Dr. James Emery White

Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary

When Your Church Isn’t Growing...and it Isn’t a Bad Thing

The typical church is either plateaued or declining. That brings to mind the line from the latest round of Geico commercials about 15 minutes saving up to 15% in car insurance: “Everybody knows that.”

But then comes the next line:

“Well, did you know that…”

Here’s a new fill-in line:

“Well, did you know that it isn’t always a bad thing when a church is plateaued or declining?” 

It’s true.

To begin with, the typical church will have around a ten percent attrition rate annually, regardless of its health. People move out of town because they are being relocated by their employer, or find a new job out of town. They get married and move away. They go off to college. They die. 

So you have to grow by ten percent over any given twelve month period just to stay even. And just in case you didn’t know, growing by ten percent is a lot of growth! So simply maintaining where you are is actually a reflection of growth. 

Sure, you’d like to gain ground – but not losing it is a sign of at least some level of church health.

Another reason you may have experienced flat growth, or even decline, is because you made a strategic decision to enable future growth that didn’t go over very well with growth-resisters. This usually results in a quick hit on attendance due to disgruntled departees.

But again, this isn’t always bad. It’s called “holy subtraction,” meaning that sometimes the best thing that can happen is for certain people who have been resisting change to just find a church more suited to their tastes. The church may temporarily lose some ground, but they have also been freed-up to pursue strategies and styles more suited to future growth.

That can be worth a short-term hit in attendance.

Then there are some churches that are extremely limited in sheer growth potential. If you have a church that averages 50 people in attendance in a town that has 5,000 in population, you are achieving the exact same penetration ratio as a megachurch of 5,000 in a city of 500,000. Bump up to the biggest cities of the world (5,000,000 in population), and you would be akin to a megachurch of 50,000.

And all the pastors of churches in small cities said, “Take that, Andy Stanley!”

Finally, though there are many other reasons for a lack of growth, you may just be in a season of natural consolidation. Having been in ministry leadership for nearly thirty years, I can tell you there is a natural ebb and flow to growth. The pattern is to have a season of growth followed by a season of consolidation. 

This is actually very healthy for a church. It allows you to assimilate your recent growth faithfully and to rethink structures and processes. It lets you catch your breath and map out what you will need to do to ascend to the next level.

Don’t worry about the next season of growth. Just continue to be faithful to those things that led to the growth during the previous season.

Because it will undoubtedly come again.

So take heart. If you are in a church that is plateaued or declining for one or more of these reasons,

…it’s not necessarily a bad thing.

James Emery White

 

Editor’s Note

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His newly released book is The Church in an Age of Crisis: 25 New Realities Facing Christianity (Baker Press). To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, log-on to www.churchandculture.org, where you can post your comments on this blog, view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.

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