5 Questions to Ask When Your Church Isn’t Growing

Chances are you didn’t get into leadership to see your church stop accomplishing its mission.

One of the primary missions of the local church is to reach new people with Christ’s love, which naturally implies growth.

But almost every church (and almost every organization) faces seasons in which growth stops. Some haven’t seen growth in years … or decades.

I was on a call with some leaders recently from a large growing church who told me that last year was the first time in 15 years they hadn’t grown. They’re addressing it and are back on track, but it was a tough year.

I can relate. I have been in church leadership for 19 years. We have seen growth almost every year (the majority of which has been from previously unchurched people), but there were two periods in which we stalled out. Those are tough seasons for leaders.

What was effective before has stopped being effective now.

A malaise sets in that’s difficult to describe.

As a leader, you’re not exactly sure how to get things back on track.

Ideally, you’d be asking questions before you hit a slump, but life isn’t that simple, is it?

So if you’re in a slump or see one coming, what do you do?

One of the best things any leader can do when they’re in a tough spot is to stop making assumptions and start asking questions. Our assumptions got us to where we are, but they won’t necessarily get us where we need to go.

Here are five telling questions every leader can ask when their church stops growing:

1. Is Our Sense of Mission White-Hot?

Effective churches have a white-hot sense of mission. It’s far more than a piece of paper on a wall or something the board recites at annual meetings, it lives daily in the soul of countless people in the congregation. It motivates all the action in the organization. It consumes people.

Often a church that has stopped growing has lost the urgency behind its mission. This is doubly sad in the case of a church because our mission is actually Christ’s mission. It’s the spread of the gospel into the world for which Jesus died.

Leaders and congregations that are effective in accomplishing their mission are consumed by their mission. It always burns white hot.

2. Are We Focused on Unchurched People or on Ourselves?

There’s a tendency you and I have as human beings. Our natural drift is to focus on ourselves. Not on Christ. Not on others.

The gravitational pull of any church is toward insiders, not outsiders.

Left unattended, your church will become a place where the preferences of the members trump passion for the mission.

There are two primary ways to address this drift:

In every decision, focus on who you want to reach, not who you want to keep.

Commit to losing yourself for the sake of finding others.

I completely understand that people automatically respond with Well what about me and my needs (or the needs of our faithful members)?

I believe Jesus said something about finding your life in the process of losing it. People who focus on helping others and honoring Christ soon discover that their needs are met far more deeply than they ever experienced otherwise.

3. Has Our Strategy or Approach Become Dated?

What got you here won’t necessarily get you there.

While the mission of the church is eternal, strategy should shift from generation to generation. This day it needs to shift even faster than that.

Identifying a dated strategy is easy if you’re a new leader who has taken over from someone else. It is much harder when you’ve led in a context for more than five years.

The challenge in long-term leadership is that the changes that you introduced may have been novel and effective when you introduced them, but it’s not 1995 anymore, or 2005 for that matter.

How do you tell if you’re strategy is dated? When it stops being effective. When you see very few people in the next generation adopting the approach or strategy in question.

If you want more on how church is changing, here are a few articles that can help:

10 Things That Ain’t Church (Some Thoughts On Irregular and Non-Attendance)

Why Charismatic Churches Are Growing (and Attractional Churches Are Past Peak)

Drew Powell and Matt Warren on Why Attractional Church is Past Peak, Why It’s Changing and What’s Next

The mission of the church is eternal. The method is temporary. The challenge, of course, is it’s easy to love the method more than the mission.

But in the future church, churches that love their method more than they love the mission will die.

4. Are We on Top of the Constant Change in Our Culture?

While you’re studying your strategy, you might also want to study culture. It’s changing, radically and quickly.

I believe when historians look back on our generation, they will see it as a crack in history. We now live in a post-Christian, postmodern world. That’s true in Canada. It’s increasingly true in the United States.

In my experience, many of us in church leadership don’t really grasp the enormity of the change going on around us.

Change is hard. But irrelevance is even harder. Unimplemented change becomes regret.

5. When Was the Last Time I Personally Invited Someone to Church?

This is a tough one.

The reality is many Christians, for a variety of reasons, don’t actually spend time with that many non-Christians.

Sometimes it’s fear based. That’s a shame because Jesus seemed to like outsiders even better than insiders. He had no problem hanging around people who didn’t want to hang out at church. Jesus had no problem loving people who didn’t yet love him.

Sometimes it’s calendar based. The church runs so many programs that Christians are at church five to seven nights a week. You don’t have time to build relationships with anyone outside, let alone be a family. That’s why at our church we only do community group one night a week. For the rest, we want our people to be home with their families as well as involved in local sports leagues, involved in their local schools and active in the community building friendships with people Jesus loves but who never attend church.

Sometimes it’s just a practical issue. If you’re on church staff, unchurched people rarely ask you for time. Churched people call you all day long and ask for your time and attention. And so you find yourself so absorbed with the work of the church that you miss the mission of the church.

If almost no one at your church knows any unchurched people, it’s no mystery why your church isn’t growing.

So why not go build some real friendships? And before you say we should be “in the world but not of it,” please read the Gospels again.

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This article originally appeared on CareyNieuwhof.com.