renewing the church

If a church is not growing, it is dying.

[Hitterdals Church, Telemarken (i.e, Telemark)...
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For churches there are several ways to exist financially:

  • Bankrupt – Income is less than expenses. Outcome: Church closes.
  • Status Quo – Income is just above expenses. Outcome: Church continues with current capacity for ministry, outreach and programming.
  • Increasing margins – Income is greater than expenses. Outcome: church is able to grow and expand capacity for ministry, outreach and programming.

The status quo is not a viable option for healthy congregations. This applies for finances, worship attendance, professions of faith and nearly any other metric that one would care to measure in the church.

In other words, if the church isn’t growing, it is dying.

By Andrew Conard

Christian, husband, son, brother, homeowner

18 replies on “If a church is not growing, it is dying.”

AC – Good thoughts.
There are pastors whose geographic locale makes significant numerical growth very close to impossible. Not even Adam Hamilton could create a COR in Wallace County, KS. (Not that there needs to be a COR in Western KS.)
My last appointment in Burden, KS. Population 500. Church size 50. In two years: Developed Youth Group of 15, Small Groups that included up to 20, 5 Baptisms, and 2 Professions of Faith.
Current Appointment, Epworth Wichita: Population 350,000. Church size 75. In 5 months: Youth Group has 4. (We are half a mile away from Wichita East High School.) Small Group involvement is 20, 13 new members. Attendance has increased close to 50% since arriving. BUT, we are nowhere near where we need to be.

Although Burden didn’t grow. We had a great percentage of people involved in small groups. And a youth group of 15. And the quality of worship was sometimes very impactful.

Here is a comment I mean with all due respect: Working in a high energy church with significant leadership sometimes veils a Young Pastors understanding regarding the ease of growing churches.
I worked for Jeff Gannon at Chapel Hill Fellowship. Lots of growth.
I worked for Charles Kyker in Hickory North Carolina. Mega-Church.
Leaving those places made me believe in the invincibility of church growth methods. But. Those methods are not easily practiced in certain settings.

Meanwhile, and I mean this with all due respect, COR can plant a Satellite, invest some money and it will undoubtedly grow.

I don’t have any answers. Just responses.
Sorry for blabbin on so much.

Jimmy – Thank you for your response. I appreciate your examples of Burden and Epworth. I would suggest that Burden was experiencing growth across the two years that you were there. 40% of people in small groups and a youth group of 30% of the size of the church are statistics that Resurrection doesn’t come close to matching. It would be amazing growth for our congregation to have 40% of people in small groups. Also, what was the length of time over which you consider growth?
I appreciate your confidence in Resurrection’s ability to grow regional campuses. That is still to be determined over the long term. Downtown celebrated their first anniversary a few weeks ago and Blue Springs is less than 6 months old.
No disrespect taken from your comment about being a young pastor at a high energy church with significant leadership. I am aware that in some ways I live in a “Resurrection bubble” My problem is that I don’t have any other appointment from which to gain perspective. This will change for me over time.

Dying or re-focusing from one ministry area to another?
Dying or clearing out the temple of the money-changers and charlatans?
Dying or transitioning from a mausoleum to a mission?

Any of the above can affect finances, attendance, professions of faith for a time. Are they really dying, Andrew, by your objective criteria?

Personally I’d be happy pastoring a “dying” church that has done any of the above because they just might understand sacrifice in a way that “growing” churches may not.

Time-frame might be an important difference in your distinctions. Any of those reasons would be good for the short term, but I don’t think a long-term view of a congregation should be anything other than growing.

UMJeremy – Clearly, it is necessary to do all of the things that you mention. However, I believe that these are all signs of growth. I mentioned just a few metrics, however there are many other metrics that could be measured and included in the growth curve.

I guess I have a couple of responses to this, but the first would be the simplest: So what?

Yes, many churches are dying. Their resources pools are shrinking, their congregations are aging and losing energy, they are not a force in the communities that surround them in the way they used to be.

Many of these same congregations are in communities that are dying: The local ____ plant has closed, the children have all grown up and moved away for school and work, what was once a region of small family farms is now a mostly empty countryside with a few industrial farm centers. Some of the most valuable ministry we can do is in communities like this, but if we apply our usual “dashboard” metrics to those places, they will always appear to be lacking.

So, does that mean that these places are no longer of value? Are the people in them no longer of sacred worth? I have to confess I’m getting a little tired of folks from large congregations in wealthy suburban areas passing judgment on the rest of the church. At times they remind me more of smug adolescents than of mature people of faith.

We are all dying. I am, you are, my 5 month old daughter is – we all suffer from a terminal condition called life. Every congregation in the country is dying: some are old and gray and can see the end coming soon, others have a lot of growing and changing to do first – but every one of them, like every one of the people in them, will eventually die. Not because they are “ineffective” or “lacking leadership” or whatever – but because they are incarnate and finite and will eventually go the way of all flesh.

So what? The good news of our faith is not – You will never die! The good news is Romans 8:38-9, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Todd – Let me be clear. It is not my hope or intent to pass judgment on anyone. While I am currently serving a large congregation in a wealthy suburban area, I hope that I do not remind you of a smug adolescent. A church doesn’t have to double its worship attendance in a year to be growing. In many contexts, flat worship attendance with one profession of faith in the year would be a great success and a clear sign that the church is alive and not dying.
Across the life of the annual conference there will be churches that start and churches that close. This is normal and natural. I do not believe that God’s kingdom rests on any particular congregation. However to continue as a meaningful faith tradition, it is not possible for all congregations to be shrinking. There needs to be growth somewhere.

Having just spent last night in a finance committee meeting, I would agree with the assessment. The focus of the meeting was to find a way to make sure that the income was greater than the expenses but it was based on the number of people who attend right now and no consideration was made from reaching out to the people in the neighborhood. If the people don’t see beyond the walls, it is a dying church even if the income is much greater than the expenses.

But I wonder if the argument against the status quo is complete.

A church which cannot expand its physical capacity (say an inner-city church) but seeks ways to reach out to the people would be maintaining the status quo in one regard but would be growing in another.

The problem when you measure something over time is that there is a limit to the growth but not the reason for existence.

A church which does not see beyond the walls may have all the money in the world but it will die. A church that looks beyond the walls will live.

Tony – You are right. Maintaining the status quo in one area and growing in another is still growing – that’s not dying. However, a church that has an endowment that allows it to maintain its physical structure could continue to stay alive for a long time after it has stopped growing in numbers or spiritual depth.

I have to say I agree with many of the other commenters. While, yes, there are financial limits to making a church survive, and yes, there is a point where if the congregation continues to shrink, the pastor ends up preaching to his or her spouse, I wouldn’t say that status-quo is necessarily a death sentence for a church.

My mother-in-law’s church is a good example of this. The weekly attendence has been flat for years. The weekly offering has increased a little, but not much, especially with the recent economy. But the church is still there. It has made it almost 100 years, and it will probably outlive me.

Tony has it right. The issue is not what the metrics of attendance or collections say. The correct issue is the focus of the teaching and the church. A church that has 30 people committed to their community can do more than 1000 people who only want to have to show up for an hour on Sunday.

JAy. – Your mother-in-law’s church seems to be one that is growing. If worship attendance is flat and budget is growing, it seems to be growing. It seems that a church that has 30 people committed to the community outside the walls of the church couldn’t help but make a difference in the lives of at least one person that might see life being lived differently and want to find more about what it means to be a Christian.

Wow, really disappointed by the response to this post Andrew. One need not wonder why so many churches are in desperate shape, so many leaders satisfied and willing to defend the status-quo. I grew up in a town just like many of them described and I can assure you, if you added up all of the people in church on a Sunday the total attendance would not break the %20 mark of the towns total population. Is it really impossible for our clergy to reach the other 80 percent?

Rural decline is a much bally-hood excuse for ineffective ministry. I know of 3 powerful examples of where a change in leadership lead to an increase in all relevant growth metrics in very small towns. One a town of less than 1000.

As for me I am sick and tired of hearing people say that rural churches cant grow. Growing up in one, I can assure you that the growth and decline of such churches was directly related to the quality of its senior pastor’s preaching, care, and administrative skills. I am sorry that some people cant face up to the fact that they are not qualified to be leaders in the kingdom. And I look forward to the day when guaranteed appointments end the hideous practice of rotating horrific leaders from church to church, killing any spiritual growth in their paths. We must look ourselves in the eye, admit the brutal truth, and confess our part in it. Our pastoral leadership has sucked for years. Only then can we begin to fix the problem. Do we really think Wesley would have put up with these excuses?

John Wesley’s Other Brother – Do you think that Wesley would have put up with these excuses? I appreciate the examples of churches where the leadership has made a key difference in growth. I believe that this is one of the key areas – clergy or lay – that directly connects with growing or deepening churches of any kind.

Hey, JWOB.
Thanks for your responses.

I would love to hear about how you practiced leadership in a rural setting and what victories Christ was able to achieve through your work there.
Your post was obviously passionate. I appreciate candid passion. It convicted me in my desire to continue growing as a leader.

You’re right about rural areas having great potential. Bishop Schnase’s “Five Practices” had ample examples of situations where growth occured in declining churches and rural areas.

As you probably know, not all of our Seminaries are preparing students to grow churches. So, we have a problem there.
Another problem, that you point out, is the continued moving of pastors. In Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Church, the number one link between all thriving churches is longevity of a Pastor. That obviously represents another problem given the system we belong to.

Thanks for your thoughts. They’ve helped me clarify some of mine.
I’d just like to add that my initial post included examples of growth.
Again, I would love to hear from you, constructively, on ways in which your leadership significantly enhanced an assignment or two you have had in rural settings.
Could be helpful for a lot of us unqualified workers in the Kingdom!

One closing thought. Your post has some obvious anger. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
But I wonder what anger/frustration God has about the decline of the church.
Then again, in Jesus’ public ministry, much of what he did was invest in 12 unskilled unqualified workers. Guys who relied more upon His power than administrative skills.

“As you probably know, not all of our Seminaries are preparing students to grow churches.”

I hear variations on this a lot. What do you mean by that? How should our seminaries be preparing students to grow churches? I’m at Duke which probably catches those kind of criticisms less often than most, but I’m not sure I’m being prepared to grow a church. I’m being prepared to preach, I’m being prepared to think theologically and pastorally. I don’t even know what being prepared to grow a church looks like.

A couple things by James Howell out of Myers Park UMC, Charlotte, NC seem to be relevant. I think the second is especially important to keep in mind.

Thanks for your thoughts.
I have opinions on your question, contact me personally if you’d like to discuss it more(

I think it will be a fun struggle for you to work on answering these questions.
And I would love to chat in the future.

Hope you’re doing well.
I’ve been thinking about some of your thought provoking comments.
As a response, I listed initial growth in small groups and youth ministries.
It dawned on me that this growth could fall into the category of the classes and bands.
And perhaps nurturing those classifications before spending energy on the society is better?

I would love to hear your response.
(And I’m still hoping to hear about ways God used you to revitalize a struggling rural church setting or two!)

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