Great Stuff — How I Became a… Church Growth Disciple

Found over on InternetMonk, written by Mike Bell:


church-back-doorFirst of all a confession. The title is really just an attention grabber, and a weak attempt to get Miguel to sputter coffee through his nose. Although a second confession would be that in the eighties and nineties, I did read all I could get my hands on from the Church growth movement. There are a couple of interesting things that I learned from that time, and I wanted to present a sort of random stream on consciousness on the topic.

The numerical growth or decline of a church is strictly related to number of new people entering a church versus the number of people leaving a church.

People leave church for primarily one of three reasons.

  1. They die.
  2. They move away (primarily vocation, or education based).
  3. There are some other factors that cause them to become uninterested in being part of a particular local church.

Number 1 we know all about.

Number 2 was my experience at a Church in Ottawa, Ontario. It was located near a military base and probably had a 20 to 25% turnover each year. They got very good at assimilating visitors in the life of the church. If they didn’t, the church would die in very short order.

A couple of thoughts about number 3. I read a study a LONG time ago that surveyed first time visitors to a series of churches, and then surveyed them again two years later. There was an extremely high correlation between continued attendance and the number of significant relationships they had made at the church. If I recall correctly, less than five relationships and they did not tend to stick around.

For those who do leave the church and subsequently return, a recent study showed that the encouragement of family and friends was a significant factor in them coming back. (More on this later.)

If your church is in decline there are generally only to things you can do about it. Decrease the outflow, or increase the inflow. I would say that in terms of decreasing the outflow the primary thing that you can do is to help build relationships among those in your church.

In terms of new people coming in, I would group them into five general categories:

  1. Bedroom evangelism, or in other words New Babies! As one commentator expressed on this site. Those who have Christian parents are most likely to find themselves in a church. (Typically this strategy does not work where the congregation is older.)
  2. People who leave one church for another. A.K.A. Sheep stealing.
  3. New visitor attraction/assimilation. Similar to number 2 but referring more to people new to the area. Again it is a question of what is it about our church that would cause someone to come here rather than go somewhere else. In our Ottawa church, is was our strong emphasis on relationships. In recent years the Ottawas church has distinguished itself as becoming a home for new immigrants.
  4. Church returners. Typically family or friends who used to attend church at some point in their past, who no longer do, but are being encouraged to return, either through relationships, or because of life changes.
  5. New converts. In a region of the country, if at least some churches are not bringing in new converts, then overall the churches in that community will start to decline and die. Especially if the death rate exceeds the birth rate in your church congregation.

Where do I stand in terms of the five areas.

Well, I am well past number one. All joking aside, a church that depends on it would end up being very inward focused.

Number two. Pastors who lose people tend to call it sheep stealing. Personally I find that people generally have pretty good reasons when they leave a church and don’t do it lightly. Ask yourself, “Was it an easy decision when I left my last church?” Yes, there are church shoppers, but there are also a lot of hurting people.

Number three is my strong suite. When attending church in my late twenties, I would introduce myself to any new visitor of similar age. Introduce to about 5 or 6 others. As a group we would then invite them to join us for lunch. Ninety percent of our visitors came back the following Sunday.

Number four is where my heart is. I have seen too many leave our church: friends, acquaintances, family, or family of friends. When I look at my neighbors many of them have “church memory”, both good and bad, and no longer attend. These are the people that my heart cries out for. Most are not church returners but have to potential to become church returners. Just because the church they grew up in doesn’t work for them doesn’t meant that mine won’t, and vice-versa.

Number five is where my current church’s leadership wants to focus their efforts, and have done so to the detriment of groups 2, 3, and 4. I really don’t know how I feel about this, but feel that there is a balance missing. I also wonder if they are so narrowly focused that they can’t help but have the decline continue.

Other than talking about relationships, I have avoided proposing solutions. Almost every website that talked about closing the back door had proposals quickly led into “church growth speak.” Instead I am going to listen to our readers.

What have been your experiences in people coming and going from your church or churches? Many at Internet Monk are in transition. Where do you personally fit in this picture?

About Norm Fisher

Norm was raised in the UCC in Connecticut, and like many fell away from the church after high school. With this background he saw it primarily as a service organization. On the miracle of his first child he came back to the church. On moving to Texas a few years later he found a home in Lutheranism when he was invited to a confessional church a half-hour away by our new neighbors.

He is one of those people who found a like mind in computers while in Middle School and has been programming ever since. He's responsible for many websites, including the Book of Concord,, and several other sites.

He has served the church in various positions, including financial secretary, sunday school teacher, elder, PTF board member, and choir member.

More of his work can be found at


Great Stuff — How I Became a… Church Growth Disciple — 3 Comments

  1. The Internet Monk used to have some decent items with reasonably throughout issues. However, the blog is run by a Rob Bell admiring case who just published an article condoning premarital sex. Be aware of this source for readers.

  2. I grew up in the LCMS.

    I guess my “sin” was I knew too much and as quiet as I tried to be enough slipped out to get me into trouble. I have been going to a small LCMS Church in the Georgia Florida district for several years. The Pastor is very Mission oriented, but his Church services are very much by the Hymnal. I and my family were victims of first of all:

    ” There was an extremely high correlation between continued attendance and the number of significant relationships they had made at the church.”

    then came this:

    ” They got very good at assimilating visitors in the life of the church. ”

    I made the mistake of going to the pastor over a general confession he had pulled from an “Alternate Worship Series” that I had problems with and he came to the conclusion I was a Heretic.

    From there it was downhill fast. I tried to engage other members but I guess the word “got out” about me. We were shunned. I am kind of slow realizing some things and when my mother said she had been shunned by the pastor’s wife I said she was just mistaken, But several weeks later the same thing happened to me in a very direct unmistakable way. The pastor was very good at hiding his feelings but he had discussed the Issue about me with his wife and she was not shy in her proxy actions to me and my family. The other Members were always cool to us but the few who had been somewhat engaging went cold.

    That little LCMS church talks about the “mission” field but would rather try for the unchurched. I was never engaged about any of my indiscretions, if there were any? I was just run out of the church. I openly wonder if that is standard operating procedure for Black LCMS Sheep who happen to wander through the doors of that church?

    We were regular in attendance for a very long time and I and my family felt like strangers the entire time. Most people would have left at that point but the Church was the only LCMS for over 70 miles. My Mother is 90 years old and in poor health. We just cannot travel that distance.

    The proof of the pudding is we have stopped going to the church for two or more months and not one call. I guess the general feeling is “Good riddance to bad rubbish” . If you see the scare this has left on me; thank you.

    Any church gains or looses its members one person at a time. Lord knows I tried!

  3. You had a problem with a general confession? Was it a weak confession like the “Oops, I did it again!” confessions found in CoWo? Then perhaps the heretic was the pastor. But as for myself, if the general confession doesn’t bring me sorrow over my sin, as one deserving of temporal and eternal punishment, it’s not much of a confession. But certainly you know you’re a sinner, so I can’t imagine what heresy you could be accused of, or how the pastor couldn’t set you straight on the Lutheran doctrines regarding Confession and Absolution.

    My wife and I are transferring from a very large, clique-infested church where we found few friends. I knew the people in the choir, and we made two or three friends at Bible studies, but my wife would have to approach people in the sanctuary to say hello; they made no effort to greet her. Now, one’s church is meant to be a family of believers in relationship with each other, just as Jesus allows us to have relationship with God, and God Himself is a Trinity of three Persons in relationship. One does not desire to attend a church where one feels like a stranger. When they started using the big screens for the order of service and the hymns, we had had enough. The pastors administered the Word and Sacraments properly at Divine Service, but the congregation failed us at being interested in us as people, and we didn’t like being the odd ones out singing towards the altar and the Means of Grace using our the hymnals while others sang to the wall where the screen is. So we are transferring to another LCMS church which is further, but smaller.

    The sad thing is: While the pastors and choir director know what’s been going on, none of the friends we had in Bible study made any attempt to call or write us out of concern for our absence over the past two months. Our Bible study leader is an elder, who was close to the pastor. I really hope and pray that we weren’t considered disposable…

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