5 Things About Church Growth That Are No Longer True

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Reaching more people has never been more important, and it’s never been more challenging.

So, as a church leader, you’d love to reach more people and would love to see your church grow.

Here’s the dilemma: Reaching more people has never been more important, and it’s never been more challenging.

It’s never been more important because the message of hope the Gospel offers stands in stark contrast to the way everything in culture these days seems to be heading.

And it’s never been more challenging because everything is changing so fast.

As a result, some of the things that used to be true in church leadership just aren’t effective anymore.

Here are five things that used to be true about church growth that, well, just aren’t anymore.

1. What used to work will work again (innovation’s short, new shelflife)

Many leaders came out of the pandemic determined to return to what used to work to grow their ministry. And, as many leaders soon discovered, the shelf-life for innovation has never been shorter.

Many leaders came out of the pandemic determined to return to what used to work to grow their ministry.

And, as many leaders soon discovered, the shelf-life for innovation has never been shorter.

Pre-1990, the shelf-life of change could be measured in decades. Changes in format, worship, and strategy often took years to develop and years longer to implement. And they were often effective for years to come. As a result, deep change only needed to happen every decade or so, and incremental change could easily fill in the gaps in between (add some new songs, change the way a message is delivered, etc.)

As the internet exploded in the early 2000s, ideas and trends spread faster, and the pace of change sped up. The changes leaders made were effective for a few years but started to show diminishing returns faster.

In the late 2010s and early 2020s emerged, and the average person spent significantly more time online, things shifted even further.

Not only did people’s tastes, attitudes, and behaviors change rapidly, but so did the options available to them at their fingertips. As information spread more quickly, so did changes in peoples’ patterns and habits.

If your church isn’t cutting it, people could quickly find five others that might be. Alternatively, they simply disappear altogether, having found something/someone else to fill their spiritual void.

Here’s the challenge for a lot of churches. If the ‘innovation’ you’re counting on to help reach new people is the change you pioneered five or ten years earlier, you’ll be badly disappointed by the results.

What used to work doesn’t work anymore.

And that’s left a lot of churches perfectly positioned to reach a culture that no longer exists.

A lot of churches are perfectly positioned to reach a culture that no longer exists. Click To Tweet

2. If you build it, they will come

In the future, you’ll likely see new building projects launched like they were at the beginning of the multisite movement—because people were coming, not because the leaders hoped people would come.

For years, growing churches built new buildings and often saw them fill up quickly.

Multisite went from something a few churches did to something 70% of megachurches now do.

That led some churches to adopt expansion as a growth strategy. In other words, rather than building a new facility because people were coming, they started building them because they hoped people would come.

Before COVID, that approach was running into trouble. Many pastors will tell you in private that some of their new sites never really filled up and that a surprising number of campuses that were started in the hopes that people would come never filled up.

In the future, you’ll likely see new building projects launched like they were at the beginning of the multisite movement—because people were coming, not because the leaders hoped people would come.

And while church plants with healthy, visionary leadership continue to thrive, there’s no longer a guarantee that a new or expanded facility will fill quickly.

A 2022 study by the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability showed that pastors who expected their church to grow led churches that grew at 10x the rate of pastors who did not expect their church to grow.

The lesson?

The Field of Dreams line, ‘If you build it, they will come,” has become so widespread in the church that pastors often use it to justify building projects even when there’s no need for it.

Maybe it’s time to update the slogan to ‘build it because people are coming.

Get Answers To Your Toughest Pastoral Succession Questions

5 years from now, what would it feel like to look back and know…

  • That you asked the right questions before and it prepared you for what came after?
  • That you made tough but necessary decisions to prepare for a brighter future?
  • That you were confident each step of the way?

You can hit the ground running in your ministry and skip the years of trial-and-error (and failures) that so many pastors face during a transition.

3. New People Find it Easy to Show Up For the First Time

For unchurched people, walking through the door of a church increasingly feels like walking through the door of a private club or like walking through the door of a synagogue or mosque—not impossible, but way easier and less awkward if you go with a friend who’s a member.

Every church leader would say that everyone is welcome at their church. And for years, that worked.

If someone knew wanted to come to a particular church, they just showed up.

For at least three reasons, that’s changing so rapidly it’s hard to believe.

First, America is rapidly becoming post-Christian. What that means is that with every passing year, fewer people know someone who goes to church or has been to one themselves.

As a result, for unchurched people, walking through the door of a church increasingly feels like walking through the door of a private club or like walking through the door of a synagogue or mosque—not impossible, but way easier and less awkward if you go with a friend who’s a member.

Second, too many church leaders have started speaking and preaching along partisan political lines. Do that, and 50% of the people you’re trying to reach won’t feel welcome.

Finally, a growing number of Americans don’t know any or many Christians. So personal invitation is harder to come by than ever before. Making it rarer still, half of Millennial Christians feel like evangelism is ‘wrong.’

4. Church Growth Requires You to Lead At An Unsustainable Pace

It’s simply not true that leaders of all growing churches live and lead at an unsustainable pace.

It’s simply not true that leaders of all growing churches live and lead at an unsustainable pace.

There has been an undercurrent in some circles that suggests the price of leading a growing church is burnout.

While that might be anecdotally true (I burned out when our church was growing rapidly), it’s simply not true that leaders of all growing churches live and lead at an unsustainable pace.

As a Roman Catholic priest shared with me at breakfast once, he knows dozens of priests in small parishes who are burning out in stagnant churches. Decline brings its own basket of sorrows.

As I share here, strategically managing your time, energy, and priorities produces more margin for you when things grow. It certainly has in my case and in the lives of thousands of leaders I coach.

It's simply not true that leaders of all growing churches live and lead at an unsustainable pace. Click To Tweet

5. New People Aren’t That Interested in God

While it’s great to remember that you might have a hardened skeptic in the room on any given Sunday, the truth is most of the people in your church these days are there because they want to be. And that includes new people.

This seems like a weird point, but it’s worth considering.

For years, pastors could safely assume that some of the new people attending their church weren’t that interested in God. And in a Christian culture, that assumption made sense.

Church attendance wasn’t that weird, and people with little interest in God would show up at churches at the invitation of a friend or spouse.

While it’s great to remember that you might have a hardened skeptic in the room on any given Sunday, the truth is most of the people in your church these days are there because they want to be. And that includes new people.

They made the effort. They know this is about God. They’re already leaning in.

So lead them. Feed them. Assume they’re interested.

Don’t lose them with insider lingo, weirdo jargon, or assume that they’re ready to take step 96 on their spiritual journey. New people don’t understand insider-speak, and they probably don’t know much about Scripture.

But walk with them and assume they’re interested.

If they’re watching online, they’re interested.

If they show up in the room, they’re probably very motivated to learn and change something in their life.

Roll with that.

The hardened skeptic of yesterday is probably Googling their way deeper into disbelief (which provides interesting opportunities for churches doing digital ministry well). But if they show up on your channel, your stream, or in your room, they’re ready.

Take them somewhere.

While it's great to remember that you might have a hardened skeptic in the room on any given Sunday, the truth is most of the people in your church these days are there because they want to be. And that includes new people. Click To Tweet

Secure Your Church’s Future with a Proven Pastoral Succession Plan.

If you’ve ever wondered:

  • How do I lead this church with a vision I didn’t create and a staff I didn’t hire?
  • Am I even equipped to be a lead pastor? And to lead our church through a healthy transition? 
  • How can I honor the outgoing pastor throughout the transition?

Then it might be time to make a plan for your future.

So much rides on healthy pastoral succession. A bad one can ruin a great legacy, harm a church, and make the new lead pastor a sacrificial lamb.

Or, it can go exceedingly well. 

How do you not mess it up when there's so much at stake?

The Art of Pastoral Succession helps you hit the ground running in your ministry and skip the years of trial-and-error (and failures) that so many pastors face during a transition.

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Carey Nieuwhof
Carey Nieuwhof

Carey Nieuwhof is a best-selling leadership author, speaker, podcaster, former attorney, and church planter. He hosts one of today’s most influential leadership podcasts, and his online content is accessed by leaders over 1.5 million times a month. He speaks to leaders around the world about leadership, change, and personal growth.