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Why churches don’t grow: Reasons might be you and your church

Might the pastor, even church members, be growth-restricting obstacles?

By Charles Arn

Healthy organisms grow. Healthy people grow, healthy animals grow, healthy trees grow, healthy plants grow and healthy churches grow. It is a characteristic that God supernaturally breathed into all living things. And the body of Christ — the local church — is a living thing.

So, when a church is not growing, it is an important question to ask why.

A good doctor will not prescribe an antidote until he or she first identifies the problem. The same is true for an intervention in a non-growing church. The first matter is to identify the problem. Just as there can be many reasons for a stomach ache, there can be many reasons for non-growth. Like a stomach ache, non-growth is a symptom, not the problem. If the reasons for non-growth are identified and eliminated, many churches experience new outreach and new people coming to Christ.

So what keeps churches from growing? Here are five general “growth-restricting obstacles.” I don’t intend to solve each problem here, but rather to sensitize us to the categories which will give a better ability to diagnose a situation. When the diagnosis is accurate, the prescription will be both easier and most effective.

Growth-restricting obstacle #1: THE PASTOR.
There are three different situations in which the pastor can inhibit the growth of a church.

The pastor does not have a priority for outreach.
Some pastors simply don’t want to spend the time and energy to lead a growing church. Leading a growing church takes more work than leading a declining one. Perhaps the pastor has never been convicted that reaching lost people is a priority for his or her church. Possibly the pastor is unwilling to risk making the changes in budget or programs or worship service that would be necessary to reach unchurched people. A church led by a pastor with a low priority for reaching new people is not likely to grow.

The pastor does not have a vision for growth. Growing churches have pastors who believe God wants their church to grow. Solomon said, “Without a vision, the people perish.” That is also true for a church. A lack of vision is just as much a barrier to outreach as a lack of priority. A pastor desiring a growing church must have a vision of what God wants that church to become and then communicate that vision to the people.

The pastor does not have the knowledge of how churches grow. There are many pastors who are wonderful spiritual leaders. But they have never learned the principles of how churches grow. Working harder is not the secret to church growth. The secret is working smarter. Unfortunately, little is taught in seminaries or Bible schools about why people come to church, why they leave, and what can be done to increase church growth. If more pastors knew and then applied these principles, more churches would grow.

Growth-restricting obstacle #2: THE CHURCH MEMBERS. While the pastor may be the obstacle to growth in some churches, there are many competent clergy ministering in non-growing churches where the reason for non-growth is in the pews. Church members can keep a church from growing when:

Members have no personal priority for reaching the lost.
Some members of non-growing churches believe that the benefit they will receive from participating in church outreach activities is simply not worth the cost. “Sure, our church should reach people,” they say. “But me? I’ve got three kids, a job, membership at the health club, and a lawn to mow. Someone else with more time should certainly feel compelled.”

Members have a self-serving attitude about church.
While evangelism is a nice thing to do, some members believe, the real priority of the pastor should be to feed the sheep. Such a conviction sees the pastor’s most important jobs as preaching to members, teaching members, counseling members and calling on members.

Members fear that church growth will destroy their fellowship. Some members unknowingly frustrate church growth because they fear that growth brings loss of community and sense of family. So they act in a manner that says to newcomers, “We like our church the way it is and newcomers like you are not important.”

Beyond the pastor and members, there are other growth-restricting obstacles that keep churches from growing.

Growth restricting obstacle #3: PERCEIVED IRRELEVANCE. One difference between growing and non-growing churches is how the church is perceived by the people in its community. Growing churches are making the Gospel relevant to the concerns and needs of people in the 21st century. Arnell ArnTessoni, former church planting director with the American Baptist Churches, observed: “It’s not so much the Gospel that is the secret to reaching people but the clothes in which we dress our Lord …” Growing churches start with the issues and concerns of the people they are trying to reach.

Growth restricting obstacle #4: USING THE WRONG 
METHODS. Peter Wagner, an early church growth authority, 
spoke about effective evangelism more than 30 years ago and said, “You can’t go into a ripe field of wheat and expect to bring in the harvest — if you are using a corn picker.” Many churches are well intentioned, but simply misdirected in their outreach strategies; they are using the wrong methods for to bring in the harvest.

Perhaps the outdated method is passing out gospel literature in an urban neighborhood; having evangelistic tent meetings; trying to grow a youth ministry when most people in the community are senior adults. None of these methods are wrong. It’s just that they are inappropriate for the “harvest field” in which the church is placed. Using inappropriate methods is a growth-restricting obstacle.

Growth restricting obstacle #5: NO PLAN FOR 
ASSIMILATION. There was a sad story in the Los Angeles Times of a young, unwed mother who gave birth to her baby in the women’s restroom of a department store, and left it there for anyone who might stumble upon it. I believe some churches do a similar thing to their new baby Christians.

They leave them on their own to survive, rather than having a plan to assimilate them into a caring, loving, nurturing Christian church. New Christians do not automatically become active church members. It takes a priority, time and nurturing meaningful relationships to see new members get past that 
critical first year.

There are many reasons why churches don’t grow. But there are no good reasons. Healthy churches grow. God wants your church to grow. He created it to grow. Sometimes it’s just a matter of finding out why it’s not growing, and removing those obstacles.

Charles Arn is executive director of Church Growth Inc., Monrovia, CA [churchgrowth.net]

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