What Part Do Pastors Play in Growing Congregations?

Excerpted from “Leadership That Fits Your Church: What Kind of Pastor for What Kind of Congregation” (Chalice, © 2012)

Defining church vitality is like defining love; there are thousands of metaphors, but none are completely descriptive. Numerical growth, one indicator of church vitality, has captured the attention of more researchers than any other topic about congregational life. At a minimum, church growth ensures the organization’s survival. However, we do not believe that numerical growth is the only church health measure. Faith tradition and theology often dictate whether increasing worship attendance and adding members are seen as what God requires of a vital faith community. Some congregations place equal or greater emphasis on caring for current worshipers, community service and advocacy, or outstanding worship as their primary expressions of faithfulness. This chapter focuses on pastors and what they bring to the church growth equation. Is there anything about the pastor that is relevant to whether a church grows or not?

What Is Church Growth?

To identify growing churches, we examined their reported average worship attendance over the previous five-year period. Average worship attendance—rather than membership—gives a more valid indication of changes in participation for two reasons. First, denominations and faith groups use different church membership definitions. Second, many members do not regularly participate or attend services. In fact, typically worship attendance is about 50% of the congregation’s membership.(1)

As we noted earlier, over a five-year period, half of the surveyed congregations declined in worship attendance by more than 5%. We placed these congregations in the numerically declining category. We designated those congregations that reported that their average worship attendance grew by more than 5% as numerically growing churches. The remaining congregations fell in the stable category—neither growing nor declining by more than 5% over the same five-year period.(2)

What Lies Behind Church Growth?

Congregations consist of particular people gathered for worship in a specific geographic location. Any understanding of church growth must take into account what is inside the congregation—the characteristics of the people who gather and the organization’s features, such as its size and faith tradition. What is outside the congregation’s doors, including the type of community where the church is located and the people who live there, matters too. Here, we add another important ingredient: what do we know about the pastor who leads a growing congregation?(3)

Who Worships in Growing Churches?

Before turning to pastors’ role in church growth, we first consider the kinds of worshipers in growing churches and what they find valuable about their church.

• Younger worshipers. Growing churches draw younger worshipers than other churches: more people under the age of 45 and fewer who are 65 and older. The differences between growing, stable, and declining congregations shown in Figure 7.1 do not appear large. Yet the numbers represent the median percentage across all congregations in each age group. The most striking differences lie between growing and stable churches on the one hand (where typically one out of three worshipers is 65 or older) and declining churches on the other (where on average 41% of worshipers are 65 or older).

• People with a strong sense of belonging. Much of congregational life revolves around the closeness people feel as they worship together, experience life’s joys and sorrows, and share their deepest beliefs. Congregations that provide people with love, a sense of belonging, and self-esteem will attract and retain new members. Because growing congregations encourage emotional attachment, more of their worshipers feel a strong sense of belonging. Substantially lower percentages of worshipers in stable and declining churches report strong emotional attachments to the congregation.

• Many new worshipers. Congregations grow by bringing in more new people than they lose. Most congregations lose at least a few worshipers each year: some die, others move away, and sometimes people drift away and stop coming. If a congregation wants to grow numerically, it must bring in more new people than are lost through attrition or death. In the average congregation, one in four people began attending in the past five years. Among growing churches, however, the median percentage of new worshipers exceeds the national average. One in three worshipers in growing churches came in the past five years. Because this percentage reflects the median, or middle score, half of growing congregations are welcoming even higher percentages of new people. These new worshipers are more than numbers. They bring new perspectives, energy, resources, and talent to the congregation.

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