Five Reasons More Churches Are Moving from Vertical Growth to Horizontal Growth

Two of the most dramatic trends in churches the past decade are declines in attendance frequency and the move to horizontal growth.

I have written and spoken at length about the trend of declining attendance frequency of “committed” church members. But I have not really unpacked why churches are moving toward horizontal growth.

Definitions are in order. Vertical growth refers to an increasing number in the same place or unit. For example, if a church has grown from 150 to 175 in attendance in its 10:30 worship service, it has a vertical growth of 25. The growth takes place in the same service.

Horizontal growth is the term we use to describe numerical growth that takes place by adding units. For example, if the church above decided to start a new worship service at 9:00 am, and total attendance of the 9:00 am and 10:30 am services grew to 225 from 175, we would say the growth of 50 was largely horizontal growth.

So why is growth more likely today with additional services, classes, groups, venues, and campuses? Why do we see the horizontal strategy to be more pervasive today? Here are five key reasons:

  1. Horizontal growth is usually better stewardship. It is typically better to add a second worship service than to build a new worship center from a stewardship perspective. The church can accommodate more people without more capital expenses and debt.
  2. Horizontal growth can offer more choices to reach different demographics. As an example, a Tuesday night worship service may reach those people who have to work on Sunday mornings. Churches can often reach a wider demographic with more options.
  3. Horizontal growth reaches Gen X and the Millennials who typically prefer smaller gatherings. They like the resources of larger churches, but they also prefer the smaller gatherings of smaller churches. A larger church can get smaller through additional services, venues, and sites.
  4. Horizontal growth can reach a new community without abandoning the church’s current community. Such is the advantage of an additional site or campus in another part of the community. One church, for example, is located in the suburbs, but had a heart to reach the urban core in the metropolitan area. It leased an old warehouse and started reaching a large slice of the unchurched urban population.
  5. Horizontal growth often has many of the advantages of church planting without planting a new church. Many of these examples could be accomplished with a church plant. But starting something brand new without the resources of an existing church is challenging. Horizontal growth can sometimes capture the benefit of both worlds.

Is horizontal growth a prescriptive strategy for churches? I don’t think so. I see it more as a descriptive reality. And I will be watching this trend closely to see if more people are reached with the gospel. Then I will get really excited about it.

Posted on February 18, 2019

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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  • To grow, people need to experience and connect. Most technology prevents this, until it is designed INTO the building by an architect who know what technology and acoustics are. Your can fail with glaring lights and loud sound, or you can integrate for connection. It takes a professional to succeed and it takes a professional team to do this. We recently helped Aspen Group do this and found the process good, as long as the team was integrated as much as the design was intended.

  • To grow, people need to experience and connect. Most technology prevents this, until it is designed INTO the building by an architect who know what technology and acoustics are. Your can fail with glaring lights and loud sound, or you can integrate for connection. It takes a professional to succeed and it takes a professional team to do this. We recently helped Aspen Group do this and found the process good, as long as the team was integrated as much as the design was intended.

  • Mike Matzek says on

    In a future post, can you unpack point #3 where you said that Gen X and Millenials prefer smaller venues? That lines up with my experience, but I’d like to hear your thoughts.


  • Christopher says on

    Horizontal growth is just another word for market share. The Biblical church is about believers coming together as one body called out from the world, not different groups of attenders being sorted, labeled, and pandered to so that their worldly lives are never inconvenienced.

  • R.E. Clark says on

    If you consider a set of stairs you will see that it takes both vertical rise and horizontal run for the stairs to benefit the person using them. Especially since the purpose of the stairs is to provide an opportunity to rise to a new level. It is not an either or concept of growth. Both must take place and both must be of the appropriate dimensions so ascension is made possible without causing those using the stairs to stumble or fall, i.e., suffer decline. In the long run a stair step pattern of growth is always safer than traversing an incline.

    • Churches grow like pyramids grow.

      Expand the base and the edifice can expand. Horizontal growth has to take place before vertical growth can.

      Where more people are touched through ministries, the church as a whole can grow upward. If not, there will be little or no growth.

    • Christopher says on

      A ladder will get you to a new level quicker with less infrastructure. Just sayin’.

  • I say Amen to your article Dr. Rainer. Our people have embraced a philosophy of “growing out, not up” for the past three years, and God is blessing it immeasurably at First Baptist Simpsonville. This approach has allowed us to maintain the strength, security, and methodology of our more traditional elements while expanding to reach the next generation. Thank you for your thoughts. This was a very encouraging read.

  • John W Carlton says on

    In a more staid community like our church is, moving to a 2nd service may be the way to grow even more. Our pastor led us to build and we have replaced our old worship center and educational space completely debt free. When he announced that we were going to do it this, I was skeptical that we could accomplish this. However,we have a new worship center and educational building that is completely debt free. Our problem now is that the worship center is at 90% usually on Sunday AM. We haven’t gone to an additional service yet.

  • Judith Gotwald says on

    Horizontal growth is a long-term project partly because church structure makes it scary. If you are successful, you may soon have a congregational meeting where the “new” members can outvote the “old.” This makes a congregation vulnerable within its own denominational structure and may also make pastors feel vulnerable. It can even be a tool of a regional body to acquire property rights as early statistics are likely to look dismal to vertically thinking administrators.

    But it is a great thing if we can work out the power temptations. Horizontal growth is the gospel in action. Horizontal growth deepens sense of “church.” We can begin to see that people don’t have to be like us. We enrich our lives as we learn from others.

    It is important to quickly develop lay leadership for horizontal growth for at least three reasons. 1. No one really wants to be seen as being served. 2. Lay leaders have more longevity than clergy and unless a pastor is willing to commit a decade or two, the effort won’t survive startup. 3. Horizontal growth requires skills that are unlikely to be found in one person and multiple pastors for horizontal growth is economically challenging. Horizontal growth requires more than preaching. We must also teach leadership skills—and loosen the leadership reins.

    The return to vertical thinking will always be a temptation. Vertical thinkers will target populations, seeking early success.The targeted populations will exist separately, never really becoming part of the whole (the voting thing again—we’ll let them vote separately). This can be perceived as caring for the stepchildren. We’ve seen how well this separate but equal vertical thinking works in society!

    • Great points, Judith.

    • I agree with your comments especially that of creating new lay leadership. Those of us in that new group have atypical issues at best and are branded abnormal at worst. Even though we have never been direct recipients of pastoral care, the old style won’t help us. Overall, we aren’t sick, in hospital, or burying spouses yet. We are ultra-educated, hyper-competitive, and have ethical dilemmas that, if mentioned from the pulpit, would likely make the cross fall down or the roof collapse. This group of people need clergy and lay leaders who are willing to listen to us first without being overly judgemental.

  • Evan Mitchell says on

    Our church tried to start a separate contemporary church for a period of six -eight years. It not only failed, our traditional service decreased also. We would go out and get people to visit the new service, but they would discontinue within a few weeks. A careful evaluation of the area plus the leadership in any new service is critical to success.

  • You can call it by different terms, but it is still growth. Just be aware that you might be (un)intentionally creating multiple classes of member/attendee. One service in one location may be for the 1st class members and from which leaders can originate and another service in the same a different location might be for 2nd class members and from which no leaders can originate. I have seen this happen especially when you have a service for younger generations which makes sense and keeps everyone happy, but they are then kept separate from the real members, given no pastoral care, and don’t really matter except for total attendance numbers.

  • David G Troublefield, PhD says on

    A size 10 foot cannot wear a size 7 shoe. The size 10 foot could be a congregatiin’s potential–or the number of people actually attending presently. Unless physical and/or organizational changes take place, growth cannot be sustained over consecutive years.

    Andy Anderson’s Growth Spiral research has been the best that I have seen related to local churches’ physical space and administrative choices for sustaining growth. It was not prescriptive or cause-effect–but it worked where worked (DMin dissertation :-} ).