chris Robertson on May 18, 2020 at 8:57 am

    I agree, outreach abroad as well as in our communities.

  7. Chris Robertson on May 18, 2020 at 8:56 am

    I believe this moment holds great promise for creativity and innovation in every domain, provided we don’t skip lament. These principles here remind me of this reality that could be an excellent corrective for many organizations who were dying prior to the pandemic if they can make some rapid change.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on May 18, 2020 at 12:38 pm

      Agreed! I’m hoping for brighter days ahead for many churches.

      • Phil Burger PhD retired prof of Management on May 19, 2020 at 10:44 am

        I have been lay leader and active member in three churches over time(one founded in 1825). All followed the precepts and were successful. The biggest point not mentioned in the article is conflict resolution. If conflicts exist, they must be solved even if the church splits.

  8. David Nelson on May 18, 2020 at 8:17 am

    Direct comments that need to be told — speaking grace and truth. Though, it is not too late for churches and others to pivot. There needs to be an intent to do so. We need both online and in-person services and definitely local missions.

  9. Mark on May 17, 2020 at 5:04 pm

    As well as Growing churches knowing and saying there is enough room for everyone. This is in contrast to litmus tests to see who is totally like the members before they are welcomed.

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