Healthy people grow. Healthy animals grow. Healthy trees grow. Healthy plants grow. Healthy churches grow. Growth is a characteristic that God supernaturally breathed into all living things. And the body of Christ—the local church—is a living thing.
So, when a church is not growing, it is helpful to ask: “Why?” If we understand the reason for a church’s lack of growth, it is easier to accurately diagnose the cause and to prescribe the cure. Here are the five most common “growth-restricting obstacles”…
Growth-restricting obstacle #1: The Pastor.
There are three different causes if the pastor is inhibiting the growth of a church:
1. The pastor does not have a PRIORITY. Churches grow when they have a priority for reaching the unchurched. When the pastor doesn’t, the church won’t. (See Luke 19:10)
2. The pastor does not have a VISION. Growing churches have pastors who believe God wants to reach people in their community and assimilate them into the Body. No vision for outreach is as much a barrier as no priority. (See Acts 16:9)
3. The pastor does not have the KNOWLEDGE. Working harder is not the secret to effective outreach. The secret is working smarter. Unfortunately, little is taught in most seminaries or Bible schools about how to invest the limited resources of a church for the greatest return. (See Mt. 25:14-30)
Growth-restricting obstacle #2: The church members.
There are often competent and skilled clergy in non-growing churches, because the problem is not in the pulpit, it’s in the pews. Church members can keep a church from growing when:
Members have no priority for reaching the lost. “Sure, our church should reach people,” some say. “But me? I’ve got three kids, a job, membership at the health club, and a lawn to mow. Someone else with more time should feel compelled.” (see II Pe. 3:9)
Members have a self-serving attitude about church. When members believe the priority of the pastor and the church should be to “feed the sheep” who are already in the flock, the message that newcomers hear is: “We like our church just the way it is…which is without you!” (see Mt. 9:37)
Members fear that new people will destroy their fellowship. When “community” is the number one priority in a church, active membership will not grow beyond 100 people. Beyond that point, members won’t know everyone…and, in their minds, that price of growth becomes greater than the benefit. (II Cor. 4:5)
Growth-restricting obstacle #3: Perceived irrelevance.
Growing churches start with the issues and concerns of the people in their community, and then relate the gospel to those points of need. Stagnant churches are seen by the unchurched as having an irrelevant message. (see Acts 2:6)
Growth-restricting obstacle #4: Using the wrong methods.
Any farmer knows you can’t harvest ripe wheat with a corn-picker. Using inappropriate methods can be worse than no methods, since they create resistance to the gospel. A bullhorn on a downtown street corner, English tracts in a Spanish-speaking neighborhood, youth outreach in a senior adult community…none of these methods are wrong. But they are inappropriate for the harvest field. (see Mt. 7:9)
Growth-restricting obstacle #5: No plan for assimilation.
Over 80 percent of those who drop out of church do so in the first year of their membership. A new member does not automatically become an active member without an intentional plan by the church on how to assimilate them into a caring, loving, Christian community. (see Eph. 2:19)
There are many reasons why churches don’t grow. But there are no good reasons. Healthy churches grow. God wants your church to grow. He created it to grow. Sometimes it’s just a matter of finding out what’s keeping it from growing, and removing those obstacles. What about your church?
NOTE: For more on how to identify and smash obstacles to your church’s growth, see the new book WHAT EVERY PASTOR SHOULD KNOW—101 Rules for Effective Leadership and Ministry for Your Church (Baker Publishing.) And, watch for the new “Church Revitalization Certificate” available through Wesley Seminary in early 2015!