Let’s face it: most churches want to grow. Church growth has become a robust industry comprised of books, conferences, workshops, and consultants. But the truth is that 46 percent of practicing Christians in America attend churches with 100 or fewer attendees. While most churches would like to attract more people, many struggle to do so.
Growing Your Church Fast
Before we jump into the steps, let’s address the elephant in the post. The words “growth” and “fast” are fairly loaded and relative. If you think this post will help you attract 1,000 members in three months, you might need to readjust your expectations a bit.
You want to reap a harvest, and following these nine steps will pump your soil full of the right nutrients for growth, giving you the ideal conditions for steady growth. As you experience that growth, you’ll develop the skills required to improve the process.
Pro-tip: The truth is that you don’t want church growth to happen too fast. Part of the growth process is creating a leadership and organizational structure to maintain the next level of growth. Even with the best guidance, there’s still a trial-and-error element in effectively managing growing churches.
The level of leadership needed for a 75-member church cannot maintain a church of 200. Thom Rainer breaks down the leadership required for various levels of growth like this:
- 0–100: Family-like
- 100–250: Basic
- 251–350: Challenging
- 351–750: Complex
- 750+: Highly complex
If growth happens faster than a church’s ability to negotiate the structural changes required to support it, it puts them in the dangerous position of moving backwards instead of forward. So when we say “fast church growth,” we’re talking about kickstarting reliable, continuous, and scalable growth.
9 Steps for Fast Church Growth
1. Make the decision to grow
I know that you’re probably seeing this first step and thinking, “That’s it?! I could have come up with that.” But hear me out.
There are 36,180 fitness clubs in the United States with a total annual income exceeding $25 billion. To be profitable, health clubs need 10 times more members than they actually have physical space for, which is fine because only 18 percent of people with gym memberships use them consistently.
For whatever reason, most people are just inspired enough to pay upwards of $800 a year for a gym membership, but not motivated enough to attend.
Churches are very similar. They’re stimulated enough to send their pastor to church-growth conference, but struggle to execute. When it comes down to it, church growth is very similar to physical fitness—if you don’t have the motivation for persistent implementation, you won’t see results. What’s nice about fitness is that you only have to motivate yourself—growing your church requires that you motivate everyone else, too.
Church growth requires all hands on deck. If only the pastor and a few families are dedicated to the process, it’s a difficult, uphill climb. No matter how established your church is, if you want to see fast results, you need to develop a spirit that’s more like a church plant.
Your first order of business is to get everyone on board and prepared to make some of the long-term sacrifices required for growth.
2. Set SMART goals
Once you’ve got everyone engaged in the process, it’s time to set down and make some goals—because “church growth” isn’t really a goal. Your leadership team needs to decide what growth means, how to measure it, and what steps need to be put in place to meet those goals.
Remember, those goals need to be SMART:
- Achievable, Agreed upon
- Time bound
Do you judge growth by attendance? Membership? Small-group involvement? Giving? Maybe you want to create multiple goals over time. For the first couple years, you work on increasing attendance, and then focus on membership or discipleship. Whatever you decide to do, everyone needs to know what the objectives are and how to achieve them.
3. Identify your ideal demographic
Discussions about demographics can make churches uncomfortable. Telling them to consider what kind of person they intend to reach seems limiting and, frankly, unspiritual. After all, they reason, Jesus asked us to make disciples of all nations; he didn’t tell Thomas to focus on middle-aged lumberjacks and Matthew to cater to discipling single mothers. But the truth is that Peter did focus on ministering to Jews while Paul went out of his way to reach gentiles. In fact, it was Paul who said:
“To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some.”
1 Corinthians 9:20–22
Paul is basically talking about how he caters his message to various demographics. To accomplish this, Paul needs to understand whom he’s talking to, what their felt needs are, and how to speak in a way that enables them identify with his message.
A lot of times churches aspiring to growth find a large church they admire and start copying their music, preaching styles, and other elements. The problem is that you can’t successfully copy a church of Millennials in Los Angeles if your city is made up of recent retirees. Once you figure out who you want to reach, then you can create a culture that speaks to them.
Do some research that identifies the characteristics that make up your city. What’s the average age? Gender? Race? Income? How do those areas breakdown geographically? Who are you primed to minister to? Build a service that focuses on their issues and needs.
4. Survey people who recently joined your church
Set up coffee with the last five individuals or families that joined your church. The point of this exercise is to discern what drew them, and what made them stay.
Here are some of the questions you want to ask them:
- What made you decide to start looking for a church?
- How many churches did you try before you visited us? What made you pass on the other churches?
- What initially attracted you to our church? Did you have any red flags with our church?
- What do you feel like we do best?
- What do you feel like we could do better?
- Would you feel comfortable inviting a non-Christian friend to your church? Why or why not?
Once you’ve talked to everyone, you should be able to identify some of your strengths and weaknesses. This can give you a good list of issues you may want to work on.
If you’re brave, you can even set up a meeting with the last five people who left your church. While these are potentially difficult conversations to have, they can be pretty revealing—and potentially healing.
Here are some potential exit interviews questions you can ask:
- What were some of your best experiences when you were with us?
- What do you feel that we did well?
- What made you decide it was time to leave?
- Is there anything we could have done to retain you?
- What could we both learn from our relationship?
Sometimes people leave because they don’t like your theology or the tone of your voice. You want to focus on the things that you can improve both in your service and in your communication. These are the elements that have the biggest impact.
5. Create strategic outreach opportunities
People don’t simply show up at your church. Your church needs to get into your community, create relationships, and draw them in. Now that you’ve identified your ideal demographic and considered your strengths and weaknesses, you can start reaching out.
If you really want your outreaches to have an impact, avoid plug-and-play programs. You can get a lot of great ideas from other churches, but you don’t want to try and recreate their success. Instead, you want to take their idea and build upon it with your church, community, and ideal demographic in mind. Ask yourselves, “What is it about this that worked? Will those same principles work here?”
One of the reasons you don’t want to create a carbon copy of what worked somewhere else is that your outreach can feel canned. You want your church to be invested and passionate, and the way to do that is get them involved in the ideation. The more they contribute to the creation, the more interested they’ll be in the implementation. You’ll find that their passion has a bigger impact that the specifics of the outreach.
6. Pour some energy into your children and youth ministries
Church’s role in the lives of children is one of it’s biggest draws. People who’ve lost touch with the church in their teens have kids and find themselves wanting the church to have an impact on their children. Even people who have never stepped foot in a church often find themselves thinking about making it part of their lives.
Smaller churches easily slip into a lax, community-like atmosphere with their youth and children’s ministries. If you want to appeal to young families who are re-thinking church, you don’t want to appear haphazard and disorganized. You want them to feel confident in your ability to love and minister to their child.
When it comes to getting this area squared away, make sure that all of your security protocols are in place. You need a clear, hassle-free check-in process, and a way to contact parents in case you need them. And in this day and age, there’s absolutely no reason not to have background checks in place.
7. Work on visitor retention
Finding outreach ideas that speak to your community is important, but what will you do when people show up at your church? You need to be prepared to to get first-time guests to return.
Tony Morgan explains it this way:
- If the church is growing, you’ll need more guests each year than you have people in your total average attendance. In other words, a growing church of 500 will need more than 500 guests in a year.
- The typical growing church sees 20% of first-time guests become part of the church.
- Growing churches see nearly 40% of second-time guests become part of the church.
- Close to 60% of people will become part of the church after their third visit.
So here’s the deal: if you’re a church of 200, you need to find outreach opportunities that can bring in 200 visitors during the year’s 52 Sundays. If you can do that and nothing else, you’ll likely increase your church by about 40 people.
But if you can capture their contact information and create a plan for follow up, you improve your chances of a second or third visit. Each subsequent visit dramatically increases your retention rate. If you want to grow quickly, it is imperative that you focus on getting visitors to return.
8. Ratchet up your social game
We all know that social media is important. At the bare minimum, most churches are on Facebook, but many have Instagram, YouTube, or Twitter accounts as well. What many of them lack is a strategy. In lieu of a plan, they copy what other churches are doing and end up with mixed results.
It’s wonderful to get ideas from churches that are blowing the doors off of social media, but don’t start there. If you don’t understand how a channel like Facebook works, you won’t really understand what they’re doing or why they’re successful.
There are so many blogs, ebooks, Facebook groups, and YouTube videos that can teach you why Facebook is such a powerful marketing tool and how your church can use it. Find a tech-minded person with a never-ending reservoir of curiosity and ask them to:
- Look under the hood and develop an understanding of how Facebook works. How does stuff end up on people’s news feeds? How do you grow your followers? How often should you post? When should you post?
- This should include spending some money on advertising. Don’t worry: Facebook advertising is relatively inexpensive and some of the best advertising you can pay for.
- Have them come up with a church-wide strategy that’s focused on getting your information in the news feeds of people who don’t attend your church.
Remember, every social media platform has unique uses and strengths. Instead of spreading yourself out across multiple platforms, make sure that you’re excelling at one before adding another. It’s better to do incredibly well on one or two platforms than it is to be mediocre on many.
9. Get people involved faster
When people visit your church, they’re asking themselves, “Is there a place for me here?” The sooner you can assure them there is, the better. You can do this by communicating volunteer and ministry opportunities faster.
A greeting team is important, but make sure you have a team of people who connect with visitors after the service. This team’s job is to make the visitor feel welcome and to find out about their families, what they do for a living, and what their interests and hobbies might be.
The goal isn’t just to be friendly. They want to help that individual make connections as quickly as possible. If the visitor says, “I do a lot of cooking in my spare time,” this should be a cue to introduce them to another amateur (or professional) chef in the church. If they mention that they care a lot for local causes, this team should be able to point out some of the work your church is doing in the community and tell them how they can get involved.
For this to work, everyone needs to be trained to draw out information casually and be aware of volunteer opportunities. They should also have a working knowledge of church members and their proclivities. If you’re intentional with this, it can be a dynamic way to forge a bond.
3 Myths About Growth
Maybe God’s inspiring your church through a season of outreach or evangelism, or perhaps growth is becoming an imperative. Whatever the reason you want to grow, you will need a perspective reset. A lot of churches struggle to grow because they subscribe to some growth myths.
You want a great harvest, but the first order of business is to plow up the soil and get rid of the current crop of weeds, exposing the rich soil you need to plant. Every wrong idea about growth is a barrier to this harvest and hampers your long-term effectiveness.
1. Growth is always a sign of a healthy church
Sure, someone can make the argument that healthy things grow, but unhealthy things grow, too. Increasing in size isn’t a sign that everything’s good. There are plenty of churches who could tell stories about church growth strategies that seemed to work, but only created larger unhealthy churches which eventually imploded.
If you want to grow, great! But it’s critical that you don’t do so because you think a larger church is healthier than a smaller one.
2. Poor leadership is always the problem
This myth has probably landed more pastors in counseling than any other. Leadership is important, but it’s not the make-it-or-break element in church growth. When your body is growing, a lot of internal and external factors are coming into play. It’s not just because you have the right brain willing the process to happen.
When churches struggle to make growth happen, they often begin to question those who are in charge. Thinking that the pastor was the obstacle to growth, many churches have made the disastrous decision to replace their leader—and have never recovered.
Sometimes lack of growth is because of poor leadership, but not always. Be careful not to assume that’s the issue.
3. Church growth is about focusing on holidays
While it’s true that Easter and Mother’s Day bring in lots of traffic, your growth isn’t contingent upon having perfect services on those holidays. It’s about creating a culture that’s consistently dedicated to taking advantage of every opportunity.
While holidays offer you unique opportunities to reach larger numbers of visitors, most growth is won or lost during the remainder of the year. By developing consistent church-wide habits and attitudes, you’ll be in a better position to take advantage of those special days anyway.
Expect a Breakthrough and Don’t Lose Heart
Churches struggle to implement growth programs because there’s a lot required up front that doesn’t feel like it’s paying off. It’s like the fitness analogy we used earlier. Before you can get fit, you have to make some changes and sacrifices without seeing any immediate benefits.
If you implement the steps I’ve laid out here, you’ll find that the effects are cumulative. You probably won’t see instant changes, but when that flywheel comes around and momentum kicks in, you’ll find that changes are dramatic.