Please Stop Writing “Here’s Why Your Church Isn’t Growing” Lists – They Don’t Help

petty

I love my church. I want it to be strong, healthy and growing.

That’s why I read church ministry blogs and books, go to conferences and seminars, listen to podcasts… whatever I can get my hands on. I’m always looking for the best advice I can get from the best people I can find.

Last week I read another one of those “Here’s Why Your Church Isn’t Growing” lists. The author was a well-known church leadership writer. I’ve read several of his books and have been helped by them.

There was nothing especially new in this particular post, so I moved on. Or so I thought.

But his post has been sitting with me for a week. Sitting badly.

So I reviewed it again today. The author wrote that a church won’t grow if:

  • There’s no priority to reach the unchurched
  • The church has a self-serving attitude
  • We’re worried that new people will destroy the fellowship
  • There’s no vision for outreach
  • There’s an attitude of “We like our church just the way it is…which is without you!”
  • …and more

He’s right! A church with those attitudes will not grow because it doesn’t want to grow. And it shouldn’t grow. Because it’s not healthy.

So why did his post bug me so much? Here’s why:

The assumption of pettiness.

So many lists like this carry an undertone that, if a church isn’t growing numerically, the leaders, the people, or both of them must have self-serving, petty attitudes.

This is a problem.


(I’m not linking to the post, because I don’t want to make this personal. And because I’m using it as a stand-in for so many posts that do the same thing. But yes, it does exist.)


 

Let’s Do What Works

Church leaders need to stop writing lists like this. Please. Here’s why.

I’m your target audience. I’m the pastor of a good church that has never experienced consistent numerical growth. Plus, because of blogging at NewSmallChurch.com and my book, The Grasshopper Myth, I’m always talking with other pastors who fall within your target audience.

Like me, they want their churches to grow. And they’re looking for help.

I know you want to help churches and pastors. That’s why you write your blogs and books. And we want your help. That’s why we read what you write.

But when an already-discouraged pastor reads a list telling them their church isn’t growing because they’re visionless, self-serving and petty, it doesn’t lift them up, it beats them down.

Please stop beating us down for what you think we’re not doing. Guilt doesn’t motivate, it discourages.

Besides, those petty attitudes aren’t true for us. Pastors who don’t care, don’t read church leadership blogs! 

You know who is reading your blog? Good pastors. Hard-working pastors. Caring pastors. Discouraged pastors.

Don’t slap our hands, put tools in them. Tools that will work for us now, while we’re small. Tools that promote health and growth. Tools that encourage and inspire us.

Slapping the hands of your readers for not caring is like yelling at the people who did show up to church because you’re mad at the people who didn’t show up.

We need a moratorium on “Why Your Church Isn’t Growing” lists for one simple reason: they don’t work!

If all healthy things grow, stick to writing about principles that bring health to the church. That’s something we can use.

 

One of the Biggest Obstacles to Church Growth

I’m aware that the best path to church growth is to remove obstacles to church growth. That’s why you write articles to help us identify and remove those obstacles. But do you know what one of the main obstacles to church growth and health is? Discouraged and demoralized pastors who keep feeling beaten up for things they may not be doing wrong!

Yes, you get comments thanking you for your insights in these posts. But have you noticed you’re also getting more push-back, lately? It’s not because we don’t want to hear bad news. It’s because we’re tired of feeling guilty for attitudes we don’t hold.

And the push-back you get is only from those who still care enough to read the posts and speak up about it. Who knows how many discouraged pastors skip right past such blog posts when they see yet another title about what they must be doing wrong?

Every year thousands of pastors get so discouraged they stop looking for help. For many of them, the discouragement gets so deep they give up and leave the ministry for good. After all, you’re not the only ones telling us how bad a job we’re doing. We hear it from our church members, our denominational officials and mostly, from ourselves.

We know we’re making mistakes. Anyone who thinks they’re not, is fooling themselves. And we want to correct our mistakes. But a selfish, petty, uncaring attitude isn’t one of those mistakes.

So the next time you’re tempted to write another Here’s Why Your Church Isn’t Growing” list, please consider the faithful, hardworking pastors who aren’t inspired to do better by such lists, but walk away feeling defeated and discouraged by them.

Then give us something positive, encouraging and uplifting. No one can ever get too much of that.

 

To My Fellow Small Church Pastors

Finally, to my friends, compatriots and fellow-laborers. My fellow Small Church pastors.

Your church is small. It may not be growing. It may not have grown for a long time. But if you care enough about your church to be reading this blog post, you’re not a petty person. So don’t listen to anyone who’s trying to tell you that.

And you’re not alone. There are hundreds of thousands of churches like yours and mine. In small towns, big cities, slums, community centers, school auditoriums, coffee houses, wayside chapels, living rooms and more who are contributing greatly to the growth of the kingdom of God.

Lift your head high. Stand tall. Keep learning. Keep loving your people, reaching the community and worshiping Jesus.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed and discouraged, take a break. Spend less time reading blogs and books, and more time in the Word, in prayer, in fellowship and in Sabbath rest. Those are the things that will always nourish you and never discourage you.

You and your ministry matter. Never let anyone make you feel otherwise. Including yourself.

 

So what do you think? Are you ready for your Small Church to be bold, brave, faithful and strong despite the assumptions of others?

We want to hear from you. Yes, you!
Enter your comment right below this post and get in on the conversation.

(Petty photo from takomabibelot • Flickr • Creative Commons)

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46 thoughts on “Please Stop Writing “Here’s Why Your Church Isn’t Growing” Lists – They Don’t Help”

  1. Bingo.
    And…
    It defines growth in numbers only, not in terms of faithfulness or loving service.
    It ignores the sovereignty, plan and timing of God.
    It ignores that small churches have a purpose and plan in the kingdom that is distinctive and important

  2. Karl,

    Thanks Pal! Very good words for us small church pastors – both men and women. I kept waiting to read the other side of those words from you – but you didn’t go there – you’re nice. Here’s where I thought you might go…

    Those same problems and attitudes can be in any size church! And they are in all sized churches. Let’s be honest – size has nothing to do with it. Any church can have attitudes and practices that can “keep it from growing”.

    I try very hard to not be critical of others, but to think positively and well of other pastors and churches. I have not written blog posts at 200churches.com that ponder why a church of 5,000, 10,000, or 20,000 is stuck at those ceilings.

    There are at least several churches that I can think of at each of those levels that have been right where they’re at now, give or take a thousand or two, for at least ten years. Yeah, I remember the last time I got stuck as a pastor and couldn’t break through that 20,000 barrier! Seriously, I cannot remember a time when I’ve written about the problems with the churches who have plateaued for several years at those junctures, as megachurches.

    I tend to think that the Holy Spirit is working in both pastors and churches. Karl, you referred to church health, and you are right on, we need to focus on LOVE in our churches, and then pursue relationships, service, and worship – that are all fueled by LOVE. LOVE is the power that defeats Satan. And I believe that LOVE, more than any other factor, will produce growth of any and every kind in our churches. After all, without love, it’s all just a candy bar and a bag of chips, right?!

    I think if we spent less time writing those lists you referred to, and more time encouraging one another toward love and good works – we would go, as one pastor says, “further faster”!

    Thanks for your LOVE and HEART for small church pastors Karl!

  3. One of my pet peeves are the leadership writers who base their principles on very limited experience and personal biases.

    I read one recently about how your church’s leaders must agree with the church’s mission wholeheartedly, otherwise they need to serve elsewhere lest they create mission drift. I used to belong to a church where the pastor wholly believed that… and regularly purged the staff and the elder board, and replaced them with yes-men. That church didn’t grow till the pastor left. (And grew for unrelated reasons, by the way; there are plenty of churches which grow despite serious pastoral dysfunction.)

    Too many of these little lists are anecdotal at best, and at worst they’re based on the godless behaviors of corporate social Darwinism. Disguised in Christianese, of course.

    Now some of these leadership gurus, as big-church pastors, are in a perfect position to find out what really works and doesn’t: They can plant a lot of churches, foster a lot of small churches, and learn firsthand whether their theories have anything to ’em. They can point to more examples than the events at the solitary megachurch they serve. And maybe in the process they’ll learn a small church isn’t a bad church. It’s just a small church.

    1. I hear you, K.W. Some of the most confused and discouraged pastors I talk with are those who were on staff at a big church where they saw the church and their area of ministry grow. They leave, thinking they can duplicate that success elsewhere. 95% of them don’t have anywhere near the success of their former church, despite doing everything “right”. Reality has a way of waking you up.

  4. Karl,
    Just finished reading Grasshopper Myth, it’s like a gift from God. I have been thinking many of the same thoughts over the past 6 months to a year. After 25 years of serving small churches, loving God’s people, working really hard, seeing numerical growth sometimes, feeling like I’m never quite succeeding or having success that is short lived I feel like I’m free to be content as me…a small church pastor.
    Thank You!!!
    Chris
    Western Connecticut

  5. Hurray! The entire idea of a “Small Church” is something I’ve been questioning for quite some time. I’m so encouraged to find this site and in particular this blog. I would just add if God truly wants a church to be “bigger” I’m pretty sure he can put together the ingredients to make it happen. Why do we try to be the chef…what we generally do is just stir the pot and make a mess of things!

  6. Thanks for your words Karl, they were much needed to be heard by this small church pastor. As a pastor of a church of “small church” it is tough at times to read the blogs of the church growth gurus. I read of the great success that they have had and all I can think is “Man, I suck at this pastor thing. My church is not growing and has started to plateau. Some of the points are valid but ultimately it seems that the main reason that my church is not growing is that I am not a good leader.”

    In times of clarity I must remind myself that just because one or two gurus experience seemingly great numerical growth, and my church is not, does not mean that my church is not experiencing growth in their relationship with Christ or with others. Ultimately, I realize that I must read all church growth gurus with a grain of salt and not that what they say as gospel truth.

    1. I’ve been there, too. I’ve been tempted to write a post entitled “My Church Sucks”! to outline some of the same feelings you’ve just mentioned. In the meantime, you stated it really well. Thanks.

  7. Side note: Can we just stop with “healthy things grow”? It’s not a concept derived from Scripture, and it’s not even consistently true in the world of biology. (Reptiles and fish may continue to grow as long as they are healthy, but adult mammals and birds don’t. Cancers grow, but they’re not healthy.)

  8. I really wish churches would stop focusing on numbers and growth and just worry about being more like Jesus. One of the best churches I went to was a small one where the pastor didn’t worry about numbers or entertaining the audience, but focused on becoming more Christ-like himself and leading his flock by following the lead of the spirit. “Ministry flows out of being.” Once you’ve experienced that genuineness, it is hard to watch churches try to entertain and focus on numbers.

    Small church pastors be encouraged. Your job shouldn’t be worrying about growth. That’s the Lord’s job. Just keep focusing on Christ and his lead. Even though they may not be counted in your attendance numbers, there can still be an eternal impact in the lives of those who come into contact with your members because of your influence and ministry. Your church might not grow in numbers, but it will grow in depth and be richer for it.

  9. Yes. Yes. And yes, again. I’ve been personally chastised and called condecending for trying to verbally talk myself (and others like me) out of discouagement from reading and/or listening to similar blogs or articles. Seems like anything related to church health has to do with what we’re doing wrong and that’s why we’re small or unhealthy. I’ve even been accused of dissing the large church only because I was making the point that we don’t have to do the things large churches do to be healthy. It’s like because I wasn’t taking a ride on the church growth bandwagon I must be angry at big churches. Karl, you just put my thoughts exactly…but so much better. I’m not angry. I’m trying real hard not to be envious (I have my good days and bad). I don’t want my church not to grow. I’m in a survivsl church trying to do the best we can with what we have.

  10. A very good article! Several small churches that I’m working with right now, have amazing, vital ministries. Their effectiveness is not apparent to those who read statistics, and make assumptions with out knowing the details. For instance, a church I was in just this week has recently lost 9 of it’s regulars, bringing its attendance below 30. Still, it has a booming ministry with Bible Clubs in their school system. On Wednesday nights they have a completely different group of children, who number well above their church attendance. They are also deeply connected with a Teens For Christ group that impacts young people over an area of several counties. Besides that, they’re helping a different denomination re-launch and revitalize another small church. On paper, they’re shrinking into oblivion, led by a bi-vocational lay-minister. In reality, they’re doing an incredible ministry for The Kingdom!

    1. Thanks for sharing that church’s story, Fred. There are a lot of great churches that face similar challenges, do great work, but have little to show for it numerically. They need our support, not our second-guessing or criticism.

  11. In our small church, I encourage my fellow church leaders to focus on growing deeper in our relationships with God and each other, rather than being concerned so much with numbers. When we are focusing on God’s call to us and doing our best to live into that call, when we’re being sustained and led by the Holy Spirit, and loving others as Jesus would have us do, we will be very attractive to others and we will ultimately become the exact right size.

  12. Pingback: Just Stop. It’s Not Helping. | Mountain View Christian Church of Hamilton, Ontario

  13. One of the best words of encouragement came to me early in my ministry, before I was experienced enough to fully understand what this older pastor meant when he shared it with me, but today I return to it often. He told me, “Don’t seek to be ‘successful,’ seek to be ‘faithful.’ Because we are the ones who end up defining ‘success.’ Instead, seek to be faithful with each day, each situation, each person the Lord brings across your path and in doing that you will have real success.”

  14. You must have read my mind. 19 years serving a congregation. There are way too many factors that come to play that may keep a church small and yet the church may be very healthy. I had a friend pastor a Baptist church on Long Island. It was a congregation of 45. The local Catholic bishop put the word out to the parish not to have anything to do with that cult. It was mostly a Catholic community and outreach was near impossible. I know. I went on a mission trip there.

    My present work is in a Catholic county with a strong secular foundation. Only a handful of evangelical churches. Nearly all the church growth is mostly redistribution. So soul-winning is hard work based upon building friendships, investing sometimes years with families, and still we manage baptisms every year – not just children of members but real mix of ages.

    I read the lists of the “experts” and sometimes I cry and sometimes I laugh.

    I was at a church conference where we had our Lifeway reps there bragging about the latest outreach tool. So I asked the questions: How big was the church when it started? Where was it located? What type of community was it in?

    Answers? Average church was 400. It was in the south in a big city or populated area. Community did vary but I noticed results were homogenous (we reach people like us). So I told the Lifeway rep if I had a church of 400 I would have a big enough pool of folks to draw upon to put all our efforts in evangelism. So my next question was: Do you have any program or product developed by a bivocational pastor or small church pastor of less that 75 that grew to 200. No! Surprised? I was not. I took the Lifeway rep to task and asked him to go back to Lifeway and get stuff that will help the majority of SBC churches which are about 80 in worship.

  15. I am going to be a contrarian. I have pastored a number of small churches. Most remained small. One got a vision for the lost and grew. Let’s not make smallness the new value. If a church is small because there is no vision to reach the lost than that is NOT being like Jesus. If the church is small yet still has a vital outreach to the lost then that is a different story. In my case as a church planter we are going to choose to be a network of small multiplying churches because it is easier to reproduce. Every pastor has to ask, “are the lost a priority in this church not only in words but in deeds?” If not in deeds the congregation needs to repent. If it is then the congregation needs to continue doing what it can to reach the lost and not worry about size. But small just to be small while remaining indifferent to the lost is just sin.

  16. Thanks for your post. Personally I can be pretty hard on myself and as most men I want to be “successful” but how do you define success in ministry? I constantly beat myself up over numbers and some people in my church have learned to use the same criteria (or bat) to beat me with. Forget the fact that the church is over 125 years old and has not seen any significant growth for decades (long before I arrived).

    In my first solo pastorate I got so discouraged I left the church too early. As I look back it was a huge mistake. I was reading books by pastors I admired, but in reality their churches had more people in them than the entire population of the town I ministered in – what did I expect? Shortly after I left “for bigger and better things” the church fell apart. Some of these people did not land in another church, some of the families exploded in years to come, and the church lost its place in the community. That’s on me and the nimrod who took my place.

    Often times the growth and health in a church cannot be measured. It is hidden in healthy marriages, children growing up to know Jesus, and the word of God preached in word and deed in a community. Sometimes we need to realize pastoring is truly a “wonderful life” type of experience where we don’t see the impact and growth that would not exist without faithful ministers of the Gospel. To my fellow small church pastors – keep the faith.

  17. Anyone who doesn’t want to grow the Church is missing the whole point of the church. We want people to come to our church because we like it there, because we know the message is scriptural, but not every church is for everyone. We want to grow Jesus’ church and help reach the unreached. Helping get people saved isn’t petty. Don’t we want everyone in the world to know Jesus? Growing your church might take time, or might mean God wants us to minister to those we are already reaching on a deeper level. Be open, reach out, obey God – then you’re doing what He calls us to do.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Jennifer. But I ask you to read the post through again. It’s not saying that wanting to grow the church is petty, but the opposite. It challenges the assumption that churches which are having a hard time growing are because the leaders are petty, even if they’re not.

      And the post certainly isn’t anti church growth. It starts with “I love my church. I want it to be strong, healthy and growing.” Then it refers to other Small Church pastors by saying, “Like me, they want their churches to grow. And they’re looking for help.” and many other pro church growth things.

      I’m very much in favor of church growth and I want the best tools to help that happen. I’m just pointing out that most of the “here’s what you’re doing wrong” lists don’t help churches grow. They just pile on the guilt – and guilt doesn’t motivate pastors who want their churches to grow, it discourages them.

      1. Sorry, I didn’t reference my reaction clearly now, sorry. I was multi-tasking (mothering a 4 year old and playdate) poorly. I was writing in reference to the people who write these articles implying that pastor’s who want their churches to grow are somehow doing something wrong. I was agreeing with you, although now that I re-read what I wrote, it wasn’t clear at all. I think people forget that the building is the church, but the body of believers is the CHURCH and we should build up other fellowship groups in a positive way, allowing for preferences that do not impact the message. It pains me that believers would write articles that are not full of grace and love, for the building up of each other.

  18. Good article. A sad “Amen” to the seldom mentioned reason why churches don’t grow: People in America genreally
    hate Christ and are at emnity with God. Unless there is a massive revival from God, our nation will limp along
    at 20% or less following Jesus in any significant manner. Help us Lord.

  19. I just want to thank you for the final part of your letter…I am uplifted and reassured that the work I am doing matters to these people and to God.

  20. I very much disagree here. I am a pastor of a very small church and I SEARCH far and wide for posts that outline causes for church stagnation and lack of growth. In fact, I not only search for them, I search every few months just to see if new ones are out there. I WANT TO KNOW what I might be missing. I want to know what I’m screwing up. Please tell me!!! I’m not scared… I’m not offended. Lay it out dude. Tell me what I suck at. And tell me straight. Why would you NOT want to know what you suck at so that you can stop it? Why? That seems counter logical?

    If the church I lead is to grow, I need to know not only what the right actions and tools are, but what I’m doing wrong and how to stop it. Hope this makes sense.

    1. Hi Chris. Thanks for the comment, but it’s a little confusing to me, because everything you want (growth, how to overcome stagnation, etc) is what I want and I stated so in the post. – including knowing what I suck at. This post isn’t a push-back against helpful posts that tell me how to improve, but against posts that beat us down with guilt for attitudes that people who seek help usually don’t have. “It’s not because we don’t want to hear bad news. It’s because we’re tired of feeling guilty for attitudes we don’t hold.”

      As I wrote in the post, “When an already-discouraged pastor reads a list telling them their church isn’t growing because they’re visionless, self-serving and petty, it doesn’t lift them up, it beats them down. Please stop beating us down for what you think we’re not doing. Guilt doesn’t motivate, it discourages.

      Don’t slap our hands, put tools in them. Tools that will work for us now, while we’re small. Tools that promote health and growth. Tools that encourage and inspire us.”

  21. Thank you, Thank you, Thank you! To be honest I found this article looking for help as a very small church pastor, I was actually thinking that I would read the normal stuff and end up feeling worst. I’m actually one of those pastor who has wrongly judged myself my the number of people that should, join, support or participate in ministry. Thank you for telling me that the work that we are doing in the Kingdom of God matters and that we are important. Thank you for NOT making me feel useless and for encouraging me to stay focus and continue in the work. Yes, I would like to experience great numerical growth but it feels good to be encouraged.

  22. Thankful, encouraged, supported, less upset…. are just some of the effects this article had on me. I have pastored a small church for over 18 years, it is a labor of love. The message of “discernment by size” and the “idol of success” is pervasive, and discouraging. I fell less alone today! Thank you!

  23. Hi Karl,

    This is gonna sound a little baited, probably really baited, but I don’t expect a thoughtful response to what I am going to ask, but before I do here is a little story. About a year ago I finally left the church. Here’s the catch though, I didn’t leave God, my faith, or community. I did leave a very broken institution. An institution that pastors think is necessary, and they build it and nurture it like a business. Growth is good for business, not church, but maybe they’re synonymous now. Sorry to say but all church structure’s are self-serving, but they have to be, because they have overhead, and rent payments, and staff paychecks to write. Getting bigger means more staff, a bigger building, and an even larger mortgage if the growth demands. You can’t win, pastors can’t be pastors because they’re too busy being CEO’s of “their” church. I’m not trying to be insensitive or abrasive, but the American church can’t do what it wants according to scripture because it believes it needs the institution to be effective. That is why I left, I no longer want to be associated with an institution that is more concerned with justifying its existence than living out its creed. I’m not angry at you or any pastor, but I thought I’d offer a different perspective.

    1. Thanks for the input, Ryan. I share many of your concerns. But I hope you don’t think that the kind of church you’re describing is your only option. I actually wrote about a completely different alternative recently, so I’ll attach that post at the end of my comment.

      Church doesn’t have to be institutional to be the church. But Christians need to gather together to be the church. I encourage you not to neglect that. You need the church and the church needs you. Even if it doesn’t look like the kind of church you’re used to.
      http://www.christianitytoday.com/karl-vaters/2016/january/how-to-have-church-where-money-is-never-problem.html

      1. Karl,

        Thank you for responding. I am actually attending a “simple church” in Denver which has become a positive change to the abuse I experienced in institutional churches. I am glad that you list Frank Viola’s Re-imagining Church as a reference, read it and loved it. I found Pagan Christianity to be much more eye-opening. I read it shortly after finishing Church Refugees which is another phenomenal book highlighting the social changes that the institutional church is facing. House Church may be not everyone’s choice, but the research is pointing to a dramatic changing within the walls of the church and could become a more viable option in the future. House Church used to be the only thing the church knew, I find it hard to believe that the institution was an upgrade or even equal to the organic growth of the early church.

  24. Accidentally hit the “send” button on my phone too soon, but I also wanted to add another example in the Bible in Exodus 18. Moses’ father in law Jethro gave Moses godly counsel to put rulers over thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens (Exodus 18:21). Some pastors (like myself) may currently be set over the fifties group. That’s where God has had us for awhile now. I believe there will come promotion, but we have to learn, develop, and be faithful with the few (Matthew 25:21, 23). Just because a pastor is over a “tens” group doesn’t mean he’s wrong or out of the will of God. I encourage all pastors to keep seeking God, loving the people, and reaching out to bless and minister to your community regardless of the size of your church. Our own pastor recently told us that success isn’t measured in numbers, but in doing the will of God. We must resist the feelings of discouragement that we all get from time to time. Thanks again Pastor Karl for your timely words of wisdom and encouragement!

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