When Church Growth Strategies Just Don’t Work Anymore

We can’t become attached to church growth strategies and practices just because they’ve worked in the past. We need to be willing to abandon plans that are no longer fruitful. That might seem obvious, but it’s more difficult than one would think.

It’s easy to hold on to what is no longer effective because we’re hopeful that it will become useful again. We might even come to identify so closely with a strategy that to discontinue it feels like a loss of our community’s identity.

Strategies vs. Tactics

A lot of the time churches confuse strategies and tactics. A strategy is a big-picture objective which is made up of various operations or systems called tactics. It’s important to understand the difference. A lot of “strategies” don’t work because they’re simply not strategies.

For instance, let’s say that your church wanted to reach more families in your community. And someone suggests putting on a summer VBS program. In everyone’s mind, this is now their “strategy” for reaching more people in their community. And when it doesn’t work, they’ll assume that the strategy is bad.

But here’s how the process should develop:

  1. Everyone decides who they want to reach. If you’re interested in reaching families with church backgrounds who are no longer attending anywhere, a VBS might work. If you want to reach unchurched families, a daycare may be a better idea.
  2. Once you know who you want to reach, you create a strategy. This would include:
    • Various outreaches (like VBS)
    • A marketing plan for those outreaches
    • A procedure to capture contact information for families
    • A system for following up and building relationships with them

Tactics have value within a strategy, but they’re not strategies in themselves. It would be unfortunate to say VBS isn’t effective when the problem is that a VBS cannot fulfill your ultimate objective alone.

When you pair an opportunity with the right strategy, you find that many of the tried-and-true tactics still work. It’s not always about abandoning the things we’re doing. Sometimes we need to change our perspective.

Here are a couple of examples:

1. Social Media without a Plan

When it comes to social media, a lot of churches are lost. They see other churches on Facebook and Instagram, so they feel like they should be, too. All the conferences they attend and the blog posts they read suggest that a social media presence is a 21st century requirement.

So they create a Facebook page. But because there’s no time spent learning the various uses of Facebook’s platform, their social media efforts lack any real strategy.

Then they start copying the behavior of the more successful churches on social media, assuming that likes and comments are the ultimate goal. But after a while they realize they’re investing a lot of time in something that doesn’t seem to offer any real return. Many churches would probably say that social media is a waste of time, but that’s because they haven’t figured out how to make it part of their bigger plan.

You can’t just let someone run your Facebook page because they’re on social media a lot. It needs to be a person that understands how the algorithm works and how content is seen by those who don’t follow you. They need to be driven to understand how advertising and promoting posts works, and they should be able to figure out how events and groups can be used to achieve an objective. Facebook is one of the world’s most robust marketing tools, and until you comprehend how it works, it will never be a powerful tool.

2. Thinking of Your Building as a Destination

Throughout the 90s, churches focused on erecting buildings that drew attendees. They put in coffee shops and Christian bookstores. They hired professional consultants to find the most attractive colors and textures for sanctuaries, and they created big stage designs with professional lighting and smoke machines. This was all part of a larger seeker-sensitive strategy.

Creating a comfortable environment was one piece of a puzzle that included constructing worship services that made non-Christians feel less like outsiders. It included outreaches and marketing campaigns that spoke to people who had no history with the church. This movement away from the traditional and toward something that made people feel welcome was timely and significant.

It’s important to recognize that all of these elements worked together as part of a larger campaign to bring the uninitiated to Jesus. If you wrench any of these tactics from their context and tried to make them a strategy, they stop working.

Churches that have stopped growing will look for a way to kickstart the growth process. There’s a natural tendency to focus on their facility. It’s tempting to think, “Maybe if we got rid of the pews, improved the sound system, or recarpeted, people would be more drawn to the church.” It’s an easy mistake to make because those kinds of changes represent frustrations that members (not visitors) regularly feel, and it also gives everyone an objective to rally around.

But as soon as the carpet’s in or the sound system is upgraded, disappointment sets in. The excitement of everyone pulling together to accomplish a task dissipates and everyone’s confronted with the reality that the church isn’t filling up with people who want to see the new carpet or hear how the sound has improved.

Taking care of your facilities is simply good stewardship. But to think of your church as a destination that attracts more people as the facilities improve never works.

Instead, you need improvements to be part of a larger church growth strategy. If you want to attract families with small children, it makes sense to upgrade your classrooms (and train your teachers, and find creative outreach methods, etc.). This makes a building or improvement project part of something bigger.  

Focusing our resources

Your church has a finite amount of resources. You have only so much time, so many volunteers, and so much money. You need to do everything you can to ensure that those assets are being used in the most productive ways possible. If you’re pouring energy into poor strategies (or no strategies), you’re spinning your wheels.

This is why it’s so important to always ask yourself: What’s our greater strategy here? And how does this tactic fit into it?

If you’re interested in learning about other questionable practices that might be undermining your effectiveness, download our free ebook below.

 

Jayson D. Bradley

Jayson D. Bradley is a writer and pastor in Bellingham, WA. He’s a regular contributor to Relevant Magazine, and his blog JaysonDBradley.com has been voted one of the 25 Christian blogs you should be reading.

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