Six Reasons Why Some Church Members Resist Growth

January 7, 2019

The confrontation was probably one of my more sobering moments as a pastor. The woman, a long-term church member, used the classic moment right before I preached to tell me God had spoken to her. He told her under no uncertain terms I was supposed to leave the church.

My first challenge was to figure out why God had told her and not me. It seemed like direct communication would have been far more efficient.

My second challenge was framed in a simple one-word question, “Why?”

She responded with smug certainty, “Because all of these new Christians are messing up our church.”

Oh.

Of course, I am not alone in dealing with this perplexing reality. Many church members really don’t want to see their churches grow. Some of them are content with sufficient growth to pay the bills, but none thereafter.

I have learned from countless pastors and members over the years why this seeming Great Commission disobedience is so pervasive in many churches. Here are six of the most common reasons.

  1. Relational patterns are disrupted. Growth brings new members to ministries, groups, and church social functions. Leadership may shift with the incoming new members. Many members are simply not comfortable with new attendees changing long-term relationship patterns.
  2. Many are too comfortable with the status quo. They would rather obey the perceived mandate of the Great Comfort than the mandate of the Great Commission.
  3. Some have a me-centric view of congregational life. Thus, the church exists for me, myself and I. It’s all about my worship style, my programs, my ministries, and my pew. The church is more like a country club where I pay my dues and get my perks. If the new people get in my way as the church tries to reach them, I will raise my voice loudly.
  4. Church members may want the pastor on call to take care of them. Too much growth spreads the pastor too thinly. If my pastor can’t meet my needs 24/7, we have too many people in the church.
  5. Others are simply uncomfortable with any emphasis on numerical growth. The pendulum has swung too far. For many years, many churches over-emphasized numerical growth, so much so that it seemed like the number was an end in itself. Today, many church leaders and members resist any emphasis on numerical growth, often to the detriment of Great Commission accountability.
  6. New people are different. New Christians and non-Christians are particularly different from most longer-term church members. Their presence can make churches messy. Some members don’t like messy churches. Kind of like the Pharisees didn’t like Jesus relating to messy people.

I recently wrote a blog post about church members who are heroes and heroines in their local churches. Pastors remember them fondly for a lifetime. They tell stories about them. They thank God for them.

But pastors also remember church members who are harshly negative, like those who resist Great Commission growth. My story took place a quarter of a century ago. I have moved on, but I have not forgotten.

Let us be church members who gladly obey Christ’s command to make disciples as we go into our communities. Such obedience will likely result in growth. And that’s not a bad thing.

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31 Comments

  • Issah Mwambasi says on

    Dear Thom

    I feel my tongue is list after reading this article. It is a timely article as I go through this same situation right now. I feel so inspired by the contents of the article and may God bless you richly.

  • Not too many months ago we visited a church not of our theological background. (It was a Lutheran church of a very conservative, liturgical form. We are neither Lutheran nor liturgical.) During the visit that morning it became apparent they were in the throes of some tough decisions. Some wanted to ditch the liturgy, bring in a praise team and band, amp up the music and grow. That group felt to continue in doing the liturgy would eventually result in the church dying. The other group (mostly younger folks surprisingly) were adamant they would leave rather than become just another evangelical one size fits all church. Better in their minds to die being faithful to their beliefs and teachings than to morph into something they believe is on the highway to hades.

    It left me with a lot of food for thought. As a layperson it pains me to admit that we can be a stiff necked bunch that fights even good change. But it challenged me also to be cautious in denigrating those that resist change. Not always, but sometimes, what they resist may be wrong. It might just be wrong for that group, or for that town or area, or it might actually be totally wrong. Just because a pastor believes they know that change must happen and what changes must happen does not make those that resist wrong, evil, stuck in their ways, or whatever.

    I thought back to a time when thanks to our then pastor’s wife our little church in that town tried to embrace the whole hip hop culture, which is more than music. More than once we were told it was the music of “today” and culture of “today” and we would die unless we followed that change. We followed and did almost close. The regular attenders were hymn loving, rural, southern gospel loving folks. The town was all about its country and western music, western clothing, the whole cowboy culture. Finally we buried the hip hop thing and began growing again.

    So maybe, just maybe, a good place to start when encountering resistance to change is to listen: maybe the truth will turn out to be the church WON’T grow as fast but WILL faithfully proclaim the truth rather than embrace that one size fits all. If the stiff necks are wrong and God is in the change, this won’t even be a speed bump. But if they are right, listening might save a lot of misery.

    • Great thoughts, Linda.

    • Christopher says on

      I agree that commercializing or putting on a show just to get people in the door is no solution. However, the church should be one size fits all, as you put it. No where in the Bible do we find niche churches. The church is the Body of Christ, made up of all different kinds of people with different abilities, skills, and opinions. This should be represented in each local church. To say that people should find a local church that caters to their individual niche or bias is nothing but consumerism. It is our sinful self-centeredness that makes niche churches seem like a good idea.

      • How many people actually get to use their skills and abilities within a congregation? We all know of people who aren’t allowed to for various reasons. In some cases a niche congregation makes sense or at least a separate service with different clergy.

      • Christopher says on

        That’s a different discussion but it still goes back to sinful self-centeredness on the part of everyone.

      • It may but it keeps some people in the congregation and doesn’t upset the large donors, seems like a win win.

  • So many facets of the same ol problems.I would like to see more joint participate ion in or congregation to group activities.Our pastor tries to encourage but the ol guard seems to resist.They r comfortable where they r at and they aren’t interested in change.As a congregation most are not even willing to help decorate for Christmas celebration but they enjoy the fruits of others labors as they sit in the sanctuary. I wonder if it is worth the effort to challenge them against thier indifference.Seems like a handful of us including the pastor are beating our heads against a wall.

  • Christopher says on

    During one sermon I was making a point about those who build little kingdoms in the church around a particular ministry and how they love to talk about, “MY ministry.” I made the point that it is not your ministry, it is Jesus’ ministry and you’re just the steward. When I said this, the youth pastor gave me the most hateful look you can imagine. He was very fond of saying, “MY ministry.”

  • Hi Tom,

    Thanks for this insightful article.

    This has been my problem as a pastor the past 32 years in the same church. We can’t break the “200 Barrier” because virtually no one wants to do it, but a few members that have a heart for the Lord and the lost. People are happy with their “Five Friends” and “My Church”….why change?

    This leads me to seeing that a major reason why the American Church is not growing is rooted in a cultural narcissism that is endemic in our nation. Increasingly, along the lines of II Timothy 3, people are lovers of themselves and our consumer church world fulfills this prophecy and rarely stands against it.

    I tend to see most things these days from a prophetic lens, seeing the Lord’s return near. I don’t need to go to another “church growth conference”. The issue here is the need for the Church as a whole to repent, but honestly who really sees that coming? We are living in a time of apostasy as the Bible tells us in II Thessalonians 2. IF we accept that, we can make the best of it with a remnant theology and a focus on discipleship and prayer and leave the results to the Lord.

    Happy New Year to everyone. Jesus is coming soon! Be encouraged saints.

  • LeRoy Boender says on

    As I have read this article, I believe the comment are all true. I am a transitional minister and have heard these types of statements many times over. I have even had people tell me not to push them in a new direction because they like themselves just the way they are. I have also had a person tell me not to change the church because it was “My Church” and they liked it just the was it was. I had to remind them that it was not their church but it was Christ’s Bride first. I then led them down the path that their church was going and where it would end up if they continued down the self centered path. It was then that most figured out that if change did not happen, they would no longer be relevant or in existence into the future. It changed the attitude and the direction. There are times when we need to encourage people to look at the bigger picture of the church and see what the call is for the church of Jesus Christ. Thank you for all the great podcasts and articles. I often share them with the leadership team of the church and it helps them to refocus. Blessings.

  • It’s often two things. It’s about power (keeping it) and a self-focus. “What I think the preaching or music or direction of the church should be.” New people means these people can vote in business meetings and give new ideas. Often, the Old Guard doesn’t want it.

  • Jerry Watts says on

    Bro. Thom,
    This article is all too true and all too common. I am wondering (actually have personally begun a project to uncover deeper truths) if you have ever completed a survey/study to discover what the modern-day concept is of “The Church” like what is the definition. This is a passion of mine because, I sense that pastors, leaders, members, (and more), use the term ‘church’ to speak of entirely different things. Would love to know if you or your team have taken a dive into this subject.

    • Seriously (or not) says on

      Jerry, this idea is Far. Too. Dangerous. First, the variety and disagreement in definitions would be Legion. Agreement on Jesus’ understanding would be impossible. Second, It totally serves the purposes of most (church) people and leadership to deftly and without warning slip between definitions as suits the agenda/conversation of the moment.(see how easy that is?)

      Nope. Can’t have it. It’s bad enough that some folks have the audacity to us a capital ‘C’ sometimes to describe the ekklesia vs a gov’t authorized, non profit organization or even a simple structure. Let’s just keep using the same word that sounds so good to our own worldview. That way no one will know what we really mean and we can excuse our way out of a confrontation….

      Don’t make me see any need for change!

  • David Troublefield, DMin says on

    Some expressions of individuals can be considered to be power struggles; but, if the research cited above is correct (it is :-)) and the matter is allowed to persist among us, then it appears what actually is happening is a failure at disciple-making on the part of the church’s leaders. Again: act to grow the people who compose the congregation spiritually, intellectually, and emotionally.

    • Sheila Beers says on

      I can relate to what David Troublefield has written because I saw firsthand how a 100-member church in a rural area was destroyed by a pastor who put new converts, who had received absolutely no discipleship training, into places of leadership. The pastor mistakenly thought he was encouraging these people “to get involved” in the local church, but they brought in ideas and ways of doing things that were totally secular — what one also could call “worldly” as well as “unfair and dishonest” and ‘”totally directed toward the flesh.” The pastor mistakenly had assumed these people were “new creatures in Christ” because he did not understand the essential nature of discipleship training. Yes, the local church should win people to Christ, baptize them, and encourage them to dedicate their lives to Christ. However, the local church needs to enroll such people in a new believers’ or new member’s class to give them a foundation in the basic doctrines and principles of the Bible BEFORE letting them be church officers, committee chairmen, or Sunday school teachers.

      • William Holden says on

        The problem here is to many Pastors and Church Members are operating from the natural man instead of letting Christ Live through them. To be saved we had to die to self and let Christ life be our life. Colossians 1:13 we were taken out of darkness (out of adam) and translated over into the kingdom of Christ or GOD. GOD sent the H/S (the nature and life of GOD through Christ) for His Spirit to live through His Child. It is Christ that is the head and body of HIS Church and it is Christ who adds to the Church and the same Spirit that was and is in Christ is in each child of GOD. The flesh wars against the spirit and spirit wars against the flesh, This is the spirit of the carnal or natural man as a Christian trying to live the Christian life and GOD says it cannot be done. I believe we are living in the Laodicean age.

  • Christopher says on

    What all of this boils down to is a power struggle that comes from a corrupt view of the church in which power players claim ownership. “This is MY church,” is probably the most toxic attitude that can exist in a church. Those who say this do not view the church as the Body of Christ (how can you claim ownership over the Body of Christ?), instead they view the church as an institution or a business to be controlled. Frankly, church leaders have fostered this attitude with decades of consumerism instead of discipleship.

    • Well said, Christopher.

    • Every member should say this is my church as it is your church and let’s all worship here.

      So annoyed when new member said it is not older member’s church just because he could not attend regularly.

      • Christopher says on

        Saying “my church” as a convenient way of denoting which church you attend is one thing, but I’m talking about people claiming ownership for the purpose of control. When someone says “MY church” they are in reality claiming ownership over every person that attends and implying that everyone should defer to their wishes and desires.

        If you have no desire to control then you should have no problem saying, “This is not my church, this is Jesus’ church and I am simply a member of His Body.”

    • Wanda Adams says on

      You hit it: consumerism (building the numbers for the sake of building the numbers and getting more money into the system) and discipleship (seeking out others and inviting them in with caritas love). I remember once when I was attending a staid church with a not-so-staid pastor; the old guard wanted him gone, the newer folk appreciated his energy and commitment, his warm welcoming attitude. One night, we had a meeting to talk about a proposal that there be a short contemporary Sunday evening service with homemade music, a relaxed kind of liturgy and no pastor (because the poor man deserved a night off). One elder of the church said, “I don’t know why we’re even talking about this. We should be talking about what to do to fix the front porch.” I felt all my energy leave my body right then. Within months, we had quit that church, the bishop had reprimanded the pastor and he was gone. THEIR church, not God’s church.

  • The power structure gets upset with new people. It can mean that additional people would/could enter the lay leadership. That would dilute the votes of the current leaders. It can mean that people whose pedigree (family history) wasn’t known might be joining. This would mean that the unofficial power structure wouldn’t be able to send word to the person via their family to stand down. It is much easier to run roughshod over 50 people whose family you do know than 150, 100 of whom you don’t know and who don’t respect your unofficial hold on power. I have seen this firsthand. I have even seen this when a few new deacons/elders were added and nothing changed in the congregation.

  • David Troublefield, DMin says on

    (Problem x Solv x Ing) > Resistance = Change

    Even when the factors Problem diagnosing, Solution prescribing, and prescription treatIng are absent from the time-tested Change Equation so that no change can occur, Resistance still will be present. God hard-wired everyone to wind-down during the course of a day, and we need the aid of compensations He also created (e.g., the night, and a full night’s rest; functional relationships, and our participation in then–instead of dysfunctional ones; His mercies, new everyday and relied upon by us) and each other in order to be re-wound. A helpful strategy in 2019 is for preaching pastors and other congregation leaders to address the topic of change in churches AND the expectation that Resistance will be encountered–and what to do about it (positively) by each of us when it is. Some discussions can be done in large-group settings like sermon times, while others should happen in one-to-one settings. Not always fun for pastors to do, BUT always loving for them to do (i.e., doing so pursues fellow-believers’ complete wellbeing, but failing to do so for fear/etc. pursues my own wellbeing and is self-centered).

    Start today; the entire New Year is passing quickly 🙂

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