A Lack of Numerical Results Does Not Equal No Results
Recently I had a conversation with a pastor that I have been coaching for over a year. Over the course of the last several months, he and his team created plans, landed a focused vision and made a lot of significant changes. During our last conversation he shared some the discouragement that he and his team were experiencing. He said, “We’re a little frustrated because, despite the changes we have made, we still haven’t seen numerical growth.” In fact, the average attendance of his church was exactly the same as it was one year ago.
Understanding growth principles can be helpful, especially when you’re gauging the success of planning and execution by the increase of attendance. When I was a kid, I remember helping my grandfather plant his garden. Each day I would go to his place expecting to find fresh vegetables. It didn’t take long to understand that growth has a process, and my desire to see it now did not speed it up. The same is true in the church.
If you’re a pastor or leader and feel a similar frustration like my friend, don’t panic and don’t give up. Church growth, just like a garden, has a process.
When times are hard, here are three perspectives on church growth to consider:
1. People will Leave when the Vision Becomes Outward Focused:
Most Christians love the idea of reaching unchurched people, but when the idea blossoms into planning and execution, attitudes can quickly change. When leaders begin scrubbing programs, designing ministries and changing worship styles to reach unchurched people, church members often respond with pushback. That’s why it’s helpful to go ahead and embrace the reality that people will leave when your focus shifts to reaching outsiders.
Throughout the New Testament, the Gospel unifies people, but it also divides people. Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword…” (Matthew 10:34). Jesus was surrounded by religious leaders and followers who were not happy about the people He was reaching. When Jesus shared His mission, people pushed back. His idea of reaching people who were far away from God did not fit into their belief system or ideology. John captures one of those moments when he writes, “From this time many of His disciples turned back and no longer followed him” (John 6:66).
Unfortunately, this is still the case in many churches today. Churches allow their traditions, past practices and complacency to supersede the mission of reaching people for Jesus. So, you need to know that it’s okay when people leave.
2. Don’t Overlook Invisible Growth:
As I mentioned earlier, the average attendance of my friend’s church was exactly the same the previous year. For him, it was challenging to meet with his team and talk through the numbers that showed no growth. However, he didn’t think about the families who left his church over the last twelve months (for reasons mentioned above). So in reality, his church did grow. That growth was invisible on a spreadsheet, but it’s there nonetheless.
When churches are working to get unstuck, growth is always preceded with cutting and pruning. Loss will always come before gain. Jesus said, “He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful” (John 15:2). Unhealthy programs (and many times people) have to be cut away.
Don’t let the attendance number be the only lens you look through to talk about growth. Even healthy things must be pruned. This is a normal part of growth, and if you treat it as abnormal, you’ll sabotage your plans and efforts.
At this free webinar, you’ll learn to address the growth barriers you may be feeling now, as well as how to recognize the warning signs of future barriers that may be ahead as your church continues to grow.
3. Tangible Growth Simply Takes Time:
Let’s face it: It takes time for any organization to grow. This is true in the church and even more probable when a church has experienced years of stuckness. I love how the Message translates the apostle Paul’s words, “We pray that you’ll have the strength to stick it out over the long haul – not the grim strength of gritting your teeth but the glory-strength God gives. It is strength that endures the unendurable and spills over into joy...” (Colossians 1:11). In other words, this is going to take time, effort and endurance.
When leaders want instant growth, they begin making quick decisions that usually lead to wrong decisions. When change is made too quickly, it can create a lack of buy-in from the church. Although there are things we must change immediately, there is value in creating a strategic timeline in terms of what changes when. It takes time to shift the church’s focus from the WHAT to the WHY. When the why becomes the driver, conversations shift and motives change.
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