5 Hard Truths About Healthy Church Growth

healthy church growth

Most church leaders I know would love to see their church grow.

Similarly, most leaders I’ve met want their church to grow for what we might call the ‘right’ reasons: they sincerely want more people to encounter the love of Jesus Christ.

That’s amazing.

And yet there’s a strong reaction against growing churches by many leaders.

For some reason, many people love to take pot-shots at growing churches and large churches.

Some are categorical denouncements.

I don’t know what to do with those. Sometimes I sense that underneath the anger are jealousy and resentment on the part of leaders whose churches aren’t growing.

Conversely, I also know many church leaders of small and even stuck or declining churches who don’t define themselves by attacking other churches that are growing. There’s a beauty and a grace in that kind of security.  Someone else’s success should never make you feel like a failure.

Other times, I sense the critics are those who have been hurt by an unhealthy growing church. I have a lot of empathy for that. Read on below.

Inevitably, someone in the discussion will say what we need are not growing churches, but healthy churches.

Agreed.

But in the midst of it all is a polarized and often unhealthy conversation about church growth.

So here’s my bias: when you see baptism after baptism and hear life-change story after life-change story, it’s hard to be against church growth. Why would you stand against the expanding mission of the local church?

And yet the emotional debate continues.

As you plan ahead for your church, here are 5 hard truths to keep in mind about healthy church growth. The discussion is nuanced at times, but I hope the nuance is worth it in the end.

I imagine some church leaders can’t even have a  simple conversation with some of their staff, volunteers or elder board about church growth without it becoming volatile.

Externally, most of us have colleagues who have strong opinions for or against. It can lead to a very frustrating dialogue. Or none at all.

I hope these truths will hopefully help frame the discussion in less emotional, more realistic terms and hopefully help your team and your colleagues get closer to the same page.

Maybe we can agree more and better work on the mission together.

1. Healthy Churches Grow. But Not All Growing Churches Are Healthy Churches.

You’ve heard the line before “Healthy things grow.” Fundamentally, I believe that’s true.

But even as someone who wants to see every local church thrive, I would agree that not all growing churches are healthy churches.

I think that’s where the conversation gets messed up.

Yes, healthy churches do grow. But not all growing churches are healthy.

I want to be careful what I say here because I don’t want this taken out of context, but sometimes unhealthy things grow too; like cancer.

Just because a church is growing doesn’t mean it’s healthy.

And maybe that’s where the funk in the conversation comes from. We all know at least one (or more) growing churches that are not healthy.

But just because that’s true, it doesn’t mean all growth is unhealthy.

The key here is to not make the exception the rule.

There are thousands of small, mid-sized and larger healthy growing churches which are largely unknown that serve their communities well. Their leaders’ names aren’t household names, but they are doing the hard work of bringing grace into a broken world every day, and they have the thrill of seeing life after life, family after family and person after person discover hope in Christ.

Those kinds of healthy churches do grow. And sometimes, they become churches that are better known or whose pastors are better known. Most often they don’t. But those leaders do amazing work.

Not all growing churches are healthy, but healthy churches do grow.

If your church is healthy over the long haul, it will reach more people.

2. Healthy Small Churches Usually Don’t Stay Small Forever

There’s also a thread of this discussion that suggests churches should stay small.

The challenge is it’s hard to stay small when you’re reaching people.

Sure, you can break up into smaller campuses and locations, or plant multiple venues. But the reality is that a healthy church over time will continue to grow.

And if they do stay small, it’s often because of an artificial cap.

Maybe you’re losing as many people as you reach, in which case you’re treading water. That isn’t optimal health.

And sometimes the barriers that keep a church from reaching its potential stand in the way.

More often than not, those barriers are structural, not spiritual. And they can be passed. (That’s what I coach leaders and their teams through in my Breaking 200 course.)

Accomplishing your mission means reaching people, and reaching people means growth.

3. An Outward Focused Church Ultimately Creates the Healthiest Insiders

So what creates a healthy church?

Many factors, but outward focus is non-negotiable.

It’s a bit of a paradox, but an outwardly focused church ultimately creates the healthiest insiders.

Why is that?

An inherent part of the Christian faith is death to self. And that also means death to selfish preferences.

In an insider-focused church, no one sacrifices anything for the sake of others, because people believe others ought to sacrifice to please them.

If the church exists to make you happy, why wouldn’t people sacrifice more to make you happier?

In outsider-focused churches, the opposite is true.

Insiders sacrifice for the sake of outsiders. They realize that when they give, others live. That when they decide the church isn’t about them, they find a joy that is so elusive to selfish people.

Externally focused churches realize that sacrifice for the sake of others is a pathway to joy.

When you die to yourself, something greater rises.

4. Decline Can Happen For A Season In Healthy Churches

So does being a healthy church mean everything is always up and to the right?

No, it doesn’t.

Like any living organism, churches go through seasons. Sometimes that means a healthy church will stall out or even decline for a season.

That can be because of a leadership change, hitting a new growth barrier, the need for systems to catch up to where the church has grown, and sometimes, for no clear reason at all (some of this truly is mystery).

But healthy churches recover from that plateau or decline, adjust the sails and continue on with their mission.

You may be in decline for a season, but seasons have beginnings and endings.

If your church’s prolonged season of decline has no end, it’s not a season. You’re in decline.

This is the case for a lot of churches. If that’s the case, it’s best for a leader to name reality and admit that there are deeper issues that have to be addressed.

If you want some deeper insight into why churches don’t grow, my book Lasting Impact: 7 Powerful Conversations That Will Help Your Church Grow may help.

I also created a Lasting Impact Team Edition video series to help pastors and their teams walk through the issues that are keeping a lot of churches from healthy growth.

5. Healthy Leaders Produce Healthy Churches

I’ve been leading in the local church for 20 years. We’ve had seasons where we’ve seen 30% growth year after year, and seasons where it’s been flatlined.

Over the last two decades, we’ve gone from a handful of people to over 1200 today (plus more online), with a new location launching this month. Most of the people who come to our church for the first time self-identify as having no regular church attendance background.

When I look back at almost 23 years of leadership, I see a trend. When I wasn’t healthy, neither was our church.

Even in seasons where our church was growing, that growth wasn’t the healthiest (lots of turn over) when I wasn’t the healthiest.

Unhealthy leaders can’t lead healthy churches. Not over the long haul.

If you think your church is unhealthy, look in the mirror.

As hard as it is to admit, you reproduce who you are, not who you want to be.

But this is also true. As I’ve grown healthier, so has our church. So has our growth.

One of the most difficult things a leader can do is look in the mirror and face the truth. I’ve had to do that again and again.

The more ridiculously honest I am with God, with my team and with myself, the healthier I get.

I’ve seen counselors over the years, hired coaches, read books, gone on retreats and done whatever I can to become more emotionally, spiritually and relationally healthy. And like every leader, I’m a work in progress.

But here’s the good news.

Leaders, when you get healthier, your church gets healthier. So do whatever it takes to get you and your team healthy.

Any Thoughts?

What do you see when it comes to healthy church growth?

And let’s play nice. Please don’t be that person in the comments. There’s enough of that on the internet already. Disagree if you will, but let’s not be disagreeable.

Scroll down and leave a comment!

26 Comments

  1. Gary S on February 26, 2018 at 12:11 pm

    I would add that healthy growth is also painful at times. Change is difficult and growth can mean letting go of meaningful past preferences and choices so that others will be impacted.

  2. Malachi Dean on January 16, 2018 at 12:01 pm

    Carey, thankful you have been teaching others through the journeys that God has allowed you to be a part of. It was great to hear you share in Dayton, Ohio area in 2017. May God continue to reveal new things to you. I’m in my first lead pastorate role of a 70 person church, so this article was very helpful. In my first 3 months major changes were required if our church ever wanted to see “healthy” again. Those changes have been in progress and have brought new life to the church, but it seems that it’s taking longer than expected to get folks to become “active” or fit in their faith and having eyes and hearts beyond a Sunday morning service. Were there any steps that you took early on to transition your folks to see the need for health and growth, and in turn, they began to do it?

  3. Jim Egbert on January 12, 2018 at 12:01 pm

    My wife and I have been members of small, medium, large and mega churches. Each have provided us with great spiritual growth. We are currently members of a mega church that we are enjoying greatly.
    Looking back on 65 years of church participation, each of the smaller churches had reasons that kept them smaller. In some cases it was intentional. In most others, it was leadership ineptness.
    In no case was it because “that is how God (or more specific, the Holy Spirit) wanted it”.

  4. Jared Willey on January 11, 2018 at 3:11 pm

    Our attendance has been flat for a while now, even as we’ve added campuses. We know that more people are attending, just less frequently than they used to (we’ve analyzed children’s ministry check-in data to arrive at that conclusion). That begs the question: what defines growth? Is it higher attendance? Or more people attending, even if it is less often? And related to that: what is health? Can a church really be healthy if the new norm is people coming 1-2 times/month instead of 3-4 time/month like it was 10 years ago?

    Thanks for all you do Carey, to make us all ask better questions of ourselves and our churches!

  5. Wendy on January 11, 2018 at 2:30 pm

    Carey, does your wife do any speaking from her perspective of growth and burn out in ministry … My husband is a district superintendent and I am the Care Director for Ministry Wives. I’d be interested in your wifes journey through your growth and learning.

  6. John Juliano on January 11, 2018 at 11:37 am

    Are we truly discipling our people or are we simply providing services and events. Building disciples is the foundation to real growth.

  7. Josh Poe on January 10, 2018 at 11:07 pm

    It’s not about the numbers BUT we have a saying, “Every number has a name, every name has a story and every story matters to God, if it matters to God it matters to us!”

    We have a very energetic vision driven pastor and I’ve had the priveledge of serving under him for the last 9 years as the church has grown from 50 weekly act to almost breaking the 1,000 barrier now.

    This article has some great insights. We have always been an outward driven church and that is something that our pastor has stayed true to. It in our vision statement “to bring those far from God close to God one step at a time”… and we want to bring as many people on that journey as possible.

    Thanks for the article.

  8. Ken Greer on January 10, 2018 at 4:46 pm

    Subdivision is not growth. Pastors and congregations who claim that they are growing spiritually while their numbers remain stagnant or declining, are nursing that excuse. I ask them for proof of their assertions. Interesting that we cling to our “barriers” …..expecting God to answer our prayers for growth by populating our nave with people who are “just like us.” We want them to look like us, think like us, act like us.

  9. Kelvin Box on January 10, 2018 at 12:41 am

    Carey, just wanted to say thank you for all you are doing to help us build the body of Christ.
    We are currently teaching our Wednesday night Leadership class with your your book.
    Blessings!

  10. Ann on January 9, 2018 at 10:30 am

    Cary as a UMC conference leader I and former staff member of a large church in Ohio, I agree with your points. What I have to help leaders I work with understand that the idea of healthy church and unhealthy church are foreign concepts so the majority of our membership. If they are happy they consider their church healthy and have a multitude of excuses why others don’t attend church today. My experience has been helping churches define “unhealthy” so that they may be awaken regarding areas that they could be better. But amen and amen to your comment regarding the leaderships’ health.

  11. stephen Albert Etyang on January 9, 2018 at 7:34 am

    Thanks dear Carey for this post. Iam lifted and blessed by the insight you share on leadership. Looking forward.

  12. ELMER BATTUNG on January 9, 2018 at 4:32 am

    This is a very helpful reminder. A person who by God’s grace is using to share what would make the Church of Christ healthier and more people to come to Christ. Praying for more God’s wisdom. Thank you!

  13. Rev. Johannes G. Janse van Rensburg on January 9, 2018 at 1:49 am

    Again, I agree! … but growing a local church for God under Afrikaans speaking people in South Africa has its challenges. The birthrate for Afrikaans speaking people are down 72% + more and more Afrikaans speaking people now lives oversees. The one thing that I personally focus on is: healthy leaders produce healthy churches! This is also the season where we can focus on growth that is much more than numerical.
    Rev. Johannes G Janse van Rensburg
    South Africa
    +27 82 927 3700

  14. Dwyte Hoffman on January 8, 2018 at 8:39 pm

    I understand your point about an outward focused church, however, John 13:35 says “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” I believe that part of a healthy church is a body that has learned to truly love each other to the point that that love overflows to the outside. The outward focus becomes a natural consequence of learning to love as Christ loved.

  15. REV. ROBERTO SANCHEZ on January 8, 2018 at 2:29 pm

    I SEE WHAT YOU ARE SAYING BUY YOU NEED TO BE MORE SPECIFIC DENING WHAT DO YOU MEAN BY “HEALTHY GROWTH’ AND UNHEALTHY GROWTH”. MY CHURCH HAS 7 YEARS GOPIONG TO 8. I HAVE BEEN TRYING TO FIGURE OUT WHY IT IS NOT GROWING. OUR AVERAGE ATTENDANCE IS AROUND 50 PEOPLE ON SUNDAYS.

    • Becky on January 9, 2018 at 7:16 am

      Hi Roberto! If you take the breaking 200 course Carey offers you might find some of the specific answers you are looking for. I’m going through it very slowly to let it sink in but it is a source of great practical advice that can help churches as they shift mindset and seek to grow in a healthy way.

  16. Ben Styles on January 8, 2018 at 12:20 pm

    Thank you for an extremely insightful and balanced article.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on January 9, 2018 at 6:05 am

      You’re welcome Ben!

  17. Jason Lieberg on January 8, 2018 at 11:35 am

    I agree! This was not only helpful, it was also encouraging.
    One battle I am facing as a leader is GROWING THROUGH CHANGE. It was much easier and more natural for me to lead our church TO change, but it has been very difficult to lead IN that change.

    I have to continually remind myself that this is first and foremost about Jesus (I am complete in Him), and that growth takes TIME.

    Thanks so much Carey!

    • Carey Nieuwhof on January 9, 2018 at 6:04 am

      So true Jason!

  18. Robert Mesnard on January 8, 2018 at 11:34 am

    I agree that all healthy churches grow, but there are many ways a church can grow other than simply the number in attendance. The church to which I am appointed stays at about 110 on the average. That is the size in which this church does its most effective ministry in the small, rural community where it exists. Efforts to “grow” the church beyond that number have met with temporary “success”. It is the size that God wants it to be. Not every church is supposed to be over 200, or even over 100. Our members are growing in Christ, and I’ll take that growth any day.

  19. Cliff Leslie on January 8, 2018 at 11:27 am

    Growth is not a measure of success but obeying God’s words in the Bible is essential

  20. Michael on January 8, 2018 at 11:15 am

    I’m a lead solo pastor in rural alberta and am looking to create change here. I sense God leading us in a direction that may upset some people and yet, I can’t get past the vision that God is giving myself and other leaders about the church

    • Carey Nieuwhof on January 9, 2018 at 6:04 am

      Change always upsets people. 🙂 But if its well done, it helps far more people.

  21. John Patterson on January 8, 2018 at 11:01 am

    Carey,

    I’ve seen your course on breaking 200. We did that years ago and made not just a few mistakes, for which we had a period of several years of being stagnant. Most of this was due to the mistakes I made in breaking 200. Now we have corrected a number of those mistakes and are pushing 600. Do you have blogs, book, etc that helps churches break the 600, 800, and even 1000 average attendance

    • Carey Nieuwhof on January 9, 2018 at 6:03 am

      Hey John…thanks for asking. I have my courses but it you just search this blog and type in some key phrases, or search Google with my name and key phrases, a host of posts will come up. Also see my Top 10 podcasts of 2017. The #1 episode is about breaking all those barriers. https://careynieuwhof.com/the-top-10-podcast-episodes-of-2017/

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