Why Churches Won’t Grow

Sadly, some congregations seem committed to their own demise. We might need to hear fairly often that the day is over when the masses of people just go to church. Many, many still do, but they are more rare and aging rapidly. Meanwhile, the leadership holds continual meetings on the subject(s) of infrastructure, constantly rearranging the deck chairs as the ship splits in half and slides beneath the waves.

Churches are like failing democracies, which, it has been noted, have at least these symptoms:

Outside competition-The church has a lot of outside competition; media of all types, from interactive video games to musical concerts to play to movies to the computer screen to the tube. Against this onslaught, churches have the preacher, worship leader, student leader. The worship leader (music and media) who does not “keep up” with the times is the most embattled of the three leaders. By “keep up” I mean the worship leader may be only twenty years behind in “contemporary music.” He or she is not likely to be using really competitive music themes. If you want to know what real up to date music is, go to the local high school parking lot and listen to what the kids blare on their truck radios; rap or hip-hop and country. Some of this bleeds over into the church but even the post-modern worship leaders have a steady diet of church type music for their aging congregations, because what is really modern is simply unpalatable to anyone over the age of 25. The church is mostly not competing with the outside forces.

Low quality policies-Take a look at the US government if you want a clear look at a declining democracy with poor policies. Imagine an enormous agency that spends years preparing a major policy initiative and, when it finally kicks off, has no support system to properly intake what would have to be called vital customers who, the government admits, are so important to the initiative, the program cannot survive without them. Imagine.

Churches do this all the time. The doorway of the church house used to be (and is still) vitally important to the growth (read survival) of the church. Today, the front door of the  church is electronic. The website front page tells people what they want to know about your church. If it is piecemeal, wordy or unattractive, or non-existent, you lose ground to someone who knows about on-line dating. The other electronic is for connections, as well, and for outreach. Don’t have them? Don’t use them? That’s too bad. The same guy who tells you a church should not worry about the internet is the son of the guy who told you the church did not a phone.

And the poor policies continue beyond all that media. Committees that control without contribution, turf wars, repetitive meetings that start nowhere and progress to oblivion, services people have already voted against with their money and their feet, and on and on. Many churches might benefit from a review of their leadership structure, committees (teams) and task forces. If the leadership cadre has not changed in twenty years, it is a clique, plain and simple.

A church asked me for a brief consultation experience. Brief is not bad and it mostly meant they did not want to pay me. I drove over to the site very early and watched people come and go. Or, I watched no one come or go. Nothing much happened for a couple of hours. I drove away, picked up a young friend of mine (unchurched) and drove back to the site. We drove around the grounds.

”’What do you think?’ I asked.

“Kind of ghetto,” came the reply. “Weeds and stuff in the parking lot, the big dumpster next to the building, a broken window in one building. Kind of ghetto.”

Poor policies can be good policies set in motion slowly. Some slow motion policies take effect so slowly, they may not as well take place at all. Imagine getting ready for Christmas 2013 in March 2014. All you are saying is you don’t much care.  A lot of churches are still getting ready for Christmas in 40 AD.


Lethargic, dependent parishioners-On a board in your local coffee shop or any message board there will be leaflets for various lectures, discussions, free training opportunities, et alia. All of them have good intent and most of them have good content, if they touch on a subject you care about at all.

And, therein is the issue. People who go to lectures or presentations on a subject are those likely to care about the topic, or those who know the speaker, or because their wife drags them or the husband wants a cheap date.

Church. We attract mostly those who are already interested.

I spent some time yesterday with a young man who is on staff at a declining church. His service area is holding steady but because the church is in decline, the resources are just not there to do the world anymore. This makes him rather sad. He speaks idly about starting a work on his own (new church unit) but is not sure where, with whom or even why. He wonders if some of the people who say them love him where he now works would go with him or at least support him financially in his new work start.

Staff may lead a church but they are like people who check into a hospital to be treated for one illness, only to catch two more from the sick guy in the next bed (iatrogenic illness). If you are on a staff of a local church of any type, keep a journal, daily, electronic or hard copy and write honestly in it. Your journal may become your counselor.

“I discovered I hated my church,” one journal keeper told me. “I don’t just mean the poorly lit, smelly buildings with no landscaping. I mean I hated the church.”

“What did you do then?” I asked.

“When I finally accepted how I felt, I gave myself six months to intentionally change my feelings. If, in six months, I could not get it back together, I would leave, just go,” he answered.

“I know you have recently changed churches,”  I told him. “What happened?”

“I found myself six months later meeting with the same five people who had not yet done the first thing I asked them to do. I tried to cut them off from steady access to me but it was too late. They were too dependent and others felt too detached from me. I had created my own disaster, with some lethargic, dependent people who drained my energy but who depended on me for their emotional support. They were doing nothing, I was dying and the congregation was not getting what it needed.”

Lethargic, dependent parishioners create the worst kind of welfare state. They may drain your emotional reserves, or just need physical resources you are not set up to give (and should not be) and the spiritual welfare recipients will certainly grow restive when you do not meet their accustomed needs. And the church will decline while you try to fill a hole your lethargic, dependent parishioners are still digging.


Plain, old poor leadership. What is your three year plan? What is your plan for this year? How do you enlist, enable and empower new, healthy lay leadership? Do people prepare for their works, or is the line at the copy machine pretty long on Sunday morning? What does staff tenure tell your church and community about your mental stability as a church?



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