3 reasons why some churches don’t grow (that you don’t usually hear)

Winter-Church

Don’t worry. There’s nothing wrong.

Your vision might be clear. You’ve got a good sense of what the community needs and aren’t overwhelming everyone with programs. You and the entire congregation are praying fervently. You’re passionate about reaching people and equally passionate about the gospel. As far as you can tell you’re faithfully proclaiming the Word and living in light of it… and yet your church isn’t growing.

What’s going on?

Reading some pastors’ thoughts about church growth, you’d think that if your church isn’t growing, it’s because (despite your protestations), you must have some secret sin causing God to withhold His blessing. It’s the same game Job’s friends played, where instead of comforting him, they accused him of disobedience to God.

And yet.

What’s the deal? Is a church’s lack of growth a result of some unspoken sin on the leadership’s part? Is numerical growth always a sign of God’s blessing upon a local church?

I’m not so sure.

There seems to be a lot of pressure for pastors to have “successful” ministries—and by successful, what’s really meant is to have big numbers. While numbers are not wrong (they can be very good, in fact), we’ve got to be careful about how we think about church growth, and what it means to be successful as a church. And while I don’t entirely disagree with the points raised in the link above, they’re incomplete.

There are at least three other crucial factors that need to be considered when asking why some churches don’t grow:

1. “Soil” conditions.

You might be doing all the “right” things and have the right attitude, but nothing’s happening (at least not the way the experts tell you they should). We would be wise to remember Jesus’ words in Luke 8:4-15:

And when a great crowd was gathering and people from town after town came to him, he said in a parable, “A sower went out to sow his seed. And as he sowed, some fell along the path and was trampled underfoot, and the birds of the air devoured it. And some fell on the rock, and as it grew up, it withered away, because it had no moisture. And some fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up with it and choked it. And some fell into good soil and grew and yielded a hundredfold.” As he said these things, he called out, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear” . . . The seed is the word of God. The ones along the path are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved. And the ones on the rock are those who, when they hear the word, receive it with joy. But these have no root; they believe for a while, and in time of testing fall away. And as for what fell among the thorns, they are those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature. As for that in the good soil, they are those who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patience (emphasis added).

Jesus is quite clear here: The Word is going to have a different effect upon the hearts of different hearers. Some will have the Word more or less bounce off their hardened hearts. Others will receive it with joy, but this joy will be fleeting. Others will be ultimately indifferent, focusing only on the cares of this world. And some will receive it and bear good fruit “with patience.”

Here’s the point: You have no control over the soil conditions. You are to sow the seed of the Word and trust that as many as have been appointed to eternal life will believe (Acts 13:48). And that’s the limit of what you can do.

2. It could be God being very merciful to you.

Our church has experienced rather explosive growth over the last several years—and it’s put us in a bit of an awkward situation. We’re currently renting the largest high school in the city and once we max it out (again), we’re stuck until we can get into a permanent facility. Our church’s leadership has done a wonderful job modelling restraint and prayerful decision making in the midst of a great deal of pressure (both internal and external) to build a permanent facility.

A permanent facility is in the works, but timing and resources are huge factors to always have front of mind, which is why I’m so thankful for their leadership on this. But depending on your circumstances, a lack of numerical growth may be evidence of God’s mercy upon your church. If you experience a major upswing in attendance, but not in giving, you’re probably not going to be able to add an addition, build a new building or rent a new facility. If you’re short on able-bodied volunteers, adding a second (or third) service may not be the best thing for the people. There are huge organizational implications that come with different attendance levels and not everyone is built to handle leading a church of that size and complexity.

And it may be God’s mercy upon you if you’re not seeing wild unheard of growth.

3. The Lord doesn’t want it to.

Ultimately, all growth is the direct result of God’s sovereign decree. He determines the times and places in which we live, and calls us to fulfill our ministries there. That means He’s also sovereign over the size of your church. If the Lord wants your church to grow to 1500, so be it. But it may be that Jesus will be more glorified if your church maintains at 50.

The fact is, if your church’s attendance is around 150 people, you’re in very good company. Mega-churches aren’t the norm; they make up less than two per cent of all churches in America. So don’t freak out. It’s okay to be un-mega. You’re probably not doing anything that’s preventing God from driving massive numbers of attendees through your doors. You’re likely just “ordinary” in all the best possible ways.

  • http://www.facebook.com/matthew.lowe Matthew Forrest Lowe

    Good thoughts here. Michael Knowles’ forthcoming book (when it finds a publisher) speaks to similar themes, exploring Jesus’ parables — and Paul’s cruciform ministry — for what they have to tell us about God as the gracious giver of growth.

  • Jared Moore

    Great article brother. These reasons are not popular reasons, but true, nonetheless. There is a huge pressure on pastors to get large numbers. God, on the other hand, only requires us to be faithful. Keep on keeping on.

    • http://www.bloggingtheologically.com Aaron Armstrong

      Thanks Jared—hope you’re doing well

  • http://www.lawrencewilson.com/p/about-me.html Lawrence W. Wilson

    Good thoughts, Aaron. I think we too often ignore #1 – the soil conditions. It’s really the people who grow, not the church.

    • http://www.bloggingtheologically.com Aaron Armstrong

      Thanks Lawrence.

  • Lakita D. Long

    Hi Aaron,

    I would like to thank you for such a thoughtful blog post about why churches aren’t growing. As an African American women, who has been in church all of her life, and who has been humbly called to serving people through ministering and teaching the gospel in the marketplace and traditional church settings, this conversation comes up quite a lot in the Black Church. For a season early on in my life, I thought that “if I didn’t have certain things, God was not happy with me, and maybe there was unconfessed sin, in my life. My financial situations remained the same, and it just seemed like “lots” of stuff happened to me all the time. Then one day through prayer God showed me that this was not true at all, and that well some of the things come with the territory of what stage I was in my life. I was a young college undergraduate being only 17, then a young graduate student at 22, trying to cram all of my ideas on a no shoestring budget, and I hadn’t learned how to manage money and just trying to figure it all out.

    So I was able to get from under the “God is against you” model of thinking which I think you put as “soil conditions” and believe in God’s promotion, timing, and non-superficial way of blessing his people while allowing as you say so eloquently that “God is being merciful to us”.

    Thanks again, and I am looking forward to other posts.

    Your Sister in Christ,

    Lakita Long, God’s Thinking Outloud Girl

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