In this article, I will identify and comment on several failed strategies used by church leaders to bring growth to a plateaued or declining church.
1. Going after the children. This is a “warm fuzzy” that few pastors want to challenge. The rationale is simple: If we reach the children, we will reach the parents. The reality is far different. Dr. Danny Decker presented research showing that if one reaches a child first, there is only a 4% probability of reaching both parents. That makes going after the children seem like a poor stewardship of God’s resources. More relevant is the fact that from Acts to Revelation we read of a church whose emphasis was on reaching adults. Generally men first, but clearly, reaching families through reaching adults. Decker also noted a 94% likelihood of reaching the whole family if the father is the first person in the family come to Christ. What is your church’s priority?
2. Putting the emphasis upon “conversion growth.” In seminary, I was taught there were three types of church growth: Biological, Transfer and Conversation growth. Biological growth—children who grow up in church homes who hear the Gospel and respond by profession of faith and membership—just happened. Transfer growth, though a necessity, was frowned upon. Conversion growth was the holy grail of the three, and was to be our focus. This approach is neither balanced nor totally biblical. For sustainable growth, I propose a balanced of four—not three—types of growth must be maintained.
a. Reproductive Growth: In Genesis, we are commanded to be fruitful and multiply. However, many—if not most—evangelical families are content to have 1.6 children. We may long for the days of robust Sunday Schools, but we seem to forget that the average family size is half of what it used to be here in America. In addition, churches should promote adoption as an alternative to abortion, encourage foster care, and support the desire of single adults who are not called to celibacy to find spouses.
b. Relocation Growth: Face it, people move more today than in any other time in our nation’s history. Does your church have an intentional plan to reach families who relocate to your community? Transfer growth is not “dirty growth.” If one moves to a new community, they need a church home. If they are in a church that is unhealthy, they need of a church home that provides healing and hope. Either way, does your church have a plan to assist those who desire to relocate to your church?
c. Repentant Growth: Maintaining a balance does not mean neglecting conversion growth, rather, it means raising the other three areas to the same priority. I once heard Rick Warren say to that keep the purpose of evangelism in balance with the other purposes of the church, it needs to be given double-effort. That same wisdom applies here.
d. Restoration Growth: Does your church have an intentional strategy for reaching those who are believers, but have opted out of church? The reasons for Christians opting out of church are many. Life changes, hurts, and lack of discipline are but a few. However, growing churches are ones that have a clear desire and intentional strategy to reduce the unchurched population—which in America includes tens of millions of unchurched believers.
3. Equip the saints for the work of ministry (we don’t want to do). In this scenario, the pastor does all of the “important” (and fun) work of the ministry. He baptizes every new believer, officiates the Lord’s supper as if a priest conferring God’s sacramental power upon the elements, and ensures that his sermons and classes are the focal point of the teaching ministry of the church. It is interesting to note that Paul did not baptize many (1 Cor. 1:14-16). Nor is Paul seen presiding over the Lord’s supper. Many pastors spend little time actually making disciples (the only imperative in the Great Commission), but enjoy as much time as possible in the ministry limelight.
4. Boring services. I teach my students that a boring Christian is an anti-evangelism strategy. Being a Christian is anything but boring, so why are so many former church members saying “boring services” is a top reason for not attending? In my study, boring churches are not necessarily “traditional” or “liturgical.” In fact, I’ve visited some liturgical and traditional churches that were anything but boring! What makes a church boring? First and foremost, sermons that don’t connect to life (or are biblically unsound—but that’s part on the final installment). Consider the sermons of Jesus. They did not follow the current trend of expository, book by book exegesis practiced by many. Rather, they connected real life, provide sound truth, and required action on the part of the hearer. Another word for action is application. If one were to apply the truths of the your current church service (each aspect, not just the sermon), what would that application look like? The church is made up on dozens (or hundreds) of people. It is hard for me to imagine that with that many believers, little can be done to ensure the service is not boring.
In the final installment, I will share what my research has raises as “doctrinal” reasons people are leaving our churches. By way of preparation, let me note that I am only the messenger, so please don’t stone me…I’m only reporting what I am hearing and reading.
 These findings were presented by Dr. Danny Decker during a lecture on 10/19/2007 at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. At that time, Decker served as the director of Men’s Ministry for the Missouri Baptist Convention. He is currently pastor of First Baptist Church, Warsaw, MO.
Dr. Rodney A. Harrison serves as the Vice President for Institutional Effectiveness, Dean of Online Education and Director of Doctoral Studies at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Harrison served as a church planter in Minnesota, California and Missouri, and is a pioneer in the current church revitalization emphasis. He holds the DMin in Mission Administration from Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary and is the author of two books on church planting.