5 Rather Surprising Findings About Growing and Declining Churches


Today’s post is written by my friend, Tony Morgan, Founder of The UnStuck Group.

Carey recently shared 5 attitude differences he sees in the leaders of growing vs. declining churches.

He hit the nail on the head.

My team at The Unstuck Group and I are on the ground serving in 100s of churches of all different sizes each year, and I can confirm his observations.

The difference between growing and declining churches is something we’re particularly attuned to. We serve churches in both of those situations: some enlist our help because they’re in decline, and others engage our team to take steps to guard against getting stuck in the future, even as they are in growth mode today.

We’ve been tracking some data along these lines for a while now.

Each quarter we share a short report on our findings—The Unstuck Church Report. (You can subscribe by email to get it for free each quarter.)

When I was analyzing the data for the Q2 2018 report, some things really surprised me.

Just to be clear—this isn’t a comparison of big churches versus smaller churches. This is data that’s comparing growing churches to declining churches. Both sets of data include churches of fewer than 100 people and megachurches with more than 2,000 people.

Here are 5 of the findings that stood out to me:

1. Volunteer engagement is higher in declining churches

Initially, this was the biggest surprise for me in all of these findings. Growing churches are still connecting 40% of their adults and students in regular serving opportunities, but the engagement in declining churches is even higher.

Let me dig a little deeper on that last bullet. Reflecting back on my engagements with both growing and declining churches, my experiences point to a couple of key reasons why volunteer engagement is higher in declining churches.

First, growing churches tend to reach more new people, and our data confirms they’re reaching more people who don’t yet have a relationship with Jesus.

Like with giving, there’s usually a lag in the time it takes for people to cross the line of faith and then mature in their faith before they give their money and their time. Actually, we’re hearing from the churches we serve that the “volunteer lag” may be longer than the “giving lag” when new people connect to the church.

Secondly, declining churches tend to be mature churches with a lot more ministry programming. Though it’s not unusual to hear leaders in declining churches complain about not having enough volunteers for critical ministry areas, they typically still have high volunteer engagement. It’s just spread across many more ministry programs. The more ministry programs you offer, the more staff and volunteers are required.

2. Growing churches are attracting a higher percentage of kids but declining churches are attracting a higher percentage of students

This may be because growing churches tend to do a better job of reaching younger families.

Declining churches tend to have older congregants so they are, therefore, more likely to have students in middle or high school.

3. Participation in smaller gatherings, either home groups, Sunday school or other alternatives, is higher in growing churches.

There can be a perception that growing churches aren’t as focused on discipleship.

But we’re seeing growing churches are doing a better job of encouraging people to take the next step into community beyond the worship services.

And, they are primarily inviting people to take that step at a time other than Sunday morning.

4. Growing churches have fewer paid staff members than declining churches.

Actually, it’s quite a bit fewer. Growing churches hire one staff person for every 71 people in attendance.

Declining churches hire one staff person for every 50 people in attendance.

In other words, a declining church with 1,000 people in attendance would have 6 more paid staff members than a growing church with the same attendance.

Here are a couple of my observations regarding staffing:

Declining churches tend to have many more ministry programs.

The more programs and events that a church offers, the more staff are required to support these efforts. Then when staff are hired, they tend to create additional programming and events to justify their positions. It’s a vicious cycle that’s difficult to break.

Secondly, declining churches don’t tend to right-size their staffing.

One of the churches we served had attendance decline for several years to the point the church was half the size it was about five years ago. In that same time, though, no staffing adjustments were made to reduce the number of employees.

Finally, when churches maintain a lean staff, they tend to hire stronger leaders.

In other words, they’ve learned they can accomplish more through fewer leaders who know how to develop and empower lay leaders and volunteer teams.

5. Growing churches develop and empower more leaders.

The churches that are growing have one leader for every 11 people in attendance. Declining churches only have one leader for every 19 people in attendance.

In all the data I analyzed, this appears to be the most significant difference between growing and healthy churches. In other words, the span of care (for leading, mentoring, discipling, etc.) is far healthier in growing churches.

Those are just a few of the insights that jumped out at me in the Q2 2018 report. You can read more of them in a recent blog series I wrote on tonymorganlive.com, and in the report itself:

Click here to download The Unstuck Church Report

Any other insights you’re seeing? Scroll down a leave a comment.

5 Rather Surprising Findings About Growing and Declining Churches


  1. […] The original article appeared here. […]

  2. […] 5 Rather Surprising Findings About Growing And Declining Churches by Carey Nieuwhof […]

  3. […] 5 Rather Surprising Findings About Growing And Declining Churches by Tony Morgan on CareyNieuwhof.com. Very interesting and surprising. […]

  4. […] 5 Rather Surprising Findings About Growing And Declining Churches […]

    • Harry Court on June 6, 2018 at 4:48 pm

      Happy Thursday to you all!
      Some of these findings are interesting. Culture Town /Rural and City /Suburb location would add a dynamic.
      Should we allow declining churches to simply die?
      Should that church movement sell the facility and cash up a new young couple to plant afresh?
      Child sex abuse has caused one denomination to sell 87 facilities -to raise millions in compensation. These facilities many of which have been empty for a long time. But the unsaved locals are lamenting over something they have abandoned.

      Having said that, empty UK and Europe churches also point to another cultural secularizing irrelevance trend that I expect is not overall experienced in the US. Yet Hillsong meets in a nightclub in Barcelona foreshore where Catholic priests have visited and asked how come so many young people attend whereas their cathedrals which are nice, big and and empty. These are massive trends. In the UK, more are going to UK anglican cathedrals as an ‘experience’ but the local Anglican churches are empty.

      So thank you Carey, for the evaluation of interesting of growing and declining churches. It is the decline that is most interesting, sadly. Happy Thursday to you all!

  5. Mike on June 6, 2018 at 1:51 pm

    Sam, I in no way want to come across as arrogant. That’s not my goal for posting here. My goal is simply to somehow drive us all back to the text and away from gurus.
    As a church, I cant understand why we would ever preach and teach anything but the text. New insight to the text I always find very beneficial. New insight on people and church management I find to be incredibly a waste of valuable time especially when speaking about being good stewards. After years in ministry, you discover you are a sinner trying to corral sinners. People will do what they will do. Gifts and talents are always there and sometimes in the most unexpected places. If I’m going to waste my time trying to figure how to manage them, that’s simply the point, I’ve wasted time.
    In all honesty, just how many can one pastor shepherd?
    As far as trust, I hope as a pastor you’re discovering that list to be very short. I’ve learned if it’s not, there are serious problems in all my flankings.
    If you would like to discuss trends, it’s been my experience that the text preached and taught in context, will attract so many hurt by the church it will be standing room only. Those hurt by the very advice being given here, becoming nearly atheists, come to hear from the text. I’m a bit befuddled by what part of “faith comes by hearing and hearing comes by the Word of God can we not seem to grasp.
    Thanks so much for your kindness Sam. My best to you.

  6. Greg on June 6, 2018 at 10:31 am

    To pastor Mike: you asked Carey if you understood his post correctly. Let me answer that for him. That’s a big NO. You don’t have a clue. You are in the wrong orbit. Please go back to your planet and don’t come back.

    • Mike on June 6, 2018 at 11:31 am

      Greg, please understand I mean no malice. I have no personal ax to grind. I would just like for all to ask exactly who or what it is they’re following. Somehow Christ has been given the back seat and the focus has shifted to us through Carey’s posts. Personally, I cant find anything biblical in them at all. Maybe you’re seeing something I’m not. My apologies if I’ve offended you in any way. Please hold your Bible open next to Carey’s posts and tell me what you see. Thanks so much. Much grace and peace to you!!

      • Greg on June 6, 2018 at 12:17 pm

        Hello Mike, you might not have any malice but you have even less emotional intelligence. How arrogant of you to think that you are more biblically literate or insightful or care more about that than others here. I read these blogs because they help me be more affective as a pastor. The point you are making is obvious to all of us. It’s weird you don’t think every other pastor already knows that. You are in no position to be complaining about how somebody else (i.e. Carey) helps pastors. Instead of posting here, go make your own blog and let those who think you are helpful read your stuff somewhere else.

        • Mike on June 6, 2018 at 12:58 pm

          Greg, I’ve been where you are. Constantly looking to some earthly source for answers to my ministry. It took me several years to discover those sources like Carey’s left me feeling inadequate, ineffective and always consumed with my idea of what my ministry should look like to myself and others. The big problem in the middle was me. In you, I see a picture of myself before I was taken back to the text and shown that as a sinner, my ministry was going to be what it was going to be. I truly intend to help. Believe me when I say I know why you’re here. I was at similar sources back in the day until it hit me they were not helping me but rather hurting myself and the precious people I’m responsible for. Take this as you may. I understand but there’s another way.

  7. Deb on June 6, 2018 at 9:59 am

    This is a great article! Number two jumps out to me. We are a three year old church and have over 50 kids on a Sunday in our 0-10 programs. The hard part is my kids are junior high and Highschool age and we only have about 10 kids this age! The harder part still is their dad is the pastor so it’s part of their life ;). It is encouraging to hear though that a growing church has more younger kids……because our heart is to reach new people for Christ and grow!

  8. Barb on June 6, 2018 at 9:42 am

    I totally identify. My husband and I are struggling with the decision to leave a declining church and this article gets to the heart of our struggle. The more we decline, the more programs our staff seem to want to do. But the things they want to do are all internally focused. They want to do more fellowships. More children’s events. More youth events. More more more! But none of it has any external focus. And they want to pull more and more volunteers into giving more and more time to do things for each other instead of doing anything that would look beyond our walls. They’re following an “if we build it, they will come” model that died thirty years ago at least. We’re on our way out the door because our children are now a little older and they’re old enough to understand that what we’re doing doesn’t line up with what Jesus commanded us to do. We have tried to wait it out. We have tried and tried to suggest options beyond this death spiral that we’re in. But we’re not being heard and it’s become a question of stewardship for us. We’re providing significant financial support as well as the offering of our time to a church that is now more of a social club.

  9. Mike on June 6, 2018 at 8:32 am

    Great article, Carey! I totally agree that churches stuck in old methods waiting for the young to return will be waiting a long time.

    What do you think about not only existing methods of church declining but also existing theologies of church declining?

    I look around and see folks digging into some foundational views (e.g. hell, salvation, exclusivity of Jesus) and changing their opinions. Is this something the church ought to be embracing or distancing itself from?

    • Mike on June 6, 2018 at 10:00 am

      Mike, I think you’ve posed a great question. Could it be they are done with gimmicks and shows and it has become a doctrinal issue for them? What exactly do we believe is becoming a wonderful question. I cant speak for you but for me that answer only comes from the text. Great question.

  10. Mike on June 6, 2018 at 7:51 am

    Carey, if I understand your post correctly, we need to:
    1. Discourage volunteers through discouraging ministry leaders
    2. Attract more children
    3. Develop more home groups
    4. Cut paid staff
    5. Develop and empower more leaders
    These tools will grow my church? Your data collection is wonderful.
    However, one glaring thing of note, if I tackle your list I’m left as nothing more than a motivational speaker for my church and my occupation begins to become nothing more than a church organizer. As a result, this makes me more valuable to my sheep who have no clue what the text says as they wander aimlessly in their sin. It could be that I become so important that the funds saved from paid staff being cut could go to me. Could this be the premise of your thesis?
    As pastors, if you’ll check the text, we are to preach and teach the Word in season and out of season. Our call is to make disciples. This can only be accomplished through the text. Disciples taught well from the text become leaders without any intervention or prodding from me. What does attracting more children really look like in 2018? Free electronics? Free ice cream and candy? Oh, and some free Jesus sprinkles?
    Why in the world would we ever want to relinquish teaching to home non ministry leaders? I can see how this would work for a church organizer/ motivational speaker as it allows one to spend more time analyzing how to drive up numbers and less time learning texts they dont understand. But as an ordained pastor, our call gets handed over to who knows teaching who knows what.
    Correct me if I’m wrong but I was under the assumption we were servants to a flock. If you havent discovered there are wolves amongst them.
    I would like to invite you to go back to your office, pick up your text and study.

    • Non-pastor Mike on June 6, 2018 at 8:40 am

      Couple questions for you, Pastor Mike.

      How do I know the Bible is the Word of God?
      How do I know your interpretation is accurate?
      Do you care more about being around people or being right?

      • Mike on June 6, 2018 at 10:27 am

        Non pastor Mike, thanks so much for your great questions.
        To someone questioning whether the Bible is really the Word of God, I would generally suggest they look at it as if it were not. I would challenge them to spend as much time as they could developing their case that it wasnt. I would want them so incredibly frustrated with the text that they were to the point of giving up. That’s where the true gift given can be received.
        As far as interpretation, there are simply two ways. Exegesis and eisegesis of the text. One is right and one is clearly wrong.
        Being completely honest, there are days I dont care to be around people at all but realize and understand it’s my job. There are days that people lift me up incredibly and I see them in a new light. Being very honest again, I tend to see most others right in all subjects except preaching and teaching the text. That is my only area of expertise. I would hope no one would ever trust me with administration, building programs, investing or many other tasks. I have input but far from an expert.
        Thanks again for the questions
        Grace and peace to you

    • Sam on June 6, 2018 at 10:27 am

      Mike, is it possible you’re looking at this article the wrong way? I’ve met Carey before (very briefly) and have been a long time listener to his podcasts. His heart is definitely to help church leaders grow and flourish. Sometimes it’s hard to hear that we’re going about things the wrong way, but that doesn’t make it untrue or anti-biblical. I’d encourage you to reevaluate the points you listed above in a different light.

      1. If you have an overabundance of programming available and not enough volunteers, discuss with your leadership team which areas are superfluous and see if you can move volunteers and leaders from those areas into more effective areas. We revamped all our ministries/serving opportunities in our church this year and spent weeks talking to the church about how we were streamlining things to be more effective and to make it easier for new people to get involved when they’re ready. We reduced serving areas to three main categories (Creative – Band, Tech. Next Generation – Sunday School, Youth. Experience – Hospitality, Facility.) and have greatly reduced the number of “things” we do. You know what we’re seeing? More people engage in the things we have (because we have less options) and more people are getting together with each other outside of structured things. I know of at least four groups in our church that meet to pray on a regular basis. We did nothing to prompt or structure that.

      2. Parents rarely go to church because their children want to, children go to church because their parents think they should be there. Instead of thinking about how to attract children, think about what you, as a parent, would want for your children in a strange new environment. I go to Ikea and the child area is secure, the staff wear name tags and uniforms that identify them as people who belong in that area, the toys and content available are age-appropriate and engaging, and I have to sign my child in and out. How can you apply that to the children’s ministry at your church? Millennial parents (my age group) will typically want to know that those basic things I mentioned are available for their children in a new environment, especially if they didn’t grow up in the church and aren’t used to the haphazard way most churches do children’s ministry (my church is still working on this).

      3. Home groups are an opportunity for people in your church to connect with each other on a more intimate level. Leaders are selected/vetted by the leadership team of the church, so hopefully, you would know them and trust them. Worried about the content that is being taught? Why don’t you screen the content or develop your own? I’ve seen several churches that the home groups discuss the teaching from Sunday with a list of discussion questions the pastor developed to go along with his sermon.

      4. Sometimes churches have more staff than required. A church of 50-60 people doesn’t need six full-time staff – but I’ve seen it. I work at a church that is around 100 people and there are two staff: the lead pastor and myself. I organize everything in the church so the pastor can focus on teaching and leading. I also double as the youth pastor. All other positions in the church are covered by volunteers. My position could be part-time, but the church releases me to engage in the community by volunteering for other organizations, while not having to worry about not being able to support my family.

      5. Jesus developed and empowered 72 leaders on top of his 12 disciples (Luke 10). We need to surround ourselves with people who have gifts and strengths that complement our own, they don’t need to be ordained ministers or even paid staff, they can be people who are passionate about following Jesus and have a desire to care for those around them.

      • Mike on June 6, 2018 at 10:59 am

        Sam, I understand your points. Please understand I mean nothing personal against Carey. I only speak to his office of pastor. I too have listened to Carey’s podcasts and watched his sermons.
        Personally, I’m a proponent of the text being preached and taught. In the text, I find nothing that says we are to “grow a church”. We are called to make disciples and that can only be done by careful exegesis of the text rightly dividing law and gospel focusing on sin, repentance and forgiveness. It’s been going on for millennia. It’s nothing new. True discipleship takes not the heart but rather the mind. I would hope anyone who has spent any time in the text would understand that our hearts cannot be trusted. Our hearts cannot at times even distinguish the simplest of eros, phileo, or agape love. Our hearts entwined with our emotion can lead us down incredibly scary paths. Sticking solely to the text alleviates this problem. One thing of note and I dont mean this as an attack in any way, in your last point you mention Jesus empowering 72 leaders on top of the 12. I would invite you to ask yourself exactly what you’re saying there. He is God. We’re sinners. Have you noticed how the disciples dropped what they were doing and followed? Who put it in their heads to do so? We dont have that ability but God speaking through the text does. Yes, He’s still speaking through beautiful words on a page.
        Do you remember casting of lots? Who was doing the selecting in those instances? The lots are still being cast even today through God speaking directly through the text.
        Focus on programs, gimmicks, empowering people or whatever other nonsense leaves us all dead in our sin and trespasses.
        Thanks for your kind questioning. Much grace and peace to you.

        • Sam on June 6, 2018 at 11:51 am

          Hey Mike, I don’t want this to seem like an argument by any means, but I’m not 100% sure I understand your context, does your church focus solely on teaching the text and nothing else? If so, that’s awesome, especially because you seem to be wholeheartedly devoted to the word and I’m sure you’d have some incredible insights to share.

          I think this article is getting at all the other things that churches tend to do and offering some sound advice on how to conduct things. The Bible teaches that we are to be good stewards of our finances, having more staff than our church needs or can afford isn’t being a good steward. Creating a safe place for parents to leave their children (where the children can learn about God in an age-appropriate manner) so that they can focus on what you’re teaching them isn’t a gimmick.

          On empowering people, I think we may have different ideas of what empowering people means. Empowering people doesn’t mean letting everyone do what they want, it means identifying, enabling, and trusting the people who God has given specific gifts and skillsets to, to run things that you don’t need to run so that you can focus on your calling (in this case, prayer and teaching). You argued for this very point in your response to the other Mike above. Not everyone in your church is going to be a leader, but people have God-given gifts and the Bible very clearly states that we are to use our gifts to serve one another (my personal favourite such section is in 1 Peter 4).

          • Mike on June 6, 2018 at 5:07 pm

            Sam I would like to add. Brushing up on our koine greek, ancient Hebrew, study of the reformation, other doctrines, and more simply the book of Ezekiel should keep a pastor plenty busy. Biblical answers for former mormons, jehovahs witness, Roman Catholics, or whatever doctrine that might walk through the door, should be our area of study as clergy. Anything on Carey’s list appears juvenile in comparison. Just had to add. Thanks again for your questions.

        • Hamilton McNicol on June 7, 2018 at 12:42 am

          Hey Mike, I like your thoughts on Eisogesis and Exegesis. I know I’m eisogeting way more than I’d like when I handle the Scriptures, but the trouble always is, which part, hey? Who has perfect awareness of themselves!?! I love your value of anchoring teaching in good exegesis of the text to avoid eisogesis, but I’m wondering if you can elaborate a little more on what you mean when you said, “We are called to make disciples and that can only be done by careful exegesis of the text rightly dividing law and gospel focusing on sin, repentance and forgiveness”. To give some context to my question; Jesus says in the ‘Great Commission’, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and….and ….and teach them to obey everything I have commanded you”. It seems to me that Jesus is interested in not just teaching in an exegetical sense of what the text meant back then, BUT what it means for us today AND how we help others to obey EVERYTHING Jesus taught/showed his disciples. I fully agree with what I perceive of your sentiment that pastors today can get badly distracted from the main game. I suspect Carey would agree with this sentiment too. But can’t we use stats and exegesis of our society and church to help us be in the world and not of the world?

          In regards to trusting Minds over Hearts I wonder if this is a false dichotomy? Minds can be deceptive too, and even the best minds don’t really function rationally – or as rationally as they think. Don’t we need purity of both to be on the right track?
          Grace and Peace in Jesus. Don’t stop being passionate 🙂

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