MOST churches are in decline. Here's a ROADMAP to Growth

leadership Apr 22, 2024

According to a new study released by, only 33% of churches were seeing some or much growth in 2023.

30% were experiencing much decline. 24% were experiencing some decline. And 12% were classified as stable. Or what I would call plateaued. 

To say it more succinctly, 67% of churches are in decline.

The question is, why?

Hat tip to Carey Neiuwhof

And, more importantly (and what I’ll spend most of my focus on), what should you do about it if you’re a part of a church that is experiencing decline?

Why are 67% of churches in decline?

Now, to be sure, every individual congregation has its own set of circumstances that have contributed to them being where they are.

One major contributor to a church’s decline might be something out of their control like…

Their city, town, or neighborhood is experiencing decline — people are moving away.

And on the flip side, some churches that are experiencing growth might be benefitting from a boom in population growth within their city, town, or neighborhood.

Sometimes it’s just a matter of right place, right time or wrong place, wrong time.

So, with the caveat in place that every church has its own set of circumstances, I do believe that there are some foundational issues that might be affecting many churches in decline.

Back in 2014, Thom Rainer wrote a book called, Autopsy of a Deceased Church. Back in 2022, he updated some lessons that he and his team are seeing since the book’s release. I think these findings are relevant.

Because, let’s face it: the future of a declining church is a dead church.

Here’s what he found:

“Churches that closed had no ongoing effort to reach the unchurched in the community to become churched.” There’s a difference between a church that has community-focused ministries and a church that is seeking to reach its community with the gospel and welcome them into the bride of Christ.

“The pandemic increased the pace of decline and, ultimately, death of the churches.” As has been noted plenty, the pandemic was an accelerator of changes that were already taking place. Many declining or plateaued churches found themselves declining faster in the wake of 2020 and beyond.

“The leaders and members of the churches were in denial.” This is such a sad lesson and I believe there are plenty of churches who haven’t died yet that are in denial right now. Here’s why I find it to be so sad: decline doesn’t have to mean death. But if you combine decline with denial, it will certainly put your church on its death bed. Leaders must courageously confront reality and take action.

“The churches did not have new members’ classes to set expectations.” This is all about creating a shared culture of contribution and mission. And many churches that don’t offer some kind of assimilation track for new people are missing out.

“The churches kept waiting for the silver bullet.” This usually involved a new lead pastor or a new youth or children’s pastor. These new team members can help, but without strong lay leaders and contributing church members, the decline will continue (and those new staff members will likely leave frustrated and discouraged).

A Roadmap to Healthy Growth

This roadmap consists of 7 conversations that you and your leadership team need to have in the next 30 days so you can begin to see healthy growth.

And if you and your team want help navigating these conversations with a coach, let me know. I’d love to help you and your team work toward healthy growth by walking you through this process.

The first conversation is the most foundational of them all. Everyone needs to be get really honest with themselves and with each other.

Here’s the conversation starter: Have we resolved to reach unchurched people? This is a question that gets at the heart of the mission of the church. Go and make disciples of all people, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey all that Jesus commanded us.

If your church doesn’t light up at the thought of reaching unchurched people with the gospel of Jesus, the fundamental reason for her decline is right there.

Have we RESOLVED to reach unchurched people?

Are we teaching evangelism? Are we modeling evangelism? Are we celebrating evangelism? Are we expecting evangelism?

If your church misses this checkpoint in the roadmap, none of the other checkpoints will matter.

Here’s the second conversation (and it fully contributes to the first). Consider this: If I were to have a conversation with your team and I asked each of them, individually, what is your church’s vision for the next 3-5 years, how many different answers would I get?

The more answers given = the greater the misalignment. Clarity on where your church is going is essential.

Here’s the conversation starter for your team: Do we have a picture of what we’re going after as a church over the next 3-5 years? Here we’re getting after the vision of the church. 3 years from now, what do we want to be true of our church?

Mission is automatic no matter the context and time.

Vision is contextual and timely.

Your vision should be aligned with your mission and your context.

Here are a couple examples of a 3-5 year vision:

In the next 3 years, we will become a church where 75% of our members are involved in weekly small group gatherings.

In the next 5 years, we will partner with drug rehabilitation professionals to create Gospel-centered rehab facilities in every major neighborhood in our city. These facilities will focus on both the practical restoration and the spiritual formation of those who enter into rehab.

Do we have a picture of what we’re going after as a church over the next 3-5 years?

If not, you and your team need to plead with the Lord in prayer and come together to paint a picture of a mission-fueled future (or to say it simply, a VISION for your church).

When you and your team are crystal clear on these two fundamental things, you’re well on your way to leading your church toward healthy growth.

But when it comes to conversations 3 through 7, this is when things start to change because we’re going to take our convictions and dreams and turn them into action.

Let’s keep going.

The third conversation takes your church’s vision and turns it into an action plan. Because a vision without a strategy is just an exciting idea. That’s not what you and your team are going to settle with. You’re going to pray and ask God for wisdom and guidance. And then discuss this question:

Do we have practical steps that we must take over the next 3-5 years to see that vision come to pass?

To do this, you’ll want to begin at the end and work backward.

Let’s say you and your team have a vision timeline of 5 years from today.

Here are some follow-up questions that will help you and your team break down your vision into strategic steps:

  • Destination: What is our specific vision 5 years from now? Be as descriptive here as possible.
  • Checkpoint: Now, in order to see our 5-year vision become reality, what 3 things must be true 3-4 years from now?
  • Checkpoint: What must be true of our church 1 year from now in order to be ready to tackle those three things?
  • Checkpoint: In order for that to be true 1 year from now, what 3 things must we focus all our energy on this year?

Step by step, you work backward from the vision.

By the end you have (in chronological order):

0-12 Months: 3 Major Initiatives

Year 1: 1 Clear Goal

Years 2-4: 3 Major Initiatives

Year 5: Your 5-Year vision

Once you go through a process like this, your team will know exactly what the main focuses are for the year. And at the end of the year, you’ll know if you are on track or not, and make adjustments accordingly.

If vision never moves to strategy, it becomes a far-fetched dream with no hope of seeing the light of day.

A book I’ve found immensely helpful in building out a strategic vision with my leadership team is God Dreams. 

The fourth conversation is essential and, I find that it is often neglected in many churches. It’s one thing for you and your team to know where your church is headed. But if the rest of the congregation doesn’t know, you’re making a major headache for yourselves.

Prayerfully, you and your team need to evaluate:

Are we communicating these things to the congregation on a regular basis? Do they also know where we’re headed as a church?

Without the right communication plan in place, the strategic vision you and your team prayerfully labor to develop will never come to fruition.

This new vision must be woven throughout the life of your congregation.

Leverage social media, your website, email, decor in the church building, the Sunday service, and small group time to emphasize various aspects of the vision. You could start a YouTube show/podcast that is all about the ultimate goal of the vision and how people in your church can begin living it today.

Remember, a general rule of thumb regarding vision is this: when you’re getting tired of talking about it, they’re just starting to get it.

Find new ways to talk about your vision. Keep it fresh. Vary the mode of delivery.

But be sure to talk about it. Intentionally.

The fifth conversation can be a difficult one. But every church eventually has to have this conversation. It’s a question of the people on your team. Here’s how I would frame the conversation:

Do we have the right people on the team to take this next hill?

This conversation must be bathed in prayer and approached with humility and candor.

This could lead you and your team to consider:

  • Their own role and responsibilities moving forward
  • Adding staff
  • Recruiting more servant volunteers
  • Starting a new ministry team
  • Having a difficult conversation with a leader who isn’t fulfilling their responsibilities (whether they are a lead leader or paid leader)

If there’s one conversation that many leaders don’t want to have, it’s this one. And for good reason. It’s extremely uncomfortable.

But it’s necessary. In seasons of growth, in seasons of stagnation, and in seasons of decline.

The sixth conversation can be somewhat difficult to evaluate. But it’s necessary to do your best and approach it with eyes wide open. It’s a conversation about current levels of buy-in and momentum. Here’s the conversation starter:

Are people following our lead in what we’re inviting them to do?

At the end of the day, this is the essence of alignment — something most healthy churches have and most declining churches struggle to grasp.

When there’s buy-in, there’s often momentum. But buy-in (you could also call it, trust) doesn’t happen overnight. Not with most people.

So, if your church has low buy-in, the natural question is, why?

To go deeper on this, I would be thinking of things like:

  • Has there been inconsistency from leadership?
  • Has there been a lot of turnover?
  • Has there been controversy or conflict within the church?
  • Do your most devoted members want to move into a mission-fueled future or keep the status quo?

Are people following our lead in what we’re inviting them to do?

Work this out together.

Working through the seventh conversation facilitates people stepping into their purpose and aligning their lives with the mission of the church. To say it simply, it’s a beautiful thing when this happens.

Here’s the conversation starter: How are we helping people connect to the mission of the church and the purpose of their lives?

Simply speaking, this is oftentimes referred to as assimilation. But I want to remind you that assimilation is so much more than getting people involved.

This is creating a missionary aligned culture that helps people actively use their gifts in the body of Christ for the good of the world.

If you and your team don’t have a good answer to this question, you’ve got some work to do.

The best approaches I’ve seen blend the following strategies:

  • Clear onramps to connection
  • Group-sized connection (think: a newcomer’s lunch)
  • 1-1 relational connection - leaders pursuing people
  • Group-sized onboarding (think: a class)
    • Exploration of the mission of the church
    • Spiritual Gift identification
    • etc.
  • Personalized follow-up

When will you and your team have these conversations?

If you recognize that your church needs to make some shifts toward health and start moving down this roadmap to healthy growth, I recommend you take action on this in the next 30 days.

And again, if you and your team want help navigating these conversations with a coach, let me know. I’d love to help you and your team work toward healthy growth by walking you through this process.

[Free Download] The Intentional Pastor's Roadmap

A story of decline doesn't have to be your church's story.

In this Roadmap, I'm going to show you the path to lead with clarity and direction (into a brighter future).

Click here to get your copy of The Intentional Pastor's Roadmap.

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