One of the most discussed and analyzed trends within the American church has been the steady decline in church attendance.
A Gallup Study compared church attendance between 1998 to 2000 to church attendance between 2016 and 2018. The study found that church attendance declined across all age groups, and overall attendance of the church has declined by 20 percentage points “since 1999 [with] more than half of this change has occurred since . “
Other research confirms Gallup’s findings. A Pew Research Center study found in 2009, 52 percent of Americans said they attended a church service at least once or twice a month. In 2019, that number fell to 45%.
Declines have also been observed among Baptists. A June 2020 Report of the Southern Baptist Convention revealed a 2 percent loss of membership and a 4 percent loss of baptisms from the previous year. The 2% drop in membership represents 288,000 people.
This stagnation and decline has led to a plurality of books, programs, and conferences on church growth. These resources are well intentioned. Every pastor and church member wants the church to grow as the gospel message is proclaimed around the world, as well as their local church to grow as the gospel spreads through the local community. .
However, a question we need to ask ourselves is, do we have to try anything and everything to produce growth? Or are there some dangers and pitfalls that we need to watch out for?
The pitfalls of church growth
Let’s examine seven pitfalls of church growth based on the seven pitfalls of sustainable growth in business described by Bill George in his book on corporate leadership titled Authentic leadership.
Certainly, we must be careful about drawing parallels between the principles of a profitable business and the principles of a healthy church. Arthur Boers urges us in his book Servants and Fools: A Biblical Theology of Leadership to be careful in this area, while admitting “that there is a lot to learn from the business world, even questions that we have had better learn.”
We want to listen to George, a Christian writing to business leaders, and find out what principles he has for the church.
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1. Lack of clear mission
George says, “The most common reason businesses have problems is trying to grow without a well understood mission. “
Without a well-defined and understood mission, companies eventually cease to exist. The company can still have a building, employees and a product, but it has no purpose and therefore no clarity on “what [the] the company represents or where it is going.
When a business has not clearly defined its purpose, leaders have no guiding principles for how decisions are made. They end up navigating aimlessly until employees, customers or shareholders give up and go in search of the missing mission.
As Christians and church leaders we must understand this desire for mission, for as Scott Sunquist wrote in Understanding Christian Mission: Participation in Suffering and Glory, the mission “comes from the heart of God”. Mission is part of the character of God, and as human beings created in the image of God we know that we are called to work bigger than ourselves.
Like some businesses, churches may lack a clear mission. In a sense, the mission of every church is the same. This is what we read in Matthew 28: 19-20 and Acts 1: 8.
Churches become aimless in fulfilling their biblical mission when they fail to contextualize the biblical mission to their local situation. In other words, they fail to locate the Great Commission.
Localizing and contextualizing implies that our churches ask some fundamental, but vital questions: Who constitutes my local community? What are their spiritual needs? What can our church do to engage them with the gospel in pictures and with language they understand?
2. Understand your core business
The second pitfall George points out that stunted growth in businesses “underestimates the growth potential of your core business”. When a company’s market share in a particular product begins to stagnate or decline, many see it as a sign that the company needs to switch to another product to maintain profitability.
Instead of abandoning the core business, George encourages business leaders to be creative in finding growth opportunities within their core business.
The main activity of the church, given by Jesus in Matthew 28: 19-20, is to make disciples. Dallas Willard defines discipleship as “becoming apprentices [of Jesus] in eternal life.
Discipleship or apprenticeship of Jesus involves adding new believers to the church and helping current believers grow to maturity. Just as companies switch to new products if they see their market share stagnate or decline, church leaders will abandon unsuccessful evangelism and discipleship efforts and look for another product to offer.
Churches may turn their attention to worship music products, building aesthetics, or promotional gadgets. If, however, we view discipleship as the learning development of Jesus, we can never stop or transition from this core activity. Church leaders must be creative in promoting growth in all parts of the body.
3. According to a single product line
As dangerous as the abandonment of its core business may be for a company, companies can also be “so invested in the success of their core business that they do not allocate any funds to the creation of new businesses”.
When a product’s market share stagnates or shrinks, George calls on creativity to find new markets for the product. The reality, however, is that the business has yet to be financially viable. If a company has no other products “when the downturn occurs, it is too late to expand its strategy and it is forced to reduce its investments to survive.”
For most churches, the commodity that takes the most time, money, and energy is Sunday morning worship. While our core business is making disciples, in practical terms Sunday morning worship service often takes its place.
Worship service becomes the only product line that church leaders believe will bring growth to the church. When this fails or ceases to produce the desired results, churches have invested too much in this one product line to expand their strategy.
Church leaders need to understand two truths. First, the Church is called to make disciples. This is our vocation and our mission. Second, discipleship involves a holistic strategy.
A holistic discipleship strategy involves building discipleship relationships. These relationships simply cannot be made in the “one-size-fits-all” Sunday morning worship service.
We will examine the four remaining pitfalls in Part 2.
Ryan Vanderland is Senior Pastor of First Baptist Church in Electra. This article is adapted from Vanderland’s “Pitfalls and Prophetic Imagination”. The opinions expressed are those of the author alone.