When I get called in as a consultant to work with stuck, plateaued, or declining churches I have a couple of things I look for right off the bat. In the vast majority of the cases I discover that their inability to grow, let alone sustain, their membership is caused by one of six issues. And yes, I know this post is called the top FIVE reasons churches don’t grow, but I have to throw in the one stopper for church growth, no matter what else is happening. Indeed, you can major on “fixing” the top five for the rest of eternity, but if you don’t take care of this one single issue, it will be for naught. I’ve said it before, and I suspect I’ll say it again, and again, and again. The most heinous church growth killer is unresolved conflict. Period. It’s the sarin* or the VX* of the church, let alone growth efforts. I’ve written several posts and articles on dealing with conflict (see Net Results magazine, and the 21st Century Strategies, Inc. web sites).
So, what are the top five reasons churches don’t grow (outside of conflict)? Here they are in reverse order with only a brief explanation of each. Each of these will be dealt with in more depth in the upcoming The Complete Worship Audit, available though our e-commerce store.
Number 5: Ineffective Attendance Tracking. Very few churches do this well. On the other hand, growing churches tend to do this exceptionally well. If you want your church to grow, you have to know who’s there and who’s not. There are a couple reasons for this. First, if you don’t get contact information from your guests, how can you follow up? You can’t. More churches suffer from this sin than almost any other. Second, if you don’t know who’s not there, you can’t do effective member care. I’ve debriefs literally hundreds of church dropouts and one of the top reasons they quit and didn’t go back is because they missed a service of two (sometimes from illness, sometimes from crisis, sometimes for laziness) and no one in the church bothered to inquire. They felt slighted … believing that the church really should care whether they lived or died … and so stopped attending altogether. A word to the wise: develop an effective system for tracking attendance.
Number 4: Lack of Guest Follow-up. Even those churches that use “friendship” pew pads or guest books get lucky sometimes and they’ll get the contact information of a visitor. And let me tell you something – typically if a guest signs a pew pad or a guest book, they’re not just membership prospects, they’re hot membership prospects. And yet, it appears that few churches know what to do when they get these names. I had a conversation with a pastor recently who told me, “We don’t follow up with a visitor until they’ve come twice. We want to make sure they’re really interested.” Here’s your sign: If they came once and gave you their contact information they’re interested. The statistic still stands: follow up within 24 hours and your guest is 86 percent more likely to return. Leave it until the end of the week and the percentage drops to less than 25 percent.
Number 3: Lack of Hospitality. It never fails to amaze me just how inhospitable most churches are. And yes, I chose the word “most” carefully. My writing instructors and my dissertation editors would have told me that I should use the word many, since most implies a quantifiable variable. Well, after twenty-six years of ministry and five years of consulting and coaching, I can confidently say that I can quantify it. MOST churches score less than 5 (out of 10) overall on my hospitality scale. I’ve never been in a church where the majority of the members haven’t told me how “friendly” they were. But friendly towards first time guests? Not often. Mortal sins include poor nursery facilities; unsanitary washrooms; and absent or inattentive greeters/ushers. Venial sins include coded language in bulletins, programs, and worship; publicly identifying visitors in any way (different name badges at best or having them introduced in worship at worst); lack of signage; and lack of attention by members and staff. I could go on, but you probably get the idea. And if you don’t, consider having a trained “Secret Shopper” evaluate your services.
Number 2: Ineffective Assimilation/’Discipleship. It’s great to get new members. Even churches that sin mightily in the previous three categories manage to get a new member or two now and again. However, it never ceases to amaze me how few churches are able to keep these new members in the long run. Typically, the new members are “gone” within a year, and fewer still make it through year two. I’ve worked with a number of “big” churches that have been stuck at the same attendance level for a decade, even though they’re receiving new members almost weekly. Indeed, I recently worked with a church that had an average attendance of 500 for the last twelve years or so. Together, we did some research and we discovered they’d taken in over 800 new members in that period … but apparently they’d managed to loose over 800 members as well. What was the problem? New members hung out between six months and a year, but they never seemed to connect in the church. Assimilation and discipleship doesn’t happen on its own volition. Churches that grow have developed and successfully implemented a system for escorting first time guests from pew to small group to friendship to ministry involvement. And they have a system for escorting first time guests from seeker to believer to disciple. Churches that don’t do this well are churches that may receive members, but their attendance figures are flat-lined.
And the number one reason churches don’t grow?
Number 1: Worship Services that aren’t Worth Shouting About. Your church can be “sinless” in each of the previous categories and still discover it can’t grow. If that’s the case, and conflict is not an issue, the almost certain cause for not growing is because the worship services do not move, touch, or inspire. Churches can grow even in declining populated towns and counties. They can grow in economically impoverished communities. They can even grow in hostile environments. But if worship is uninspiring, especially to its guests, the chances of growth is almost zero. It’s not about contemporary or alternative worship styles. It’s not about technology. It’s not even about dueling piano and organ musicians. It’s about the totality of the worship service. Blended services, as a rule, disappoint almost everyone in the worship space. But even blended worship services can grow a church if they move, touch, and inspire. That means the music connects with the participant’s inner spirit. That means the presentation of the gospel in word, note, and deed is clear and concise. That means the sermon is so motivating that people don’t leave with a bunch of “gee whiz” facts, but with a heart-wrenching commitment to live their lives specifically differently in the ensuing days. That means that nothing gets in the way of the presence of the Holy Spirit – that in spite of our contrived and theologically incorrect invocations, God shows up with the power that breaks the rocks of the heart and with the gentleness of a whisper in the stillness.
Here’s the deal. If your worship services aren’t moving your members enough to invite their friends and relatives, let alone their acquaintances, neighbors, co-workers, and everyone else, then your worship services are clearly not worth shouting about. In that case, it’s time to do a complete worship makeover. That doesn’t mean you’re going to wheel in a drum kit or a big screen TV. But it does mean you’re going to get some professional help – because you probably need it – to take your worship to a new level.
And here’s my prognostication for your church in 2009: Nail down these five areas of church growth and you’ll not only grow, you’ll explode. In a good way.
*Sarin and VX are known as two of the most toxic nerve gasses.