churchlifecycle sustained health

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Most churches start, grow, thrive, decline and eventually end.

But God’s plan for our churches is that they grow in maturity towards a peak of sustained health, and that as methods and traditions and culture change, they continually reevaluate and refresh, finding new ways to lead people towards Jesus.

Why is it important for church leaders to understand every stage of church growth, and not simply focus on the one where your church sits now? Because a lot of churches get stuck in one of these phases, and it’s important to realize what phase could be ahead of you if you aren’t intentional.

If you as a church leader can learn to recognize the characteristics of each phase and the steps that get you unstuck, you are much better positioned to lead a church for the long haul.

1. Launch Phase

When a church is in the launch phase…

  • It’s a new beginning
  • There’s a focus on reaching new people
  • There’s a heavy reliance on volunteer engagement
  • Very little competes with weekend worship services
  • There are few, if any, rules
  • Finances are tight

Churches in the launch phase must have strong leadership. They also need to target who they are trying to reach—their target audience. From there, the primary purpose of ministry and the mission of the church must be established. If the church is going to survive beyond launch, there should be a strong financial plan and ministry should be given away to volunteers when possible.

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2. Momentum Growth Phase

When a church is in the momentum growth phase…

  • There’s an outward focus
  • There’s a lot of buzz
  • Creativity and innovation (and therefore change) are expected
  • They begin to focus on their vision
  • They are often driven by personality
  • They begin to give leadership away

As churches begin to experience momentum growth, they need to make space for that growth—preferably by adding a new service, not a new building/campus. At this point, the church also needs to define their vision and create a picture of the future that both rallies and repels people. The church staff also needs to develop their team values and decide what kind of culture they want to reflect.

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3. Strategic Growth Phase

When a church is in the strategic growth phase…

  • They shift from personalities to teams
  • Growth pains force leaders to think more strategically
  • They confirm their discipleship path
  • Systems are established to reinforce healthy behaviors
  • Structure forms to support future growth
  • They begin to flex their healthy change muscles

Once the vision has been established, the church staff needs to build a strategy to accomplish the vision. Simple, repeatable systems need to be implemented so that ministry can expand and grow. That also means that the structure of the church staff needs to reflect the church’s ministry strategy, and leadership development should be a core focus. Finally, the church will need to define a clear discipleship path so that ministry activities don’t distract from the mission.

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4. Sustained Health Phase

When a church is in the sustained health phase…

  • They are growing over time
  • They are unified
  • They are bearing good fruit
  • The ministry is multiplying
  • They embrace change
  • They are generous

Churches that have reached a point of sustained health are bearing good fruit (new disciples of Jesus) and are experiencing healthy growth over time. It’s important that even as the church grows, unity is maintained. In order to continue multiplying, the church will need to mobilize others and embrace the changes needed to get new results.

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5. Maintenance Phase

When a church is in the maintenance phase…

If a church has fallen into the maintenance phase, they need to renew their vision and embrace change before an emergency forces the change. They need to prioritize reaching new people and fight against an insider-focus mentality. Churches in maintenance also need to curtail the steady creep of complexity that occurs over time and focus on a simple discipleship path. This likely means cutting out some current ministry programs to make room for the renewed vision. Lastly, the church may benefit greatly from gaining an outside perspective.

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6. Preservation Phase

When a church is in the preservation phase…

  • Attendance and finances are both declining
  • Methods become more important than the mission
  • There’s a prevailing pull to go back to the way things used to be
  • The strong leaders and visionaries have left the church
  • Power shifts from the pastor and staff to the lay leadership
  • The focus shifts to keeping people from leaving

Change demands intentional leadership—it’s impossible to keep everyone happy and experience the changes that produce health. That’s why churches in the preservation phase need to create urgency around change and address the warning signs of decline before it’s too late. This is also a time for the church to look backward before they move forward by recognizing the seasons in which the church was healthy and what contributed to that health. From there, adjustments to board/staff structure and ministry strategy will be required.

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7. Life Support Phase

When a church is in the life support phase…

  • The church is unwilling to change
  • There is no fruit
  • The church is being led by one key family or one key donor
  • The church is typically experiencing a financial crisis
  • The church is aging
  • The blame game takes root

Once a church has reached the life support phase, they can no longer survive without some form of relaunch. The church must embrace a new mission and relaunch into a new lifecycle through one of three options: firing themselves, hiring a new pastor, or giving the keys to their building to another church. Ultimately, there must be a consensus that the church will never drift back into health, and that a new plan of action is required.

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Unsure where your church sits on the lifecycle?

The reality is that churches can get stuck in any season of the lifecycle. That’s why it’s important to determine what season you are in, then intentionally interrupt it. Without an interruption, the church will remain stuck, and the natural pull will be toward decline and death.

Take the Unstuck Church Assessment and receive a free comprehensive report to better understand where your church sits today and get clear next steps towards sustained health. Or dig deeper into the seven phases of the church lifecycle with The Unstuck Church book.

Tony Morgan

Tony is the Founder and Lead Strategist of The Unstuck Group. Started in 2009, The Unstuck Group has served 500 churches throughout the United States and several countries around the world. Previously, Tony served on the senior leadership teams of three rapidly growing churches including NewSpring Church in South Carolina. He has five published books including, The Unstuck Church, and, with Amy Anderson, he hosts The Unstuck Church Podcast which has thousands of listeners each month.


  • This is a great explanation of the church life cycle. However, it leaves one with the impression that, if we can just get our church to the sustained health phase, we will be good to go. The reality is that churches are always moving forward on this spectrum, and the sustained health phase is not some magical eddy where, if we can just reach it, we will be able to remain there indefinitely. Churches will invariably progress through sustained health to maintenance, preservation, etc. if they do not take deliberate steps to regularly reset their life cycle through vision renewal. To remain in the sustained health phase, the church must examine its strengths and weaknesses against the needs of the community and adjust its strategy every three to five years. This could involve tweaking existing methods, adopting new methods, radically overhauling ministries, scrapping ineffective ministries, or designing new ministries. Each time this is done, there will be a period of disequilibrium while the church navigates two life cycle curves in order to sustain the health that it has already achieved while simultaneously launching, building momentum, and developing sustaining strategy for the next step. This is the only way to avoid the back side of the life cycle, and it creates a sort of interlocking steps rather than a bell curve. The tricky part of all this is timing the launch of the next step. It is counterintuitive, but the next step must be conceived even during the strategic growth phase and launched about the time a congregation reaches the sustained health phase. People will wonder why we need something new when we’re just figuring out what we’ve got.


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