Every successful church hits a moment of plateau in their growth.
For some, that plateau could come at 10, 100, 1,000, or 10,000. And that moment could last 1 month, 1 year, 10 years, or 100 years.
The growth plateau creates a crisis for churches because it signals two things: (1) the potential decrease of the church size, and (2) the lack of appeal the church has in its community.
These are both frightening signals for any church leader to face because lack of people often means lack of resources, and lack of resources means fewer programs, opportunities to reach people in the community with the mission of the church, and lower production quality of the church service event itself, resulting in an even further drop in the church’s appeal, resulting in fewer visitors.
That was a run-on sentence. But the church growth plateau is a run-on problem. And if you don’t address it head-on, that plateau will more than signal the church’s decline and death—it will guarantee it.
Here, we’re going to detail the major causes of church growth plateaus and how to break through them.
1. Low production value.
If your church doesn’t produce things well, people have a word for that: “Cheap.”
Now you might have a pocket full of reasons why your church doesn’t produce its events well.
- We don’t have the money.
- We don’t have the talent.
- We don’t have the tools.
These are not reasons. They are obstacles. And you have chosen not to overcome them in order to focus your time and resources on other things.
The problem with this decision is that it is very short-sighted. If you spend all your time and effort getting people into the door and making sure the backend of your church operations works, but spend no time on the front end—what businesses call the “customer-facing” aspect of your organization—people simply won’t return. They won’t tell you why. And you’ll never find out. But the reason was production value. People don’t like putting a lot of time and energy into things that feel cheap. Church is no different.
The solution to this is to re-allocate your resources toward increasing the production value of your church service, the smoothness of the event experience, and the quality of the design elements in the sanctuary.
My wife and I have an ongoing debate about avocados. I’m from New York and she’s from Los Angeles. She loves avocados. I can’t stand them (crazy, I know). Why don’t I like avocados? It’s what foodies call “the mouthfeel.” It has a weird texture. I don’t know how to explain it. But I know that when I eat an avocado, the feel doesn’t match the taste. There are entire subreddit communities devoted to hammering out the details of this debate. But here’s the point—I ate my first avocado, and that single experience supplied me with sufficient data to conclude that I’m not going to become a repeat user.
Your church gets to be any fruit it wants to be. It can be a bushel of strawberries, a crate of blueberries, or a watermelon. But if it’s an avocado—a very polarizing fruit—some people are going to like you, and some people aren’t (is it even a fruit?). Low church production quality is kind of like resigning to be an avocado. You’re accepting that you will only appeal to a thin, idiosyncratic portion of the population.
Now, the market for low-production churches could grow. It’s conceivable. The global demand for avocados has grown 83% over the past 5 years. But there’s a reason Starbucks sells bananas at the cash register. Bananas are globally the highest selling fruit by revenue, accruing $8.1B in annual sales, compared with avocados that only bring in $5.2B.
Don’t get me wrong—$5.2B is a lot of money. But it’s only 64% of $8.1B. If you’re a church hitting a growth plateau, at some point, you have to ask yourself: “Is our growth plateau a result of our product leaving the other 36% on the table?”
What would it look like for your church to get some of that banana money? It would take asking yourself: “What are people looking for?” and then doing that at your church. The #1 thing that people experience when they visit your church is your production value—the preaching quality, the atmosphere, the smell, the aesthetics, the feel—the mouthfeel, if you will.
Here is the principle:
Church visitors who are willing to put up with lower production value are also willing to put up with higher production value. Church visitors who want higher production value will not be willing to put up with lower production value.
Production value informs a visitor’s decision about whether to return and become a member or to try out a new church. In terms of our crude metaphor, all avocado eaters are willing to eat bananas, but not all banana eaters are willing to eat avocados (somewhat true for fruit, very true for churches).
Here is the takeaway:
If you’re hitting a growth plateau in your church, throw out the avocado playbook (low production quality, middling demand) and spend the time and money to become a banana (high production quality, highest demand).
2. Aversion to marketing.
Churches don’t like to think about church marketing because it feels grimy and salesy. They don’t want to be pushy.
But marketing is a necessary tool for growing your church by getting new visitors through the door. You can accomplish this in two ways — inbound and outbound.
Inbound marketing gets people in the doors of your church by posting shareable blogs with a link to visit your church, paying for Google PPC ads, and using other forms of advertising to get people to come in your door without meeting them face-to-face by supplying them the opportunity to visit in their native environment in an organic way.
Outbound marketing gets people in the doors of your church by asking your church members to invite friends and family, going to Starbucks and inviting the people you meet, and implementing an invitational strategy into your general practice of social interaction in your community.
Use both methods to get people to come to your church so that you have the greatest chance of increasing visitor acquisition and member retention.
3. Neglects reaching the youth.
This has to do not only with caring about reaching the youth, but employing the most effective methods of actually reaching the youth and getting them plugged into your church.
It’s one thing to talk to the youth, and it’s another thing to generate demand for your church among the youth.
If you care about church growth, you’re highly invested in the latter. You want to get youth in the front door of your church with the most fun and exciting things possible—all the cliches: paintball, laser tag, movie nights, video games, social events, and the like.
Whatever kids are doing right now, do that at your church and invite them (with a few filters, of course). Find the most viral thing that kids are doing that is appropriate for church—whether it’s photography, hunting, sports, movies, etc.—and create events based around that at your church.
Ideally, you have a youth pastor planning and implementing these things. If you’re a smaller church with a volunteer youth coordinator, then brainstorm with them and the rest of the youth team ways that you can creatively create a viral atmosphere around your particular youth group activities. If it takes giving the youth group a bigger budget, give it to them.
Your current growth plateau could be a result of failing to do this for the past 10 years, which is why there is a dry spell of adults—all of your youth have grown up and left, or many of the youth you could have reached simply never heard of you.
Double down on your youth group. This is a long-term investment that will show results in the next few years with their parents and the next few decades as they grow up and have families.
4. A poverty mindset.
Many churches believe that poverty is itself a virtue, which means that they should have as little money as possible. They don’t fundraise. They see low-quality production as a badge of honor. They wear their poverty on their sleeve as if it signifies a higher level of spiritual maturity.
As a result, churches and church leadership teams that learn this mindset is wrong the hard way are often deeply set in their ways, resulting in stagnancy and the implementation of uninformed and ineffective fundraising methods down the road. Members will be used to not being asked for money, and they will have a stunted conception of the relationship between giving and growth.
People need a vision, and they need tools to give wholeheartedly to the church. Preach on generosity. As your people consider the many Bible passages that speak about giving, leverage those verses to create a season of content that helps people grow from a poverty mindset into an abundance mindset so that they can begin giving to the church with a full heart, expecting God to provide for the mission to which he has called them.
Yet also meet them where they’re at. A product such as Tithe.ly’s digital giving app is designed to maximize accessibility in giving for your congregation and maximize your insight with its abundance of other church specific tools. Considering a new giving tool or software might just be the catalyst to break through your current plateau.
5. An outdated growth strategy.
What strategy it takes to grow from 100 to 200 may not be the same strategy that 300+ growth requires. “What got you here won’t get you there.”
This doesn’t entail that you should always be switching. But if you hit a growth plateau, you need to analyze whether your patience with your method is really just a veiled sunk-cost fallacy—that is, you must seriously consider whether your plateau is a feature of your current growth strategy or a fault of that same strategy.
6. No growth strategy.
Some churches still have a “Build it and they will come” mindset. In the same way that this aphoristic wisdom worked for brick-and-mortar stores before the internet but fail in a post-internet age, it will fail churches in our modern world as well.
The primary way new visitors discover churches is by googling “Churches near me.” If you don’t have a growth strategy, you’re not even thinking about Google PPC ads. Moreover, Google PPC ads aren’t enough. You should be deploying multiple strategies within an overarching growth vision that both your church leadership team and your congregants buy into.
7. Church conflict.
Finally, you may not be growing because you have in-house issues that need to be resolved. Visitors can tell when there’s conflict brewing beneath the surface of a church. It comes out in snide comments, cynicism, underhanded remarks, and a generally diminished sense of positivity in the church culture.
Just as on a first date, you can see certain “red flags” that someone may not be ready for a relationship, it’s impossible for a church that hasn’t sorted through its own issues to hide all of its significant red flags from visitors.
In the same way that more money won’t solve the problems of someone who doesn’t know how to manage money, more people won’t solve the problems of a church leadership team that doesn’t know how to manage conflict.
Church growth plateaus are heartbreaking and hard to overcome. But the persevering church leader will take the challenge by the horns, employ these seven strategies, and burst through that plateau, fully expectant that God will honor his faithfulness to his original call. Overcome these seven obstacles, and you’ll see significant growth in your church as fast as you can overcome them:
- Low production value.
- Cure: High production value.
- Aversion to marketing.
- Cure: Embrace the wisdom of good marketing.
- Neglects reaching the youth.
- Cure: Do what the youth do, but at church.
- A poverty mindset.
- Cure: An abundance mindset.
- An outdated growth strategy.
- Cure: A revised growth strategy.
- No growth strategy.
- Cure: An initial growth strategy.
- Church conflict.
- Cure: Resolving issues with a healthy culture.