Church Growth, the Right Way
I'm Scott Ball, a strategy and leadership consultant for churches like yours.
I work with The Malphurs Group to equip churches to break through barriers,
and maximize your impact for Christ.
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5 Lessons from the Church Planting Trends Study
The older I get, the less I understand haircuts.
Now, I live in East Tennessee—so however cool people are cutting their hair in New York and LA will be how cool people in my neck of the woods will cut their hair in ten years. So I’ve got plenty of time to adjust to the hipster haircuts I see on television and the Internet.
But I have to be honest. Sometimes, I just don’t get it.
Why does a man have a bun? Why is a mullet considered shady but buzzing your hair on the back but letting it grow long on the top (the reverse mullet?) totally fine? Are mohawks back in style now?
Also, hats? If I ever put on one of these hip cowboy/sombrero/orthodox Jewish hats, my wife may slap me. I’m certain that the hats are cool. I’m just also certain that I am not. And here’s a confession: I’m not that old.
So I can only imagine the groans that must escape the mouths of long-established pastors and leaders when they see an article titled like mine or read this article on Christianity Today—one of their most popular posts in 2015. Hearing about church planting trends or seeing something that implies that “established” churches are somehow the red-headed step-children to church plants must come across as annoying and off-putting. I get it. I really, really do.
But I spend every day in contact with pastors around the country who are banging their heads on barriers that have plagued them for years. I’m not necessarily just referencing growth barriers. A barrier is any obstacle that keeps your church from getting to where you want to go.
Just last week I was talking with an elder at a church whose church is struggling to make a difficult staffing decision. For them, their barrier is centered on making the right choice on where to go with their staffing structure in order for them to have the maximum impact.
So when I see articles like this, I get it. Established churches get tired of hearing how church plants are cool and old churches drool. But when you peel back the surface, what you discover is that in the world of established churches and church planting, there are common threads that can benefit churches—new and old. The trends behind the success aren’t tied to being young and new. The trends can equally apply to any kind of church at any age and any level of growth.
So what are the five trends established churches can learn from the church planting trends study?
1) Churches that pay better do better.
The study indicated that churches that provided for their church leadership reported higher attendance. This may sound impossible for your church; if you could pay more to your staff, you would! When you look at your budget, you feel like you’re leveraging everything you can towards personnel, and you can’t do better. Maybe. I would only ask, “What could you cut to ease the financial burden on your staff?” Very often senior leaders are compensated well, but lower-level staff struggle financially. Churches that pay better are better-able to retain talented staff long-term, which generates momentum, and momentum spurs stewardship. Personnel isn’t an expense, it’s an investment. Are you doing the best you can in providing for your leadership?
2) Churches that plant churches do better.
Church plants and established churches that are engaged in planting other churches are going to see more success within their own congregation. Why? Because church planting spurs innovation, generosity, and excitement. An active role in church planting requires an engagement in leadership development. The spill-over of engagement in planting a church will have internal benefits. Every time. Never be afraid to use funds you would otherwise use for “your” ministry towards church planting. Like paying staff well, domestic church planting (like foreign missions) is an investment that is likely to pay dividends.
3) Churches that focus on outsiders do better.
That just sounds so simplistic. But believe me, it is not. The vast majority of churches maintain a “come check us out, if you feel like it,” approach to ministry. The stars truly have to align for growth happen. People have to hear about you, decide why going to your church would be better than sleeping in, remember to actually come at the right time, find a parking space, have the guts to walk in, sit through a service, and then maybe come back. It’s a lot. It’s no wonder, then, that churches who go to people do better at getting people to come to them. Church plants very often by necessity find this to be natural because they’re portable and don’t have permanent office space. Voluntarily put yourself in that position: work away from the office, host services in public places, and partner with outside organizations (even non-faith-based organizations).
4) Churches that have a good reputation do better.
More than a cool billboard or a Facebook ad or a mass mailer, the churches that get great word-of-mouth publicity have better attendance. I’ll put it this way: be worth talking about. I don’t mean be flashy or shallow. Simply, have a point. Why would any one talk about your church with their co-workers? What’s happening there that’s a more interesting lunch topic than the weather? Be worth talking about, and people will talk about you. And if people start talking about your church, people will start showing up at your church. That’s a fact.
5) Churches that embrace a heterogeneous crowd do better.
As a general rule, people like people who are like them. People tend to go to churches where they feel accepted and loved and where they fit in. The problem is, the most common response to this natural human reality is homogeneity: a church where everyone looks the same. Yes; so we’re clear. I’m talking about race and ethnicity and age. A more Kingdom-like response, though, is heterogeneity. If you can be a place where lots of different types of people feel welcomed, more people will feel accepted. The more diversity you foster, the broader appeal you’ll have to your neighborhood. And diversity is on you as a leader. Racial diversity rarely happens on accident. It starts with having a diverse leadership. You cannot expect to have a diverse church if your staff is not diverse.
There are even more lessons all churches can learn from the church planting trends study, but these five are a great place to start. If you’re reading these tips and feeling overwhelmed, let’s talk.
My advice is this: don’t start with all five. Pick one. Pick one thing you can do this quarter that will improve your church. Generate a small win, then build on the momentum to tackle something else.
Here’s my other advice: consider getting extra help. If your church has been doing the same thing for years or have been hitting the same barriers for years, it might be time to consider inviting others into the process. If you’re interested in a no obligation conversation about what that looks like, let’s chat.