6 Things That Might Be Killing Your Church’s Growth

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 By Tim H. Swanson

Does your church hate the idea of growing? I didn’t think so. Neither does mine. I bet your church is like my church, and your main goal is to connect people with God, and bring them into a growing relationship with Jesus. If that’s the case, then you already know that that’s no easy task. It’s incredibly challenging and often thankless work, especially when all of the weight is placed on the shoulders of the staff and volunteer leadership.

Good churches rightly understand that the burden of reaching out to the lost is most effective when everybody in the church takes responsibility for his/her part. The churches that grow are the ones who challenge their congregation to invite their friends who don’t already know Jesus. A few months ago, I was in a meeting with one of Saddleback’s founding elders, who told me how they challenge their church family to invite new people.

A few years ago, one of Saddleback’s pastors gathered all of the church’s most committed people in their largest auditorium. Because he only invited the most committed members of the church, their auditorium was nowhere near filled. He asked everyone to spread out,  find their own row and sit down. Once everybody was settled, he had them count the number of chairs in that row. Then the pastor challenged the people to invite enough of their friends to the upcoming Christmas services to fill their row. How does that make you feel? Does it sound a little like a sales pitch? Well it worked. Because of that challenge, Saddleback grew that year. Best of all, people began a life saving relationship with Jesus at their Christmas services. Maybe it feels a little pushy or salesy to think that way. But ask any sales person, they’ll tell you—word of mouth is the most powerful form of advertisement on the planet.

So of course we want our church family to invite their friends. That’s a no-brainer. Maybe your lead pastor has even challenged them, and they haven’t responded. Has your church done that, or have you talked about it in staff meetings? Has your staff brushed it off by trying to blame it on the culture? If so, maybe it’s time to re-examine.

There are a number of reasons church members would hesitate to invite their friends. To understand them, put yourself in their shoes. You’re sitting in a Sunday morning service and the teaching pastor has just challenged you to invite an unchurched friend to a service. My first reaction is fear. I suddenly think, “my unchurched friends are unchurched because they don’t like church. I really don’t want to be one of those people that shoves my beliefs down other people’s throats.” Immediately after that, the next wave of objections floods my mind, “What if my pastor talks about something that makes my friends feel condemned, like premarital sex being evil.” There are a lot of unknowns. It feels risky, and those are just the first hesitations that come to mind. There are many more things for church people to worry about when it comes to inviting their friends.

The truth is, some of their hesitations are made up of fear that they need to work through in their personal relationships with God, which is actually good because that’s the kind of thing that brings about spiritual growth in people. However, a certain amount of it is based on their level of trust in the church. A few months ago, I heard David Kinnamen, owner of the Barna Group, speak at a conference. He said that their research shows a shift in trust between the 1950’s and today. Where church leaders used to be among the most respected and trusted people in society, today the average person trusts the police, doctors, and even nurses more than the pastor in their local church. There’s a reason people have come to think that way. Some of them think the church is evil and full of exclusivist judgmental hypocrites (which is true). Others think that church is a crutch for weak ignorant people. Then there are the people who think church is all about money. Those are just a few types of unchurched people. As you are well aware, there are a lot more. So, when your members begin thinking about who they’ll invite to your next Harvest Festival, or Christmas Eve, or whatever, they quickly become aware of their level of trust, or lack thereof. As church leaders, we have to be aware of this. We have to know that everything we do influences how far our members will trust us.

These are the most significant thing’s I’ve noticed at my church, and other churches I’ve visited that build hesitation in people who are considering inviting a friend.

1. Christianese.
Brothers and Sisters, I implore you. Don’t let your tongue become a stumbling block to the lost because – it’s really confusing. Imagine coming to church for the first time, or for the first time in a long time. You already feel like an outsider. One thing that makes it way worse is when the pastor, worship leader, or other stage personality begins using cryptic words that make you feel even more like you don’t belong. When it comes to communication from the stage, our goal should be crystal clear communication that people can understand. When you’re planning for your services, take the time to not only think about what you’re going to say, but how it’s going to be received by the guest.

2. Wrong words appearing on the slides, or the slides being in the incorrect order.
Aside from being a huge distraction, the wrong words or the wrong slides does two awful things. First it is a sign that the service planners just don’t care enough to do it correctly. Secondly, if my friend is one who thinks that church is a crutch for weak or ignorant people, mistakes on the screen make my church feel like an unsafe place to bring my friend. Ensuring that the slides have the correct words and are in the correct order is tedious work, but it’s very important. Set aside some time each week to go over the slides and other media. Make sure it’s right. It’s not fun, but it instills confidence in people. If you’re still using Power Point, think about stepping up to software like Easy Worship or ProPresenter. These programs are very easy to edit, and they are designed to have a very low learning curve for new volunteers.

3. Creepy Greeters.
Even if your guests were invited by somebody they know well, your front door welcomers are the guest’s first impression of what the people at your church are like. A while back I visited a new church with my family to check it out. I brought my daughter, Scarlett, and my 1 year old son, Silas. Our son was sleeping so we decided to just keep him with us while we went to the service (I know – party fowl). He woke up about half way through, and started preaching his own message. My wife and I quickly got up, and slipped out the side door to the lobby. That was great for us because their church was big enough to have a lobby with a television and live video feed of what was happening inside the auditorium. We weren’t in the lobby for 3 minutes before one of the greeters came over to give us a warm welcome. She was wearing her brightly colored “Ask Me” badge around her neck, and she had a very friendly smile, “Good morning, and who is this little guy” as she leaned a little too close to our baby’s face. She continued, “Is he walking yet?” Believing that she simply wanted to strike up conversation, we told her he had started walking a little over a month ago. Her eyes perked up, “Oh, wonderful! Well that means he would go do our ‘little walkers’ room. That’s where all the babies who can walk go. Let me show you.” My wife and I looked at each other and I ended up manning up, “I think we’d just like to keep him with us. Thank you though.” But with Terminator like persistence, she insisted we follow her to the room for babies. Eventually we went with her, so she got our way. We later agreed, if we had been first time guests, we would also have been last time guests.

If your preacher is Jesus’ mouth on Sunday morning, your welcomers are his handshake. It’s important to keep these volunteers focused on their task, which is to be helpful. And forceful is not helpful.

4. Unsafe Children’s Ministry.
If you have kids you should already be aware of this. If you don’t have kids, you may need to become more aware of this. The worst possible experience for a first time guest is feeling uncertain for the safety of your children. In his book, Deep and Wide, Andy Stanley recounts an instance where he visited a church with his family. His description of the childcare was so unsettling that it’s no wonder him and his wife left in the middle of the service to collect their kids and leave. The last thing you want is for your guests to worry about the safety of their kids. Even if they stay until the end of the service, they’ll be distracted the whole time by that nagging feeling that their children are in an unsafe place.

These days, there are some amazing breakthroughs in children’s ministry safety. If you don’t have electronic check-in stations, maybe it’s time to think about looking into them. A lot of churches are also investing in security teams. These are background checked people who patrol the campus during your Sunday services to ensure that everything is safe for everyone. At my church, we call them ‘The Safe Team’, and I feel a whole lot more comfortable inviting my friends with children knowing that that team exists to keep people safe.

5. Unfun Children’s Ministry.
A while back I took a Sunday off, and brought my family to visit another local church. My wife checked our 8 year old daughter, Scarlett,  into the 3rd grade classroom, and we attended the service. The church’s service was great. The stage design looked amazing, the music was totally my style, the preaching was compelling, the environments were warm and comfortable, the greeters were welcoming and helpful. The whole service experience was awesome. Afterward, I went back to the third grade classroom to pick up my daughter. I signed her out, and as we walked out I asked her if she had fun. She only had one thing to say about the morning,  “They gave candy to everyone who brought a Bible. I didn’t bring a Bible, so I didn’t get any candy.” Fortunately, Scarlett is a committed Christian. I’m pretty sure she loves Jesus more than I do. But looking at it from the perspective of a first time guest, it wasn’t good. Scarlett did not feel welcomed, and she certainly didn’t seem to have fun.

It’s important to remember that a lot of people use their kids as a kind of spiritual barometer. I have heard a lot of people say, “Yeah, we were thinking about church, so we came to check it out. Our kids loved it, which felt like a sign from God.” When it comes to guests, their children’s opinion carries great weight. That’s good news if you have a rockin’ children’s program. It’s bad news if you only give candy to kids that are ‘in the Bible club’.

6. Ending services late.
This one is a matter of respect. I tell this to my mentees all the time: you have to be respectful if you want to be respectable. When you challenge people to invite their friends, and then consistently end your services 10 or 15 minutes late, you’re directly contradicting yourself. You’re telling people that your church is the place for their friends to experience love, but you’re following it up by telling them you won’t respect them. Even if your church members don’t worried about getting out on time, their friends very well might.

Always keep in mind that when someone invites a friend, one of the most commonly asked questions by the friend will be, “how long is the service.” Some people won’t be deterred when your church member fumbles in uncertainty trying to explain that its supposed to be an hour but it usually runs a little long. Other people are going to see that as a confirmation of what they thought – church still doesn’t sound like the place for me.

To Sum It Up
If you challenged your core members to fill one row of chairs for your next big service, would they trust you enough to do it? Sure, they have chosen to be regular attenders, but church people are a lot more forgiving than the unchurched. Your members speak the language. They’re part of the club. They’re already ‘drinking the koolaid’. They trust you with their own spiritual growth, but it’s another thing entirely to trust you with their friendships. Doing that requires a whole new kind of vulnerability. It requires a different kind of trust. So let me ask you. When it comes to Sunday morning at your church, can your members trust you with their friends?

Tim Swanson is the Music Director at Moon Valley Bible Church in Phoenix, Az. His great satisfaction is working with his team to write music that glorifies God. While he is not working, Tim enjoys spending time with his wife and three kids. For more, visit timhswanson.com.

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    5 comments on “6 Things That Might Be Killing Your Church’s Growth

    1. Thank you for the writing this and suggestion new avenues to try to increase church membership and training areas for staff, volunteers and others.
      Great Information

    2. This article is loaded with helpful information. There was one phrase used that was very off-putting to me and, at first, caused me to hesitate sharing it with my friends, “drinking the koolaid.” It is one of those phrases that paints church goers as being people trapped in a herd mentality ala Jim Jones. In fact I will probaby edit that out before sharing. Otherwise, the article is a welcome reminder of a whole list of things that inhibit chirch growth.

      • Don, that’s really insightful. It’s the kind of thing that my teaching pastor, whom I greatly respect, would say. Thank you. I’ll have another look at the article on my page, and be more thoughtful about my wording in the future.

        • This is a thoughtful, well presented article. The “koolaide” comment was the only red flag and was the one thing I was going to mention, for the same reason the former commentator did. Thank you for such a positive response, Tim. It shows transparency and authenticity in your character. That in turn fosters trust in the content of your article.

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