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.


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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  • I agree in principle overall with what Mr. Rainer has said and stated. I am one of those people that is right now ready to leave my church / denomination and look for another one.

    The word “change” is though thrown about now like the word “love” today, and it has lost its meaning, and its power in our culture.

    In many of the comments here I see the word “change”. Change what?

    For men like me, who actually believe the Word of God, change means: water down the Gospel, talk about sin a-little-bit, have spineless sermons that talk about how “God has a plan” and “Jesus-loves-you” also, push workshops, workbooks, retreats, bold-new-plans that are gonna change our outlook (one book does that, it’s called The Bible). Outreach means going to see the latest “christian movie” and were encouraged to “invite our friends”

    Music? Ughhhh……I am so tired of all the old songs disappearing from my Holiness tradition being replaced with drums, guitars, and lyrics / chorus of “You are my God, and I will worship you” (or something like this) repeated 150 times…….and the praise leader is again saying as we just finished “Come on church, let’s sing that again with feeling!” and I am thinking, “I’ve been standing here ten minutes, singing this over and over again will this song PLEASE END!” and then it goes into a slow one, and it’s more of a solo than a corporate sing.

    People are buried in cell-phones the whole service now (yes, I know, I know they are looking up and reading The Bible on their phones…they’re not). I see very little respect from longtime members or people who have been coming for a long time to my church of “Holiness Before The Lord”

    I see the Sunday morning nightclub, baseball caps, a social club, and idle talk. The prayer meeting is dead………….

    but we’ve got to “change” and “change” quickly…and it’s the mean “old” guys like me that are holding the church back. I’m not.

    How about preaching the love of God? The severity of Him? How about RAISING standards by inspiring people in the congregations of “Yeah, I wanna be like THAT!” Instead of “God takes you as you are” (thus no change occurs)

    How about a confrontation of sin? How about a deep love and support for someone who wants to confront it? How about LIVING a walk instead of playing pretend church on Sunday (or pretend Army in my case?)

    I have gently tried and strived for the past eight years to inspire, to lead…… live His example. All I get from fellow members, attendees, and the pastorate is:

    *Well, that’s legalism
    *You’re being a Pharisee
    *The Bible says we can’t “judge” people
    *We have to reach the younger people (over half the Millennial Generation is into their 30’s. These are adults now, they are not kids, not babies, not children and churches today coddle them as such)
    *Most sermons are geared to women
    *Men are called to “step up and lead” and if you do, you are told by WOMEN and the pastor overall that “you can’t do that”

    I could go on, but I won’t. Frankly, as a MAN. I am BORED in the church. There is nothing to do, no message that challenges me. The relationships in fellowship are only “Bible studies” and “books” that are written by “experts” who have zero clue on how the secular world works, thinks and operates. There is NOTHING or very little for singles in the church…and if there is, it’s more workshops, books, boring Bible studies and service projects that are really boring.

    I have found through Skype a group of men who want to study the Word, live it, hold each other accountable and be more than just “church friends” we all want to actually “walk deeper” with each other and buck each other up.

    Church is becoming a day-care center, a dispensary for diapers, and feel-good-gospel that isn’t helping anyone, and its driving men like me who want IMPACT and HOLINESS out.

    • Tim Aagard says on

      Jason – I understand why you are frustrated. I would say your Skype group is on the right track. You can practice the 58 “one another” instructions only in a small group of believers who also want the intimacy and mutuality of “one another” function. The pulpit and pew routine is the opposite of this. “One another” life is very hard work and requires diligent fellowship directly with God. “If we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another. And the blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sin”. Look up Hebrews 10:19-25 where you will find the “new and living way” opened up for us by the blood of Jesus. 1. “Let us draw near with a pure heart…” Enter the most holy place with Jesus and the Father and clean up your heart. Read the Word. God will speak. 2. “Let us hold fast our confession of faith”. Whatever God teaches your flesh will argue and the devil will contest. You will be prone to forget what God says so ready yourself for… 3. “Let us consider how we can stir up one another on to love and good works… and encourage one another”. This is the “habit of meeting” believers are not to “forsake”. “And all the more as we see the day approaching.” Be prepared with “the new and living way” when you meet on Skype. Also “But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” Hebrews 3:13. What you take in from God is designed to give out to others, – daily, and the same with them to you. is a place where you can be taught more about practicing heart level fellowship with God and his people. Do Church 101. Church of two. They connect with Google Hangouts, Face Time or phone calls. It will help you to be a multiplier of disciples rather than merely a huddle of saints who are comfortable. When you are practiced at sharing your heart with believers flowing from your fresh walk with Jesus, you will also be prepared to share your heart with unbelievers.

      Every brother and sister needs what you want and are pursuing. Be transformed by the renewing of your mind and pass it on. Receive the same from others. “Test everything. Hold on to that which is good.” 1 Thes. 5:21 You can share what you learn with the saints at your church, but only face to face. Follow up when there is no response. If they label you “divisive” , “unruly” or whatever, that means they are kicking you out. Accept it. Pray for God to bless them with an understanding of the truth.

  • Joe SixPack says on

    Right now, TODAY, the opportunity is enormous for exponential growth. The progressive left has gone completely off the rails and lost the narrative. If you do not know what I mean here is Homework to do on YouTube, search these names for a start,

    Milo Yiannopoulos
    Jordan B Peterson
    Vox Day
    Joe Rogan Experience

    There is really no way to understate this, this only comes once or twice a century. There is a major social shift occurring right now, it has been building for decades. This may be as big as the Protestant reformation.

    If you do not believe me look around you, marriage has been decimated.

    What I offer here is like Morpheus in the movie The Matrix, he offers Neo a red pill or a blue pill. O yes, red pill philosophy, on Youtube too,

    If are rolling your eyes just take the blue pill and keep your head comfortably in the sand,

    Christianity is NOT dead, it is posed for a major expansion in the west,

    • Craig Giddens says on

      Please expand on “Christianity is NOT dead, it is posed for a major expansion in the west”.

      • The progressive left/SJW’s that heavily occupy most universities, colleges, non-profits and have infiltrated many churches is in the process of catastrophically loosing its hold. This leaves a huge opening for pastors as engineers of the soul to step up to the plate and hit an easy home run.

        This is a direct example of an SJW, she got this Lyft driver fired. This philosophy, really its more like a a cult, is in the beginnings of being rejected en mass by young people.

        These guys are doing an obvious parody and have no direct connection to Christianity, notice what they say, they are clearly grasping for conservative values. A large number of young men are yearning for a conservative lifestyle. Its ridiculously easy to proselytize them.

  • Craig Giddens says on

    “And upon the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread, Paul preached unto them, ready to depart on the morrow; and continued his speech until midnight.” (Acts 20:7)

    Paul ought to have known better than spend on that time lecturing.

    • Tim Aagard says on

      Craig – This is another classic text that the translators push tradition rather than reveal the text. The term “preached” is from dialegomai which does not specify one man in strict one way communication. In fact it includes “to converse, discourse with one, argue, discuss, reason, etc.” There is not a hint of one man doing all the talking. “Speech” is from “logos” which is a noun. This is the content involved, not the form of talking that was going on. Translators know this but are happy to lead you to think Paul is merely practicing the long standing tradition of one man lecturing the Bible for a long time, and everyone else just sits quietly and listens and are assumed to be “learning”. No one is interested in even checking to see if learning and teaching is going on. This tradition is assumed into this text and every other one where other words are used. I can’t see how you can exposit this strict narrow function from any verse. I’m trying to be a Berean who re-examines the scriptures daily to see if what is said and done is consistent with the scriptures. I get no money out of one option or the other. Part of the problem is that most Bible scholars do. This greatly impacts the potential for God to “make things grow” as his people “walk in the truth”.

      • Bit of you want to justify long sermons and not discuss any aspect of the Bible, you use the term “preached.”

  • Billy Carver says on

    Thank you Mr. Rainer for this post. It is encouraging to me. I am a first time pastor serving a congregation of about 200. Our church has been on a gradual decline for 10 years. I am trying to teach my congregants that people don’t care what you know until they know that you care. I have been teaching about being intentionally caring and evangelical. I am trying to demonstrate this on a daily basis.

  • Until or unless the members of a church have a personal encounter with the Lord, whereby they obtain experiential knowledge of how much the Father loves them, they will have no desire or impetus to share the revelation of that love with others. We love God because He first loved us. Evangelization is not a program. It is a natural outflow of the love of God towards others. If pastors are only teaching formulas and feel good messages, but not leading their flocks by example into intimacy with Jesus, then forget about growing a healthy, growing body.

    Just saying . . .

  • Heartspeak says on

    “Cultural Christianity is dying”

    This the key today. When our culture was dominantly ‘christian’, the traditional church model that we knew 50-100 years ago was a reasonable approach. However, today, that model is, as David K said— “…creeping death…”

    I recognized this when I came to understand that if my neighbor repented, fell on his face and cried to God for salvation, the very LAST place I would feel comfortable recommending him to go, would be most of the local churches!

    I would certainly bring him into a small circle of friends, who know God and follow His ways and walk with him as he grew in the nurture and admonition of the Lord .

    That this post has so quickly elicited as many comments as it has, saddens, disgusts, and grieves, and yes, even angers me. It reveals, anecdotally, the deep ‘sickness unto death’ that infests our churches. God honors and works among His faithful, even in the midst of this sickness, but virtually everything illustrates how badly our eyes have slipped from the Lamb that was slain and onto ourselves.

    Yet I rejoice, because the Spirit is opening eyes and calling us to something better. Malachi 1:10 comes often to my mind, “Oh, to find one priest among you who would shut the doors and refuse this kind of sacrifice! I have no pleasure in you,” says the Lord Almighty, “and I will not accept your offerings.”

  • Awesome post and so true! I am astounded by how many pastors I speak with dealing with point #2 mostly. The biggest challenge I see is when a pastor understands their church needs to be in tune/relevant with the unchurched culture more, but then that pastor not having the ability to make decisions that lead the church to become more relevant.

    It usually is because of a stubborn old church board who has lost touch with the culture. They will never admit it but they truly do want to be open at all to new ways to reach people. God is in control though and working it out I believe!

  • We’re losing Biblical Christianity in this country fundamentally through compromise and prayerlessness. We lost our ”fear of the Lord” a long time ago. But blessed is the man who does not need a personal, or national crisis to take place before he will seek hard after God!

    Heavenly Father, we are not the people you’ve called us to be. Forgive our sins and take our lives from this day forward and use them to bring glory to Yourself in the name of Your dear Son, the Lord Jesus Christ! – Selah

  • When the Church grows comfortable, then the Gospel dies. With the rise of social media, the culture today has lost the ability to communicate. Everything is in 140 characters or less. The art of talking with someone is lost and we have to be intentional in retrieving this ability in sharing the Gospel. We have to step out of our comfort zone and meet people where they are at to be effective.
    For this to work we have to get out of the “we have always done it this way” mentality. To many people are comfortable in their little church and really don’t want to go out and invite. Much less make visitors really feel welcome to their own private country club. No one likes change or feeling uncomfortable so they avoid it. However we need to look more at the life of Jesus. I don’t think He promised the Disciples a comfort zone or their own private “safeplace” when He invited them to become fisher of men. Until we meet people where they are at, we are going to continue to see a decline.

  • David Kinnon says on

    Not all churches recognise decline for what it is – creeping death. Some churches I know well simply redouble talking about prayer, holiness, witness … but never do. It’s true that some churches are content with their music performance rather than worship, motivational talk rather than message truly expositing Scripture. Talk around Calvary may neglect the truth of salvation through the blood of the lamb, properly and theologically explained. This generation requires fresh purposeful proclamation.

  • Hector Rodriguez says on

    Excellent article. I serve as a interdenominational church growth consultant for the Hispanic/Latino constituency and there are a lot of similarities with some racial/cultural differences. God bless you ministry.

  • Thom, I am pastoring a 200 year old church in an area that is in the process of experiencing rapid growth. We are prayerfully seeking direction from the Lord as to how to lead and equip our fellowship to reach the world that the Lord is sending to our doorstep.
    Thank you so much for these posts!

    • Can I ask:
      Have you started to grow yet?
      What kind of leadership do you have?
      Have you done a google search for the congregation to see what, if anything, is being said about it on message boards?
      Do you follow a lectionary? or read a large portion of Gospel every week?

      • Mark, we experienced initial growth our first 3 years here, but have stagnated over the last year. We are currently investing some time and money on light remodeling of our facilities to make them fresher and more attractive. We also have a full time daycare that has a long and excellent reputation in the community (constant waiting list). We experience, however, difficulty in transitioning very many of those young families to church involvement. We have a vibrant wednesday night childrens ministry program (100+ children) but have the same issue as with the daycare. (There is much crossover between the two).
        Our leadership is older. Tend to harken back to the good old days some 30 so years ago, and traditional in governance and thought. They (leadership) are genuine and dedicated folks who love the Lord and i believe want to reach others for Christ!
        Google and Facebook reveal prominently positive things about our fellowship, and we enjoy a positive reputation in the community. Tend to be thought of, however, as an “older” church.
        I focus on expository verse by verse preaching through books of the Bible (currently in Acts) and the Gospel is presented every service. The text of the message and related texts are the Scriptures that are read most weeks.
        Thanks for asking… the exercise of answering has been good for me.
        Together in the “Cross-Ties”!

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Thanks, Ben.