Three Truths to Embrace When Hard Work and Planning Hasn't Produced Numerical Growth

Recently I had a conversation with a pastor that I have been coaching for over a year. Over the course of the last several months, he and his team created plans, landed a focused vision and made a lot of significant changes. During our last conversation he shared some of the discouragement that he and his team were experiencing. He said, “We’re a little frustrated because, despite the changes we have made, we still haven’t seen numerical growth.” Matter of fact, the average attendance of his church was exactly what it was one year ago.
 Understanding growth principles can be helpful, especially when you're gaging the success of planning and execution by the increase of attendance.  When I was a kid, I remember helping my grandfather plant his garden. Each day I would go there expecting to find fresh vegetables. It didn't take long to understand that growth has a process and my desire to see it now did not speed it up. The same is true in the church. 

If you're a pastor or leader and feeling a similar frustration like my friend, don't panic and don't give up. Church growth, just like a garden, has a process. Here are three things you need to get your arms around. Take these thoughts to your team and encourage them. 

1. People will Leave when the VISION Becomes OUTWARD Focused

Most Christians love the idea of reaching unchurched people; but, when the idea blossoms into planning and execution, attitudes can quickly change. When leaders begin scrubbing programs, designing ministries and changing worship styles to reach unchurched people, church members often respond with pushback. It is helpful to go ahead and embrace the reality that people will leave when your focus shifts to reaching outsiders. 

Throughout the New Testament, the gospel unifies people, but also divides people. Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword…” (Matthew 10:34). Jesus was surrounded by religious leaders and followers who were not happy about the people he was reaching. When Jesus shared his mission, people pushed back. His idea of reaching people who were far away from God did not fit into their belief system or ideology. John captures one of those moments when he writes, "From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him" (John 6:66).  Unfortunately, this is still the case in many churches today. Churches allow their traditions, past practices and complacency to supersede the mission of reaching people for Jesus. So, you need to know that It's ok when people leave. Accept that.

2. Don’t Overlook INVISIBLE Growth: 

As I mentioned earlier, the average attendance of my friend’s church was exactly the same the previous year. For him, it was challenging to meet with his team and talk through the numbers, that showed no growth. However, he didn’t think about the families who left his church over the last twelve months (for reasons mentioned above). So in essence, his church did grow. This growth is invisible on a spreadsheet, but it’s there nonetheless. 

When churches are working to get unstuck, growth is always preceded with cutting and pruning. Loss will always come before gain. Jesus said, “He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful” (John 15:2). Unhealthy programs (and many times people) have to be cut away. So don't let the attendance number be the only lens you look through to talk about growth. Even healthy things must be pruned. This is a normal part of growth and if you treat it as abnormal, you’ll sabotage your plans and efforts. 

3. Tangible Growth Simply Takes TIME

Let’s face it. It takes time for any organization to grow. This is true in the church and even more probable when a church has experienced years of stuckness. I love how the Message translates the apostle Paul's words, "We pray that you'll have the strength to stick it out over the long haul - not the grim strength of gritting your teeth but the glory-strength God gives. It is strength that endures the unendurable and spills over into joy...(Colossians 1:11). In other words, this is going to take time, effort and endurance. 

When leaders want instant growth, they begin making quick decisions that usually lead to wrong decisions. When change is made too quickly it can create a lack of buy in from the church. Although there are things we must change immediately, there is value in creating a strategic timeline in terms of what changes when. It takes time to shift the church’s focus from the WHAT to the WHY. When the why becomes the driver, conversations shift and motives change. 

So if you’re the pastor who has worked hard and prayed harder to see growth and impact in your church and it just isn’t happening yet…be mindful of the word “yet.” Stay focused on the vision; execute the plans and don’t stop believing. Keep going! 

Learn how we can help at The Unstuck Group.


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