So many churches that aren’t growing wonder why they’re not growing.

Maybe you’ve wondered the same thing about your church or a friend’s church.

Of course, people point to many reasons why their church isn’t growing (I cover 10 frequent reasons in this post), but underneath all of them is one root cause: insider-focus.

Churches that stop growing almost always have lost their heart for outsiders.

Even if many say they’re still passionate about reaching new people, their actions deny their intentions.

So how do you know whether your church is focused on Insiders?

Here are 5 tell-tale signs:


1. Personal preference drives decision-making

In insider-focused churches, member preference rules. Everything from the preaching to the music to the programming gets evaluated through the lens of whether people ‘like’ it or not.

As a result, people-pleasing rules. As soon as a church leader hears that member X isn’t happy, the expectation is that the leader will try to placate the member or make the changes necessary to keep him or her attending.

The challenge is there is zero objective standards.

The standard is whether people like it.

As a leader, you end up playing whack-a-mole because different people ‘like’ different things, and no one can agree on what they like. Which is exactly why churches end up adding far too much variety to their services and too much programming to their menus.

In your attempt to please everyone, you please no one. And besides, as I outline in this post, your church can’t be for everyone anyway.

Regardless, if personal preference drives decision-making, you will always make bad decisions.

2. Emotion trumps mission

Insider-focused churches have a mission, it’s just that no one lives by it because emotion trumps mission.

How does that happen?

Because members are so bent on pleasing themselves, discussion about future direction becomes very emotional: it becomes about what people feel, who’s happy, who’s not happy, who’s thinking of leaving, who might stay if X changes, and what would need to happen for people to be satisfied again.

As a result, leaders make emotional decisions trying to appease the unappeasable, and congregations react in kind: emotionally.

Lost in all of this is one thing: the mission to reach people.

3. Sacrifice is non-existent

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, the 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.

Internally focused congregations never understand that.

4. Any growth is mostly transfer growth

Do some internally-focused churches grow? Sure…that can happen.

But it’s not real growth. It’s not mission-induced growth.

In an insider-focused church, almost all the growth that takes place (if any happens at all) is transfer growth. Not the kind of transfer growth that happens when a new Christian family comes to town or a family makes a once-in-a-decade move to a new church.

The transfer growth that insider-focused churches usually attract is the kind of growth that attracts serial church shoppers.

And guess what transfer growth often looks for? A church to make them happy. (I wrote a post on the challenges of transfer growth here.)

Best wishes with trying to make them happy.

5. Innovation is dead or on life-support

Most insider-focused congregations aren’t excited about the future, they’re afraid of it.

For the most part, insider-focused churches cling stubbornly to the present or the past, preferring the way things are or the way things used to be over the way things could be.

As a result, innovation dies. New ideas are shot down. Anything that would reach people who currently aren’t being reached  is viewed with suspicion or even called ‘unfaithful.’

Members end up liking their church ‘just the way it is,’ which usually means they like it smaller and smaller every year.

So What’s the Antidote?

The antidote to insider-focus is simple: your mission.

One of the best ways to refocus your mission is this: focus on who you want to reach, not on who you want to keep. I learned that truth years ago from my friend Reggie Joiner, a co-founder of North Point Church and now CEO of Orange. Reggie is so right.

An external focus will beat insider drift every day, all day.

So, shift your focus. Focus on who you want to reach, not who you want to keep.

Will you anger some members? Yes.

But they will have other churches to go to. The unchurched don’t.

Any Thoughts?

If you want more, I write about the changes the church needs to make to get healthy and reach people we’re not reaching in my course, Church Growth Masterclass.

I can’t make a church grow. You can’t make a church grow. Only God can do that. But I believe you can position your church to grow. You can knock down the barriers that keep you from growing. You can eliminate the things that keep your church from growing and implement some strategies that will help you reach far more people. That’s what I’d love to help you do in the Church Growth Masterclass.

In the Church Growth Masterclass I’ll show you:

  • The 10 reasons your church isn’t growing
  • Why even committed church-goers aren’t attending as often as before
  • How to tell if your church leaders are getting burned out
  • The five keys to your church better impacting millennials.
  • What to do when a church wants to grow … but not change

You can learn more and gain instant access to the course today.

In the meantime, what do you think?

Any other signs of insider-focused churches you’d like to share?

5 Tell-Tale Signs Your Congregation Is Insider-Focused


  1. Scott Moote on January 4, 2019 at 7:48 am

    In the announcement section Carey made the statement, “We were a program based church at that time.” I think I know what he means by “program based church” but what do you call a non prrogramed based church? What does that look like? Do you address that in another blog or article?
    Thanks all the great insights. Keep up the good work.

  2. February 21 « Lutheran Church of the Master on February 21, 2018 at 7:07 am

    […] Ruth 3:16 (ESV) And when she came to her mother-in-law, she said, “How did you fare, my daughter?” Then she told her all that the man had done for her, …   Naomi askes her daughter-in-law Ruth to fill her in on how it is going with the kinsman redeemer Boaz. Naomi’s husband and sons died, one of whom was Ruth’s husband. Ruth was not an Israelite, she was not raised in the faith of our God and she was not raised near Bethlehem like Naomi.   She was a foreigner, an outsider and an outcast.   However, (are you ready for this?) Boaz marries Ruth and they end up being the great-grandparents of King David! She is also in the genealogy of Jesus as his 27th grandmother!   John 3:16 says our relationship with Christ is not through genealogy but through faith, whether we are insiders or outsiders!   Questions: Do you feel like an insider or an outsider in the church family? Why?   How does it make you feel that it doesn’t matter to Christ whether you are an insider, like Naomi or Boaz, or an outsider, like Ruth? Why?   Activity: Carey Nieuwhof cites 5 indicators that a church is insider focused rather than outsider focused, they are: personal preference drives decision-making, emotion trumps mission, sacrifice is non-existent, any growth is mostly transfer growth and innovation is dead or on life-support. He says the antidote is mission. From your perspective, is LCM insider or outsider focused? Why? How can you make it more outsider/ “Ruth” focused?[1]   [1] 5 Tell Tale Signs Your Congregation is Insider Focused […]

  3. A Questioning Listener on March 13, 2017 at 8:26 am

    Interesting post. I appreciate your idea that a group of Christians must be focused on engaging the outsider. This is true.

    But “one root cause”? Really?
    Where is any theological reflection on how that inside/outside paradigm gets rooted in scripture, experience or tradition?

    Why is it that whenever I read your posts I find that 50%-75% of the time you never mention Jesus? But that, in this post, you mention “church” 49 times? How can you talk about insider/outsider without a discussion about how Jesus engaged his neighbours/strangers/disciples/family?

    • Carey Nieuwhof on March 13, 2017 at 3:03 pm

      Appreciate the question. You can use your name you know…it’s okay. Online dialogue needs more authenticity.

      I have a deep commitment to Christ and his church. The connection to Christ is assumed.

      I’ve also seen tons of leaders get into theological debates and wars I don’t want to fight.

      This isa leadership blog and it’s about the part of the dialogue that often gets omitted. Just trying to fill in the blanks that are often missing in conversations.

      Hope this helps.

  4. Char Seawell on December 21, 2016 at 7:02 pm

    I am not a pastor, but rather a small group leader, and I read your posts because in them I see such insight into the inner workings of life for pastors… literally in the last month I have been having this same discussion with an outer focused group in our congregation. Headway is being made! I wish during times of transition between church leaders, someone would come in and preach on these topics to congregations….

    • Carey Nieuwhof on December 22, 2016 at 9:23 am

      So encouraging Char. Glad to hear that! Hopefully your new leader shares the same convictions.

      • Char Seawell on December 22, 2016 at 10:36 am

        They both do… but, as you know, when folks are clinging to the past, they sometimes create a maelstrom on their way out…. thanks for the encouragement.

    • Michael Carpenter on July 27, 2017 at 9:25 am

      I am a pastor and frequently ask my parishioners, which includes church leaders, for ideas on sermon topics. Maybe Char could suggest this topic to incoming pastors.
      As a pastor, I feel anytime we’re talking about the Christian church, Jesus as the Godhead of the church is very much assumed. Thank you for a great article. My pastoral group is currently engaging Lasting Impact with our District Superintendent. Keep up the great work!!

  5. Kevin Rogers on September 6, 2016 at 8:30 pm

    If all your focus is man centered and not Christ centered you’re definitely not building the church. The great thing about God is He draws and sustains the church as the body is submitted to the preaching the Gospel and teaching sound doctrine. Just as the Spirit produces fruit in the individual, He also produces fruit in the body. As the bride of Christ falls deeper in love with her Lord His reflection will clearly shine as a beacon in dry land. Dive deeper in the Word, encourage your flocks to dive deeper in the Word. Pray deeper as individuals, pray deeper as the body.
    May your church walk humbly with the Lord.

    • Second W. Yang on March 14, 2017 at 5:29 pm

      Do the two have to be mutually exclusive? The church can teach sound doctrine and be friendly to outsiders.

      • Kevin Rogers on March 14, 2017 at 8:08 pm

        The answer to that question is “true.” Read Revelation chapters 2 and 3. I encourage us all to examine our church home and honestly ask which letter would the Lord of glory address to us. Is our first love the Lord Jesus Christ himself fully as described in scripture? The Lord is completely delighted at every word of the text, can we say as Psalm 119:127-128 “we love your commandments more than gold.” The early believers were often persecuted just after public profession.
        Yes, you are able to have a church with sound doctrine while being friendly to outsiders as long as the church is first accountable to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. The Lord is in love with a friendly church that completely adores Him.

  6. […] 5 Tell-Tale Signs Your Congregation is Inward-Focused. Carey Nieuwhof.  […]

  7. Weekend Leadership Roundup | on August 27, 2016 at 3:32 pm

    […] 5 Tell-Tale Signs Your Congregation Is Insider-Focused – Carey Nieuhof […]

  8. […] 5 Tell Tale Signs Your Church is Insider Focused by Carey Nieuwhof […]

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