The Data Is In: 5 Things That Will Sabotage Your Church’s Future Growth

So how is your church positioned for reaching new people in the years ahead?

Over 5000 church leaders recently completed the Church Outreach Assessment, and the data is in.

The results were a little surprising, with some signs of hope as well as some significant areas for growth.

The good news is that churches are making some strides toward reaching more people with the hope of the Gospel.

The tougher news is that there are also some challenges ahead.

Here’s the tension: most church leaders want to see their church reach more people. Yet the data shows that many leaders find themselves leading a church that’s not positioned to do so.

Below you’ll see some key findings from the Church Outreach Assessment.

Respond to the issues and you and the people you’re hoping to reach will have a brighter future. Ignore them, and, well, things will be much harder.

Here are five things the results showed that are bound to sabotage your church’s future outreach efforts.

1. Showing Little Commitment to Evangelism and Discipleship

Of all the findings in the Church Outreach Assessment, this was the most shocking to me.

22% of pastors disagree with the statement that evangelism is highly important to their church.

And 16% of church leaders disagree with the statement that discipleship is highly important to their church.

I think most of us would have imagined that almost all church leaders would agree that evangelism and discipleship are both highly important.

But one in five church leaders say evangelism doesn’t matter, and one in six say discipleship isn’t highly important.

The honesty is refreshing, but the implications are a bit staggering.

If you’re not committed to evangelism or discipleship, what exactly are you committed to as a church?

To give leaders the benefit of the doubt, perhaps they were saying that they wished their church was passionate about evangelism and discipleship but found it lacking. I hope that’s the best reading of this finding.

But without a deep commitment to evangelism and discipleship, any church will be off-mission. Growing churches will be passionate about both, and seek to do both well.

2. Treating Online Attendees Like They Don’t Really Matter

This is an interesting statistic and shows some hope for future outreach.

As of mid-2021, 53% of church leaders say they have a better experience of church in-person v. online.

I wonder what the results of this question would have been even two years ago. I’m imagining that in 2019, perhaps 90% of church leaders would have said that in-person church provides a better experience for people than church online.

The encouraging news is that pastors seem to be increasingly open to online as a key to reaching more people and providing a great experience.

Still, check the comments on this website since 2020 or scroll social media for a few minutes, and you’ll find a meaningful number of pastors who see church online as ‘competition’ or something that should be avoided, dismissed or tolerated but not encouraged.

While online church best leads to an in-person encounter, the openness of almost half of all pastors to seeing church online as a legitimate option is encouraging.

The truth is that everyone watching online is a real human, with needs, emotions, longings, and a personal journey. Churches that realize this and connect with their online community will have a much brighter future than churches who don’t.

It may take time, but expanding to a truly hybrid model of ministry that embraces online and in-person gatherings is an investment that’s worth it.

For these reasons and more, the debate between online and in-person church is a false one. It’s time to embrace both, knowing that your impact will multiply when you do.

Neither the internet nor people are disappearing anytime soon.

In the future, if you care about people, you’ll care about church online.

Treat the people you’re reaching online as though they’re real people, because they are.

3. Having No Clear Strategy To Assimilate First-Time Guests

Another big surprise the data revealed is that 70% of church leaders said they do not an effective process for assimilating first time guests.  About 36% said they don’t have any process, while 34% said they have a process but it’s not really effective.

In other words, even once church leaders capture the names of and personal information of people who are watching or meet people who show up in person, most don’t have a reliable process that gets people connected into community, serving, and discipleship (not to mention giving). Please note this is true of digital and in-person connections.

Clearly, there’s some work to be done.

As digital outreach expands, this is even more important.

You might ask why developing a process to connect with people who watch your YouTube channel, scroll your Instagram feed or visit your website is so critical?

Simple…it’s what will turn today’s crowd into tomorrow’s congregation.

If you’re still wondering if online ministry can turn into actual life change, Transformation Church recently baptized over 25,000 people in a single Sunday, largely because of its digital outreach. Their auditorium barely seats 4,000 people.  If you’re curious, Transformation Lead Pastor Mike Todd and I discuss his ministry approach and digital strategy in this interview and again here.

Digital ministry scales in a way that physical ministry doesn’t.

4. Staying Off Social As a Leader

It’s surprising that in 2021, more than a quarter of all senior pastors still have zero social media presence.

Is that a good thing? A bad thing? Or a little of both?

One the one hand, social media can feed into the narcissism and division that show up far too often in the culture and in the church. Senior pastors being active on social media is no guarantee of anything good happening. Just scroll through your feed and it won’t take long to discover the damage that an unhealthy social media presence can do.

On the other hand, there has never been a greater opportunity in human history to be a positive force for good, both for your congregation and for the people you’re trying to reach.

It’s never been easier to reach people, to build relationships, and to help move your mission forward than it is now. Ignoring social media means you’re ignoring one of the greatest opportunities for outreach your church has.

A final point on senior pastors being on social media is this: people tend to follow leaders more than they follow churches or organizations.

Elon Musk is followed much more closely than Tesla. People will follow Christine Caine much more closely than her (amazing) organization, A21. Similarly, when people think of Fresh Life Church, they think of Levi Lusko.

You can argue all day long that this shouldn’t be the case, except it is the case.

Why? People want to know the leader before they trust the organization. If they don’t trust you, they’re less likely to trust your church.

If they can’t find you online, they’re much less likely to follow you in any way at all.

5. Ensuring That The Diversity In Your Church Doesn’t Mirror Diversity in Your Community

Studies show that Gen Z and Millennials are motivated to see churches address racial injustice and promote equality even more so than both their Boomer or Gen X counterparts.

But it’s even broader than that.

As Dillon Smith, a Gen Z member of my team wrote recently:

“If your church isn’t at least as diverse as the school we grew up in, we will question you as an organization.”

And yet only 48% of church leaders say that their church’s racial and economic diversity reflects their community’s racial and economic diversity.

That’s a challenge.

When people attend your church for the first time, one of the questions a guest is asking (even subconsciously) is “Do I fit in here?”

You know how that works, right? You look for people who look like you.

If a single parent walks in and only sees married couples, or a person of color walks in and finds only caucasian people, they notice. It sends an unspoken but clear message that says “people like you don’t hang out here.”

And that’s the opposite of the Gospel.

What Does This Mean? 

So what does this mean?

It means that while there are some challenges ahead, there’s also some hope.

It’s encouraging to know that almost half of the churches reflect the diversity of the community they serve, that most pastors are on social media, and that 78% of churches are highly committed to evangelism.

And there’s also a lot of work to do. When 70% of churches don’t have an effective assimilation strategy, half of all churches don’t reflect their community, and some churches won’t prioritize outreach or discipleship, it’s no big surprise that 85% of churches are still plateaued or declining. There’s ample room for progress.

Combine that with the fact we live in a world that needs the hope of the Gospel more deeply than ever before, and you have a mission worth pouring your energy, heart and life into.

The challenges are great. But the opportunity is greater.

This post is part 2 of a series of blog posts focused on The Art Of Better Reaching. If you missed part 1, here it is:

3 Ways Attractional Church Needs to Change To Reach the Next Generation

What’s Your Story?

As you read through these statistics, where do you find yourself in the story?

What are you working on? What do you hope to improve?

Scroll down and leave a comment!

The Data Is In: 5 Things That Will Sabotage Your Church’s Future Growth


  1. Pastor Benjamin Adegbola on June 4, 2021 at 1:38 pm

    my name is pastor benjamin Adegbola,I am very excited about this teaching/write up,so impactful and eye opener in this 21st century development of church growth.
    All point noted and ready to make use of it,thanks

  2. Rev Heather on June 2, 2021 at 6:40 pm

    In response to point 1: Evangelicalism is not the whole of Christianity. Progressive and Mainline churches also have a commitment to the Great Commandment, not just a commitment to the Great Commission. I believe both are important and am committed to both. I would also say that in non-evangelical, and denominational churches , it’s not just about what the Pastor thinks is important. Especially in churches of 200 or less, the priorities of the laity, who often need some leadership to become less self-focused, will cause us to honestly assess our church’s commitment to evangelism lower than our personal commitment to evangelism.

  3. Joe Jansen on June 2, 2021 at 4:10 pm

    Thanks for a challenging and informative post.

  4. Average Joe on June 2, 2021 at 11:03 am

    “Do I fit in here?” This is the one question you will find every new person is asking every time they enter a church, or even think of going to a church. Want to grow, find out how to make the answer yes.

  5. Maureen Small on June 2, 2021 at 10:21 am

    Very interesting. I especially find the last point challenging. Dillon said the church should reflect the same diversity as his school, or the church loses credibility in his eyes. I’m not sure if he’s referring to “school” as in high school or university, but if it’s high school (a truer reflection of the local community than university), those students don’t have a choice whether to be there. They naturally reflect the diversity of the community because for the most part they are required to attend that local high school. So how do you create a diverse church? In some cases perhaps you could start a ministry to single parents (to use your example) which would attract more single parents. But if your diversity is cultural/race – and not newcomers to the country, which would potentially have opportunity for an outreach ministry – how do you draw in people of other cultures/races to build that diversity?

    • Carey Nieuwhof on June 2, 2021 at 3:32 pm

      Derwin Gray has some amazing content and books on how to build a multi-ethnic church. Many have done it, and it is possible. 🙂

  6. Riley on June 2, 2021 at 10:16 am

    The first statistic is brutal, but I believe true and honest. For many of us who took this survey, and then transitioned out of serving on staff, this was the realization that we came to, I came to. The weekend message is where the most focus, energy, and resources are most often found at larger churches like the one I was at.
    Whether is attributed to drift from mission or a pulpit narcissist, as leaders, we must humble our hearts and preferences and make disciples of Jesus, not more personal fans.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on June 2, 2021 at 3:32 pm

      Riley…this is a really refreshing take. I know it’s hard. A lot of the results surprised me too, but with that kind of humility and leadership, your church is well served. Thank you for being so transparent.

  7. Ted Martens on June 2, 2021 at 7:06 am

    Insightful and telling!

    • Carey Nieuwhof on June 2, 2021 at 7:47 am

      Thanks Ted!

  8. Jaqueline Merrington on June 2, 2021 at 3:53 am

    Greeting in wonderfull
    Name of Jesus.
    First of all you right the leaders just care about themselves and don’t do what they call to do.All your points are on spot
    Let me introduce myself.I am evangelistres Jacky.My husband is the evangelist we believe in evangelism and discleship.So thanks for all the tips and Points I definitely implement it.We do need out to the unbelievers for the Gospel is for everyone.

    God Bless you for your effort and commitment to help grow God Kingdom
    Evangelistres Jacky Merrington

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