My Church Isn’t Growing – Don’t Assume You Know Why

Angry Man With Sign 200C

New Small Church is not about putting others down for having opinions that are different than mine. And I’m not a fan of stirring up controversy for the sake of controversy.

But I’m going to walk close to that line in this post. Stick with me, though. By the end, I hope you’ll agree that I stay on the right side of it.

Here’s the issue.

My church and I have just been insulted by a well-known minister in a blog post that’s being read and believed by thousands of people. And he insulted many of you and your churches, too.

No, we weren’t mentioned by name. So let me back up for a moment and explain what’s going on.


This was the 7th most-read NewSmallChurch.com post of 2013. Click here for the entire Top 10 list.


In 2010, a well-known minister wrote a post about why some churches don’t grow. Lately, it’s been reposted on other websites and passed around a lot.

(UPDATE: In an earlier version of this post, I mentioned the name of the minister in question. I have come to believe that was a poor decision on my part, since it made the post feel more adversarial than I intended. The insult from him was unintentional, after all. If you click on the title below or read through the comments, you’ll see his name. But, by removing his name from this post, I hope to make it more about the content of his post and feel less like an attack on him.)

 

Here’s the outline:

8 Reasons Some Churches Don’t Grow

1. The Vision is not Clear
2. The Focus is On Trying to Please Everyone
3. Passionless Leadership
4. Manufacturing Energy
5. Lack of Prayer
6. Unwillingness to Take Risks
7. Disobedience to the Scriptures
8. Selfish Attitudes

According to the author, since my church isn’t growing, that list describes me and my congregation!

He also assumes that it describes thousands of other Small Churches and their pastors. Churches he’s never visited. Pastors he’s never met.

Does he really think our lack of numerical growth is proof that we are prayerless, passionless, unfocused, disobedient and selfish?

I hope not. Because if he does, he’s wrong. Hurtfully wrong.

I can state unequivocally, that his list does not describe me. And, with even greater certainty, it does not describe the people in my church. And it’s just as wrong about hundreds of thousands of other passionate, prayerful, risk-taking, godly, sacrificially hard-working pastors and churches whose numbers don’t change much from year to year.

 

Not Trying to Stir the Pot

I’ve never met the pastor who wrote this post, and I don’t think he’s a bad guy. If I thought he was, I’d ignore this list. Haters don’t merit my attention.

It’s because he’s a good guy, a faithful minister and an influential Christian leader, that this list needs to be questioned.

And no, I haven’t tried to approach him according to the guidelines of Matthew 18. They don’t apply here for many reasons, including that there’s no sin involved. But mostly because this isn’t about him. Or me. It’s about this publicly published and popular list and the attitudes behind it. Public list. Public response. That’s all.

 

So Why Isn’t My Church Growing?

In the 20-plus years I’ve been pastoring my current church, the attendance has averaged from 35 to almost 400. But it hasn’t been an upward trajectory. It started at 35, but it currently sits at about 200, and has been there for several years.

If you think you know why my church used to average almost 400, but now runs 200 – you don’t. And if you think I’m upset at those numbers … wrong again.

My church is healthier at 200 than it was at 400. And it has greater community and worldwide impact now, too.

How can that be? Don’t all healthy things grow? Yes they do, but not necessarily numerically.

As I wrote in The Grasshopper Myth

Yes, all healthy things grow. But growth is never as simple as older equals taller or healthy equals bigger.

A pea will never be the size of a pumpkin and a rose won’t ever reach the height of a redwood no matter how much you water them, fertilize them or teach them redwood growth principles. It’s just not in their nature.

All healthy, living things reach their optimal size at maturity, then they grow in different ways from that point on.

What if that principle applied to churches? I have come to believe it does. If the church is one body with many parts, isn’t it possible, even likely, that the body of Christ needs churches of all sizes?

There are plenty of reasons for lack of numerical growth that have nothing to do with wrong attitudes, sin or disobedience.

Ninety percent of churches have less than 200 people. Most will have less than 200 next year. And the year after that. That’s just reality. And it’s a necessity. We need both big and Small Churches to get the job done.

 

Unintentional Insults are Still Painful

I don’t believe the author intended for his list to cause pain to good, faithful ministers and churches. But it does.

So, to this author and those who have reposted it, I have a question. Do you really believe that list – in whole or in part – applies to 90% of your colleagues in ministry? I don’t think you do. But do you realize that’s how it comes across?

I’ve read lists like this for years, usually as the skeleton of a lesson at a church growth conference. I admired and believed the people who taught them. And even though I didn’t feel like I was making any of those mistakes, the church I served stayed small, so I figured I must be messing up somewhere, right? Plus, there’s always room for improvement.

So I’d go back home and take personal inventory, trying to find where my hidden sin was. I’d double up on prayer, redefine the vision… do whatever I needed to do. But the church stayed small.

I became so obsessed with trying to correct problems and repent for sins that I’d been told applied to me, I nearly ruined my ministry and my church. The unresolved guilt and the constant pressure to perform at a higher rate became overwhelming and debilitating.

Not any more.

I’ve come to realize, as the pastor of a healthy, vibrant, outward-focused Small Church, that I’m not wrong. And my church sure isn’t wrong. Lists like this are wrong.

In The Grasshopper Myth, I wrote a chapter entitled “Don’t Despise the Size” in which I chronicle other stories in which similar attitudes are expressed, and how debilitating they are to faithful, prayerful Small Churches and their leaders. I also caution Small Church proponents not to throw the bile at big churches and their pastors either.

The truth is, we’ve all seen these 8 attitudes in pastors of big, numerically growing churches, too. I’ve actually heard megachurch bashers tell me that’s why megachurches got so big! But it’s just as wrongheaded to assign those attitudes to mega-fast, mega-growth as it is to say that Small Churches stay small because of them.

Yes, those attitudes will eventually, sometimes immediately, cause a church to stop growing. But lack of growth isn’t evidence that those attitudes exist. Yet that is never explained in the article. And it needs to be.

There’s an old saying (one I’m not very fond of, actually) that asks why it is that Christians are guilty of shooting their wounded. That’s what lists like this do.

They don’t unite the body, they divide it.

 

Consider Your Audience

It’s a basic premise of good communication to consider the audience you’re speaking to. This list completely misses that principle.

Who did the author write this list for?

  • The lazy pastor isn’t reading it
  • The disobedient pastor will ignore it
  • The faithful, but struggling pastor feels hurt by it
  • The healthy Small Church pastor doesn’t need it

That list may sound great if you’re ministering in a big, growing church. But if you’re pastoring a small one, it’s just painful.

  • It doesn’t help, it hurts
  • It doesn’t motivate, it demoralizes
  • It doesn’t inspire, it demeans
  • It doesn’t unite, it divides

There’s a part of me that wonders, are lists like this just about pastors of large, growing churches assuring themselves that they’re not guilty of those attitudes because they have the numbers to back it up? I don’t think that’s the conscious intention, but that possibility needs to be considered.

 

There’s a Better Way

It’s time we stopped equating health with size in the body of Christ.

Here’s a simple idea that could have made all this unnecessary. The next time anyone gets inspired to write a list about wrong attitudes that can keep a church from being all that God wants it to be, just change two words.

Don’t name it 8 Reasons Some Churches Don’t Grow.” Name it “8 Reasons Some Churches Aren’t Healthy.”

The list won’t change, but it will be more accurate. Then good ministers of large and Small Churches all around the world can read it, be challenged by it and say “amen” to it.

 

A Word of Encouragement

To my fellow Small Church pastors, I ask you to take one last look at that list. If you’re guilty of any of the attitudes on it, start fixing them now. They will kill your church. (This applies to big church pastors, too.)

But if you’re not guilty, don’t feel guilty. Set that list aside and don’t worry about it again. You’re not a failure. Your small size and lack of numerical growth is proof of nothing. Absolutely nothing.

Small is not a sin.

Stay faithful. Keep running the race. Do what you’re called to do. Be who you’re called to be.

And leave the results in God’s hands.

 

So what do you think? Have you ever been made to feel “less than” by well-intentioned advice about your church or ministry? How did you handle it? And how did I handle it in this post? Did I go too far? Not far enough?

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

(Angry Man With Sign photo from Martha Soukup • Flickr • Creative Commons license)

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34 thoughts on “My Church Isn’t Growing – Don’t Assume You Know Why”

  1. Rodney D. Zastrow

    I think that the unintentional demeaning statements made by Some well know Pastors who are public figures. Are actually satans way of attacking from within the Body of Christ. Our words can be very harmful intentionally or not. The opposser will use what ever he can manipulate and pervert to attack Us, how many mega church and tele-evangelists have we see fall, just because you reach thousand or millions does not prove that “everything” you do is in the center of GOD’S will. How many times did JESUS tell his disciples that they were being influenced by satan? At least once that was recorded in the new testament when I believe it was Peter he told “get thee behind me satan”. Our motives may be pure in that we are not intentionally trying to harm, but should our motives be Our intentions? All things should be filtered through the Holy Spirit, when discipline is needed, it should be done in LOVE, but these unintentional hurtful statements are not discipline and not done in a LOVING manner.

  2. Maybe it’s because we are working through 1 Corinthians right now, but it seems as though the old truth rings loudly right now…
    ‘Times change but people don’t!’

    The Corinthian church (stemming from its leadership) claimed to follow different teachers, but as Paul pointed out, it was God who gave the increase.

    When we today put lists out there, or anything for that matter really, we are no different than our church ancestors. We are essentially telling God that we know what is better for the body.
    The real trouble comes when we put more into what man says than what God is leading; And put ourselves in the position of judge.

    Sure, taking advice from others about ministry is needed, but when we rely on that advice MORE than on the Word of God and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we will fall for the deception of the enemy and be discouraged, depressed, lazy, unfocused, etc.

    Jesus said we are to seek the Kingdom of God and all things will be added to it.
    Yes, He was speaking about clothing, food, shelter…
    But what will happen when we apply His teaching on this to our ministries…ministries HE has given to us?

    Karl, I believe you were spot on with this post. Things like this will continue to rear up until the Lords return. And the enemies tactics have not changed, he will continue to sow seeds of doubt wherever he can.

    As you have said many times Karl, it’s about the Kingdom increasing and what WE ALL can do for that.

  3. Hey Karl…I think I have REASON #9 to add to the list…

    REASONS CHURCHES DON’T GROW. #9. The pastor and the staff spends 95% of their time trying to get their church to grow bigger instead of shepherding the people God has already brought their way.

    whadayathink?

    1. Yep. No question that happens way too often. In The Grasshopper Myth I referred to this problem as trying to pastor the church you want to have. Here’s part of what I said.

      “There are numerous problems with pastoring the church you want to have, instead of the church you’ve got. Primarily, the church you’ve got usually gets left out of the equation and isn’t pastored properly.”

  4. I’ve been deeply concerned about Perry Noble for awhile now. This was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Take into consideration that he was the infamous pastor that chose “Highway to Hell” for his featured theme music a few Easters ago. He had an opportunity to repent of this decision and yet he defended it instead in public. He also stated in a sermon something to the effect of God being in charge but not in control. I’m not even sure what that means but it certainly doesn’t sound scriptural. If you factor in all of these things, it smells of borderline heresy, false teaching, and stinging legalism. I feel bad for Perry Noble. I don’t know the man but his actions speak very loudly to me. All I can do is pray for him. It’s scary though that thousands follow this man. I hope they have spiritual discernment.

    1. Welcome to the discussion. I want to be very careful here, though. I am definitely not accusing Perry Noble of heresy. And challenging his “8 Reasons…” was not intended to turn anyone against him or his ministry.

      I get where your concerns come from but, as you can see from Rodney’s response below, there may be reasonable ways to look at this without cries of heresy. Perry’s style may not be everyone’s style, but that doesn’t mean he needs to repent. As you said, you don’t even know what one of his statements means. Maybe on closer examination, it wouldn’t be the problem you perceive it to be.

      Even the “Highway to Hell” reference may have a good reason behind it. Was it sung by a Satan character in a skit, for instance? I did that, once. Or was he saying we need to be careful to choose a better path? Again, it may not be everyone’s style, but it might have been used in a legitimate manner.

      My concern is that we not drift from having a legitimate discussion on content, into any kind of character-bashing. If I thought Perry Noble was a heretic, I wouldn’t challenge or argue about any of his teachings, I’d ignore him.

  5. Rodney Zastrow

    In response to Sung Kim’s comment on Perry Noble. Seems to me that Mr. Noble is comparing GOD to the C.E.O. of an International Company. C.E.O. is in charge of the company and responisble for the acheivements or failures of the company, but not in control of the various factors that combine to produce the end result. C.E.O.’s attempt to read the Various factors that effect their particular Bussiness and steer the company in a profitable direction, yet they are steering blind. Our GOD is not blind and HE is in Control, HE does HIS WILL in HEAVEN and on Earth. We are blessed to be part of GOD’s Family and not part of a Celestial Company attempting to turn a profit.

  6. Another thing John the Baptist was send to preach at the desert.. A saw many big churches in the 70s been destroyed by satan ,extra marital affairs and gread

  7. Great points. It’s hurtful to be judged at a distance no matter the numbers in worship. Sometimes, by remaining faithful to our gifts and God’s calling…God blesses with lots of growth, sometimes not. Perry may be guilty of what I’ve done….experiencing that great blessing of large and rapid growth and thinking it’s “easy” to grow a church. And if it’s easy, there must be an obvious sinful reason why others are not growing. Yet, if God causes the growth, it is easy (1 Cor 3:6). When he doesn’t, trying to manufacture growth is horribly painful.

    1. Thanks, Dave. You’ve captured the emotional core of this issue quite well. I think we’ve all been guilty of judging other churches too quickly – myself included. It’s too easy to look from a distance and say “here’s why this church or that church stays small.” The answers are never as easy as they seem.

  8. I can say I’ve been too 3 different sized churches and as the numbers grow the sheep shrivel! When a pastor has 500-3000 sheep he not only does not know them he would not even recognize them in or out of church. This causes a huge disconnect! The hearder should know the needs of his/her flock or how can he/she know how to help? Yes they have assistants but you don’t raise a child via the babysitter do you? One reason a person goes to church other than God of coarse is to connect with like minded people if the members aren’t able to fulfill or demonstrate Godliness then that connection they need goes void so they look to the leader who should always be available to his people. That’s what Jesus did, of coarse his disciples did too but when they weren’t sufficient followers sought The Lord himself and was always available! Big churches loose site of that and those with a purpose greater than just attending services on Sunday will fall to the wayside become lost and bitter. How does that serve The Lord? God knew we needed him but he also knew we needed human connections as well many churches in my opinion just don’t care about the congregation but the the money! I’ve come to believe many have realized that starting a church can be the best job ($$$$) they’ll ever have.

    1. Welcome to the conversation. I appreciate what you’ve said here and in your other comments about the value you’ve received on this site.

      But I want to caution you, as well. We need to be careful that, in valuing Small Churches, we don’t devalue what big churches bring to the body of Christ. I love megachurches just as much as I love small ones. Your experience in bigger churches may not have been positive, but there are millions of people who find big churches to be where they grow the most in their faith, and where they have the greatest chance to reach out as well. And there are just as many people who have had bad experiences in Small Churches as in megachurches.

      Every type and size of church has problems. And each of them brings something of value, too.

      Finally, I have to take serious issue with your last comment that “many churches in my opinion just don’t care about the congregation but the the money! I’ve come to believe many have realized that starting a church can be the best job ($$$$) they’ll ever have.”

      There are certainly charlatans in the church. Phonies have a way of infiltrating every walk of life. And it sounds like you may have been hurt by one or two of them, and for that I’m truly sorry. But the idea that “many” people start churches for money is just false. Anyone who starts a church for the money is a fool. There are very few, if any, “jobs” in the world that are less likely to make you rich. And 99.9% of those who try, flame out very quickly because people can spot that they’re phonies.

      Be careful using such a broad brush about pastors and churches. It has a tendency to color the truth falsely.

  9. Karl, I want to say THANK YOU! I am guilty of being a pastor searching for the next way to get our 7 year old church to grow. We average are 35-50 people. I always read articiles that made me feel like I was doing something wrong, to be honest I happened across you blog looking for the next big answer. Thank you for encouraging me to see things in a different light to focus on the families God has trusted us with, to better partner with our communitiy and our city. Thank you, Thank you, Thank you, we may not become mega by numbers but we will make IMPACT FOR THE KINGDOM OF GOD!

    1. Julius, I’m glad you found us! And I’m so glad this could be an encouragement to you. You’re not alone in those feelings and frustrations. The Lord understands and so do a whole bunch of other faithful, outward-focused Small Church pastors. We’re in this together.

  10. With a hurting heart and in God’s grace, I find myself reading this article. Thank you Lord for your message to me this night.

  11. You have 200 a Sunday and think that that’s a small church?!?! Where did you get that figure? What is medium? Large? Point is that we all filet ourselves if our church is not making it financially or spiritually or some other kind of way. Size doesn’t seem to matter–it REALLY is health. Believe me! I could write a book here!!!

    1. Hi, Kim. I know 200 doesn’t seem like a Small Church in many places. But in a highly-populated area like where I live, it is definitely considered small, so we often get accused of the sins I mentioned in this post.

      Since you’re wondering where I got the figures to determine small, large, etc, here’s how the differences in church size are usually broken down in almost all church leadership books and studies.

      ▪ House Church: Less than 25 (and meeting in a house)
      ▪ Small Church: 25 – 350 (or under 25 meeting in a church building)
      ▪ Big Church: 350 – 2,000
      ▪ Megachurch: Over 2,000

      Within some categories, church size distinctions could be broken down even further. For instance, there are clearly two distinct levels of Small Churches. A typical Small Church is 25 – 200, while churches from 200 – 350 might be called midsize.

      But, as with everything in the church, numbers aren’t always the best way to make these distinctions. At various size levels, churches actually take on a new personality. This shift means that churches of 200 – 350 in weekend attendance, while still considered small, have a personality and management type that is very different from those at 25 – 200.

      These shifts in church personality may actually be a more accurate way of defining each size.
      ▪ House Church – Run as a single family unit. Everyone participates in everything.
      ▪ Small Church – Strong pastoral control. Ministries are mostly offered by age categories.
      ▪ Midsize Church – Some staff is hired and ministries are available based on interests and needs.
      ▪ Big Church – More program-oriented. Pastoral ministry is done by staff pastors and in small groups. A very high quality is expected in all programs and ministries.
      ▪ Megachurch – Operates much like a group of Small Churches meeting niche needs. They gather under a common name and Lead Pastor for weekend services. Most attenders do not see the Lead Pastor outside of the preaching time. The Lead Pastor is a leader of leaders, pastoring the church staff.

      Kim, I agree with you completely, that health is the only issue that matters. That message is the reason why I write this blog and why I wrote my book, The Grasshopper Myth. Size doesn’t matter – health does.

  12. Thank you for this very important information.
    I moved , and consequently went from a 1000 + member Church, to a 30 member Church .
    And my first thought when I attended my new Church was there is something wrong here , why isn’t there more people ? and what can I do to help. Even though my previous Church had 3 services on Sunday I still felt a little lost in the shuffle , I was on the welcoming team but still had trouble knowing who was new and who was a member in most cases longer than me .
    And so here I am questioning the leadership of my new Church .
    If the community knew how loving and caring the congregation is at this Church it would standing room only .
    I plan on informing my new Pastor of the New Small Church site and we can go from there .
    If things stay the same or improve slightly I’m good with that .
    Thank you for opening my eyes .

  13. I read his article and only saw him trying to give good ideas for churches who wish to grow. Seems as if he is a good and Godly man trying to grow the kingdom. I only saw you trying to tear another Christian down and trying to promote your book. Maybe God is convicting you. :-)))

    1. Hi Tom. I appreciate your concern. I agree with you that Perry Noble “is a good and Godly man trying to grow the kingdom”. As I said in my post, “he’s a good guy, a faithful minister and an influential Christian leader.” My issue isn’t with his motives, but with his method.

      I’ve talked with a lot of Small Church pastors who have stopped reading church leadership blogs and books and no longer go to church conferences because they feel beaten down by lists like this. They’re tired of being told they’re probably prayerless, selfish, people-pleasers (all three from Noble’s list) if their church isn’t growing numerically. In fact I’ve had this exact list forwarded to me from many hurting Small Church pastors telling me “this is why I get so discouraged.” I’ve even had it forwarded to me from a former pastor who told me that the pressure from lists like this were an example of why he quit pastoral ministry entirely.

      Obviously Noble and others who write lists like this are trying to help grow the kingdom. But they don’t realize how judgmental and discouraging this kind of writing often feels to good, Godly, hard-working, prayerful Small Church pastors. So that’s what my post is for – to help people like Noble become aware of the hurt they’re unintentionally causing. After all, we can’t fix what we don’t know is a problem. I have so much respect for leaders like Noble that I think if they knew it, they’d change it.

      The Small Church pastors who read posts like Perry’s generally don’t fit any of the attitudes he outlines. If they care enough to seek out blogs like his and mine, they usually aren’t disobedient and passionless. So they don’t need a list of sins they probably aren’t committing. They need help to get and keep their churches strong and healthy. And yes, they want their churches to grow, too.

  14. Greetings Karl, I want to thank you for a great and very thought-provoking blog post. I think you raise a very valid point.

    As the author of http://www.growchurch.net I hope I have not unintentionally made anyone feel like this. You are definitely right that there’s is A WORLD OF DIFFERENCE between a small church and an unhealthy one and I think this is an important distinction to make.

    The Great Commission is not about growing bigger congregations but growing more significantly spiritual people. As the saying goes “It’s all about the quality, not the quantity”

    The reason I launched the site was to be as helpful as possible, to share ideas resources and strategies. To actually encourage and inspire one another to greater thing because I know the life of a pastor can be a very lonely one at times so we need all the support we can get!

    Every blessing to you Karl, I look forward to staying connected with you. If you would ever consider writing a guest contribution for growchurch.net, your insights would be very valued.

    All the best,
    Simon

      1. Hi Karl – I have only just seen this reply! I’m so sorry!! I’m sending you an email now. Yeah it would be great to see what we can do together. Bless you. Simon

  15. Hello help me understand why my church went from 30 to 11 members. Yes new leadership came in a self centered pastor that does not see his problem. He has disrespected his wife many of times at the church in front of other woman asked a member out for drinks yes another lady then went off on an elderly man for an accusation he made which is probably true. DON’T have a clue on connecting people just love to hoop in the pulpit no true vision. His wife and step son barley comes to church. We fill there is abuse going on at home how long will he keep this game up. He is a young pastor with no job because of child support who is this pastor fooling. Was he really called by God or is he in it for the money which my small church does not have….Real Pastors help this member that is about to walk away from this leadership.

  16. Pingback: Here's an Idea, What If We Left "Church Growth" to God?

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