What Church Growth Requires – Episode 86 | The Unstuck Church Podcast

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How Do We Reach More People?

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We can blame a lot of cultural factors for declining church attendance and overall less engagement. There’s no sense of guilt for missing church like there used to be. People are increasingly busy. Many church leaders point to the rise of things like youth travel sports.

But there’s one key thing we often overlook in America:

Many churches have become inwardly-focused.

They’ve begun to focus more on the people who already have faith in Christ—those inside the church—rather than on the people outside the church who don’t yet know Jesus.

Every church is at risk for this—It’s the natural tendency over time if intentional steps aren’t taken to address the warning signs when they flash.

And inwardly-focused churches don’t grow.

In fact, becoming insider-focused is one of the hallmarks of “Maintenance Phase”—the first phase on the downward slope in the typical life cycle of a church. (I outline this extensively in my book, The Unstuck Church. You can also take a free online assessment to confirm if you suspect church has moved into this phase and want a way to talk about it with your leadership team.)

I believe God desires churches live in sustained health, which includes continuing to reach new people and help them take next steps towards Christ. That means, we’ve got to stay focused on people outside our walls.

In this conversation, Amy and I shared some really practical ways to do that. We talked about:

  • How you can research demographic data about your community, why what you find may surprise you, and how you can leverage that intel to grow your church
  • The number of first-time guests you need each year to see growth—as well as the “attrition” rate you should expect
  • Why trying to reach everyone in your community will almost certainly result in your reaching fewer people
  • How to start thinking like a missionary in your own community
  • The difference between intentionality and exclusivity, and how to talk about it with your team
Every church is at risk for becoming inwardly focused—It’s the natural tendency over time if intentional steps aren’t taken to address the warning signs when they flash. And inwardly-focused churches don’t grow. #unstuckchurch… Click to Tweet We can blame a lot of cultural factors for declining church attendance & overall less engagement. But there’s one key thing we often overlook in America: Many churches have become inwardly-focused. Click To Tweet

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Links & Resources from the Episode

Leading an Unstuck Church Course

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I really want to help you engage this conversation as a church team. In my online course, we go in-depth on how to expand your front door so you reach more people, as well as how to address 11 other core issues getting churches stuck. It’s the Leading An Unstuck Church Course.

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Episode Sponsor

Episode 86 was brought to you by The Church Lawyers.

I’m finding most churches need legal support but don’t often realize they can actually afford it. David and Steven at The Church Lawyers provide a focused national law firm serving the legal needs of churches of all sizes. Their membership program gives you high quality legal expertise that’s really affordable.

Find them online at thechurchlawyers.com.

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Sean: 00:34 Welcome to The Unstuck Church Podcast where each week our team’s having a conversation about getting churches Unstuck. We’ve all read the headlines that church attendance is on the decline. We’ve seen the patterns of people leaving the church for good and even the most committed people attending less often. So what should we do as church leaders? Is it even still possible to see our churches grow? Today on the podcast, Tony and Amy are going to tackle the topic of church growth and explore why we’re seeing certain trends and what pastors and leaders can do about it. As you listen today. I want to encourage you to use the show notes and download our leader guide to work through this content. You can find those at theunstuckgroup.com/episode86, and don’t forget to subscribe to get the show notes in your inbox each week. You can get all the links to the resources that we mentioned, the leader conversation guide for you and your team and bonus resources all conveniently delivered to your inbox. Maximize your time and go to theunstuckgroup.com/podcast to subscribe. Let’s dive into the topic of church growth with Tony and Amy.

Amy: 01:31 Tony. Last week on the podcast we talked about how churches can help people grow as disciples. This week’s conversation is around the topic of how do we actually reach more people because we need to reach them in order to help them take next steps. And as we’ve talked, I think we all have a sense that a church attendance in the United States is decreasing. Why do you think that is?

Tony: 01:52 Well, certainly I think there’s some cultural factors that need to be considered. I mean through the years, through the decades, fewer and fewer people are feeling obligation, connection and obligation to go to a church. And as there is more freedom for people to make choices about whether or not they connect with the church and connect with a faith, obviously that presents new challenges for the churches. In other words, the guilt has been removed. Amy, when you were, you and I are, well I won’t put you in my generation in my generation, there was still a bit of guiltiness and that was kind of ingrained in the culture that if you don’t show up to church, you’re not American. But, that has faded away,

Amy: 02:42 Well I’m weeks younger than you. So, but believe it or not, we face that as well in our generation.

Tony: 02:47 So that’s good. Additionally, I mean, just to state the obvious, people are increasingly busy. And so the church is competing with many, many other things in people’s lives that are challenging the amount of time that people have to give to the church as well and it’s both attendance and participation. And in fact, one of the churches that I’ve been working with in recent years, they’ve said there’s actually been a shift. It used to be, they said easier for people to give their time by volunteering to the church and it would take longer for people to give their money to support the ministry of the church. And this church has indicated that they’re seeing a reverse now that people are starting to give their money faster than they’re giving their time. And I think one of the reasons why is people are increasingly busy. Many churches, church leaders also point to the rise of things like travel sports and kids and things like that. And it’s funny, I’ll be at a church and they’ll say, you know, travel sports in this area is really competing with people’s engagement in the churches as if that’s not happening in every area of our country anymore. But the one key thing that we often overlook is that many churches in America have become inwardly focused. And that’s the natural tendency of every church over time if intentional steps aren’t taken to address that.

Amy: 04:23 I agree, Tony, every church to emphasize that is at risk of becoming inwardly focused. And you know, we use that term a lot, right? Inwardly-focused and I think we know what it means, but how would you identify a church that’s inwardly focused?

Tony: 04:37 Yeah it’s fairly simple. These churches have begun to focus more on the people who already have a faith in Christ and they’re already inside the church rather than the people on the outside of the church who don’t yet know Jesus. In fact, Carl George and Warren Bird mentioned in their book, this is the book is called Breaking Growth Barriers. Within that book, they talk about the fact that 85% of Protestant churches in America won’t ever break the 200 attendance mark. And one of the primary reasons is churches become inward focused. And that becomes a key factor driving this barrier for churches.

Amy: 05:19 So if any of our listeners are sensing that they’re leading an inwardly focused church, but really want to reach the people in their community who don’t know Jesus, where do you coach them to begin? Tony?

Tony: 05:31 Yeah. I really encourage church leaders to take more of a missionary mindset, or you can think of it as being more of a church planter than a pastor at an existing church. But if you’re thinking of yourself as a missionary, as an example, when we send missionaries overseas, we don’t expect the people that we’re trying to reach with the Gospel to know how to speak English when we present the Gospel. We don’t expect them to sing our music, sing our hymns, to do church the way we’ve done church on Sunday morning. Instead what we, what we try to do as missionaries, we try to learn the culture. We try to learn the customs. We try to learn the language. In other words, we want to really know the people that we’re trying to reach before we create a ministry strategy and share the message that we’re trying to communicate.

Tony: 06:25 And that same concept can apply for churches here in the US as well. Existing churches, we need to start thinking about our communities as our mission field. And if you do that, you’re going to want to learn the culture of your community. You’re going to want to learn the customs of your community. You’re going to want to learn the priorities, the needs, the values of the community that you’re trying to reach. It’s not so that you will become more like the culture and more like the community. It’s so that you know how to speak the language that’s going to connect with that community so that your strategy can connect with that community. In other words, we have to identify where God has placed our church and we need to begin to make adjustments in our ministry strategy to reflect the mission field where we’re located.

Amy: 07:16 So if we identify, who is around our church, if we do that homework, we understand a little bit more what they value like you said, what should churches do with that information then? Even demographic information, how do they leverage that data to grow their church?

Tony: 07:32 Yeah, again, Amy, you know me pretty well, my inclination is not to guess who is in the community, go by gut who’s in the community, but to look at demographic data that’s available. And the good news is in today’s day and age, just start googling demographic information or census data for your community, and you can find a lot of information about who’s in your community. But just knowing who’s in your community is not enough. You also then have to really get focused on who within your community are you really trying to reach. And here’s where it’s almost a counter-intuitive process, but what we’ve learned working with churches through the years is the churches that have a real focus on a specific person within their community end up reaching that person effectively because everything they do from Sunday services to their discipleship strategy to their website, the way they communicate, everything they do is focused on that person.

Tony: 08:34 And when they reach that individual, not only do they reach many people like the individual that they’re focused on, but it’s fascinating they end up reaching a broad cross section of their communities as well. But the inverse is not true. What we’ve seen is when churches try to do a little bit of everything for everyone who lives in their community, they end up not being very effective in their ministry strategy and they tend to be much smaller churches. Right. And so my encouragement challenge to churches is when you start to look at who’s in your community that you get some focus and primarily around three things, an age range, their current spiritual condition and their life stage. And here you’re trying to really get narrowed in on a specific generation. You’re trying to get narrowed in on where people are currently in their faith journey.

Tony: 09:32 Do they already believe in Jesus? Do they already have church experience or are they completely unchurched and they’ve never been in church before? They don’t have a faith in Christ. Are they asking questions about Jesus just trying to define their spiritual condition and then finally get a clear picture of the life stage that someone’s living right now. Is it a young adult? Is it an older adult trying to raise teenagers? Is it someone like me who’s going into their empty-nester stage of life? Try to get real focus around the life stage of the person you’re trying to reach too, because as you can imagine, Amy, that will certainly then impact your ministry strategy and as you’re trying to engage with people in your mission field.

Amy: 10:19 Yeah. It certainly will impact how you run your weekend services, what you talk about, you know, what you teach on, what type of music you leverage in the worship. Just as one example.

Tony: 10:30 Yeah. Now I know every time that I start talking about having focus around a certain individual in the mission field, you can already see in church leaders this hesitancy of are we allowed to do this? Right? And I get it because Amy, you know me, I want everyone to have a relationship with Jesus. And then at the same time, I’m encouraging people, churches, to focus on a certain individual, a certain segment of the community. And I think the immediate concern is, I don’t even know if this is biblical, but let me assure you it is. In fact, I think a great example of this is, this is coming straight from the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 9. He wrote, “Even though I am a free man with no master, I have become a slave to all people, to bring many to Christ.

Tony: 11:28 When I was with the Jews, I lived like a Jew to bring the Jews to Christ. When I was with those who follow the Jewish law, I too lived under that law, even though I’m not subject to the law I did this so I could bring to bring to Christ those who are under the law. When I’m with the gentiles who do not follow the Jewish law, I too live apart from that law so that I can bring them to Christ. But I do not ignore the law of God. I obey the law of Christ.” And I think this is a good example from Paul’s life. When he was with one group of people with a completely different spiritual background, he had that focus and his ministry reflected that focus. When he was with a different group of people, completely different spiritual background, he approached ministry in a completely different way. He adapted. That’s right. That’s right. And so I’m just encouraging churches, we have to take the same approach. We need to adapt, we need to change. We need to make sure our ministry reflects the people we’re trying to reach.

Amy: 12:37 Great. So if we’ve created this new focus, we’ve gotten clarity around that and identified who the church should be reaching, how would you encourage churches to start reaching them? What are some ways?

Tony: 12:49 Well, I wish there was a big red easy button we can push here Amy. But the truth is there’s not, this is not an easy answer. What I do know is that to be effective, everything you do must reflect your focus. You have to become a church that’s unified and focused around the person within your mission field that you’re trying to reach. You have to design your physical spaces with this person in mind. You need to design your online strategy with this person in mind. You need to design your kids’ environments with this person in mind. And then it really is an issue for many churches, but I want to say this clearly, you have to design your Sunday services with this person in mind, right? You can’t continue to do church the way you’ve always done church and expect that you’re going to reach somebody that looks very different than the person that your services probably were originally designed to reach and to encourage individuals to take their next steps toward Christ. I mean, the primary way that people will end up in your church today is no different than it’s ever been.

Tony: 14:01 It’s very likely that a friend or family member is going to invite them, that person to a weekend service first. And so, Amy, I mean, I don’t think I’m over exaggerating the importance of intentionally looking at the weekend experience if you’re wanting to increase the number of people that your church is trying to reach. And I know for many years you helped churches, one great church specifically, with their weekend experience. Is there anything you would add on this topic?

Amy: 14:32 Yeah, I could add a lot, but this is your podcast. So I’ll let you. I would just confirm you’re right. The primary way most people end up at your church is through an invitation to the weekend. It’s still the main front door. So I’d add that you just can’t have a great experience sometimes on the weekend. It has to be great every weekend because if it isn’t, your people won’t have the confidence to invite. So, for example, if you need to know who’s teaching this weekend before you make an invite, that’s probably an indication you don’t have a consistently reliable, excellent and relevant weekend system in place. So otherwise people again won’t invite. They need to know it. And when you invite someone, by the way, they never just come that weekend. They’ll come some odd weekend. Right. So Tony, along those lines of growing your front door, we’ve heard a lot of churches debate whether they actually have a front door problem or a back door problem in their church. And specifically is getting more new people connected the church, the real challenge. Or is it more about keeping all the people who are already a part of their church connected? How can churches delineate between what the primary issue is?

Tony: 15:43 Yeah, one key indicator to look at to determine whether or not the front door is really your challenge is to look at the number of first time guests that you have had over the last 12 months. Because what we’ve learned is, and this is probably going to be surprising for the church leaders that are listening in today, what we’ve learned is this, for your church to continue to experience growth, you need to have the same number of first time guests over the last 12 months as your current average attendance. In other words, let me just simplify this. Right now, if you have 500 people in attendance, you would need to see 500 1st-time guests over a 12 month period to continue to see growth. And one of the reasons why this is true is just because we’re also seeing at the same time a 15% attrition rate in most churches.

Tony: 16:40 In other words, people are leaving the church because of life circumstances, job changes, people pass away, people decide to go to different churches. You need a lot of first time guests to connect to your church in order to make up for the attrition rate and then to experience growth beyond that. But here’s the good news, we want to help you really engage this conversation as a church team. In fact, in our online course which is called Leading an Unstuck Church, we really go into depth about how to expand your front door and including a lot of other topics we cover in the course. And this topic about expanding the front door is critical and we want you to dive into this with your team. And in fact, if you register for the online course here in March, March of 2019, we’re also going to include our complete resource bundle. It includes all my ebooks, research, white papers, a sample job descriptions, a number of other resources. Normally we would charge $99 for this bundle. We’re going to give you that for free because we want to create some incentive for you to get involved in the course and through that give you the tools you need to look at what it’s going to take to expand the front door of your church.

Sean: 18:02 Well, thanks for joining us today for this conversation. As Tony mentioned, during the month of March, any leader who joins the Leading an Unstuck Church online course will get our additional resource bundle completely free. You can find more information and join the course at theunstuckgroup.com/course. If you’re enjoying the podcast, we would so appreciate if you consider leaving us a review on your favorite podcasting platform that helps us get this content into the hands of more leaders. And as always, if you’d like to learn more about how we’re helping churches get unstuck, you can visit us at theunstuckgroup.com. Join us next week for another brand new episode, and until then, have a great week.

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