October 22, 2020

How I Became a… Church Growth Disciple

church back doorFirst of all a confession. The title is really just an attention grabber, and a weak attempt to get Miguel to sputter coffee through his nose. Although a second confession would be that in the eighties and nineties, I did read all I could get my hands on from the Church growth movement. There are a couple of interesting things that I learned from that time, and I wanted to present a sort of random stream on consciousness on the topic.

The numerical growth or decline of a church is strictly related to number of new people entering a church versus the number of people leaving a church.

People leave church for primarily one of three reasons.
1. They die.
2. They move away (primarily vocation, or education based).
3. There are some other factors that cause them to become uninterested in being part of a particular local church.

Number 1 we know all about.

Number 2 was my experience at a Church in Ottawa, Ontario. It was located near a military base and probably had a 20 to 25% turnover each year. They got very good at assimilating visitors in the life of the church. If they didn’t, the church would die in very short order.

A couple of thoughts about number 3. I read a study a LONG time ago that surveyed first time visitors to a series of churches, and then surveyed them again two years later. There was an extremely high correlation between continued attendance and the number of significant relationships they had made at the church. If I recall correctly, less than five relationships and they did not tend to stick around.

For those who do leave they church and subsequently return, a recent study showed that the encouragement of family and friends was a significant factor in them coming back. (More on this later.)

If your church is in decline there are generally only to things you can do about it. Decrease the outflow, or increase the inflow. I would say that in terms of decreasing the outflow the primary thing that you can do is to help build relationships among those in your church.

In terms of new people coming in, I would group them into five general categories:
1. Bedroom evangelism, or in other words New Babies! As one commentator expressed on this site. Those who have Christian parents are most likely to find themselves in a church. (Typically this strategy does not work where the congregation is older.)
2. People who leave one church for another. A.K.A. Sheep stealing.
3. New visitor attraction/assimilation. Similar to number 2 but referring more to people new to the area. Again it is a question of what is it about our church that would cause someone to come here rather than go somewhere else. In our Ottawa church, is was our strong emphasis on relationships. In recent years the Ottawas church has distinguished itself as becoming a home for new immigrants.
4. Church returners. Typically family or friends who used to attend church at some point in their past, who no longer do, but are being encouraged to return, either through relationships, or because of life changes.
5. New converts. In a region of the country, if at least some churches are not bringing in new converts, then overall the churches in that community will start to decline and die. Especially if the death rate exceeds the birth rate in your church congregation.

Where do I stand in terms of the five areas.

Well, I am well past number one. All joking aside, a church that depends on it would end up being very inward focused.

Number two. Pastors who lose people tend to call it sheep stealing. Personally I find that people generally have pretty good reasons when they leave a church and don’t do it lightly. Ask yourself, “Was it an easy decision when I left my last church?” Yes, there are church shoppers, but there are also a lot of hurting people.

Number three is my strong suite. When attending church in my late twenties, I would introduce myself to any new visitor of similar age. Introduce to about 5 or 6 others. As a group we would then invite them to join us for lunch. Ninety percent of our visitors came back the following Sunday.

Number four is where my heart is. I have seen too many leave our church: friends, acquaintances, family, or family of friends. When I look at my neighbors many of them have “church memory”, both good and bad, and no longer attend. These are the people that my heart cries out for. Most are not church returners but have to potential to become church returners. Just because the church they grew up in doesn’t work for them doesn’t meant that mine won’t, and vice-versa.

Number five is where my current church’s leadership wants to focus their efforts, and have done so to the detriment of groups 2, 3, and 4. I really don’t know how I feel about this, but feel that there is a balance missing. I also wonder if they are so narrowly focused that they can’t help but have the decline continue.

Other than talking about relationships, I have avoided proposing solutions. Almost every website that talked about closing the back door had proposals quickly led into “church growth speak.” Instead I am going to listen to our readers.

What have been your experiences in people coming and going from your church or churches? Many at Internet Monk are in transition. Where do you personally fit in this picture?


  1. Mike,

    Relationships are very important to my family, as they are to many. But one factor that has big impact is how one is treated. We left the last three churches we attended basically due to 1) neglect, 2) abuse, and 3) indifference. We haven’t been to a church in a while. In each of these cases, there was a significant lack of caring from the body while we were in our greatest crises in life. This included people we knew personally (and knew very well, at least we thought so) for over ten years.

    I believe there is a crisis in the church of what I might call “relational righteousness.” If you make a promise to somebody, keep it. If somebody is in need, help. If you can’t help, pray with them. Invite people over for a meal. If somebody else invites you over, go. If you place somebody in charge of a ministry, let them be in charge of the ministry, and don’t meddle. Associate with the lowly. Show the most honor to the least in your midst. Actually practice the one-anothers. Stuff your choir/worship band for a while and let the addict you saved out of the gutter play “Amazing Grace” on his harmonica. It won’t hurt. Suffer not little children to be part of the church family. Really. And here is a big one…if somebody offers you help, let them help, even if you don’t need it. It may make their day. Practice and teach these things.

    For my family, it is going to take a church that practices this relational righteousness for us to attend.

    • Steve, could you print this up in a pamphlet and make it widely available? Like maybe drop it from helicopters? If churches did what you said, the world would be a different place.

    • Truth.

    • Amen

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      > if somebody offers you help, let them help, even if you don’t need it. It may make their day


    • Steve,

      The reason why I didn’t overly elaborate on the third reason why people leave church is because everyone has a different story to tell. Thank you for telling yours. We have much to learn from listening to these stories.

    • Steve Scott @ 5:55 am

      You were doing so well until “Suffer not little children to be part of the church family. Really.”

      I want to know more. Please elaborate.

      • I think he means Suffer the little children to be part of the church family.

      • ^Damaris

        I think it is my bad King James memory. 🙂 What I mean is that children are most often whisked away to their own SS programs, aren’t tolerated very much being with the family in the main service (unless they are perfectly quiet). We can’t find the right combo of service/SS hours to allow families to be together. When the preacher says Amen, we gotta rush off and rescue the SS teachers, which hinders after church fellowship, etc. They should pray with the adults, read scripture out loud, etc. Lots of mid-week groups are adult only, are in homes that don’t welcome children, or all such groups are full. Children are brilliant and can observe spiritual things, and can express their ideas. Letting them be part of this would be greatly helpful to their own growth, and my just stem the tide of them leaving the church when they move out on their own.

        I know there are churches that welcome children in many aspects of church life, but those it seems are hard to find.

        • Dr. Fundystan, Proctologist says

          A good word. I think this partly stems from a culture that doesn’t understand what children are or what to do with them. i remember a well-meaning but cynical acquaintance, upon finding out that we were expecting, commenting, “Oh my, I don’t know that I want to raise a child in today’s world!” To which I responded somewhat sharply, “I’m not raising a child. I’m raising an adult.”

          • Dr. F., It’s easy to pillory our culture for not understanding the nature of children or childhood, because we certainly have many faults in this area. But I’m pretty certain that we do a good thing when we distinguish and protect childhood in a way that earlier societies didn’t, when we don’t think of children as merely little adults-in-process, but as having a dignity and value quite apart from how well they fit into our adult world, or how quickly they can be turned into producing and “valuable” members of society.

            Childhood, as it has striven to be defined and practiced in the late modern period, sometimes and for some children opens up a space in which they can be children, a space in which play and leisure and imagination exist in their own right, and not only as way stations on the journey to something else. This opening and occupying a space for play, and allowing and encouraging children to play in it, is one of the most important contributions that childhood, and children, make to society. Where and when it has not been allowed, and that has been through most of human history and in most places, it has resulted in the seriously diminished humanity of the adult world and entire societies.

            If the adult you raise has no child left in him, then he is likely to be a very grim figure, indeed This is something of which I have close personal knowledge.

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says

            If the adult you raise has no child left in him, then he is likely to be a very grim figure, indeed This is something of which I have close personal knowledge.

            That explains Hyper-Calvinists, Communists, and other True Believers with a Cause.

    • Amen and Amen. And ditto. My experience has been very similar. Lots of reasons we left, and most had to do with at least two of the three things you mention: neglect and indifference (thankfully, no real abuse).

      Brings to mind the seen from the movie “The Breakfast Club” where the teens are sharing the terrible things their parents do. One girl won’t speak for a long time, then finally when everyone is hanging in expectation of something horrible, she says, “They ignore me.” And it is horrible.

    • Nice comment, Steve. Experience coupled with insight.

    • Yes. I was unemployed for about 6 months after the 2008 economic meltdown. My husband has a leadership role in our church and I told everyone I knew about my desperate attempts to find work. I have a college degree; in fact two and 20+ years of solid work history. Guess what I heard from the people sitting in the pews with me? The sound of crickets. No one helped, not even the people who own businesses. It soured my outlook on my fellow Christians.

      So, yes, Steve, you got to the heart of it.

  2. Adam Tauno Williams says

    > 5. New converts. In a region of the country, , if at least some churches are not bringing in new converts

    The problem with this is: How? I have seen, and participated in, many such attempts. All were, IMNSHO, abysmal failures. And any success achieved, we did once – subsequent to such an effort – end up with a gymnasium full of people who showed up for a service, was rapidly dismantled by over-eager pastors.

    There is/was this clear vision of who a “convert” is [or was?], at least in non-denom Evangelical suburbia,… but if the “convert” turns out not to be that mythical person,… And if you fill a gymnasium with people originating from the radius of a university – you are going to have all kinds of people.

    There was never a clear approach to how to deal with the people – as people – once they arrived. Doing that well takes a lot more resources that “reaching” people. It was pretty much assumed that these would be 18-23 year old single white students from nominally christian middle-class homes [backsliders!]. But one was a young women from Pakistan here on a scholarship from Exxon getting a dual masters degree in geology and something i could not pronounce – I remember that one clearly as when the inevitable “What do you do?” question was asked and I said I was a “UNIX System’s Administrator” and she knew what that was, which is an unusual response, even more so back in the 90s. And there were the blue-collar kids from [almost literally] the other side of the tracks, they came for both genuine reasons and to scope-out-the-chics [several said that to be directly, so I am being fair]. And there were the several young ladies there holding babies, mostly standing by themselves looking awkward, no male companion to be seen.

    If you create this scene – you $#^@&$&*@ @&%^&$@ well better be able to deal with it, in a real mature responsible way. Which is not what happened afrer the scene I paint above. A week later that gymnasium contained pretty much just us regulars, again. Religion/Church is not Magic and people are not check-boxes [Saved! check, done].

    • Genuine discipleship and integration into the community has often been lacking in evangelical churches. Perhaps part of the problem is we want them in our churches but we don’t want them in our lives.

      • Adam Tauno Williams says

        “we want them in our churches but we don’t want them in our lives”


        As one friend of mine put it “everyone wants a life changing experience so long as it does not require their life to change”.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      And in Altar Call Evangelism, it becomes a numbers game — who had the most Decisions for Christ(TM) last Sunday. Leading to comparison and bragging rights. (When Cornerstone exposed Mike Warnke as a fraud, his fanboys reacted with counter-accusations of “And How Many Souls Did YOU Save? Huh? Huh?”)

      During my time in-country in the Seventies, there was a very insidious meme going around about this: That all that matters in Eternity is “How Many Souls Did YOU Save”, with position on J-Day and ranking in Heaven completely depending on those mortal Sales Figures. It was a major contributor to High Pressure Wretched Urgency.

  3. Mike, I think you are absolutely right about relationships. If people don’t become connected to other people they won’t usually be around for long. I know that when my wife and I married and moved to a new city, we visited a church that was full of people our age who all clearly knew each other, and not a one of them came up and said hello. Of the two people who welcomed us one was in his fifties, and the other in her eighties.
    I am a little conflicted in what you said about your second point. I don’t doubt that when most people leave a church they have legitimate reasons for wanting to leave. But I do wonder if we don’t have a tendency to leave a little too quickly and don’t practice some of the most important ‘one anothers’, such as forgive one another and bear with one another. If we can’t learn to be reconciled to one another, how much credibility is our message of reconciliation with God going to have with unbelievers?

    • Jon, I think the last sentence of your other post brilliantly answers your question here. It’s like they’re wearing placards around their necks saying, “My ‘friend’ quota is full, I’m not accepting ‘applications’ at this time!”
      We can hardly expect an ‘outsider’ to somehow FORCE open doors we’ve bolted and triple-locked shut.

      • Adam Tauno Williams says

        “My ‘friend’ quota is full, I’m not accepting ‘applications’ at this time!”

        But isn’t there really some truth to that? Not as a reason to not be friendly, but one can – it is reality – only have so many Friends. x = (hoursinaday – (sleep + work + transit + house-keeping + family + ..))

        This is where the mega-* model falls down. You hit people’s Real-Friend-Limit, and then you push on past the human Tribal-Limit; I mean 17,000 people cannot all be friends with one another.

        I believe how we build/structure/organize needs to more effectively take these realities into account; a big tent is never full of friends, it is hopefully full of groups of friends.

        It is much easier for me to be friendLY to the Stranger when I am not a tired frazzled mess.

        • This is where the mega-* model falls down. You hit people’s Real-Friend-Limit, and then you push on past the human Tribal-Limit; I mean 17,000 people cannot all be friends with one another.

          This is interesting because it has not been my experience. The larger the group that I have been involved in, the easier it has been to find kindred spirits. When you survey large churches versus small, people in the larger churches actually have more friends within the congregation than those in smaller churches.

          • That’s what I was thinking. You aren’t going to be friends with all 17000 people, but out of that 17000 people it will be easier to find a group of introverted, Woodworth loving piccolo players than it will be to find such folk in a church of 200.

          • I would be very interested in seeing a source for that, if you get the chance.

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says

            But when you find those “kindred souls” in that sea of 17000+, you and them form into a smaller group within that sea and the troop-size limit now applies to that smaller group.

          • Adam Tauno Williams says

            “The larger the group that I have been involved in, the easier it has been to find kindred spirits”

            I agree … at least if one is at least of a bit of an extrovert. I succeeded in such an environment. But it was pretty plain that others did not fare so well, and it was easy to churn people through the system; and when they disappear who notices? And you show up in a room of a thousand people it is actually pretty hard to penetrate. mega-* systems can easily create the illusion of success while people fall beneath the wheels.

            I do not believe mega-* systems are BAD, but to be real communities they need a much higher degree of intentionality.

            I also believe there is a problem of building relationships-of-affinity vs. relationships-of-proximity. It is entirely natural that groups prune themselves down to kindred spirits. It is difficult -human nature being what it is – for these groups to be cliquish; although it may not feel like it when one is in such a self-selected group.

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says

            The larger the group that I have been involved in, the easier it has been to find kindred spirits.

            Like the seminal essay “Why Nerds are Unpopular”, when you have access to a larger group (such as RL after high school), chances are just going by probabilities there are enough misfits like yourself that you can reach critical mass.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          This is where the mega-* model falls down. You hit people’s Real-Friend-Limit, and then you push on past the human Tribal-Limit; I mean 17,000 people cannot all be friends with one another.

          Troop-size limit. On the average, you can see only 150-200 people as distinct individuals (as opposed to the collective like “The People(TM)” of USSR fame) and only expect to know around a dozen really well. This varies from individual to individual.

  4. When I went back to church I was looking for God. I couldn’t live without Him anymore. I wasn’t looking for anything else. He gave me people. Now this is a hard statement for me. I like to be alone more often than not. It is the truth though. I stayed and prayed and people came beside me and it was what I needed. In my mind It wasn’t but it actually was.

    I got real sick last year at this time and had to quit the Christmas choir. How was I to know it was the last opportunity to sing to her my best friend in front of the rest of my family. I only had done choir two other times.
    This year has been the driest out of the past seven. Horrible when moving in Him but drawing closer was what happened. I have felt alienated from the rest of the body like a sore thumb.

    I joined the choir as a part of the new season I am moving into. Handel’s Messiah it is difficult for me and it will take the 8 weeks of practice although I can hit the notes it is breathing and holding and timing that takes me awhile. All day I had terrible anxiety over joining and was saying to myself why did I do this. 2 hours before I am counting minutes and trying to figure a way out, so much so I was early getting there. Go figure. The first thing that happens is a young man who had not gone to church much in the past 10 years is by my side at a door that isn’t open yet. He has only done choir two times before and we start talking. We sit together and he sings bass too. I had fun and it was nice to connect with people I hadn’t before. God sent me someone right away and I connected and the best part is I hope he got the same from me.

    It is easier to keep going then to have to stop and start. I am learning humility in all the things I am being shown that aren’t right at my church. My Lord is teaching me to love through it. He wants me to learn it. I will try my best and lay myself down when he points to when. The teaching from pastor has been hard and off lately but the lesson I’m learning has nothing to do with the out of context stuff. I am learning humility and love. Maybe someday I will have something to teach. It seems to me that allowing myself to go toxic and come against everything isn’t going to help me.

    One of the reasons my commenting will be at most once in awhile even though I will be reading is there is toxicity here so much so it takes over at times. This kind of poison requires of me no response but of prayers instead. There is no conversation with the devil that is winnable.

    The Holy Spirit draws us to church it is Him that works we should learn how to rest in His actions and continue with what we do and not make such a big deal about pushing ourselves on to someone when they first show up. If a whole bunch of people would have done that to me I would have left for sure. It only took one to start but I am different so it would be interesting to hear someone else.

    • w is in the house!

    • Toxicity? Sure. But I also see great healing. Because it is a place where people can be honest, and if the venom has been building up, it needs a place to be released. That’s the heart of pastoral care and ministry given by Jesus that Chaplain Mike and others have here. They hurt with us. They rejoice with us. We can rant and rave and be as toxic as we need to be…in order to heal and receive grace.

      • OldProphet says

        There are rants and anger and then there’s hurting hearts. Sometimes that’s expressed in anger. Jesus’ response to all should be reconciliation and mercy. That should be our response. Frankly there are quite a lot of personal responses and attacks here. It’s become obvious to me, in my short time following this blog that a lot of people have been trashed by the institutional church. By all denominations and groups. None are exempt. We will always have differences in many ways. But the wonder of the Body of Christ is that we are all united by one God, one faith, one Word. That is the strength of Christianity. We must model our oneness to the world. Otherwise our witness is useless. If we don’t hang together, surely the Devil will hang us alone.

        • in my short time following this blog that a lot of people have been trashed by the institutional church.

          Welcome to Internet Monk. But I’d also include non-institutional churches as well. The most damage done to me was by an as non-institutional as they come house church. Or by different local independent churches. Conversely, the more “institutional” the church has been, ie denominational/mainline/etc…the greater joy and peace and fellowship I’ve experienced. I just don’t have the heart to uproot and try yet again.

          • OldProphet says

            Thanks for the addition Stuart. You right. Terms are important. I meant the whole Church universal I also got nailed by a “house church”. Isn’t it really all about leadership and Godly authority? I have big time authority issues anyway

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says

            I think it’s because House Churches and the like (I call them “splinter churches”) have no reality check other than themselves; it’s easy to drift off into some real weird and abusive stuff without realizing it as groupthink kicks in.

            The aberrant Christian Fellowship(TM) — in retrospect, better described as an end-of-the-world shepherding cult — that messed up my head in the Seventies was as far as I can tell a completely-independent splinter church. One bad sign was all the “Elders” were well under 30. Regarding “Godly Authority”, there was no “cult leader” per se (unless you want to count an absentee Hal Lindsay or Jack Chick or SCRIPTURE), but a general groupthink consensus took up the slack.

    • ->”there is toxicity here so much so it takes over at times.”

      That’s why people like you must keep coming and posting. This community of believers needs the balance of folks like you to counter the toxicity of others.

      • Agreed to disagree. I’d agree everyone is needed. But I see others as being the source of some of this toxicity, or at least the catalyst that sparks it off. Certain commenters can often make IM not a safe place for the rest of us, so we back off for a season.

        I’ve got a mental list of people I know who read this blog and infrequently comment. Here on the website, there is a degree of safety. But if those people were to join the Facebook group, it would not longer be safe and I’d have to leave.

        Such is our modern problems. Everyone deserves a voice. Doesn’t mean I need to stick around and listen to what comes out.

        • Fair enough, and good push-back.

        • Stuart – yeah. That’s why i haven’t joined the FB group. It is still hard for me to think about actually setting foot in a church building or other gathering, over 12 years after being booted. I mean, i reverted to Lutheranism, but i still have major isdues with “church,” period. And i have bern in my share of online groups that turned toxic – am not exactly wanting to repeat those experiences!

          • That is very understandable.

            I have to admit, it would be interesting to see a few more faces over at the FB group. 😉 I have no good reason for saying so. It is more an sentiment borne from general gratefulness over the people’s contributions here, and the vague attending desire to somehow, by serendipity, pass someone on the street be able to wave hi. In reality, my shyness would probably get in the way and muck that up.

            Nonetheless, the sentiment persists.

    • Ken (the original) says

      re Toxicity.
      I know what you are talking about.

      I ran a mail list for years for people recovering from a ministry where there was some bad dynamics. Periodically someone new would arrive and begin to share their experiences. At times the negativity was overwhelming. The same people, over time, began to have a change in attitude. Just having a place to share their sorrow was a great help, and I dare say, for some a healing.

      I see the same dynamic at play here. Take the good and the bad. Pray for those who hurt and weep, rejoice with those who rejoice.

      Peace be with you.

    • w, ranting and mocking can quickly and easily go over the line into bullying. I’ve been guilty of it myself. Thanks for praying for me and others like me.

      Btw, the church choir I’m in, and which my wife directs, is rehearsing sections of the Christmas Messiah to sing in the Christmas season. It’s very difficult, but exciting at the same time. Sing well, and joyfully.

    • OldProphet says

      I agree W. There is toxic stuff sometimes Too much personal angst occasionally It’s a great blog, Chaplin Mike is awesome But I’m with you; less commentary is better for me

    • W. Some thoughts:
      Jesus said that His yoke was easy and His burden light and that in Him we would find rest for our souls. Internet Monk is, by and large, an intellectual fellowship; a ground for sparring as opposed to meditative resting. As it has evolved there are camps and positions and stances that get defended. That is not conducive to restfullness. It is conducive to sharpening your theology, yes – as iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another. It has its place and it’s good benefit but, generally, it is not where I go to find myself swathed in the softhearted and tender embrace of my Lord. Some even pooh pooh the very idea of that sort of personal loving experience as unreal so I no longer share that or seek validation for it. IM mostly meets needs from the neck up and that intellectual landscape often lacks warmth. On the other hand, it can be a crucial beacon in the dark. There is tremendous wisdom here. Anyway, it does have an appeal to people who like to do some jousting. I did for awhile but it just beats me down now, even if I think I’m ‘winning’ the point. Lots of ego satisfaction and little heart. Masturbatory almost but that really can’t be helped if you want to argue various points; it’s the nature of argumentation. Arguing is, practially speaking, a self satisfying endeavor. We mostly end up alone as winner or loser. I realize of course that there are the exceptions where we unite but I’m talking about the practical nature of what often happens. There is also plenty of agreement and warm sharing that goes on but to sum up, I find it a mixed bag which has challenged and enlightened me many times but has also been a source of tremendous consternation at other times. I’m sure this is the experience of some others but not everyone. I’m still here to glean nuggets of wisdom but am not so emotionally invested. That’s just too much work from my place, space and time. I’m not suggesting this is your experience but I felt compelled to share as you are apparently grappling with some issue here. That’s been mine. God bless!

      • I am all for mental jousting. Miguel and I joust all the time. Iron sharpens iron. But a little secret here. I generally don’t let online my online life and my personal life intersect. While I disagree with Miguel I also have a deep deep respect for him, and he is one of the very very few who I have let cross into my personal space.

    • w! Thanks for the post. I’m glad you’ll still be around, even if its less frequent. I enjoy reading what you have to say.

      Blessings to you.

  5. w, I am so glad you decided to keep commenting here on internetmonk. This comment really spoke to me. You are the genuine article.

  6. I’m soured on the corp mindset of churches, church growth being a part of that. Love our neighbor where they are at and let God grow His Church, whether they step foot in our church or not. Whats the point of church growth if we only view people as numbers? Humbug!!

  7. I’ve only had to go through the church picking process a few times myself, but a rather dominant factor in the process did not make Mike’s list: accessibility. Can I enter the church, can I use the bathroom, and can I participate in its activities without causing issues?

    Ablebodied folks tend to be terrible at answering those questions themselves, so if your church doesn’t have a resident wheelchair user or blind person, borrow one from a neighbor church for a consultation.

    In general, if I have to enter your church through the back door and it is usually locked, that is already a bad sign. Also, just having access features isn’t enough, you have to leave them functional. Just because you don’t have a wheelchair user now is not a good reason to pile all of your garbage cans in front of the entrance to that bathroom. (I wish that was a theoretical example!)

    In order for me to get to the point where you can try to make a relationship with me, I have to be able to get in, get to where the socializing happens, and participate. That is sadly not a given in even recent church construction, and it is often a huge challenge in any kind of vaguely historical building.

    Of course, I may be taking Mike’s doors metaphor too literally. 😉

  8. The little hundred-year-old country Lutheran church I have committed to but not officially joined varies between seven and twelve congregants on Sunday, and those not always the same. Special days have seen twenty or so. It could seat a hundred. The first day I attended it was obvious that this was not a sustainable situation. Majority old people and normally no one younger than 35 or 40. There was supposed to be a meeting to discuss this a couple weeks ago and a quorum didn’t show. Last Sunday the pastor said that word around town is that we are a “dysfunctional” church.

    I had three choices, the other two with congregations of maybe 50-75 people, all welcoming to me other than one pastor who probably saw me as an old hippie. I picked the one on the rocks. They need me, the others would have found a place for me. When someone scheduled to light the candles or read the prayers doesn’t show up, I’m one of the ones that gets picked to fill in. The pastor likes me and I like him. He’s the only one I know of around here I can talk with about things that really interest me and he understands what I’m talking about.

    Is there hope for this little church? Right now it is starting to live off an endowment that will last six or seven years at this rate before it’s gone. If nothing else it would be a real shame for the historic church building to shut down, get sold, or go to ruin. There is a sister church five miles away who share the pastor and could pick up survivors, but it wouldn’t be the same, and their budget needs ours to make ends meet.

    I don’t have answers. Pastor and I both agree that church growth programs would not be a good answer even if they worked. There is no good reason now for young people to come unless they were special cases drawn in as I was. I tend to think that ongoing prayer is going to do more good than anything else and I try to remember. I am beginning to approach the liturgy as an hour session of contemplative prayer, and also a blessing, not only for me and the congregants, but the whole community around us and down the hill.

    When I light the candles, I silently invoke the Holy Spirit to come Be with us in actuality, not just in word. I try to maintain that invocation thruout the hour. These are really good people, not just churchgoers, but I think they are in over their head as to finding a way thru. Some of them may die before the money runs out. There is nothing to say that continuing as is would be a wrong choice. It is unfortunate that young people are not being served, but the local Evangelical church seems to be doing a good job of that. Maybe it’s a church for old people, I dunno. If my lessons now involve community, I’m good to go with a small one that doesn’t overwhelm my introspective nature. That doesn’t pay the bills. God may well have this all figured out.

    • Thanks for sharing your current experience, Charles!

    • We live in a culture that values extroversion, sees bigger as better, and has little to no respect for the elderly. And to its shame the evangelical church often either actively echoes these trends or at least does nothing to actively counter them.

      So kudos for hanging in there with a small church of mostly elderly folk. You may without fully realizing it be serving some of the Kingdom’s strongest saints and a church that is one of its great treasures.

    • That is a beautiful story, Charles. A part of me can’t help but think there must be many people in your immediate area who are in desperate need of what your congregation has to offer, only they have no idea where to find it. Maybe not, but just because the local Evangelical church is attracting the young folk doesn’t necessarily mean they are serving them well. The simplicity and scale of what you describe would be a blessing to any youths with the insight to take advantage of it. How to get their attention long enough to help them see that is one of the great mysteries of the universe, and sometimes I wonder if we’d be better off starting with those attracted to more “church growth” oriented expressions of religion, or those with no religion whatsoever. Either way, there is time yet to figure it out. There have to be post-Evangelicals in your area, I hope they find you.

      • Bigger isn’t always better.

        • Right. Making budget, effective evangelism, and connecting your message to people looking for it are always good things, though. In cases like this, smallness can be an asset, and not one that would get lost even if the congregation doubled in size.

        • A speaker at a Christian conference I attended a couple years back commented that he thinks pastors of small, struggling churches deserve as much, if not more, admiration than the guys who’ve built the big churches.

        • ” Maybe it’s a church for old people, I dunno.”

          “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer

          Maybe dying, coming to a end, ceasing to exist, and the process that leads up to it, can sometimes be the Jesus-shaped consummation of a faithful congregation’s response to Christ’s call.

      • “A part of me can’t help but think there must be many people in your immediate area who are in desperate need of what your congregation has to offer, only they have no idea where to find it.”

        I have no way to confirm that this is true. However, I hope that it is!

        In the time I’ve been married (almost 10 years), we’ve lived in five different towns/cities. (Finally, we are setting down roots; that is a relief.) We usually have attended (and in the last two locations, joined) denominational churches with “traditional” services. Most have been small, and have been comprised largely of people who have retired or are at middle age. Younger couples, younger singles, or young couples with small children were present but not in numbers high enough to replace the dedicated, older core group as it aged. Long term, that situation is unsustainable.

        There’s nothing wrong with the age distribution or even planning to close after the current core group is gone. However, I’d still hate to see the widespread closure of churches fitting these descriptions. They sometimes have solid services, and a strong sense of community, and actual, organic community – at least for the core members. Not infrequently, that small core is running a couple of good community ministries. That’s not only of note; I have to wonder if more people, including the sought after “millennials”, wouldn’t like the services and benefit from the community, if the connection were to be made. I honestly don’t know; I only know that we’ve attended churches like this, relieved for a liturgical service, and for a church that is embedded in some community, even if we’re basically outsiders. In a way, we’re glad that there isn’t a late slate of “programming.” We could be real oddballs …. but surely we aren’t *that* odd?

        I’ve floated the idea before that perhaps what churches like this need are means of preserving traditions and current community, while creating more ‘permeable boundaries’ and becoming more visible to people who don’t already have some kind of relationship with the church. The status quo is clearly not going to work long-term, but in response I’d hate to see churches swing toward a church growth model whose first premise is ‘clear cut the old growth forest and plant a flower garden in its ruins.’ Of course, I’m not sure precisely what it means to create ‘permeable boundaries’. None of my own private notions exist outside my head (although certainly someone is trying it). However, I’m surely interested in the thoughts of anyone brainstorming it. No doubt more than a few people here are at churches that fit this description, one way or another.

  9. The data about relationships sounds right to me. I have recently joined a community band. It’s hard! I’ve never taken direction or played with so many instruments. It’s very hard for me to play my part and not get drawn offsides by the trumpets behind me. Or to rejoin on time after a 11 measure rest. But I have started to make acquaintances among the players. I like the alto sax player I usually sit by and the 2 bass clarinetist and the oboeist (otherwise known as Bob, Joe, Ray and Margaret). So I stick with it and slowly I’m getting better. Even when I was ready to give up, I was like, well I’ll give it a year and next year try something else. But at the end of the year, I’ll probably have a lot more relationships and be that less likely to just give up.

  10. As the original poste observed, location can affect the turnover pace. The example was a military base. Colleges are another. I live and attend church in a major city, but one which is also a college town. For every 65 non-college residents of the city we have 25 college students. And many of the non-college students are recent graduates that won’t be here long. We were only planted (by a team which included my wife) 15 and change years ago, and have attracted a young demographic. If we have any grandparents who are regular attenders, I don’t know it. So we have a congregation with about 25% a year turnover, primarily from moving away. (Only one death in the 15 and change years, and that of a middle school aged girl.)

    My wife has a strong call to remain with the church. I don’t. If not for her call, I’d have left already. Don’t know where I’d have gone, so sheep stealing wouldn’t be an accurate description, as the decision to leave would preceed the decision about where to go. As felt, it more a matter of being driven away by neglect of the sheep.

    Being in our church has a strong feeling of living in a revolving door. As an introvert and one slow to develop meaningful and open connections, this hurts repeatedly, and regularly leaves me feeling disconnected from the community. I probably need to get better at recognizing people trying to connect to me. My wife is also an introvert. We try to form relationships, we try. But by the time we have a connection with someone, the odds are strong they will be gone within a year. We have to believe that the many we have connected with temporarily we will be connected to again in heaven. Otherwise it would just hurt too much.

    We acquire new regulars primarily from people moving to the city, secondarily from the maternity ward, and thirdly from salvations. People who come from another local church are not visible to me. I can’t distinguish returners from folks moving to the city. We lose people primarily to moving away, secondarily to church planting and missions, thirdly to going to another local church, and fourthly to death. I know salvations exceed deaths, and I think they exceed going to another local church – but that is rarely a highly visible process and I’m more likely not to assume it was a move away than to encounter them in town and learn otherwise.

  11. Mike,I could have written your post because I agree with it 100%. Over 30 years a Christian and IM STILL looking for a truly Godly leader that I can partner with. Where I live, church hopping is the norm, all kinds of little churches that are nothing more than personal kingdoms that exist only to give an unannointed man a job. The saddest thing is that here is that every few months a new “hot” church pops up and everyone goes to it. Literally church growth is like a merry-go-round in my town. It’s not sheep stealing but sheep migration.

    • Asinus Spinas Masticans says

      The Rotation of the Saints

    • Yes. And it’s hard to get too excited about one church’s growth when it comes at the expense of another church’s decline.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        Zero-Sum Game.

        Where there is only so much to go around and the only way for me to grow is for someone else to decline.

    • and IM STILL looking for a truly Godly leader that I can partner with.

      I’d suggest quit looking. It’s a red flag to me when someone starts going on about how they never really heard truth or bible preaching or whatever until they found this one particular leader. And it’s not like believers need to be under someone’s authority other than a loose form of pastoral care. We’re all equals. Some just stand behind pulpits.

      • ” And it’s not like believers need to be under someone’s authority other than a loose form of pastoral care. We’re all equals. Some just stand behind pulpits.”

        Yes, yes. I have yet to personally encounter a single pastor (including priests) who in daily life was consistently wiser or more spiritually committed and mature than the people of her congregation. Fact is, if I did meet such a one, I would worry that they would become the center of cult-like attention, gurus in vestments (or in business suits) (or in jeans and open necked shirts).

      • I have mixed feelings on that.

        Yes, looking for the perfect pastor/leader is going to be a fruitless endeavor. Another issue is when you FIND a really good pastor/leader, there can be a drift toward that individual as opposed to “toward Christ.”

        But still, it’s nice to like your leaders/pastors and feel like they’re Godly and in lock-step with the Holy Spirit. Who wants to be a part of a community led by a wolf-in-sheep’s clothing, or worse, a boring theologian!? Not me!

  12. Asinus Spinas Masticans says

    I think it would be hard to be in a church that was relentless about embracing newcomers in “relationships”. Some people I am never going to be intimate friends with, even though they may subscribe to the same creed I do, and have roughly the same attitudes I do about church and worship, etc.

    I think cermak has the right idea. Relationships are forged by completing common tasks together. My closest church relationships came about by singing in the church choir.

    Also, I have to be upfront with this. My closest and most intimate church relationships developed at a time when I was attending a church composed of People Like Me; white, Northern European, mostly frontal-lobe-oriented, Protestant-for-centuries. Now that I am Orthodox, I am astounded by the richness of many of the family narratives I hear from the Greeks, Arabs and Slavs, but they aren’t my narrative. Many Greeks emigrate from the same island to the same area in the USA, so they maintain old-country ties and repeat “island stories” to each other that everybody “gets”. Having grown up in Western Michigan in a Dutch area, I understand this, and part of me really, really, really wishes I had stuck with the Dutch Reformed Church; married Dutch, had Dutch kids, etc. I wouldn’t feel nearly so rootless.

    I admire the Catholic church very much for its diversity, but every Catholic parish I’ve ever attended had kind of a sacrament-o-matic feel about it, with people dispersing rapidly after Mass, The community seems to come afterwards, among the people who linger to pray the Rosary afterwards. Pentecostals fare a little better. I am always amazed at the depth of intimacy that can obtain between Black and White Pentecostals. They seem to be the only people who are genuinely capable of sustaining multi-racial, multi-ethnic congregations.

    Yet, every time I tried to attend a Spanish Pentecostal church as a contributing, active parishioner, my wife is very quickly extended invitation in to the entire circle of the congregation and I am left on the outside looking in. The cultural barriers are too high for a person like me, with good language skills but limited cultural empathy, to hurdle. The reverse was true when we attended congregations of my ethné, the Reformed.

    At least with the Greeks, we are at least on the outside together.

  13. Ken (the original) says

    My wife and I attended a 3rd wave Charismatic church for around 10 years.
    There were some things we liked, and lots that was unpalatable. There were over 1000 people attending.

    About year 2 or 3 I got a phone call from one of the elders asking for help and asked to meet for a 6:30 breakfast. In short order he and his wife assembled a group of about 6 or 7 couples and we began to meet and form friendships. The small group lasted about 6 years and it was the best time we ever had in a church.

    I left about the 10 year mark. The group had disbanded. Later reflecting back we realised that what kept us there was meaningful relationships. Some things about the church were wonky, but we were in meaningful Christian community.

    My current theory is that what really keeps people is significant relationships, and if there is spiritual growth as well it is really good.

    If the church is focused on programs and providing entertainment it keeps people for a while. If there are significant relationships, people stay much longer.

    • My current theory is that what really keeps people is significant relationships, and if there is spiritual growth as well it is really good.

      The only reason I still go to my church. The rest is fairly toxic and hurts my faith if I focus too much on it. If it wasn’t for relationships, I’d have run a long time ago.

      • During my church’s downturn, that’s what kept us going…friendships. Even spiritual growth was minimal…well, spiritual growth that could be SEEN; I have no doubt now, after the fact, that spiritual growth was going on despite not feeling it at the time.

  14. Sorry, Mike, no spilled java on that one. Next time try “How Miguel changed my mind on…” THAT would leave a stain on my tie for sure. 😛

    I’m not much of a guru and I certainly don’t follow this kind of stuff very closely, but I think this is the best advice on church growth I have ever read. Rather than giving pat answers to real challenges or prescribing one-size-fits-all silver bullets, you are reorienting the focus off of the “cure” and onto the cultivation of healthy communities which more naturally assimilate others. I’m going to share this article at our next staff meeting. Your analysis of the reason people leave or join a church is, imo, sober and accurate. We’re currently plateaued, like most congregations, and while we aren’t necessarily hell bent on numerical increase, we are, like most churches, experiencing a bit of an economic pinch. Some are much more worried about it than others, and some are proposing less healthy solutions than others. In fact, I think I’m gonna share this article with the church council. We need a healthy perspective before we let panic or envy drive us to swallowing a cure that is worse than the disease.

    Personally, my own effectiveness at this sort of thing is abysmally low right now. I work so many hours that I’m relationally impotent. Currently, I’m running nearly a dozen rehearsals or so each week. I think the best thing I could do is simplify and slow down in order to spend more time getting to know the people I serve in a non-programmatic context. It’s going to be like pulling teeth to make that happen, but I am becoming more convinced by the day that it is THE challenge in front of me.

    • Good reply, Miguel. Sorry for your own personal angst right now.

      -> “…experiencing a bit of an economic pinch…”

      We suffered through that several years ago. The turnaround came when: 1) we prayed more corporately (odd how doom and gloom puts us on our knees); and 2) we became better stewards with what God had given us (i.e. more financial responsible). And I’d argue that it was prayer that led us to be better stewards and more financially responsible.

      -> “…some are proposing less healthy solutions than others…”

      See my comment above. The (admittedly overly simplistic) answer is to begin corporate prayer and try to gauge how to be better stewards of what God has given your church. In our situation, one of the “solutions” that some of our leaders began proposing was basically a throw-in-the-towel full-retreat, with a complete sell-off of our building and property and a move to a storefront church. Others (lay people!) began pushing back on that, arguing that God still had work to be done where we were at! It was very interesting to see all that play out, and here we are, about four years later, still in the church and seeing God at work!

      • 1) we prayed more corporately

        This sparked a thought, if I can muse for a second here.

        My church brought in a new pastor a year and a half ago, sweeping changes, multisite plans, etc. And in the service I attended, a slight tonal shift that went from alternative worship to “let’s reach the highschoolers.” But even there…the energy varies. The worship leaders is very party party party, the announcements/greeting/prayer is very welcome welcome welcome glad to have you…and then the pastor, while talking down to all of us who aren’t highschoolers in the crowd, is much more laid back and plain talking. You get the feeling he’s not running through a system in his head or playing a part or putting on a show. And it feels different. Organic, not artificial.

        So, your comment about praying corporately…my church, someone leads in prayer. But it’s mandatory and perfunct and a hurry up let’s eat prayer first. Sometimes a prayer will close the services, and while it’s often revivalistic and manipulative and “i see that hand”…it’s also often more honest.

        So how does corporate prayer work? Where it doesn’t become….meh?

        Make sense?

        • Corporate prayer for my church was this:

          -We began meeting at 6:30pm every Sunday evening to pray for an hour. At first it was about 6 of us, then grew to about 20. It was lay-led, and the “leader” shifted from week to week. Some prayed for the church and our leaders, some prayed for the community and Christ to be shown through us, some prayed for needs and hurts of our congregants. It was a willing mish-mash of praises and prayers.

          Now…for the rest of the story. Here we are, about 4-5 years after that, and our church is “healthy” again, and do you know how many show up on Sunday to pray? About six. LOL. And while at one time about 3 Board members would participate, we currently have ZERO Board members participating.

          We humans are so funny. Fickle we are!

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          …and then the pastor, while talking down to all of us who aren’t highschoolers in the crowd, is much more laid back and plain talking. You get the feeling he’s not running through a system in his head or playing a part or putting on a show. And it feels different. Organic, not artificial.

          AKA Pastor’s got his problems, but Pretense or Phoniness isn’t one of them.

  15. Update from the sabbatical –

    it’s been announced that for the next month we’re doing evangelistic training type sermons at church. a year ago they announced plans to go multi-site and “reach” 77k people for Jesus while planting 7 churches (5 more than currently under the umbrella).

    I want to view this properly. I want to view this as a concern for reaching souls.

    All I see it as is recruitment training. Bring in the numbers, fill up the pews, grow grow grow.

    I don’t see Jesus involved.

    But maybe he is in the sub-local level. I have some hope for that.

    • Hmm…sounds like Mars Hill. So the question is, Is your church more interested in bringing its “brand” of church to people, or is it more interested in bringing Jesus Christ’s Good News to people?

      • Is there a difference? Lots of rhetoric flying about. Judge by fruit.

        • Well, I’d argue there’s a difference between a pastor who’s more interested in his church’s “brand” than in bringing Christ’s hope to the community. And multiple churches/multiple satellites “feels” like branding, but I’d have to listen to what’s being preached to know for sure. For instance, my dad attends a rather large church, but I read the pastor’s sermons and man, o man…he brings Christ in every message.

  16. Dr. Fundystan, Proctologist says

    Well, we left our previous church for two interrelated reasons: bad doctrine and bad practice. I’m convinced you can’t separate the two. Now, I understand that different Christians have different theological understandings; that is not what I mean about bad doctrine. I mean preaching out of Old Testament prophecy and declaring that just like Israel, if we don’t repent and change our ways, then God will judge us. Yeah. That sort of contradicts the entire crux of Christianity. Or having an entire Sunday worship service preaching about the sin of abortion. “Abortion Sunday”? The idea of co-opting the divine service for something like that makes my skin crawl. And of course, you can’t lose the gospel and preach the law without turning people into heartless, judgmental jerks. Hence praxis.

    Our new church? Well, it lines up with my understanding of the Christian faith and Scriptures, and they faithfully preach law and gospel. But the big draw for my wife and I was the way in which this truth is forming the people. There is genuine love. Nothing sappy, and thankfully the midwestern sensibilities of the congregation keep them from being too friendly (let’s be real here – I didn’t know them, and am careful about who I form relationships with). But they care. They do the works of Jesus. We are quite small, but already we have a ministry to an immigrant community (who have been welcomed into full membership, but allowed to have their own worship service in their own language) as well as a ministry that packages food for hungry children around the world. I call them ministries, but they aren’t very slick – they are just people doing good things.

    And one last thing I looked for. As a culture, we have lost any sense of sacred, solemn, or dignified. Our church practices the liturgy, and injects into our lives that needed balance. I’m not opposed to the local mega – even where I disagree, they are still the good guys – but I can get throngs of people, a rock band, and stellar AV at the theater or concert hall. I don’t need more marketing and high-voltage sensory input in my life. I need less.

    My two cents.

    • We have people in the church I attend who continue to pester our pastor about his sermons, that he’s not preaching enough about the “real issues of the day” (homosexuality, abortion, etc etc). Like you, I’d really struggle if he began gearing sermons toward political issues such as an Abortion Sunday.

      Thankfully, he continues to resist these folks. He’s told me he views himself more like Billy Graham, that the job he’s called to do is offer God’s grace to people and let the Holy Spirit do the convicting about sin/Law issues.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        Thankfully, he continues to resist these folks. He’s told me he views himself more like Billy Graham, that the job he’s called to do is offer God’s grace to people and let the Holy Spirit do the convicting about sin/Law issues.

        i.e. BILLY Graham, not Franklin.

  17. Good article, Mike.

    I left my first church because of a move. After a church-shopping struggle (church-shopping has to be one the worst Sunday morning activities ever, and probably a reason many Christians remain church-less), my wife and I settled into a church and have been there ever since (over 20 years now).

    We’ve seen the good and the bad. This church was about 400-500 strong when we began attending. Fifteen years and several pastor changes later, it had dwindled down to about 175 folks. Leaders (head pastor and the Board) seemed to stick their heads in the sand as to the reasons people were leaving (which basically came down to missteps in leadership and an almost militant indifference to people’s concerns).

    With the drop in attendance came the financial concerns (“we’re running out of tithing congregants, the sky is falling, we need to sell everything and move to a storefront”). Many of us began meeting regularly to pray over what was happening to the church. Many began to push back on the “sell-off” strategy and looked into a few stewardship issues regarding use of God’s resources.

    Change began happening. The pastor retired, we got an interim who helped us analyze the unhealthy aspects of our church. Turns out that during the downturn, we’d become a country club of 40+ year old long-time Christian white people in the midst of a neighborhood that didn’t look anything like us. The neighborhood where God placed us had changed, while we hadn’t.

    The interim pastor began empowering people. “Want to start a ministry and reach out to the community? Go do it!” (As he told me, “It’s easy for me to empower. I don’t have to live with the long-term issues!”) He was a breath of fresh air. We ended up calling a new pastor who is all about intercultural, intergenerational church. We still have a Caucasian tendency, but we now have many African refugees in our church, many Hispanic, etc. Heck, our worship leader is from Trinidad! Church is good. Christ is preached. We’re better stewards. We have prayerful hearts. And I’m glad I felt led to stick around through the bad to see God at work in bringing about some good.

    • Amen…and that gives me hope

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Turns out that during the downturn, we’d become a country club of 40+ year old long-time Christian white people in the midst of a neighborhood that didn’t look anything like us. The neighborhood where God placed us had changed, while we hadn’t.

      Easy enough trap to fall into.
      With only two solutions: Change or Die Out.

      Trick is, changing to the new situation without giving those “40+ year old long-time Christian white people” the boot. Because if you drive them off, you lose the continuity.

      • “Change or Die Out.”

        Our interim pastor, who helped analyze our unhealthy ways, said just that.

        It hasn’t been easy. We lost some folks who didn’t want to the church to become more like the community around us. Becoming more like the community around us also meant a willingness to bring in people who not only couldn’t help “pay the bills,” but who actually might put more of a financial burden upon us. It was a faith step for the church, but one we needed to take, and one which has been interesting to watch and be a part of.

        It takes leadership commitment and lay-people commitment. I hate to use the term “unity” because that word drips with unhealthiness (to me, anyway), but change requires some unity of purpose. And if that purpose is based around Christ and the cross…it’s a good unity to have.