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Church decline often is our choice; growth can occur if we reach for God

God is still giving the increase today! That should be good news for churches that value growth. For the past two decades, I have helped Churches of Christ plan for growth through the Center for Church Growth’s diagnostic evaluation service. A congregation will spend two to three months collecting in-depth information for analysis.
When we consider trends among Churches of Christ, our center’s past study findings have been made available in the book Clear Choices for Churches and Measuring Church Growth. We are updating the research with a more recent sample of 50 churches, about half growing and half declining in attendance. It is interesting to see what has changed and what has remained the same over the years.
From studying the data from nearly 200 congregations, my conclusions are basically unchanged. Not all churches, but a large number of established churches that desire an increase, have clear choices.
The center’s studies and other national research projects have uncovered membership attitudes and ministry strategies that contribute to growth and others that contribute to decline. A church can choose. With that being said, God is sovereign over Kingdom growth. So, is making ministry choices attempting to leave God out? Paul reveals two parts of church work when he says, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase” (1 Corinthians 3:6). God’s own design placed us in partnership with himself for accomplishing the mission. This reality is reflected in simple farming, as Paul illustrated.
When early pioneers came to this country, some used hand-held plows. It took three hours of human labor to produce one bushel of wheat. Today, with modern tractors, that same bushel of wheat takes less than a minute of human labor. So where is the power to produce wheat? It is in the wheat seed that God created, but the harvest often is in proportion to the quality of the methods we use. God is making available an increase to American congregations. And by his sovereign will, growth is given in proportion to the effectiveness of the methods churches use. Most churches have options.
In our study, growing congregations increased in Sunday morning assembly attendance an average of 20 percent in the past five years, while declining averaged 11 percent losses. For the first group, they outpaced the U.S. population growth of 6 percent for the same time period. I do realize that is only the positive side of the coin, but it is encouraging to know that churches have a choice.
Looking at the bigger picture of annual membership gains and losses is insightful. Growing congregations gained about 15 percent new members a year while the other group gains 10 percent. Both groups lose between 9 percent to 11 percent due to a variety of causes such as mobility. For a church to sustain a 5 percent net increase means that it must reach out and incorporate 15 percent new members every year. A congregation of 300 needs 45 new members annually.
One thing has not changed: Growing churches use ministry methods that reach out and include new people. Two growth factors have surfaced in almost all statistical-based studies for the past 20 years.
The first growth factor is that growing churches are intentional in providing ministry for young adults and their children. This is reflected in the growing church’s age distribution. A balance of about 75 percent of the congregation is under 50 years of age while 25 percent are 50 and up. On the other hand, a typical declining church does not attract and keep people in the 20-to-49 age range and their preteen children, resulting in a 60/40 percent distribution on average. Isn’t this just a result of aging Americans and community demographics?
The U.S. and churches do have an aging adult population. Even growing congregations show an older age distribution than 15 years ago. For example, a growing church averaged 20 percent over 50 years of age in 1994, and now it is 25 percent. What remains unchanged is that growth is more likely experienced by groups that develop ministry for couples in the 20-to-49 age range and their children.
To reach this goal means that most non-growing churches must improve and expand the relationship-building and spiritual-formation dimensions of ministry. Established churches in America are built on the Sunday School movement and have a strong educational model of ministry. (For a discussion of the Sunday School movement and Established Churches, see our center’s Small Groups and Established Churches, 2005). To reach young adults requires an equal emphasis on relationship building and a community that stresses spiritual growth.
The second growth factor is contrary to attitudes encountered in the cultural and educational currents. Growing churches are intentional with a wide range of activities that contribute to local adult evangelism. “God’s will is that none should perish and that all should come to repentance,” (2 Peter 3:9). God is blessing the congregations that seek the lost.
Often, I hear that churches are not growing from evangelism but swelling from transfer growth. The research data presents a little different picture. On average, a growing church baptizes four adults per 100 members each year, while a declining church baptizes two adults. This is in addition to baptizing members’ children. That statistic may not sound like a significant difference, but the evangelism efforts are far reaching.
Churches that are intentional in evangelism are the ones that receive the greatest amount of transfer growth. The warm, open and accepting atmosphere in a church required for evangelism is the same kind of place most members want for a church home. Members in outward-focused churches evaluate their congregation as having high morale. It is an atmosphere conducive for spiritual and numerical increase.
So, if growth is a viable option for many churches, what can be done to encourage it? Right now, evangelism and growth are not priorities among Churches of Christ. Just look and listen. There are so few influential voices addressing these issues. We need more communication, prayer and planning that leads to action.
If churches plant and water with effective methods, God is still giving the increase for his glory.

JOHN ELLAS is director of the Center for Church Growth and author of
Church Growth Through Groups. His doctorate in ministry is from Fuller Theological Seminar in the field of church growth.

  • Feedback
    i pray that god should increase us in our church foundation group.
    Isolo, Lagos
    February, 7 2011

Filed under: Staff Reports Views

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