by Carey Nieuwhof: You got into church leadership because you wanted to introduce people to Jesus. That’s pretty much how all of us begin, isn’t it?
And yet every year, it seems to get harder to reach people.
It’s not for lack of effort. Most church leaders try hard, pray hard and do their very best to advance the mission of their church.
But the facts speak for themselves. The majority of churches are in decline, and 94% of all churches are losing ground against their community (that is, their community is growing faster than the church is).
And yet, even in the midst of that, some churches are growing.
In those churches are the early clues to what future church growth looks like.
Here are 7 factors that will drive almost all future church growth.
1. Personal Invitation
One of the things that fly under the radar of most growing churches is how much personal invitation fuels church growth (and discipleship).
A great social media presence is important, as are services unchurched people can access.
But at the heart of it all, in almost every growing church is this: people inviting their friends.
Personal invitation fuels much of future church growth. Conversely, if your church members don’t invite their friends, don’t expect to grow.
If your church members don’t invite their friends, don’t expect to grow.Click To Tweet
This assumes Christians actually have non-Christian friends they can invite. Shockingly, too many Christians don’t.
Many Christians cocoon in their little bubble, distraught over the direction the world is heading and angry at or indifferent toward people who don’t hold their values and beliefs.
Don’t miss this, Christians: it’s hard to reach a world you don’t love…or know.
Christians, it’s hard to reach a world you don’t love…or know.Click To Tweet
2. Refusing to Settle for Mediocre
It’s one thing to invite your friends. It’s quite another to have a great experience to invite them into.
Many churches settle for mediocrity. Don’t.
Battle mediocrity instead. Too many churches allow what’s good to stand in the way of what could be great.
Too many churches allow what’s good to stand in the way of what could be great.Click To Tweet
To some extent, that means a service with decent music (decent to outsiders, not insiders), authentic, compelling preaching, a solid next-gen ministry and a good guest services approach (making your guests feel welcome).
An awkward reality of stuck and declining churches is that they choose inclusion over excellence. We let a not-very-gifted singer sing because no one has the courage to tell him he can’t. We let non-leaders lead because they’ve been there the longest, and they’re bossy, and we’re all afraid. (I wrote more about this dynamic that here.)
I’m not judging. I’ve led in that context before, and that’s one of the first things a leader has to change.
God designed some people to sing. Get them singing.
He gave others the gift of rhythm. Get them drumming.
He gave some the gift of leadership or communication. Get them leading and communicating.
It’s a mistake to dismiss that as entertainment. It’s called gifting. And the body of Christ works best on gifting.
The price you pay is a service nobody really likes, except the insiders, kind of like a school play parents endure because they know their kid is in it.
If your worship service is something only insiders love, don’t be surprised when outsiders walk away.
If your worship service is something insiders love, don’t be surprised when outsiders walk away.Click To Tweet
3. An Open Door Online AND A Great In-House Experience
The online world is continuing to become more and more real. Your regular attendees and everyone you want to reach moves seamlessly between the digital and real worlds these days.
Future churches know this is true.
One of the tensions most leaders have felt, though, is a fear that a great online experience will mean people stop coming to church. If you post your messages online, why would people attend? If you give your best content away from free, why would people show up?
That can be a superficial fear (attendance alone is a poor motivator), but it points to something more deeply real.
Future churches will realize their online presence is their front door, not their back door. Will you lose a few people when you launch a great online presence? Sure. But they weren’t the kind of people you could build the future of the church on anyway. The people you lose through a solid digital presence are the kind of people who were sitting in the back row not serving, not inviting friends and not giving anyway. They were already on their way out or at least were barely hanging in.
The people you’ll reach? Well, there are 1,000 or 10,000 of them for every person you might lose.
Future churches will also realize, though, that following Jesus is about more than consuming content while you run, drive or cook dinner.
Our digital age also leaves people hungering for greater community, greater experience, and greater transcendence.
Which is why churches that are growing are focusing more and more on creating experiences that engage more than just the head on a Sunday…but also engage the heart and relationship.
In short, people don’t just want to know what’s true, they want to know what’s real. And what’s real is deeper than just an idea—it’s an experience.
They come looking for something bigger than themselves, and something frankly, bigger than us. They come looking for God.
It’s a shame is when people come to church looking for God and only find us.
It’s a shame is when people come to church looking for God and only find us.Click To Tweet
I think the best future churches will have content that leans toward the immanent—practical, helpful and digestible. And they’ll also offer experiences that are transcendent…that you had to be there to experience.
If everything your church does in the future feels downloadable, probably all you’ll get is a lot of downloads, not a lot of gathered people.
To put it simply, if people feel like they missed nothing when they missed church, they’ll keep missing church.
If what your church does touches the soul, people will continue to gather.
The best churches will offer both because that reflects the character and nature of God and the character of the Christian church at its best.
If people feel like they missed nothing when they missed church, they’ll keep missing church.Click To Tweet
4. Genuine Community
The paradox of our age is that we’ve never been more connected as a culture, and we’ve never felt more alone.
Churches that grow in the future will prioritize community. Real community.
Real community isn’t just ‘fellowship,’ where the people who already know each other catch up over coffee while new people go unnoticed.
Churches claim to be friendly, but that usually only means we’re friendly to each other.
Churches claim to be friendly, but that usually only means we’re friendly to each other.Click To Tweet
And catching up on what happened this week and talking about sports or the weather is hardly what Jesus had in mind when he told us to love one another.
But the truth is the real mission of the church is relationship. It defines the vertical nature of our faith (love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength) and the horizontal essences of Christianity (love your neighbor as yourself).
If anyone can get relationship right, it should be the church.
So ask yourself as a church leader: what are you doing to forge the deepest relationships you can forge between people in your church? Then do it.
The paradox of our age is that we’ve never been more connected, and we’ve never felt more alone.Click To Tweet
5. Deep engagement
As I’ve written about before, in the future church, engagement will drive attendance.
Why? Because in the future church only engaged people will attend because only the engaged will remain.
In the future church only engaged people will attend because only the engaged will remain.Click To Tweet
Think about it your church right now, whether it’s growing or not. Again and again, it’s engaged Christians who advance the mission.
Engaged people are passionate people. They know what the mission is. They serve in it. And they live it out.
They’re passionate enough about it to invite their friends.
Over the long-term in a church, you can accomplish more with 300 engaged Christians than with 3000 disengaged attendees.
You can accomplish more with 300 engaged Christians than with 3000 disengaged attendees.Click To Tweet
The disengaged group will dwindle. The 300 engaged Christians will advance the mission and never stay the same.
Yes, only God can bring growth. But he uses people who are engaged to do it.
If you want more on how to engage the people you have in the mission, here are 7 ways to do it.
Only God can bring growth. But he uses people who are engaged to do it.Click To Tweet
This may seem like a strange one to add to the list, but it’s essential.
Growing churches are clear churches. They have clarity about the mission. Clarity about the vision. And they have clarity about the strategy.
Growing churches are clear churches.Click To Tweet
It’s strategic clarity that scares a lot of leaders. Here’s why: clarity takes courage, which is why so many leaders shy away from it.
Clarity means this is how we’re doing music. Often blended worship in a church exists to try to keep everybody happy, which of course means, no one is happy. Especially the leaders.
Clarity means this is how we’re going to reach our community. It also means, no, we’re not going to do X Y and Z. We’re about THIS instead.
I know language like that strikes fear into many hearts.
Clarity does not mean you issue executive fiats. It doesn’t mean my way or the highway.
It means a group of leaders has prayed and thought through the future, chosen what they believe is the best path to accomplish the mission, and then invited others along.
They focus on who they want to reach, not who they want to keep.
And usually (if the clarity points them in the right direction), they reach them.
Blended worship often exists to keep everyone happy. Which means no one is happy.Click To Tweet
7. Risk and Experimentation
To accomplish a radically new future, you will have to do radically different things.
The people you’re trying to reach don’t care what you did yesterday. Actually, they don’t really care what you’re doing today.
This scares the socks off of most of us. After all, risk is for risk-takers, and many of us are not crazy risk-takers.
Whether that’s pop-up church, micro campuses, new approaches to social, or even different ways to connect people, your church needs to rethink its current methods to accomplish its mission.
If you want to see some church trends to spark you thinking, here are some posts I wrote about disruptive church trends over the last few years:
You can start experimenting today. And keep doing it.
Will you need to do some big stuff? Sure. But you’ll also need to try some little things. Experimentation can happen in anything.
Here’s a current example we’re trying at Connexus Church where I serve.
We’re in a 6 part series at Connexus Church called The Problem of God. It’s an apologetics series, and we really wanted people to invite their friends, which they did. We’ve set attendance records throughout the series.
We started by giving away free copies of the Problem of God book to kick off the series. That had the combined effect of drawing a lot of people in AND helping people go deep into the subject we’re tackling.
We’re also mashing up the digital world with live teaching by turning the 6 part series into an 11-part series via our audio podcast…adding an interview I did with Problem of God author Mark Clark. Then in the final week of the series, we’re also adding four bonus messages covering subjects we didn’t tackle live on the weekend. They’re actually just repurposed messages from other series, but they will make a nice little package for anyone who wants to go deeper on the subject. It’s a way of driving engagement, invitation and deeper personal discipleship all at once. Plus, churches are famous for never using past content for future purposes, and this changes that. (You can see the approach here—NOTE; the final four bonus episodes will not appear until Sunday, February 18th, 2018.)
Because we anticipated a high turnout and a lot of new people, we also ran special Starting Point groups and a Group Link to connect people in the middle of the series and saw a huge response.
The result? More people in person. More people engaging online. Much more sharing. People connecting relationally, baptism requests and already a few dozen decisions for Christ.
Otherwise, it could have just been a six-part series to kick off the new year.
See the difference a little experimentation can make?
To accomplish a radically new future, you will have to do radically different things.Click To Tweet
Push Past Your Current Barriers
If you’re reaching more people but you’re currently stuck at an attendance plateau, I have some deeper practical help for you.
Breaking 200 Without Breaking You is a course I’ve created that provides strategies on how to tackle eight practical barriers (including a more nuanced and practical dive into everything I covered in this blog post) that keep churches from reaching more than 200 people. And it’s designed so I can walk your entire leadership team or elder board through the issues.
So whether your church is 50, 150 or 250 in attendance, the principles will help you gain the insight you need to break the barrier more than 85% of churches can’t break. Even churches with attendances of 300-500 are finding the material helpful as they try to reach more people.
What Do You See?
As you look ahead to the future, what are the factors you in growing churches? Scroll down and leave a comment. Let’s help each other out.