5 Things That Won’t Make Your Church Grow (Despite What You May Think)

church growth

So you want your church to grow…to reach new people. And you’ve convinced yourself that you really would grow if you only had one or two more things to make your ministry thrive.

For example, you’ve might have said any combination of these things.

We would grow if we:

Got out of our portable location and opened a new building.

Got out of our current building and became portable (I’ve actually talked with leaders who think they would grow explosively if they left their old building and became portable).

Added new technology (like lights, sound or video).

Merged with another church.

Added a new campus.

And would you?

Here’s my theory. No you wouldn’t.

Before you get discouraged and quit reading this post, let me explain why this line of thinking rarely, if ever works.

One Principle Most of us Want to Ignore

David Ogilvy, the famous 20th-century advertising guru, is famous for saying that great marketing just makes a bad product fail faster.

And that’s the principle most of us want to ignore, or at least I do.

Great marketing just makes a bad product fail faster. — David Ogilvy Click To Tweet

Most churches aren’t growing because of their venue or even because of their technology.

They’re stagnant or dying because they’re not connecting with people and effectively fulfilling their mission.

As a result, in most cases:

A change in venue will simply move your current problems into a new location.

New technology will only magnify your current irrelevance.

Merging ministries or adding locations will only compound your current problems with new ones.

Bottom line? There is no silver bullet.

The trap most leaders fall into is believing that a change in form will be an adequate substitute for a change in substance

And change in form never makes up for a change in substance.

And change in form never makes up for a change in substance. Click To Tweet

Substantive change is the only thing that will truly change the trajectory of most churches and organizations.

You can

Put new siding on a house, but if the foundation is crumbling…

Paint your car, but if the engine is still seized and there’s rust underneath…

Put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig…

Until you substantively change the way you function, any change in any kind of form will never be effective.

change in venue won’t help a dying church grow.

Better media won’t help a dying church grow.

Adding new campuses won’t help a dying church grow.

Merging won’t help two or three dying churches grow.

I’ve lived through this tension. In less than two decades, our church has met in a century-old building, an elementary school, and a new facility, movie theatres and again, another brand new facility. Through all phases, we’ve grown from a handful of people to over 3500 people who call our church home today.

And throughout it, buildings, technologies, and even locations have been means to an end, not ends in themselves. They did not make us grow or reach new people. They helped, but they are not the secret sauce.

Church buildings, technologies and even locations are means to an end, not ends in themselves. They did not make you grow or reach new people. They can help you grow, but they are not the secret sauce. Click To Tweet

How To Make Things Worse

If you want to make things worse, here’s how to do it.

Address form, but don’t address substance. Never resolve your underlying problems.

Instead, add technology, add locations, add campuses, engineer mergers and hope that they will solve all your problems. They won’t.

In fact, they’ll make them worse.

Now, instead of:

Being in your old building with a manageable budget, you are in a new one with higher costs you can’t pay.

Having your own issues to solve, you’ve merged with another church and now have two organization’s problems to solve. (This is why church mergers in mainline churches almost never work. Church takeovers can and do by the way.)

Being in one location, you are in two and are discovering that two locations aren’t twice as complicated as one location, but 3x to 4x more complicated than running a single site.

Having a simple message people can understand, you have all this technology that is creating even greater distance between you and the people you’re trying to reach.

I believe these things are true. You can grow a church:

In a centuries’ old building.  And you can kill a church in a brand new multi-million dollar facility.

With almost no lights and haze.  And you can waste a million dollars on lights, gear and cameras.

Grow a church in a single site. And you can go bankrupt adding venues no one wants to attend.

You can grow a church in a centuries’ old building. And you can kill a church in a new facility. Click To Tweet

These truths are hard truths but they’re so helpful because they make us look in the mirror and get on our knees.

They help us realize where the issue really is and make us do the homework and the heartwork we need to do.

Please hear me. I have led church mergers and multisite expansions and building campaigns and portable church and rapid technological change in the church and they’ve all helped us reach more people and grow our ministry.

But I think it’s only because we sat down and solved our underlying problems as an organization first.

We got healthier inward as we grew outward.

We tackled the issues of substance before and as often as possible even as we tackled the issues of form.

And (don’t miss this…) God has been incredibly gracious to us. I say that just so you know that I’m not trying to take credit. And God has been gracious to you too I’m sure. It’s just God’s grace is no substitute for using your mind and heart to engage the issues of leadership that are before you.

So How Can You Reach Your Community? (Welcome to the Church Growth Masterclass)

What Have You Seen?

What have you seen?

And what other things do you think people look to (inaccurately) as ways to grow their church?

Leave a comment!

5 Things That Won’t Make Your Church Grow (Despite What You May Think)


  1. Stan Miyamoto on April 2, 2021 at 7:57 pm

    Very blessed your blog! Thanks!
    I resonate with your comment:
    We got healthier inward as we grew outward.
    We tackled the issues of substance before and as often as possible even as we tackled the issues of form.
    My question is, does your program address the factors of inward healh, and how much of unhealthy systems can actually change?

  2. Dave Hall on April 2, 2021 at 9:02 am

    Carey – Another insightful blog. Could you identify some examples of “substance” issues or point me to a blog that addresses that more directly? I’m trying to figure out if music quality is a substance or a form issue. I’m seeing it both ways and it may be both and am trying to see what other issues of substance we need to address.

  3. Dan on April 2, 2021 at 7:50 am

    Carey – have never heard the term “church takeover” – could you expand on this or point me in the direction of some more insight into it? Thanks

  4. Bishop paul on April 2, 2021 at 7:47 am

    Good day
    From South Africa
    Net work connection request

  5. Ivania Bernal on October 13, 2020 at 2:15 pm

    Ii believe that increasing evangelism efforts and Attendance-follow-up efforts are very effective. There are many ways to do this! I like all that I read here. Thanks for putting it together.

  6. Simon Olweny on April 13, 2020 at 7:14 am

    Dear Sir/Madam

    Greetings to you in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord and savior.
    I am Apostle Simon Olweny from “Uganda, East Africa” married to one wife and blessed with four children.
    With the work that the Lord has called me for as an Apostle, I have so far served in this field for ten years now.
    Therefore, this letter serves to request friendship in sharing the love of Christ together as unity body.
    I shall be grateful, servant of God, to hear from you in different capacity and may God bless you abundantly in up lifting His Kingdom.

    Yours in Christ,

    Apostle Simon Olweny

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  9. ESTHER A. OLUTENDE on July 3, 2019 at 7:29 am

    I am a Catholic Baptized and confirmed. I love my Church so much and when my children were baptized and confirmed, I was over the moon. It was so nice seeing them serve as alter boys. Along the way, it was like they were doing this for me. They all changed, one is a Muslim, another SDA, another Anglican, two I don’t see them going to Church and my second last daughter does go to any church depending on where she is. At home she is a Catholic, when she is with the sisters, she is either SDA or Anglican.

    Recently I also found myself getting bored with Catholic, and now I attend Victory Church.I am so drawn that I feel quite comfortable while there. Now the dilemma, most Africans, especially in Kenya, one receives a good send off depending on whether your Church is able or you are able. Am not able, my Catholic Church don’t know me any more and Victory Church is still young and growing at snail pace. We are still housed in a mud iron roofed Church Any time we have to raise money for a given cause, we take almost 2 weeks to raise but Kshs. 2000! Now, can we say that, this will brake up our Church or it will boost it!

  10. Pst kavunja from BUNGOMA Kenya on May 21, 2019 at 10:40 am

    Material on 5 things that won’t make your church grow is so timely for. The church needs you to pray with me and the congregation.

  11. Greg on November 4, 2018 at 5:17 pm

    1. God doesn’t NEED us to build His church. That’s His stated job. However he CHOOSES to partner with us and involve us in His redemptive mission in the world.
    2. Since we are not God, our part in God’s work is to do human things, not superhuman or supernatural things.
    3. When we do our human things, then we can expect God to do superhuman things because He has demonstrated that He prefers to do His work through us.
    4. Another way to say it is that God waits for us to do all that we can do, before He will do what only He can do. When we are faithful in the small (human) things, He promises to give us greater (supernatural) things.
    5. If we expect. ” new wine” (supernatual things) we must prepare and offer to God “new wineskins”(natural, human things).
    6. In our partnership with God we are limited to “planting” and “watering.” ( human things). But plant and water we must or God has no opportunity to bring about the growth that only He is able to produce.k

    I appreciate Cary’s distinction between form and substance. Substantive change takes place through a process. Initial things we try may in fact be superficial changes that we hope will be quick fixes. By God’s grace these fail because God isn’t after a church that merely has good form, but a church of substance– beyond drawing a crowd to making disciples. This process which includes failure is part of God’s purpose to as Cary put it “get on our knees”. In so doing He changes us internally as He searches our motives and changes our desires from just seeing a big crowd to seeing a big crowd become deeply transformed and devoted followers of Jesus who in turn become shining lights of God’s love and grace in a dark world.

    • Abiola Temitope on July 22, 2019 at 2:24 am

      This very timely for my new partnership with God in His kingdom advancement agenda. God bless you.

  12. Darker on November 26, 2017 at 9:11 am

    I sit here on this Sunday morning, once again .. absent the joy I used to feel in attending the church we do. Contemplating whether I should just watch a TV sermon this morning and forgo attending, yet again.

    I don’t know what’s wrong with our broken church, but I’m tired. Tired of the struggle.

    Joined this church 5 or 6 years ago, and it was 250/300 strong in membership. Almost from the start, there was a church split. Pastor left abruptly (office politics). Started another church, took about half of what was at one time 250/300 folks. We were without a lead minister. Search committee formed, .. some months later a pastor brought on board. One that was very unpopular and not well received. There went about half of what remained as membership in the church, they then departed.

    Unpopular pastor was asked to resign ultimately, and did so.

    Search committee formed again (those who were on the original search committee .. the ones that found the pastor that turned out to be pretty unpopular .. those folks are no longer, for the most part, .. attending).

    The search committee has been at it now for 18 months. We’ve seen our membership rolls deteriorate at this point. On any given Sunday, the attendance is somewhere around 70, give or take.

    I no longer find joy and spiritual renewal in attending there. But my husband is firmly entrenched in rebuilding the church to what it once was, as far as membership. He is on every committee/board, you name it, and there numerous times a week for meetings and various planning stages of outreach that goes on at the church. Fall Festivals, Spring Flings .. xmas programs, revivals, you name it.

    I participated for a long time, but .. have lost my faith .. in seeing that none of it ever bears any fruit.

    Church as become “work”. Show up for this project/meeting/program, etc., and that one. That’s what church has become for me.

    I wish I knew what the problem is, I’d certainly fix it. I don’t.

    It’s been 5 or 6 years of watching the membership .. (fellowship) of this church dwindle and dwindle further, and what the result is .. those that remain .. are over-worked .. (at least that’s my assessment). The few that do show up when there is work to do, .. grounds clean up, yard duty, spring cleaning, planning for above outreaches .. the few that do show up .. there are probably about 8 or 9 that routinely show up (I used to be one of the, no longer am, have lost my fire for it), the few that do show up, .. those are the same few that routinely show up .. and the outreach goes on, at the hands of those who are over-taxed and over-worked, over planned, over strategizing.

    For what? Why does this church continue to do the outreach that they do .. for the community at large, spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ, .. on the backs of the few that do the work, .. yet it never bears any fruit. Never.

    I’m tired.

    What it looks like, in a church that is failing to grow, .. what it feels like, on the ground, in real-time .. is not pretty, it’s not renewing, it’s not joyful, not for me it isn’t. It becomes just about the next chore, the next project, the next whatever.

    What do you do when you can’t put your finger on the “why’s” of it all?

    • Joseph Back on January 1, 2018 at 8:40 pm

      Does the Church have a Tabernacle in which resides the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist? If not, burnout is inevitable. We don’t provide the willpower to do outreach and missions, that belongs to Grace. Grace is found in the Person and Work of Jesus, and if that Person or his Work are missing then we burnout through trying to take the task of Church growth into our own hands. Paul sows, Apollo waters, but God gives the increase. Outside of and apart from Him we can do nothing. One must seek out His Body. Have you heard of Eucharistic Miracles?

    • Jane Walker on May 31, 2018 at 1:56 pm

      The only thing you need to make your church grow is Jesus, to do what He what He said , “make disciples of allnations,baptizing them in the name of the father son and Holy Spirit,and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” and To keep Him close, listen and obey ,read the word and obey .you don’t need anything else.

      • Martin on May 11, 2019 at 9:12 am

        This is very helpful to me More Grace to your life,
        From Martin Kenya Nakuru

      • Joe Lightle on May 28, 2019 at 7:44 pm


    • Ron on July 9, 2018 at 10:34 am

      Hello there, I hope this memo is encouraging and applicable, in reading thru the comments I feel compelled to share some short history on my church which is now breaking all the statistical attendance records out there, between age groups, holidays, school starting, and all the other stats that show when attendance is supposed to be low we’re doubling and disproving the stats per capita left and right. We recently had our First Leadership Retreat to gather, rest, and especially focus on what we’re doing and how to get whatever that is poured and shared into the Un-Churched, the simple fact is that we truly believe in Community and Love above all and the rest will follow, of course with good stewardship, a shout-out to Carey my Lead Pastor and Good friend had our whole staff read his book “Lasting Impact” right out of the gate, no one really thought we would have a snowflakes chance of making it.. Aside from the already good roadmap to the things that were winners at our previous Campuses, such as an “A-Team Parking Team” A-Team Greeters, Child Care, Connection Center and Prayer Team, meeting regularly to specifically pray for Gods will in our church, we try to continually change appealing to the Un-churched, not ourselves which is hard. So two years in now, from a Grand Main Campus with all the Lights, Tech, Video, Effects, Web tech, and amazing worship experience you can get, we broked off and moved 4 miles down the road to a small country town in a tent first few times, then onto a community center, then God gave us a beat down dirty old metal building (since rehabbed w/ wood / industrial theme). Recently we had our First leadership retreat, both our main campus with tenfold our attendance and our other 4 satellite campuses kept asking what are yall doing? you’re breaking all the records and going against statistics (with more baptisms than any other campus at a quarter of the size… To my Knowledge we are the only campus that required all leadership to read Carey’s “Lasting Impact” out of the gate, as well did video training with everyone to prepare to grow outwards vs. growing inwards. So, in short, our Main Campus and all the other ones recently really wanted to know what specifically we were doing aside from prayer and a core team of 20+/- Volunteers that is causing so much growth breaking 200 regularly. However there’s no definite answer especially nothing better than Gods Perfect Will / Plan for our life’s in this community to glorify him and get the bonus/Joy of being apart of this kind of growth other than loving people however from a logistical standpoint, just like in business leadership not being afraid delegate duties, followed up by encouragement we give the opportunity for everyone (i.e. everyone) to serve honestly even if we don’t have a specific spot,…….We’ll make one up just to give them the chance to be apart of our family & body of Christ. If I think back to the days when I was just checking out church as an attendee, I remember the passion Jesus gave me to just have the chance to serve and be apart of His family (a place to belong and to just be given the chance to do something useful in the church, so my lead pastor invented a position after about 6 months of observing me in parking and greeting and ushering and The Lord put it on him to make me a core Director of 5 which has now turned into a ministry…. (Kind of like Business, if we dont delegate & trust our employee’s (or members) to complete the task we ask of them then we will always be stuck in the weeds of stagnation and never grow outward or accomplish the desired goal, which in the church is reaching the un-churched and sharing the good news, so i would encourage anyone in the stagnation season to first pray about each person you bring in and really be open to where their talents are and how they could serve in the church, remember that the Lord used Tax Collectors and the worst of sinners to further His Kingdom, You don’t need to be a saint to serve, since all sin is equal in the eyes of God and we’re to model Jesus, we should give everyone a chance within biblical guidelines to serve, non of us are perfect so the Lead Pastors job is just as important as the parking attendant as they can impact someone returning or not as we know, look thru thier sin and love them and watch what the Lord does, He will confirm whether they should serve if we get out of the way and do not feel sub-consciously threatened like we would be giving away our job, that is our Job, to go forth and teach them all He taught us, i dont recall him saying they have to first be perfect or fit some old school church checklist. I truly believe its the way he designed us, most all of us with some exceptions want to be helpful, belong somewhere, especially when we are introduced to the love of Jesus and see all the Joy on the faces of the volunteers shaking our hands in the morning getting us that parking spot we wanted, serving coffee / Donuts, asking how the week really is going, giving their kiddo a hug as they drop them off in children’s ministry and ensuring their in safe background checked highly vetted hands that will teach them the same message they’re going to learn in service. They want to be apart of it. So we ensure that whoever ask that we get their name to a couple that is tasked with following up with them sometime that week just to say hello, a simple “It was nice to have you here this week, we just wanted to say hello and hope you have a blessed week” to be honest most of our feedback is from that then leading into community groups, studies, missions, etc. at the end of the day, the Single most impactful thing I truly believe has impacted our church attendance the most outside of following Carey’s Awesome Outlines and Advice” is ensuring that our Core team is Healthy and cared for, that our volunteers feel welcomed and loved as much as possible, its the trickle out effect, love is contagious and when we are healthy (by taking a 9-month course as a leadership team called Regeneration, ridding anything not of Christ from our Lives) to focus on the Kingdom Mission that my friend is when we began to see these record numbers! going from 40-60 to now over 200+ Regular! All Glory to Jesus, I hope this is useful although broad, if I had to narrow down to one point, its that we understand in the culture we live in, you have to change and One more key component we’ve begun to do daily is pray… (Luke 10:2) praying every day at 10:02 am & 10:02 pm for the lord to send the Harvest. So between Regular prayer as a team, the occasional reading of Carey Nieuwhof’s book collectively as a team with follow-up, a Prayer team using the Powerful tool of prayer regularly over our leaders, Ministries and Harvest…..God has been doing amazing things, and again we now regularly pray together to ensure we continue and remain in His will not our own. I say all this humbly and with love and encouragement, please take everything I’ve said in a positive tone, just one imperfect Christian sharing the story of my path/church progress to another. God bless you brother and I pray this is helpful to anyone reading.

    • Damon Allen on January 17, 2019 at 8:18 am

      Here I am replying to this 14 months after the fact but I pray the God has granted you, your family, and you church the grace to make it through the tumult of hurt.

    • M-A Russell on January 28, 2019 at 10:31 pm

      Just read this now. Wondering how it’s going now that it’s 2019?

  13. Marco M. on September 2, 2017 at 9:34 am

    Earlier this year I quit the Mormon Church, and started attending a small Evangelic Church in Rotterdam/The Netherlands.
    A Church where Dan Sneed visits occasionally, so this way I ended up here.

    This above is so much what I have seen in the Church of Jesus Christis of Latter Day Saints. (Mormons)
    No wonder they are losing members by the thousands all around the world.
    I did a podcast wth John Dehlin, a famous ex-mormon about this. Shortly afterward I started attending De Rank, a Christian Church. They do what you advise thenm to do, and they thrive.

    God bless.

  14. klquinn64 on April 5, 2017 at 11:32 pm

    OK the resistance to change of form is a big reason the church (universal) is losing millennials. We are still doing things the exact same way we did 30 years ago when I became a Christian. To the 18-35 age bracket that makes us seem stale and irrelevant.
    Technology is not a foe. It can in fact be part of the picture that helps connect with the 18-35 demographic. Right now we are communicating via computer. It is not a substitution for face to face contact and interaction but rather an extension of that contact. For example, we have a young adults group at our church. On Sundays I invite a friend of my daughter’s who is of that age group. If I follow up on social media or via email or text they are more likely to come to the group.

  15. Evolution is a Hoax. on March 3, 2017 at 11:52 am

    Good article.
    Our Church was in a school and moved, but the district asked our youth leader to start a church in another town to the west while we moved to the east, so there is a good 20 minutes between us, it cut us in half just as we where transitioning, and then the District asked if our fantastic pastor would become part of the districts leadership and we lost him. The core of the church has solid members, and our now pastor previous assistant can preach but sees the church as a hobby and doesn’t seem to like people and darts out after service and doesn’t attend bible studies. We might be dumping him. Almost literally. Some are angry because there where some baptisms, but nothing was set up for a new believers course, no one was asked, people suggested we get something going and the ball has been dropped. So we are all doing things, all participating even if there is no overall direction.
    I am fairly new to this present church, and have found the pastor rude. Its unfortunate that we are a inconvenience to him. We will see what happens this weekend when the District Superintendent comes. I from the outside think the Pastor will conveniently be shown the door.

    Unfortunately, a series of events happening to us and some inner organizational problems has given us a kick in the teeth. Much of it isn’t the Pastors/s fault but some of the recovery problems are and unfixable.

    My hope is that we develop a 5 year plan, focus on having to live with each other for eternity, (love and service) and that we work toward goals of making Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving and Vacation bible school big church events. And of course improving the classic feel of church, making it wonderful for that experience. Our Small Groups do need some macro leadership and I think they can reach more people with some help.

    And I cant wait to create a Message of Joy and hope, sharing the message, but also having movie nights and BBQ’s and Car washes, and rake the ladys lawn events etc. where we can bond as church people and have goofy fun helping. I want to be both an educated well rounded fruitful christian And and happy Christian. I hope to take the caustic backbiting and critical-ness of others out of the church as we learn to walk in the same direction and have fun doing it. I want people to feel included, and I want them to feel like meeting together is not an option but an opportunity.

  16. Roger Huff on July 10, 2016 at 3:23 pm

    You said moving into a new building won’t help … so, that brings me to a question. Thirty or more years ago the church I pastor ran around 250 on Sunday mornings. When we came here seven-plus years ago the church ran around 30-40. With people passing away, moving and leaving the church for one reason or another (and, yes, we’ve made our share of mistakes), we now have 10-15 on Sunday morning. Our tithes and offerings each month come to around $400 to $500, and our bills each month come to around $1,200, and we have just about $1,000 in the bank. So, you can see we can’t make it much longer like that. There is another church from our denomination nearby that we could merge with, but our congregation isn’t interested in that. We mostly have a younger congregation. We are strongly considering selling our building and either buying something smaller, renting a storefront or meeting in our home. I still believe I am called here, and believe I’m to pastor the church I pastor now. We recently started some outreaches — a free fitness class that is open to everyone, and, basically, a sidewalk Vacation Bible School where we go once a week to a low-income apartment complex and do something for kids age 12 and under. We can’t afford the bills and upkeep in the building we have now (it’s an old building) and thought moving to something smaller would help. Then I read your blog and it said moving to a new building won’t help. Do you think that’s still the case for us? I would appreciate your thoughts. Thank you.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on July 11, 2016 at 5:53 am

      Roger…thanks for sharing and this is a tough one. All I have to go on is what you describe in this comment…I think you’re dealing with a bigger issue than facility. It sounds to me like your church might be dying. To my mind, it doesn’t matter which bed you put a dying patient in…the patient is still dying. I would encourage you to dig a little deeper and find out why your church is struggling as deeply as it is and try to bring renewal from within. Then, from a place of greater strength, you can assess the facility options. I hope that isn’t too harsh…but I don’t think facility will solve your problem. Your problem is elsewhere. Wishing you all the best, and thanks for your faithfulness.

      • Doug Adams on July 7, 2018 at 8:15 am

        …but if you care for that dying patient, you put them in the most comfortable bed you can.

        • Anna Howlett on August 13, 2018 at 9:48 pm

          I agree with Carey and Doug, the problem might be elsewhere but if you are in the red constantly – constantly stressing over paying the bills – that will distract from actually digging deeper and finding the problem. A change in location won’t fix the problems that caused the shrinkage, but will alleviate the pressure to stay in maintenance mode. Can you image if you had little to no overheads and could just focus on rebuilding mission and community. There’s nothing that can’t be rebuilt! Let’s look at the Acts church, many groups were meeting in people’s homes, and as of recent – The belonging co – church founded 2 years ago in nashville birthed out of a basement, now a thriving church. Could you enter a time of prayer and fasting with the committed members of the church to seek the Lord on what the next steps are. Praying for you!

  17. Sciurus_Carolinensis on April 18, 2016 at 12:28 pm

    The only thing I would disagree with in a qualified way is on merging. If merging churches creates a congregation with enough members to support a children’s ministry when there wasn’t before, that could only help. I had to leave my home church, because its congregation dwindled due to a convergence of factors, and they could no longer offer Sunday School. If you don’t have a nursery or Sunday school, only people who are willing to struggle with keeping small kids amused with crayons and coloring books, or worse, tablet computers,during service can come. I’ve tried this in a limited way when required, and it pretty much took all the spiritual refreshment out of the experience. I know Roman Catholic churches typically have kids in the sanctuary during Mass, and well, I’ve also heard their parents talk about how strenuous this can be.

  18. Chris Logan on March 19, 2016 at 8:10 pm

    So … I’m in a church as a transitional pastor (of worship arts) that is desperately in need of some of the culture change you describe. It needs to see its community as a mission field.

    That said, I sometimes wonder if the mere act of getting itself out of the 70yo building its in – which to some is treated almost like an idol – would help catalyze some new thinking …

    … what do you think?

    • Carey Nieuwhof on March 20, 2016 at 6:09 am

      Interesting Chris. Actually, I don’t think a change in venue changes things as much as we think (see above). When I started ministry I served three small churches who were all in 100+ year old buildings. We grew significantly in each of them before we outgrew them and then moved. I’ve seen churches move without growth only to discover new costs, no momentum and a horrible death spiral. I think you start where you are and grow from there. Plus, millennials like older buildings if you read the research.

  19. Michael Assisi on October 9, 2015 at 11:13 am

    I will just add a bit from this angle.. Technological advances seems to be getting a bad rap here.. I fully understand that your leadership needs to be in line with God and their mission to advance. With that said I also believe that even when many churches are doing a good job in this area and are hampered by their Technologies – sound, lighting and video. these are important to a growing church (once your church is focused) Improperly installed and operated lighting (or lack of atmosphere), Video, and especially audio can be major distractions.. In my opinion, these are very important tools in your ministries and should NOT be ignored. I have been installing and servicing this ministry in churches throughout the US for many years and these improvements ALWAYS relates in excitement, refreshing and growth.. Now, I always tell people if you are a smaller church you don’t have to spend $50,000 tomorrow.. But to ignore these bad issues will result in frustrations and complaints.. You can simply call a professional and have a system and room analysis done that will drastically improve your audio situation for a very minimal investment. They can usually make suggestions on lighting and video concerns as well. But in my opinion to just have a “good enough attitude” in this area may say something about your ministry to begin with… Other than that I like the content …

    • Justin S. on July 7, 2018 at 2:46 pm

      If you have the infrastructure (cash, volunteers, building capacity) technology can be great, but I think it might be a mistake to assume that projector screens and flashy lights will solve the problem. Every church culture is a little different, and not everyone is positively stimulated by a glossy entertainment show.

      At the same time, it is absolutely true that a competent and solid sound system can elevate the worship experience for everyone. However, in the situation at my church, we have all the flashy equipment and no volunteers to simply sit and run the sound board or help with the sound mixing. That’s why I think it is important to increase our human resources (ie, find more congregants) before investing in more tech.

    • Leah Eubanks on April 2, 2021 at 11:00 am

      Thanks for reminding us Michael of the importance of worship atmosphere. I think you’re right that many times when these things are not addressed they can be a distraction. I read the article a little differently, though. I didn’t think he was detracting from doing these things. I think the real question for many dying churches is “what order” do we address the many needs involved with change. The sound quality, lighting, etc. is all important. First, we have to change the heart and God will provide the resources to do the rest. As the old hymn states, “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness. And all these things shall be given unto you. Alleluia.” If we seek God first, adjust our hearts toward His, then all these things will come. Thanks for your thoughts.

  20. Mark Weaver on May 7, 2015 at 12:36 pm

    The church I’m currently attending/serving is walking this line changing substance and developing the form.The lead pastor is at an 84 year old church that had its best hay-day in the 70s at around 60 people. When we began attending/serving it had twindled to 20-30 (counting babies and mice). What we realized is it’s super easy to paint a stage black, put gels over lights, and market the hell out of a series. But if people aren’t on MISSION then you’re missing the mark. In the past three months having incredibly intentional conversations about the WHY (vision) and WHAT (values) of the church…it’s made it easy to overcome any form issue because this group of 30 people grew to over 190 on easter! Being someone who personally struggled with form over substance the experience of helping a church do the same has been incredibly rewarding!

    Thanks for all you do to reach people and coach leader!

  21. christoph on March 8, 2015 at 10:06 pm

    Right on. Not too long ago went to a church as a visitor. It was a fairly new building. Nobody greeted me at the door. I had to beg for a church bulletin. Not a single person made a point to welcome me. In another church, who met in a gym of a school, the pastor as he walked down, talked to me and made me welcome. So on target that a stagnant and dying church is not connecting with people. That statement is so loaded with truth right on.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on March 9, 2015 at 7:51 am

      I feel badly for you, and I feel badly for the church. Ouch. That’s so too bad.

  22. Sera on January 17, 2015 at 4:43 am

    What the church needs to do is to look from outside in.
    The church can change the stagnant organisational leadership by way of making use of people from within the congregation or outside of congregation of other business management that has the observed knowledge of its needs that improve and grow from its congregation.
    Pastors and deacons and pastoral staff should not run the operation of the church a they lack management foresights and often resistance to change because they have been there in the church of many years.
    With an organisational staff constantly changed and replaced, they can provide and assist the pastoral staff with the necessary feedback and service quality that can match between the church and the congregation.

  23. Joe Robideaux on June 21, 2014 at 10:17 pm

    This is obviously over simplified but healthy culture grows and unhealthy culture doesn’t. Unfortunately, established culture is the hardest thing to change and band aids don’t work. It’s so important to always ask, “How will this decision impact our church culture 1, 5, 10 years down the line?”

  24. Chuck on June 18, 2014 at 10:33 am

    I’ve been part of numerous church plants over time. And I often see the truth you remind us of in trusting our own innovations rather than the true Rock. I’m all about being all things to all men and meeting people on their turf. But whee do we draw that fine line between this and conforming to the world? Where does our motive or intent in how we ministry cross the line? I’m convinced there is no pat cookie cut answer. But I’d like some viewpoints.

  25. Daniel Decker on June 15, 2014 at 6:29 am

    Totally agree. It’s really about CONNECTING WITH PEOPLE. Church is about being “The Church” and connecting with people in a way that engages them, makes them feel like they matter (because if they matter to God then they should feel like they matter to us) and teaches them in a relevant way. It starts the moment they arrive on site… from the parking lot to the preaching to the family ministry and beyond. Every aspect of the people engagement factor matters. Facilities and programs HELP but they alone are not the secret sauce. Loving on people is.

  26. Ruth Shaver on June 13, 2014 at 6:45 pm

    Our 4-way mainline denominational merger is celebrating our 50th anniversary this year. In an area saturated with break-away independent conservative/fundamentalist congregations, we’ve held between 190 and 240 in membership in that time (low points coming when generations died off en masse, highest point achieved when numbers were padded by about 20 to make a predecessor look good, as best I can tell). We’re just now, in our rural Appalachian community, starting to see the attendance patterns change as they did 10 years ago in suburban churches, so our weekly attendance is down somewhat from 5 years ago, but the number of different people we see each month is the same, about 110 including every generation from birth through youngest members of the Greatest Generation.

    My challenge now is to convince them that what they’ve done in the past won’t work any more; they’re used to people seeking them out, now they have to go out and get engaged in the community more to show that we aren’t like the churches so many of our neighbors stay home from every week (another big change in the past 10-15 years). I think we can do it!

  27. Bob Sherbondy on June 12, 2014 at 3:29 pm

    Churches will grow when they give attention in their ministries to building strong Christian families in their neighborhoods and communities. Dedicated men and women raising their children in appreciation for the love and grace of God in Jesus will build a strong and dynamic congregations. The validity of this approach is demonstrated over and over again in the Bible from God’s covenant with Abram to God’s work through Paul.

  28. Aaron Newell on May 29, 2014 at 9:32 pm

    One challenge is getting leadership teams to recognize that the downward trend didn’t take a few weeks to , manifest, it was likely years in the making, they then visit churches on vacation or when visiting family, see new music, new media, new venue, or remodeled sanctuary and equate the “success” with what they see. Upon returning they want to recreate what looked successful, not realizing that there is more to a healthy group of Christ Followers than a packed out building and the newest Crowder song (love the new album.)
    Relevance to a community comes from service, transparency and openness.
    Relevance in the church comes from love, truth and respect for the people sitting in the pews or chairs or at the tables, love them where they are, speak the truth and let God do what only he can, respect them enough to let them work out their own walk without telling them how much they are doing wrong or belittling them for not being as “mature” as you. That’s the tact we are taking, guess we will see if it works.

  29. Mark on May 28, 2014 at 1:19 pm

    Just a note: The quote is from William Bernbach and not Ogilvy. The entirety is: “A great ad campaign
    will make a bad product fail faster. It will get more people to know it’s bad.”

    • Carey Nieuwhof on May 29, 2014 at 7:54 am

      Thanks for that Mark! Didn’t know that and completely appreciate it!


  30. […] 5 things that won’t make your church start growing. […]

  31. Sara Wilcox on May 23, 2014 at 12:49 pm

    This is very encouraging in that our church is not doing the first things and IS engaging in with the more successful ideas laid out here, hurrah!

    • Carey Nieuwhof on May 23, 2014 at 2:44 pm

      Hurrah Sara! Love hearing that. Thanks for sharing!

  32. […] 5 Things That Won’t Make Your Church Grow – Carey Nieuwhof […]

  33. Observing Aloud in Context on May 20, 2014 at 9:49 am

    Thanks for the article. I just think the core is whether a church is
    more acting like Pharisees or more acting like Act 2 converts.

    A church we loved, in a way, but were frustrated with, and which is just too far to attend regularly any more to help continue to nudge toward the Act 2 character of a church, seemed always to just have a core of a handful of lifers who were happy to have a little church to themselves, whether they grew or not. They perennially and positively state what all they were/are doing for buildings and events, even though nearly none of the other regular attendees to services showed up for ‘special events’ nor gave nor helped with buildings upkeep of the historic little building. There seems to be so much of emperor’s new clothes, and so much character of discussion by the core group that is ‘group-think’ with pressure to others to nod along with the bouncing ball, as directed by this core council group, that there was little seeming positive reception to, even less opening, to interject, add, synergize, suggest, redirect, be different from within. They had it ‘all well in hand, thanks very much.’ Spectators and laboring hands are welcome, but no new leadership, no new ideas unless they like what they hear, in which case the new idea will later be trotted out as their own, and put on their own CV as an accomplishment at the church. In fact, it became clear that this ‘service’ work was *their* resume line item in their charitable section, and this was *their* kids’ safe place to get religious formation, of *their* design, their chosen form, and to their chosen functions. Other attendees/members/guests could in reality merely take it or leave it, despite the nominal mouth noises of being welcoming and seeking via a big survey and set of supposed working meetings to invite all regulars to open up about vision, mission, problems, congregational needs and desires, and how to be open to more of the community.

    Yes, to your point about pursuit of externals and forms to the forgetfulness about substance and connectedness to the wider community, there was at this church (and other mainline churches to which we’ve belonged in the last 20 years, in 4 states of residence) talk of
    -new cushions on pews, uber important for dignified and comfortable presentation to the world
    -protecting the old building from falling apart of age, because surely no one would attend if the not-well-enough-made/maintained building of only 100 years (in the U.S., that is old, and frail, in this case) were needing to be abandoned–their identity is still ridiculously tied up in being the cute little old historic and picturesque simple church building. Forget Jesus, what about the steeple and old wood??
    -children’s nursery attendant (never had a single guest child shown up, in 5 years we attended weekly, so the newly pitched and ratified position of nursery attendant was seemingly used only for the one family’s two kids, whose parents were perennially in the council/trustee role, so that they had free church-subsidized childcare to be unencumbered church leaders many hours a week)
    -new signs on the street (the old one was doing well and enjoyed for its quotes and saying, by neighbors) -more entertainment at community bazaars -more use of technology to put pictures and streamed sermons of the tiny congregation on a nice web site, which probably nearly no one else on the planet reviews.

    -more social media presence planning and data analysis meetings

    and on it goes. Presbyterian, UMC, Lutheran, Church of God, Baptist, Catholic, all have been like this, but one, a Rock church. It grew, and is thriving and is all about Jesus every minute all week long.

    Kind of keeps it simple, doesn’t it? Hmmm. Jesus–a message of simplicity? Go figure. 🙂

    Historical review: Humans tend to want to rope others into their personal pet controlled projects, and want to spread the costs by growing. Biz, church, power, anything. In church, they seem to want support for pet visions and pet goals they feel they can put forth on behalf of others, more than they actually seem to want to be an Acts 2 church. As noted above, I have observed this in mainline denominations who are pretty haughty about marginalized populations, very patronizing, from Protestant to Catholic, over the last 20 years. The only one I saw organically and authentically growing and giving to cover mortgages the right way, ahead and up front, with excellent and satisfied giving of a huge proportion of congregants, growing even in a transient area, starting from humble roots, was a fundamental/almost pentacostal church. This one had true diversity across all dimensions, and truly lived being an Act 2 church.

    The Pharisee trap seems to get most of the others’ leadership, and so growth doesn’t happen in those stultified not-oriented-toward-Jesus’-teaching churches. Maintenance is even hard for them with aging and other attrition.

    As I opened: Thanks for the article. I just think the core is whether a church is more acting like Pharisees or more acting like Act 2 converts.

  34. Lawrence W. Wilson on May 20, 2014 at 7:11 am

    Hiring staff is the most common one I see. It used to be thought that a youth pastor was the key to growth; now it’s a children’s pastor.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on May 20, 2014 at 8:29 am

      That’s an interesting angle Lawrence. Thanks so much for that. I always think in the back of my head that any staff member you hire should be able to generate at least their salary in growth within the first year. That may be completely out to lunch but that’s how I think.

      • Lawrence W. Wilson on May 20, 2014 at 9:54 am

        Carey, I think that’s true if, as you point out in your post, the church is healthy and in a position to grow. Otherwise, it’s just more people trying harder to push a wet noodle.

  35. […] Carey Nieuwhof So you want your church to grow…to reach new people. And you’ve convinced yourself that you […]

  36. brianbecker on May 19, 2014 at 11:59 am

    As a church planter I’ve seen the same ideas fall short. “If we launch with 300 – we’ll have sustainable momentum”. But if the leadership capacity isn’t able to care for and lead those 300 it will drop to whatever level the leader is prepared to lead.

    Show me your lid and I’ll show you your limit…regardless of resources.

    I’m personally attacking this with resolve in our own church…we must get better – not bigger.

  37. Chris Shumate on May 19, 2014 at 11:36 am

    Answering your question directly, adding unnecessary programs to satisfy a small portion of the church (or even the community where it is located), or to meet a need that isn’t there.

    In my opinion:

    If your church is located in an upper middle class area, it would be disastrous to implement an inner city outreach at that church. Instead what the church should do would be to partner with an existing ministry in that inner city. It could alternatively encourage members to serve in inner city ministries, apart from church serving. But it would be unwise to start a similar ministry at the church.

    All needs cannot be served all the time. As followers of Christ we want to help everyone, but we cannot effectively do it all by ourselves. Doing too much good is the enemy of great within a church.

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