Stagnation is death.
Okay, that might be a bit dramatic. There’s nothing wrong with a good breathing season.
But many churches aren’t catching their breath from growth—they’re stuck in a rut.
The reason they’re stuck in a rut—whether it has to do with growth, finances, or engagement—is the same reason anyone is ever stuck in a rut. Growth requires change. Change requires sacrifice. Sacrifice requires pain. That’s pretty clear, right?
Pain > Sacrifice > Change > Growth
Many churches try initially to hack their way to growth by bypassing one of these elements. They try to jump right to growth by throwing money at a problem. Or they try to grow by changing something that doesn’t require much sacrifice from the organization. Or they try sacrifice that isn’t painful enough to make sense of the change in the first place.
Whatever your reasons for hitting a plateau in your church’s specific problem area, there are three primary domains in which these problems take root. They are often the most painful to change, but they are exactly what churches need to change. The psychologist Carl Jung is famous for saying: “The reason the gold is under the dragon is because the things we need to change most often hide in the places we least want to look.”
These three domains are indeed painful to change.
But when it comes to stagnancy in your church, these are the three most common culprits. When diagnosing and treating this cohort of the usual suspects of church plateau, churches usually want to pick the least painful path.
There is wisdom in this, because churches that change too painfully and too rapidly can easily push themselves into a state of imbalance that causes the church to shut its doors. Mettling in these domains requires temperance, patience, wisdom, and decisiveness.
Let’s dig into these problems by dropping our egos, committing to objectivity, and opening our eyes to the real costs and benefits of pursuing the kind of church change that brings a fresh and powerful wind to your church’s growth momentum.
1. A bad (or no) communal reputation.
A church with no reputation in the community—or worse, a bad reputation—is in a situation where their social liabilities have become genuine threats to their existence. However, the reputational variable is the most common variable to be blamed on other things—people, marketing, programs, outreach efforts, and leadership.
The fact is that word of mouth remains the most powerful element in marketing. If people aren’t talking about you at all, you’re not even going to see a trickle of new people walk through your door. More than that, your members want to be part of a church that is known—and known well—in your community.
You may have had a church split, a bad experience with a ministry partnership, or managed a semi-toxic church culture—all of which could be a source of your non-existent or poor reputation. Some of these are easier to fix than others.
A church split does damage because the people who leave may spread poor opinions about your church to their friends.
A poor experience partnering with the town hall or local charity will require a one-on-one peacemaking effort by the senior pastor—more difficult, but only as impossible as your ego makes it.
2. A poor fundraising strategy.
Finances are another major reason your church may be struggling to change.
Money makes opportunities for growth possible. But many churches don’t have a sufficient fundraising strategy to give them access to the money they need to catalyze change.
There are a few ways to get access to money as a church. A loan is not a recommended first resort for churches in need of change in order to grow. A better way is to leverage the financial assets you already have at your disposal. You might think: “I don’t have any financial assets!”
But you do.
They are called: churchgoers.
These are people that God has called to give to the church.
Some of them are wealthy. Some of them are not.
The average church budget for a church of 300 is $500,000.
If your church has 100 members, each tithing at 10%, that’s a $1M budget.
This is what businesses call “going back to the base.”
Your problem isn’t that you don’t have enough people giving, but that you haven’t discipled your people about giving enough to show them the spiritual benefit of tithing.
Take them through a sermon series on giving and tithing. Show them the commands and promises of God as they relate to giving, generosity, and tithing in order to catalyze an increase in giving.
In the real world, we recognize that no church has 100% of its members tithing at 10%. But you should use that number as a financial goal for your church. If 100 members translates into $1M, make that your annual fundraising goal. And you should explain why that is a fundraising goal to your church so that they understand the biblical rationale behind your vision.
So, how do you close the gap between your ideal financial goal and the real world where not everybody will tithe? The answer is simple: devote special fundraising efforts to partnering with wealthy donors in your church.
Pro tip: Watch this fantastic video of our COO Frank Barry explaining concrete strategies to build fundraising relationships with wealthy donors in your church.
3. A toxic church culture
A toxic (or semi-toxic) culture is the hardest to fix, because in one sense the bad reputation is earned. In this case, you have in-house work to do to create a healthy church culture before you attempt to get people flooding into your doors. Once you have established a healthy church culture, there are many ways to restore your reputation.
There are many commonsense ways of fixing the latter problem:
- Get out there and meet people at Starbucks.
- Serve in the local homeless ministry.
- Host AA meetings in a room at your church.
- Network with other pastors and support other churches.
Make yourself known as generous. Earn the trust and support of your community by trusting and supporting them.
More than that, as your church grows, if you have a healthy culture to offer, new people will only make it healthier if you have a membership on-boarding process that helps people understand the mission, vision, and communal best practices of your church. If you are discipling newcomers, then those newcomers will want to further contribute to the healthfulness of your church,
Getting new blood in your church both sparks a new word-of-mouth marketing effort and functions to further solidify the healthful culture you are rebuilding in the wake of toxicity.
The church is simply the people that compose that church. If you add people, you fundamentally change the constitution of a church. That’s how it’s meant to work. That’s how God designed it to work. We are called to embrace the change catalyzed by conversion. We are meant to invite and welcome the social problems prompted by population prosperity.
If your church needs to change in order to grow, remember: Pain > Sacrifice > Change > Growth. But not all pain produces growth. That’s why it’s critical for you to focus on strategic domains of failure that are most highly correlated with plateau, and which supply the greatest opportunity for the kind of change that catalyzes growth. Remember, they are:
- A bad (or no) communal reputation.
- A poor fundraising strategy.
- A toxic church culture