Why Do Some Churches Grow While Others Decline?

Big changes are happening on the American religious scene. This is my constant theme. Many in the declining traditional Protestant churches often seem perplexed. Why are those community churches growing while we are going down? There is no simple answer, but some explanations are emerging.

In the 1980s and 90s, there was a ministry discipline called Church Growth. It grew out of the observations of Donald McGavran, who studied mission movements. His work was popularized by C. Peter Wagner. Both worked out of Fuller Theological Seminary, where I was in the 80s. One of McGavran’s key insights was that people don’t become believers individually; they do so in groups. Out of this came the controversial homogeneous principle. People like to go to church with others like themselves.

In the early 20th century most churches in America were made up of immigrants who shared the same language and home culture. Most remained vibrant through their second generation. By mid-century, they were into their third and four generations. Most of these younger members had lost their ethnic loyalty by then. Many did carry on their church loyalty into the suburbs through the 1950s-70s. Their grandchildren are the millennials who are no longer in our churches. In retrospect, the churches were coasting on family loyalties. Those days are now gone. To survive, those former ethnic churches need to develop new approaches to ministry.

Church Growth advocate C Peter Wagner wrote like a journalist about the big successful congregations of the day. Implied was that if yours does as they do, you will grow, too. The market for church growth advice and materials is huge.

The fundamental issue is whether specific methods and leadership are the real explanation for growth. The best answer would come by researching many, perhaps 100, congregations that claim they are using the featured methods and see what they look like ten years later. Some will have grown very large, most will have stayed about the same, and many will have declined or even collapsed. Indeed, many of the church growth “winners” did collapse in the following years for a variety of reasons.

Many are the business CEOs who claim personal credit for enviable corporate results. In reality, that company may well have hit a unique set of circumstances in the relevant market. Had they come to market a few years earlier or later, or had some unique opportunities not appeared, the results would be quite different. Much of the basic explanation their success is a few lucky breaks they had and took advantage of.

I know first-hand the story of the growth and plateau of Royal Redeemer Lutheran Church in North Royalton, Ohio. The then-senior pastor did consciously decide, for authentic mission purposes, that this congregation should reach out more effectively. Because he was highly trusted as a pastor, he could make some basic organization changes. He started a contemporary service in 1990 and lost an organist and assistant pastor in reaction. By the late 90s, we were growing at five to ten percent a year.

Usually untold is that a new religious editor for the Cleveland Plain Dealer chose Royal Redeemer for his article on contemporary worship. His story was on the Sunday issue front page with a large photograph of our worship service. Attendance was up by 200 six months later. Also, we received a totally unexpected gift of $1 million dollars that enabled us to build a gym/worshiper center much larger than otherwise.

At about 1,000 in attendance, we stopped growing. One explanation is that the other three large Protestants congregations in our area each opened a new sanctuary in that decade. New sanctuaries almost always result in higher attendance. Old sanctuaries become a competitive disadvantage.

My conclusion? Significant church growth is a special providential blessing of God. When it happens, leaders need to run like mad to accommodate future growth, which of course is not guaranteed.

Consider the analogy of taking a sailboat out on a lake. Putting a sail up does not assure a wind. But if the wind does blow and you don’t have your sail up, you will miss out on what could be a great adventure. In this analogy, the sail is ministry practices. If you are still using old practices you are likely to miss the Spirit’s wind that is moving forward other boats (non-denominational community churches). Review your ministry practices.

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