Five Reasons Growth May Be More Difficult in Your Church

Every year another two million American adults become less receptive to the gospel, and less receptive to churches.

Every year.

That is one of the nuggets I took from the Pew Research work on the “Nones” when they first released the data in 2012. Pew has continued to follow the religious commitment level of Americans. From 2007 to 2014, over 12 million American adults have moved from a high level of religious commitment to a low level of commitment. They just skipped the medium level of commitment altogether.

Cultural Christianity is dying.

One no longer has to be a Christian or in a church to be accepted by society. That relatively easy pool of prospective attendees for our churches is disappearing.

But most churches keep doing what they’ve always done.

As a consequence, they are reaching fewer. They are declining.

Why?

The answer to that question is too complex for a simple blog post, but let me provide five high-level responses for now.

  1. Church members are not being intentionally relational with those who are not in church. The old way of church outreach was more transactional; today it requires the development of relationships. Most church members will not take that step. Many don’t know how to take that step.
  2. Many churches are stuck in the past. While we never compromise the gospel and the Word, our methodologies must reflect an awareness of our culture, and a willingness to be missionaries to that culture. Sadly, too many church members are unwilling to make changes. Church, for them, is about their needs and their preferences.
  3. Church members are not regularly inviting people to church. Yes, it can be that simple. Many of the religiously unaffiliated will come to church if we invite them. But it’s difficult for them to respond to an invitation if they never get one.
  4. Many church members fail to act like Christians on social media. Unbelievers are watching us on Facebook and Twitter. And many of us are more likely to show our rear ends than Christian love. Social media is where the unchurched reside. And they constantly see our petty quarrels, our venomous politics, and our self-serving attitudes. Look at this blog post about what non-Christians think about us. I wrote it in 2013, but the comments still come in from unbelievers.
  5. If they come to church, they only have a mediocre experience. The religiously unaffiliated do visit our churches from time to time. But, more often than not, they see our holy huddles and our lukewarm greetings. Most will not return.

Growth is indeed more difficult in most of our churches today. We no longer have the large pool of cultural Christians from which to draw. But we can reach them. We must reach them.

We will have to treat our membership in our churches as missionaries to the community instead of country club membership. Biblical membership is not about getting our perks, privileges, and preferences. It’s about sacrificing self for the gospel.

Then, and only then, will we see our churches start growing again.

Posted on March 13, 2017


With nearly 40 years of ministry experience, Thom Rainer has spent a lifetime committed to the growth and health of local churches across North America.
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75 Comments

  • Great article as usual Thom. I learned along time ago that there are two reasons why people don’t do things:
    1. Either they don’t know how; or
    2. They don’t want to
    Given that the second is most often the response we think is happening, is it possible that we are not consistent teaching our people the “how”? When I worked in the food industry as a Store Manager I followed a simple concept:
    a. Orientation – Shared with the employ what the expected behavior was and the desired outcome.
    b. Reading – Put something in the hand of the employee that would teach the steps necessary to accomplish the task.
    c. Demonstration – I always showed them what it looked like and let them observe me doing the very thing I was asking them to do. If I can’t/don’t/won’t, it doesn’t make sense to expect them to do it.
    d. Practice – I would allow the employee to attempt the task with me shadowing them, talking them in/through/out of the task.
    e. Feedback – I would provide constructive input on both correct behavior and areas in need of improvement.
    f. Evaluation – We would sit together and look over the results for 30, 60 and 90 days against expectations and make adjustments for future development.

    If after 90 days, I was not seeing the desired behavior then I knew I had an employee problem.

    Understanding that in the church we are dealing predominately with volunteers and not employees, the principles still seem to work, at least for me they have. When we are not getting the results we desire, it may be possible that its not a volunteer or staff problem alone. It could very be that despite the fact we may have preached on it; we may not have fully taught our volunteers and set them up for success. They may fail in their task, but ultimately, we may have failed to fully “equip the saints, for the work of the ministry” Ephesians 4:12.

    I enjoy your articles very much Thom. Thank you for allowing me to share.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Thanks for all the good input, Shaun.

    • Tim Aagard says on

      Shaun – What you have said is very profound. Your 6 steps are not only found in the world of business, they are displayed by Jesus and the apostles in great detail in the NT. Yet the dominant form of “equipping” is strict lecture, zero feedback, zero evaluation, zero anything else on your list. The intimacy, example setting, evaluation, etc. is stripped out. There may be a few exceptions, but not many. I have always wondered why church “teachers” never test the retention of their students. Never! I’ve asked pastors about this and get an excuse for an answer. Jesus’ standard for teaching was to “fully train” his students to “be like him.” Luke 6:40 Paul’s bench mark for his students was “the things you heard from me, entrust to faithful men who will teach others also”. From my experience, any time a “teaching pastor” leaves a church, even after 20 years, no one has been reproduced. It’s strict perpetual dependency. This shortcoming is reducing growth at the core of the household of faith.

  • You hit the nail on the head… Again.
    Members need to be involved in outreach. Do whatever it takes, even if it takes a lot of time and effort.
    As a deacon and an adult SS teacher, I like to use social media, but I also like to have meals at my home for my class and prospects in order to get people together in a close social setting. No one complains about it, that’s for sure! ????
    IMO, It makes a difference to be with people somewhere besides inside the church walls. Particularly inside someone’s home.

  • Thank you Thom for bringing this troubling trend to the front and center.

    Our focus is specifically to dropout believers – those who have willfully disconnected themselves from the church- the Body of Christ. We hope to stimulate a call to action among pastors and active Christians looking for an answer to the growing problem of dropout believers in the U.S. There are now more dropout believers in America than those in church! (Barna Group 2016).

    The church can more than double in size if we unite to undertake the restoration of dropouts in America!

    Please see: http://www.huntersoftheharvest.org for more insight on how to turn this trend around for good!

    Louis Posthauer Executive Director

  • Craig Giddens says on

    How do you define growth?

    • Thom could you expand on what it means for a guest to have a mediocre experience?

      • Thom Rainer says on

        Mark –

        1. Unfriendly members.
        2. No help finding where to go.
        3. Preaching that does not connect.
        4. Prayerless worship.
        5. Insider language.
        6. Holy huddles.
        7. Unsanitary restrooms.
        8. Unsanitary children’s areas.
        9. No one sitting near guests.
        10. And many more . . .

      • jonathon says on

        >what it means for a guest to have a mediocre experience?

        * You were invited, but the person who invited you isn’t there, and everybody ignores you;
        * You mistakenly think that visitor parking is near the entrance, and not on the other side of the block. You discover your error when told to move your car, so some bigwig in the church can park where you parked your car;
        * You go in the wrong door. (How are you supposed to know that the correct entrance is that side door that opens directly into the pastor’s office, and not what looks like a main entrance, because it is double doors on the East side of the building.);
        * You don’t know anybody there, and when going in, everybody ignores you;
        * In asking for directions on where the sanctuary is, neither the first, nor the second, nor the third person you ask have any idea what a sanctuary, chapel, pulpit, altar, or communion are. In following the herd, you end up back in the parking lot, so you just call it a day;
        * Nobody greets you, nor gives you a bulletin/order of worship/newsletter that is given to everybody else when they walk into the sanctuary;
        * Five minutes after sitting half way down to the front, next to the wall, you are asked to move, because you are sitting in somebody’s spot. After the service you learn that said person died several months ago;
        * You are sitting in the pew, head bowed, eyes closed, hands clasped in prayer, and everybody that walks past stops to ask what you are doing in church;
        * You are sitting in the pew trying to pray, but five rows behind you somebody is talking about how great the sex on Friday night was, and on the same row, but other side of the sanctuary somebody is talking about the great football game last week, and somebody several rows in front of you is talking about their BBQ on Saturday night, and somebody else is talking about an upcoming wedding. You can clearly hear all of the intimate details of all of these conversations, and umpteen more. An assault so constant and loud, that focusing on praying is extremely difficult;
        * Instead of using a dead tree Bible, you use a program on your phone. Your phone is in airplane mode, with both audio and vibrate turned off. Nonetheless everybody stares at you, when you look up the passage of Scripture, and take notes during the sermon;
        * Meet and greet during the service. The greeting is either an incoherent mumbling, or else is akin to having a target painted on you;
        * By some weird chance, you stumbled into a church service in which communion is celebrated. Unfortunately, you don’t know what the protocol for the specific congregation is:
        ** Closed, as practiced by Landmark Baptists;
        ** Closed, as practiced by WELS;
        ** Closed;
        ** Semi-open;
        ** Open;
        ** Open, as practiced by ELCA;
        ** Open, as practiced by Unitarian-Universalist;
        Not wanting to offend, you do what you consider to be appropriate. After the service you are interrogated because you did the wrong thing.
        This is when you start wishing that everybody does the rational thing, by fencing the table;

        * During the offertory, a deacon shoves money into your hand, for you to put into the collection plate;
        * You have a hardcopy Bible with you, but because it isn’t the same one as the congregation decrees to be correct, you are told you are a sinner in need of God’s grace. (The first time this happened to me, the “correct” Bible was a 1984 NIV.);
        * During the altar call, everybody’s eyes are on you, as you are apparently the only “lost soul” in the building, and they expect you to go forward;
        * You dutifully filled out the visitor card, requesting a pastoral visit. A year later, and nobody from that congregation has gotten in touch with you;
        * After the service, by the time get to the parking lot, there is only one vehicle left — yours. You look at your watch, and discover that the pastor had said the final “Amen” less then ten minutes ago;

        As an exercise, pick any nine points, and ponder upon whether or not you would return to the church, if you experienced them, in the course of a single visit.

        I’ve had one church hit nine points. Typically, they only hit two or three of those points.

      • There are definitely some that would cause me not to come back. As a pastor some of these things are avoidable and some harder to control. Thanks to both of you for all the input.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Craig –

      Acts 2:47.

      • Craig Giddens says on

        Good point. I think effective evangelism occurs as a result of spiritual growth and maturity in the body of Christ. It goes back to church meetings are primarily for the body of Christ to meet and build each other up through the exercise of spiritual gifts (Romans 12:4-8), but mostly through the preaching and teaching of God’s word. Believers then enter the world as ambassadors of Christ. You’ve got to have a firm foundation of growing maturing believers in order to have effective evangelism that results in true converts.

      • Tim Aagard says on

        Craig – We all know when you say “preaching and teaching” you mean lecturing the Bible by one man for the whole time in perpetual dependency. No one will say this but this is the practice.
        1. What scripture puts one man lecturing the word above obeying the 58 “one another” instructions?
        2. How do you exposit one man lecturing the word for the whole time of truth expression from any text where “preach” or “teach” occurs? I know it’s been practiced this way for 1000+ years, but this very strict, narrow function appears to be assumed into these words rather than exposited out of them. God’s formula for increasing “love and good works” is dominated by believers coming prepared for “stirring up one another on to love and good works and encouraging one another”. This is the “habit of meeting” believers are not to “forsake” per Heb. 10:24,25. This would specifically put “build each other up through the exercise of spiritual gifts” above something the opposite dynamic.

      • Pastor John says on

        Tim Aagard for whatever reason “I perceive that you are in The Gall of Bitterness and in the Bond of Iniquity.”

      • Tim, I would be interested to know how you interpret Heb. 13:17b “… as those who keep watch over your souls who must give an account.” Or I Peter 5:1-4 where “elders” are exhorted to “shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to (the will of) God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness…” Let alone the pastoral epistles.

      • Tim Aagard says on

        Pastor John – “for whatever reason” tells me you don’t even know why you are accusing me of TGB and BOI. No scripture? Perhaps you are not used to lay people making use of God’s word for it’s 4 purposes; “teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness”.

      • Tim Aagard says on

        DKP – Thanks for the Biblical testing. Watching over souls is a very intimate and mutual task. You cannot watch a soul until you know their heart. Both Jesus and Paul demonstrated this in their example. One man cannot do this work of intimacy and mutuality with 50 people, much less 150 or 500 and up. When you throw in the expectation that one man must also prepare and deliver a 30-45 minute Bible lecture every week, (a very non-intimate and non-mutual task) there is less time and relational bandwidth to practice “watching souls”. Watching souls is the opposite of lecturing them. When I was trained to be a pastor I was told by a nation-wide preacher, book writer, conference speaker….. that I must maintain a professional distance from the people. “I was the shepherd and they were the sheep.” Every book, article, etc on pastoring I have ever read validates this orientation. 1Peter 5 validates intimacy and mutuality in spiritual leadership. “…among you…” “…not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples…” It is typical for “In your charge” to be used to elevate or create authority and a chain-of-command (like the military complete with titles). This is bad exegesis not just from the original words involved but because it would contradict “you are all brothers” and “the greatest is a slave”, One man lecturing the Bible to God’s people in perpetual dependency every week of their lives is an obvious demonstration of “dominating” that shuts down the “habit of meeting” believers are not to “forsake” which is “stirring up one another on to love and good works and encouraging one another”. “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly” does not flow from one man lecturing but all believers “teaching and admonishing one another with all wisdom…” When men are hired to lead, what they do is no longer an “example” for believers to do. After 20 years of “leading”, and the pastor leaves, no one is “fully trained to ‘be like him”. Luke 6:40. Nothing has been “entrusted to faithful men who will teach others also…” 2Tim 2:1,2. Another man must be hired in to do everything the last man did. When institution is required in church life, shepherding, oversight, and eldering is corrupted into primarily institution protection, not soul watching or setting the example for others to follow. Whatever actual soul watching or reproducing that does occur is severely marginalized. “The greatest danger is not that we will renounce our faith but that we will settle for a mediocre version of it.” Author unknown to me. This text is rich with the opposite of the professionalized version of pastoring, eldering, and oversight but I will stop. I can demonstrate from the NT that Timothy and Titus were not hired professionals and that “preach the word, in season and out of season…” has nothing to do with one man lecturing the Bible for the whole time of truth expression in perpetual dependency. I know how the Bible is used to justify the current system, and it’s not expositional. I have demonstrated some of that already.

  • Wow, this was very powerful and eloquently expressed. Good share, thank you! 🙂

  • Was there suppose to be a link to the blog in #4?
    The content in this post is spot on as to the challenges faced by all sizes of churches today. We were at the “Leading Change in the Church Conference” in Advance, NC last week and in the opening session one of our church members (Age 85) expressed concern related to the music style saying, “this approach to music comes straight out of Woodstock from the 1960’s.” This expresses the concern our older church members have about embracing ways to attract those who have little to no interest in church. They also struggle with building relationships with the un-churched.
    Many thanks for your continued insight!

  • I agree with the first two points. The church body doesn’t seem relational with the church leadership stuck in the past ways of growing the church. Seems like the third point contradicts the first two points. Church leadership focusing on the church invite when the church body needs to build the relationship and trust with people. Jesus was living outside the established religious boundaries to seek and save the lost.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Mark –

      You invite people because you have built relationships and trust outside the walls of the church building.

  • Oops. The link to the 2014 blog post is not there.

  • I have a friend who is a pastor at another church, and is speaking (from the book of Acts) on the five stages of the church, the last of which is “museum”. I am an interim pastor at a church that is in this final stage. Very friendly, but doesn’t want to change… Not sure how to change this culture.

  • Real growth is frequently difficult because it upsets the status quo and the power structure. Even the next generation of Christians can alter a church’s power structure.
    This often results in new people about whom nothing (their beliefs, politics, loyalty) is known, different types of pastoral care being needed, additional young clergy being needed, service projects, and social justice initiatives.

    All of these issues can be foreign to most churches and aren’t what people and clergy are accustomed to. After all, it is one thing to go visit an elderly person whose spouse or sibling died; it is much different to go visit someone who is 30 whose sibling was gay and committed suicide. Most traditional pastoral care is proportional to the distance from the deceased (surviving spouse, children, grandchildren, etc.). When the second grandparent dies, the grandchildren are often the ones who are hit the hardest but get the lousiest pastoral care because tradition says that parents (will continue to) love their children and we all know that isn’t always the case. Some know they may no longer be welcome at home on holidays as grandmother is no longer there to ensure it.

    Now some churches (with some very reasonable members and Gospel-believing clergy) are happy to have these problems (as they mean growth) and have learned how to handle them and thrive. They have learned pastoral care and how social justice originated from Isaiah, if not earlier. They have called younger clergy who can relate to younger people. It all depends on what the church is willing to do.

  • “Biblical membership is not about getting our perks, privileges, and preferences. It’s about sacrificing self for the gospel.”

    Best line I’ve read in awhile, the hard part is getting church members on board.

  • This article is so true. As a pastor I am trying to lead a church into change that will save it. I am here seeking ideas, resources, and possibly support that can help me be the leader God works through to effect life saving change in His church.

    • Thank you, Terry. Later today, I will get you a link to Church Answers. It is a community of over 1,100 pastors and church leaders helping one another.

    • What kind of leadership does your church have? Receptive or closed-minded?

      • Alan Roberts says on

        To me, Mark’s comment goes to one of the main contributing issues: the leadership. I’m a very frustrated interim senior pastor at a Baptist church. My contract stipulated that I could be a candidate if I so chose, but after about six weeks, I declined. I have about 90 days left on my one-year contract.

        To the point: my frustration is with disengaged leadership in congregational governance. I wonder what is the percentage of laypersons vs. clergy who read this blog? The leadership power of the church I’m serving is vested in lay leadership. I’m primarily a consultant and my predecessor who was the permanent pastor for nearly 20 years had a similar role. Generally, the governance folks are good people, but they are not invested in spiritual church leadership. For example, I’ve encouraged them to spend a lot of time in prayer together, but they still just “bookend” their meetings with token prayers. They don’t know how, but I have been given the invitation (which is required in this case) to lead them. I’ve suggested this blog, but I suspect few, if any, subscribe.

        I have a growing conviction that one of the greatest impediments to church health in Baptist churches is our governance model. The church has to be led by spiritual leaders. Most of our churches and our leaders don’t really get that. I’m not saying that clergy alone should lead. There should be genuine shared leadership. But all of the leadership must be spiritually mature and ENGAGED. Sadly, I have rarely observed that to be the case.

        This topic may be “thin ice” for Baptists. But I think it needs to be addressed. I would love to see a Rainer blog on the subject of governance.

      • Alan,

        You are right about the governance model being a hindrance. I’m working with a church right now that has what I fear may be a “standard” SBC constitution and bylaws, which includes all sorts of committees and elected leaders and leaves me confused as to how things get done. There are only about 50 adults left and too many committees for so little activity.

        As it stands, it appears the pastor is accountable to the personnel committee. The “church council” is the body that makes decisions. The deacons are just another committee. Scripturally there are two offices, elder and deacon, who need to provide the leadership. I’m going to work with them now to revise the constitution and by-laws.

        It seems to me our churches are so committed to being a “democracy” (something hard pressed to find in the Bible other than a veiled allusion in Acts 6:5) that the church by-laws are based more on the U.S. Constitution than on the Bible.

      • Alan Roberts says on

        Yup.

      • I don’t think it is too much of a commitment to democracy. I think a lot of it had to do with creating positions for people to feel like they were important and being included while preventing them from having much power, which is why certain committees could table the recommendations of others. The most powerful people got to determine who was permitted to serve on which committee. The goal is to prevent change unless certain people want it to happen.

        All this structure leads the younger people to believe that churches are no better than governments where nothing can get accomplished and where power brokers make deals in secret.

      • Tim Aagard says on

        When the people of God are arranged as an institution or corporation in need of “governance” then you are outside the identity God has given his people for it’s function and leadership – a body, an organism where Jesus is the head and the rest of us are members of one another. If you feel the need for a chain-of-command, you’re in a bogus identity. Choosing your identity based on something other than God’s design is not just the rage in the world, it’s been a tradition in church for 1000+ years. The reformation didn’t fix the division of clergy from laity. We can fix it if we are not stuck in a rut of traditions handed down to us. To see the truth you have to get past bogus translations like “obey those that have the rule over you” and claiming “elder” means an office and a title to elevate. Pushing “oversight” into over-talking, over-bossing, over-deciding, over-visioning, over-thinking or anything other than simply oversight corrupts every believer’s direct connection to the head of the church. Count the cost if church is about your “perks, privileges, and preferences. It’s about sacrificing self (and the traditions of men you have bought into) for the gospel.” The path forward is in the Word, but you won’t see it with traditional filters on.

      • Craig Giddens says on

        You said “you have to get past bogus translations” but then said “The path forward is in the Word”. What is the Word you are referring to?

      • Tim Aagard says on

        Craig – Most every preacher, and even lay folk like can me can check out the original words. Almost every sermon as one or more “clarifications” of the translation in use. Any preacher could observe that “obey” is not the word used for obey elsewhere and the same with “rule”. It’s clearly a tradition driven “translation to keep a little “authority” invested in the politics of church. Corruptions from past church history are pulled forward with this and other translations. Its’s all so deeply embedded, (just like the papacy in the RCC) that no translation level “scholarship” invested in the current bubble will deal honestly with the text, nor will local “leaders” who want authority to dominate the saints. Every corruption white washed as godliness increases “wood, hay and stubble” and reduces “gold, silver, and precious stones.” Walking in the flesh reduces walking in the Spirit. The instruction of the head of the church, “….exercising authority…not so among you.. ” is rendered meaningless. Jesus is not fooled by our nuancing.

      • In my opinion you are right on target. First church governance seems to be modeled after corporate America- love those successful men and women in business. Second I I have seen men and women lead people to Christ, care for the poor, reach out to their neighbors, build relationships with their unsaved neighbors and coworkers and then be chastised for not doing their share at “church”.
        These relationships take time and energy- they don’t happen inside the walls of the church.
        Keep up the good work!

      • Tim Aagard says on

        Thank you Patty. When the people of God consume 84% of their “giving” primarily for hired staff and facilities (Leadership Journal’s stats on normal church budgeting), which are primarily focused inside the “walls”, then their hearts are focused there. “…for where your treasure is there will your heart be also…”. They loose sight that the most powerful location for “church growth” is outside the church walls. Their confidence is inside the church walls – attract people into the walls. They think it’s corrupt to say that church life and worship is everywhere you are and 24/7. They are blind to the reality that there are no church buildings with a pulpit and pews in the Bible to begin with. All church life is modeled for us in the normal places of life, not a separated place and schedule. All this false structure and practice leads believers to “put confidence in the flesh”, rather than the Spirit. If they had confidence in the power of the Spirit, they would want to structure the gathering of God’s people where every gifting, every “manifestation of the Spirit” (1Cor. 12:7) in every member was expected to express truth every week rather than one man lecturing the whole time and call it “preaching or teaching” (1 Cor 14:26; Heb. 10:24,25). When believers gather weekly to practice articulating truth to their brothers and sisters, they will be prepared to speak it to the lost. When speaking truth is outsourced to one expert, they will not be prepared or practiced at speaking to the lost. This is a severe shut down to “growth”. Praise God for those who speak and live truth outside the walls. God did not ask for walls, nor give us instructions that even need walls. It’s all a figment of the traditions of men that we have inherited. We are to “test everything” and only “hold onto” what is “good”.

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