Surprising Truths About Growing Churches

We work with pastors who want to lead growing churches. That desire crosses size, denomination, and location. It’s more of a mindset. And over the years, we’ve observed several things about these growing churches, some of which might surprise you. If you’re looking for real data, Barna’s State of the Church or Lifeway Research are great places to start. But if you’re curious about what we’ve experienced working with thousands of churches over the past 7 years, read on… Here are some surprising truths about growing churches.  

#1 – They have fewer ministries and programs than you might think.

Growing churches don’t have giant menus, packed with ministries to serve and reach every segment of society. The churches we work with that are experiencing growth are focused, nimble, and measured. They aren’t offering everything to everyone. They don’t have programs on every night of the week. They don’t have a staff army to meet every possible community need. They do a few things well and understand that they can’t be all things to all people. This is why we help our churches figure out their Keystone Ministries and focus their resources.  Whether it’s people, money, or communication, growing churches decide on a few activities then resource them properly. There’s a saying we repeatedly use: 
The key to growth might not be something you start, but something you stop.
Eliminating what might be good but not central means you can focus everything on what matters most.  It means you can be effective, not just busy. Hopefully, this encourages you. You’re probably not doing too little; you’re probably doing too much.  

#2 – They are normal-sized.

According to Barna, the average Protestant church in the United States is 89 adults. So while many pastors say they are leading a “small church”, in reality, they are leading a “normal-sized” church. If you’re pastoring a church under 200 attendees, you don’t need to apologize for being normal. When you think about the people who attend sporting events, you might think of a crowded NFL stadium or an arena filled to capacity during March Madness.  But when most people attend sporting events, they go to their kids’ rec league or high school events. In the same way, when most people go to a church, they don’t attend a mega church, they go to the normal-sized church down the street.  In fact, only 10% of American church-goers attend a mega-church, meaning most of the ministry happens at these normal-sized churches. Mega churches get most of the press, but normal-sized churches are making a huge impact.  

#3 – Growing churches focus on building leaders.

I know you don’t have enough volunteers. But there’s a more root issue facing churches that aren’t growing. They don’t have enough leaders. Whether it’s building a leadership pipeline, creating a culture where leaders can thrive, or intentionally creating systems and processes that enable growth, growing churches put an emphasis on leadership development. One of the biggest reasons churches struggle with volunteers is because they haven’t developed leaders. This is why our friend, Tony Morgan, encourages staff to focus on leading not doing.   You probably don’t need to hire more staff, but you likely need to develop more leaders. Want to focus on this?  Here are six ways to develop more leaders in your church.  

#4 – They have a lot of hidden problems.

Through consulting, zoom calls, and lots of opportunities over the years, we’ve gotten to see some influential churches up close. It's really inspiring to see how large churches are innovating, teaching, and helping the kingdom. But can I let you in on a little secret? The churches you look to for inspiration don’t always have it together behind the scenes. I’m not throwing anyone under the bus here, and their leaders will likely tell you the same thing. See, you see them at their best at their conferences and in their books, but they still deal with the issues you’re facing today. That’s because growing churches have growing pains, regardless of their size.  If you don’t have every system documented or every ministry firing on all cylinders, you’re not alone. Most growing churches aren’t as polished as they look.  

#5 – They are financially constrained.

Growing churches often struggle financially. Their vision outpaces their funding on a regular basis. You might not think this would be the case, but I assure you, it’s reality. Just like more money isn’t the key to becoming a wise manager, a bigger budget won’t automatically help your church grow.  Quite the opposite. The churches that are growing often have considerable financial constraints.  They don’t have a paid-off building; sometimes, they don’t have a building at all.  They don’t have a giant budget for staff or staff development; they have to be scrappy.  They can’t throw money at digital advertising or outreach events; they have to embrace their constraints and overcome them with creativity. If you’re financially constrained, you’re normal. Now with all this said, there are some things you can do to focus on finances and leverage more resources for ministry. Here’s a collection of our best financial advice for churches.  

#6 – They pay attention to the makeup and needs of their community.

We already talked about how growing churches don’t fill up their calendars with ministries and programs in an attempt to try and reach everyone. Instead they focus. But let me take that a step further. Growing churches know where to focus because they are truly students of their communities. They don’t import vision or ideas from other churches but do the hard work of cultural exegesis.  Like a missionary, they work to understand the needs and nuances of the community where they are serving, then design EVERYTHING to meet those needs. They run their messaging, branding, programs, and ministries through the filter of their local community. See, the church is for everyone, but you’re probably not going to reach everyone. So design your ministries to match the needs of your community. Not the community 20 years ago. Not the community in your mentor’s state. Not the community you wish you had. Match things based on reality and serve the people God has actually called you to reach. Here are some ways you can get to know your community.  

Take a Next Step

As you read this list, hopefully you’re encouraged that healthy church growth is attainable in your setting. Ultimately, church growth is up to God.  It’s His Church and His Kingdom.  But He chooses to use us, and we have a stewardship opportunity. For more practical advice on church growth, check out The Senior Pastor’s Guide to Reaching More People.  This free guide has 32 pages of advice, ideas, and strategies that you can implement in your church. Download the guide here.