5 Telling Questions You Should Ask If Your Church Isn't Growing

Chances are you didn’t get into leadership to see your church stop accomplishing its mission.

One of the primary missions of the local church is to reach new people with Christ’s love, which, naturally, implies growth.

But almost every church (and almost every organization) faces seasons in which growth stops. Some haven’t seen growth in years…or decades.

I was on a call with some leaders this week from a large growing church who told me that last year was the first time in 15 years they hadn’t grown. They’re addressing it and are back on track, but it was a tough year.

I can relate. I have been in church leadership for 19 years. We seen growth almost every year (the majority of which has been from previously unchurched people), but there were two periods in which we stalled out. Those are tough seasons for leaders.

What was effective before has stopped being effective now

A malaise sets in that’s difficult to describe

As a leader, you’re not exactly sure how to get things back on track

Ideally you’d be asking questions before you hit a slump, but life isn’t that simple, is it?

So if you’re in a slump or see one coming, what do you do?

 5 Telling Questions You Should Ask If Your Church Stops Growing

One of the best things any leader can do when they’re in a tough spot is to stop making assumptions and start asking questions. Our assumptions got us to where we are, but they won’t necessarily get us where we need to go.

Here are 5 telling questions every leader can ask when their church stops growing:

 

1. Is our sense of mission white hot?

Effective churches have a white hot sense of mission. It’s far more than a piece of paper on a wall or something the board recites at annual meetings, it lives daily in the soul of countless people in the congregation. It motivates all the action in the organization. It consumes people.

Often a church that has stopped growing has lost the urgency behind it’s mission. This is doubly sad in the case of a church because our mission is actually Christ’s mission…it’s the spread of the Gospel into the world for which Jesus died.

Leaders and congregations that are effective in accomplishing their mission are consumed by their mission. It always burns white hot.

 

2. Are we focused on unchurched people or on ourselves?

So there’s a tendency you and I have as human beings. Our natural drift is to focus on ourselves. Not on Christ. Not on others.

The gravitational pull of any church is toward insiders, not outsiders.

Left unattended, your church will become a place where the preferences of the members trump passion for the mission.

There are two primary ways to address this drift:

In every decision, focus on who you want to reach, not who you want to keep.

Commit to losing yourself for the sake of finding others.

I completely understand that people automatically respond with “well what about me and my needs (or the needs of our faithful members)”?

I believe Jesus said something about finding your life in the process of losing it. People who focus on helping others and honouring Christ soon discover that their needs are met far more deeply than they ever experienced otherwise.

 

3. Has our strategy or approach become dated?

What got you here won’t necessary get you there.

While the mission of the church is eternal, strategy should shift from generation to generation. This day it needs to shift even faster than that.

Identifying a dated strategy is easy if you’re a new leader who has taken over from someone else. It is much harder when you’ve led in a context for more than 5 years.

The challenge in long term leadership is that the changes that you introduced may have been novel and effective when you introduced them, but it’s not 1995 anymore, or 2005 for that matter.

How do you tell if you’re strategy is dated?

When it stops being effective.

When you see very few people in the next generation adopting the approach or strategy in question.

If you want more on this subject, I wrote about 11 traits of churches that will impact the future here.

 

4. Are we on top of the constant change in our culture?

While you’re studying your strategy, you might also want to study culture. It’s changing, radically and quickly.

I believe when historians look back on our generation, they will see it as a crack in history. We now live in a post-Christian, post-modern world. That’s true in Canada. It’s increasingly true in the United States.

In my experience, many of us in church leadership don’t really grasp the enormity of the change going on around us.

These posts can serve as a primer to get you and your board talking about the change happening now:

15 Characteristics of Today’s Unchurched Person

12 Cultural Trends Church Leaders Can’t Ignore (But Might)

Revivals Are Dead: 5 Things That Will Never Be The Same Again

7 Ways to Respond as People Attend Church Less Often

 

5. When was the last time I personally invited someone to church?

This is a tough one.

The reality is many Christians, for a variety of reasons, don’t actually spend time with that many non-Christians.

Sometimes it’s fear based. That’s a shame, because Jesus seemed to like outsiders even better than insiders. He had no problem hanging around people who didn’t want to hang out at church. Jesus had no problem loving people who didn’t yet love him.

Sometimes it’s calendar based. The church runs so many programs that Christians are at church 5-7 nights a week. You don’t have time to build relationships with anyone outside, let alone be a family. That’s why at our church, we only do community group one night a week. For the rest, we want our people to be home with their families as well as involved in local sports leagues, involved in their local schools and active in the community building friendships with people Jesus loves but who never attend church.

Sometimes it’s just a practical issue. If you’re on church staff, unchurched people rarely ask you for time. Churched people call you all day long and ask for your time and attention. And so you find yourself so absorbed with the work of the church that you miss the mission of the church.

If almost no one at your church knows any unchurched people, it’s no mystery why your church isn’t growing.

So why not go build some real friendships? And before you say we should be ‘in the world but not of it’, please read the Gospels again.

There are probably some other questions you’d ask too. I’d love you to add to this list in the comments section.

So how about you? What questions have you asked when your church has stopped growing?

 

24 Comments

  1. TxPastor on July 11, 2015 at 9:12 pm

    Good questions, but I think there is another that serves well. “Are we as individuals growing in our own spiritual walk?” Has the spiritual life of the congregation become stagnant? If individuals do not have a desire to grow how can the church expect to grow? For the church to grow (in numbers I suppose) its members must first grow as disciples themselves. And there in lies the challenge as I see it.

  2. christoph on July 11, 2015 at 6:45 pm

    Love your articles/blogs my friend Carey. Perhaps sometime we want INSTANT results and fill the pews, or just keep our members busy. Asking tough questions is so tough to do. What Robin mentions is also at our church a challenge, too many grey heads in our church. That #5 question puzzles me a little. IF we’re active in the community with an evangelistic vision, then over short or long people will show up at our church. If folks do not come to us we have to go to them. Last summer for 5 weeks we did weekly prayer walks in our neighborhood. We had $5 Tim’s card as giveaway. It was my recommendation to the outreach Pastor. Very few members showed up. One evening only him (Outreach Pastor) and I went out. At one point he wanted to walk past an apartment block, about 5 minutes away from our church. I spotted an older man sitting at the front. I approached him. It resulted in a 30 minute conversation. Did he showed up at church the next Sunday or accepted Christ? No, or not yet. But he heard the Good News, including our testimonies. I believe sometime we must do “crazy” stuff outside the box. Eventually folks will show up on a Sunday morning.

  3. RobinMavis_AHGET on May 6, 2014 at 2:06 pm

    Carey Nieuwhof Thank you for this great article. My husband and I joined a church that is heavily weighted in numbers to those over 60. I’m concerned about the church not being willing to go door knocking in the neighborhood and invite people to come and visit. I hear things like ‘Oh we tried that before.’ or ‘the neighborhood doesn’t really like us because we struggle with getting the parking lot patrolled’ to ‘we don’t have enough people to do that’. Well of course if we continue down this path we will have less and less people to do that. I want our church to be a place where families young and old feel welcome, enriched spiritually and connected. I am trying to find responses to the ‘resistors’. 🙂

  4. RobinMavis_AHGET on May 6, 2014 at 1:57 pm

    Wow it is so sad to see people’s comments here who just want their little old church and how they do things continue to feel comfortable for *them*. I don’t understand how the list above is seen as not being squared with the New Testament or following a crowd. Jesus wanted us to be fisher of men. He didn’t give a recipe to do this. And Paul’s ‘recipe’ was for specific churches in a specific geography with a specific political and socio-economic climate during a specific time in history. I don’t see how any of the list above compromises Jesus’ message at all. As far as order of Christian worship is concerned…if you are that concerned about whether the meal is delivered on a paper plate or china, then you should really try to recreate the order of worship that the early church followed…good luck with that….nobody’s church currently follows it, because we don’t really know exactly how that looked, nor if it looked the same for every church. But I suppose that is one of the reasons there is so much disunity in Christendom, everyone gets nit picky about how people do stuff and they get their bloomers in a bind and huff off. And I seriously take issue with the idea that we encounter God and Christ on only Sunday to make our lives a fragrant offering. That should be happening every day in our personal homes behind closed doors. The church building on Sunday should be the place where people who don’t yet have that every day relationship with God, get to encounter it and perhaps be drawn in by the Spirit so they too can practice communion with God every day of their lives not just Sundays.

  5. RWTurner on May 2, 2014 at 1:39 pm

    Why does your list not square with the New Testament’s teaching? Where does Paul deal with any of these issues Carey? He encourages Timothy to preach the word, do the work of an evangelist, not talk about mission, strategy and cultural engagement.

    Christians need to encounter their Heavenly Father and the Risen Lord Jesus Christ every Sunday so that their lives will be a fragrant offering to God and they will be equipped to minister to people around them.

    If a preacher’s message is not offensive and foolish to the world, then
    it’s not biblical. A minister is called to preach Christ crucified for
    the forgiveness of sins. Until the lost repent of their rebellion
    against God, you’re just arranging deck chairs on a sinking ship.

    • Jason Mahurin on August 4, 2015 at 11:35 am

      1 Corintihans 9:22 “I have become all things to all men that by all means I might save some”.
      Paul was very aware of culture – even quoting contemporary secular philosophers and citing artists. Just because he doesn’t say the word “strategy” doesn’t mean he didn’t recognize and value it greatly.
      Paul absolutely paid attention to the things Carey brings up, and a close examination of his writings will reveal it.

      • Kimmo Sundqvist on August 17, 2016 at 5:39 am

        What Paul was saying and doing he did because it was pertinent to his message, not because it was relevant to the culture. The problem really lies in what is communicated, also in this disagreement. The how is only a surface.

        I don’t need to find problems with Carey’s forms and methods when I can find problems in his actual content.

  6. Riley on May 1, 2014 at 2:45 pm

    This sounds like following the crowd, a losing strategy. We are to proclaim the heavenly kingdom and submission to the King, not pander to the culture of the world.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on May 2, 2014 at 8:20 am

      Riley…thanks for your comment. I’m sorry you feel that way. I know many churches that are reaching many unchurched people and seeing authentic life change through the methods described in this blog. I am always encouraged when I see people coming to Christ.

      *Carey Nieuwhof, Lead Pastor *
      *Connexus Church*
      *546 Bryne Drive, Unit E Barrie Ontario L4N 9P6* *connexuscommunity.com * *careynieuwhof.com *
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      *Sent from my personal email account. **If adding others, please use cnieuwhof@gmail.com to include me in the conversation. Thank you!*

      • Riley on May 2, 2014 at 9:23 am

        You’re sorry I feel what way, like we shouldn’t pander to the crowd? Praise God there are people finding New Life in Christ. I don’t think we can do better than the methods God gave us in Scriptures.

        • Carey Nieuwhof on May 2, 2014 at 9:25 am

          I think something we confuse the method with the mission. The mission never changes. Neither does the message. The method can and should from generation to generation. Worship has always changed culturally from century to century. — Sent from Mailbox

          • Riley on May 2, 2014 at 10:11 am

            The method is critical because it shapes the message. You don’t serve your daughter’s engagement dinner on paper plates, because that would send the wrong message. There is some cultural variation in worship (musical tunes, etc.) but much historical continuity in the format and order of Christian worship.



  7. […] 5 Telling Questions You Should Ask If Your Church Isn’t Growing – Carey Nieuwhof […]

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    […] Questions you should ask if your church is not growing. […]

  9. Katherine A. on April 28, 2014 at 8:06 pm

    I think one of the most important questions to ask of yourselves and your leadership is are you praying? Does your church have a prayer meeting, part of which focuses on prayer for the unreached and new members? Human strategies will always prove ineffective (even if they bring in numbers) without the power of the Holy Spirit moving in hearts.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on April 28, 2014 at 8:22 pm

      Very true Katherine. Prayer is foundational. —
      Sent from Mailbox

  10. Sean Chandler on April 27, 2014 at 12:25 am

    Three of those hit very close to home for me and my church.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on April 27, 2014 at 5:15 am

      Thanks Sean. Hope it helps spark a transformative discussion. —
      Sent from Mailbox

  11. Mark on April 25, 2014 at 10:33 pm

    You don’t always see the decline or lack of growth until one day you wake up and realize that there’s a group of people that are just messing. If the area happens to have a lot of retirees moving there, You may grow but with people who all have gray hair. It might not be easy to determine that you don’t have anyone younger than 40.

    I agree with number four because so many times the church is the last one to realize the culture change. Even when they have younger people attending, most refuse to ask them what is going on in the modern world. I often thought that most people in churches did not care what was affecting the younger generations.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on April 26, 2014 at 5:46 am

      Great point Mark. One day you wake up and realize who’s missing. It’s a good idea for church leaders to look around every week and ask why their church doesn’t look more like a cross section of the local mall. And it it does, you’re probably accomplishing your mission. — Sent from Mailbox

      • Mark on April 26, 2014 at 7:57 am

        The clash occurs when the members of the congregation don’t really care who is there. Or they fear losing power and want to maintain their control using any method possible.

  12. chadbrooks on April 25, 2014 at 12:44 pm

    Every one of these is so important. The larger thread I see across all of your 5 points in intentionality. When churches/pastors/members loose focus so much can potentially go wrong.

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