Guest post written by: Jason Isaacs
4 Reasons Churches Don’t Sustain Their Growth (Why Attendance Goes Up But Always Comes Down)Year after year churches are stuck in the “loop of doom” with attendance increasing only to return to their historical average time after time. There has to be a way to stop repeating the cycle.
Let’s be clear at the beginning, you can’t grow your church. Well, I guess technically you could scheme your way to increased attendance numbers, but what I mean when I say, “grow your church” is much more than raising your headcount. When I say, “grow your church,” I mean growing people, growing leaders, growing groups, growing engagement, and yes in the process increasing attendance.
The challenge for any pastor or leader in their attempt to grow, is that with new growth comes new challenges. We believe the myth that a bigger church would be an easier church to pastor, but that’s not true. Every level of growth requires a new level of organization, leadership, structure, and systems. A big church is not just a larger version of a small church; it is an entirely different thing all together. What got you to where you are will not get you to where you want to go, and what gets you where you want to go will not get you to the next place you need to go. Each new level of growth requires new levels of leadership.
Go back and read that last paragraph again.
PASTOR: A big church is not just a larger version of a small church, they are entirely different. What got you to where you are will not get you to where you want to go. New levels requires new leadership.
This new leadership, required at new levels I outlined before, is why most churches don’t sustain the spurts of growth they experience. I know based on your Facebook timeline and Instagram feed it feels like every church is exploding with growth, but it’s not. The stats tell us 65% of churches have plateaued or are in decline.
Typically what happens, and I speak from multiple experiences, is churches experience a growth spurt, but within a few weeks, months, or years, eventually the church returns to the place it has historically averaged; that is, if it doesn’t decline even lower than before. Why? Why does this cycle of grow-recede-grow-recede, happen time and time again? The answer is simple, but it isn’t easy. Why do churches not sustain their growth and cycle up and down in attendance year after year?????? Because growth requires change.
Remember that thought, because we’re going to come back to it in a moment. First, I want to show you something that changed my life and leadership.
7 years ago, Matt Keller introduced me to the idea of the S-Curve. You’ve probably seen it before in business or back in high school, but an S-curve shows the growth of a variable in terms of another variable, often expressed as units of time. In pastor terms, an S-Curve shows your churches attendance over time. I’ve provided an example for you to see…
The reason the s-curve is essential for a pastor and the life of a church is that we tend to believe that church growth looks like this….
but it doesn’t. That’s how it looks for .0001 of pastors and churches, but if you’re blessed enough to lead a growing church, church growth looks like an S-Curve: you grow, then you decline a little, then you regroup, and you grow some more, then you decline a little, then you regroup, and you grow some more. If everything works like it’s supposed to, your growth exceeds your decline, and over time your church is larger because the seasons of growth exceed the seasons of decline. Make sense?
I don’t want to belabor this point, but I think it’s critical you grasp this. The S-curve means that, if you have a church of 50 people, in order to be a church of 100 people you don’t need 50 more people, you probably need 100+ more people so 50 will connect with your church. If you pastor 200 people and want to break the 300 barrier, you don’t need 100 more people, you probably need 150-200 more people because not everyone will stick, and you will lose people who don’t want to be a part of a growing church (crazy that these people exist, I know, but it’s real.)
We know this intuitively, but when we get inspired or filled with faith about church growth, we get discouraged when growth doesn’t look or feel like chart 2. If it makes you feel any better, check out this revenue vs. profit chart from Amazon since 1998.
Amazon revenue vs. profit
So when it’s done right, your growth outpaces your decline, and over time your church is larger because, not only have you raised the ceiling, but you’ve raised the floor. Sadly, for many churches though, instead of an S-Curve progressing up and to the right over time, you endlessly cycle back and forth between being “up a little” and then “back down” and then “up a little” and then “back down.” Let’s call this process the “loop of doom.” It’s when your church keeps repeating the same cycle of growth and decline season after season.
This was our church’s story for years. I’m willing to bet it’s yours too. We would grow from 225 up to 275-280 only to slide back down to 225 over and over again. Why? Why could we not grow beyond our loop of doom? Because growth requires change, which brings me back to my original point.
Everything I’m describing to you is a very real struggle for pastors and churches all over America, and to break the cycle, it will require you to do something different than you’ve always done. To put it plainly, a pastor of a church of 150 is not the same “kind” of pastor as a church of 50. A pastor of a church of 300 is not the same “kind” of pastor as a church of 1000. Not better or worse, just different.
The Bible provides a beautiful example of this in Acts. The church was growing, and new believers were being added daily, but all of the growth could have been halted if the disciples hadn’t made a critical leadership decision. Let me show you.
All the believers were united in heart and mind. And they felt that what they owned was not their own, so they shared everything they had.
Acts 4 describes the picture perfect image of a thriving church. There was unity, power, and generosity. Every pastor dreams of pastoring a church like this. But look at the beginning of chapter 6.
But as the believers rapidly multiplied, there were rumblings of discontent.
This is what always happens, just so you know; more people means more problems. Every blessing has a burden.
So put yourself in the disciples’ shoes. Things are growing, giving is up, attendance is up, momentum is on their side when all of a sudden there are rumblings of discontent. Their problem was that widows weren’t getting fed, but that’s not your problem. Your discontent sounds more like:
- “I just feel like since the church has grown, I don’t really know everybody like I used to. It used to feel more like a family.”
- “Ever since the church started growing I can’t get a hold of the pastor like I used to. I feel like all he cares about is growing.”
- “My family has been a part of this church for a long time, and now all these new people are changing things.
- “Why are we starting another service? We still have seats open in this service.”
- “Why are you asking the volunteers to get here early? Don’t you know how hard it is to get my family ready? We’ve never had to get here early in the past.”
I could keep going, because “rumblings of discontent” are like a second language in the church, but just know that everyone won’t be as excited about growth as you are. For them, growth means inconvenience. Whether they will admit it or not, they want things to stay the same, and the first chance they have to go back to “the way it was” they will take it. What’s keeping your church from growing is not a lack of opportunity, it’s a lack of change.
PASTOR: What’s keeping your church from growing is not a lack of opportunity, it’s a lack of change.
If you put the two verses together, you can see the loop of doom in real time…
Acts 4:32 & Acts 6:1
All the believers were united in heart and mind… but as the believers rapidly multiplied, there were rumblings of discontent.
For so many churches, this pattern, repeats itself over and over again, season after season. Acts chapter 4 was so great, and Acts 6 feels so uncertain, so what did the disciples do?
So the Twelve called a meeting of all the believers. They said, “We apostles should spend our time teaching the word of God, not running a food program. And so, brothers, select seven men who are well respected and are full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will give them this responsibility. Then we apostles can spend our time in prayer and teaching the word.”
New levels of growth require new levels of leadership, and that’s what the disciples did. That’s usually not what we do though, is it? Our churches get caught in the loop of doom because when we face “rumblings of discontent,” we fight for unity instead of change.
- We keep the underperforming staff member on the team because they have relatives in the church
- We refuse to cancel a service only a handful of people attend
- We over-commit ourself, to prevent being perceived as “not caring.”
- We prioritize long-time members over new believers
Overcoming the discontentment of growth requires courageous leadership to push beyond the discomfort of change. If we’re not willing to change our leadership, we will continue to go backward in order to recapture peace instead of making progress.
PASTOR: If you’re not willing to change your leadership, you will continue to go backward in order to recapture peace instead of making progress.
So based on Acts 6:1-7, let me give you 4 potential reasons why your church can’t break out of the loop of doom and attendance keeps cycling up and down over and over again.
A Lack of Clarity In Your Calling
“We apostles should spend our time teaching the word of God, not running a food program.”
Contrary to popular belief, great pastors are not great at everything. Great pastors know what they’re great at, and double down on their strengths. I’m not suggesting that you only get to do the things you want to do, but until you are clear on what God has called you to do, you will spend all of your time doing what everyone else wants you to do. Food programs are a good thing, but not if you’re called to do something else.
PASTOR: until you are clear on what God has called you to do, you will spend all of your time doing what everyone else wants you to do.
An Unwillingness To Delegate Responsibility
“We will give them this responsibility.”
So what do you do after you clarify your calling? You delegate everything else. The disciples didn’t end the program, they delegated responsibility. Sit down and make a list of everything that gets done without you being involved. The larger that list grows, the larger your church will grow. My brother Jeremy wrote this great post about building leaders and delegating responsibility. You can read it here.
PASTOR: Sit down and make a list of everything that gets done without you being involved. The larger that list grows, the larger your church will grow.
A Lack of Scalable Pastoral Care
“The Greek-speaking believers complained about the Hebrew-speaking believers, saying that their widows were being discriminated against in the daily distribution of food.”
My friend Kyle Jackson wrote this post about scalable pastoral care, so I won’t belabor the point, but just know that your church will not grow beyond the level the people stop feeling cared for. Most of the discontent that occurs during growth seasons is perception not reality. You’re probably still doing a great job caring for people, but as a church grows, you have to overcome the perception that you’re not available to or aware of the needs of the congregation. Which leads me to the last point.
A Need to Be Needed
“Then we apostles can spend our time in prayer and teaching the word.”
A pastor who needs to be needed, will never sustain a growing church over a long period of time; you will either burn out or get bitter. Contrary to popular opinion, it takes an unselfish pastor to grow a large church, because in order to grow they have to be willing to let go of things a “small” church pastor refuses to release. The praise or attention of your congregation can be intoxicating, but if you have to always make the visit, preach the sermon, take the meeting, you are the lid to your church. Of course, there are strategic times when the best player takes the big shot. I’m not saying don’t preach on Easter.
I heard Brian Houston say one time, “the most important thing a leader has to learn is when to be in the room and when to not be in the room.” His point was that insecure leaders always feel the need to be in the room, and oblivious leaders miss big moments when their presence is needed. A great leader knows when their absence is more valuable than their presence.
PASTOR: A great leader knows when their absence is more valuable than their presence.
So what happened? Did the courageous leadership of the disciples pay off?
So God’s message continued to spread. The number of believers greatly increased in Jerusalem, and many of the Jewish priests were converted, too.
Growth requires change, and change can be scary, but if you will make the hard decisions and push through the “rumblings of discontent” you will continue to grow your church and grow your people. Be courageous.