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The study of “church growth” has been part of the American scene since the early 1970s when my father, Win Arn, first realized that the principles Donald McGavran was teaching to overseas missionaries had direct relevance to churches here in North America. For the past 30 years, I have continued the study of how and why churches grow. During this time, hundreds of church growth principles have been identified and described.

I’d like to share what I believe are foundational church growth insights that you can take to the bank. Whether you’re in a church of 20 or 20,000, these principles will help you to invest the talents God has given to your church, so that when the Master returns you can return more than what you were given (Matthew 25:14-30).

Principle 1: Disciple-making is THE priority

The longer a congregation exists, the more concerned it tends to become with self-preservation—and the less concerned with its original purpose. Time, money, staff, and even the prayers become increasingly inward-focused. The result, not surprisingly, is that the church stops growing. This foremost principle says that leaders must keep, or turn, the focus of their church away from themselves and back to their primary goal—and Christ’s primary goal—of making disciples. This happens through prayer, engaging the Bible, programming, budget, staffing, and evaluating all the church’s ministries on their contribution to increasing the number of Christian disciples. A church can do many good things. A church should do a few important things. But there is only one essential thing a church must do: “… Go out and train everyone you meet, far and near, in this way of life ...” (Matthew 28:19, The Message).

Principle 2: Social networks are the vehicle

There is a “silver bullet” that any congregation can use to reach more people: Non-Christians come to Christ and the church primarily through relationships with Christians. Again, this may seem elementary, but I remain amazed at the number of churches and Christians who believe something other than “friends reaching friends” will somehow create growth.

Christian friends and relatives bring twice as many new believers into the kingdom as all the other reasons … combined! To apply this principle, encourage every person in your church to list their unchurched friends and relatives in the community. The average Christian can list at least four or five. Next, encourage members to pray specifically for these people. Glenkirk Presbyterian Church, Glendora, CA, distributed an index-sized card reminding members to pray for one person on their list, at one o’clock, for one minute, during one month. Third, encourage members to invite one of these people to an appropriate church-related event in the next six months. In addition, remind members that they may be God’s only connection to these unreached people. For a detailed discussion on reaching friends and family, see The Master’s Plan for Making Disciples by Win and Charles Arn (Baker).

Principle 3: Felt-needs are the connecting point

Most unchurched people are not walking down the streets of your community thinking about the eternal destiny of their soul. But they are thinking about something of immediate interest: their jobs, friends, health, kids, finances, hobbies, and so on. If the gospel of Christ is really relevant to all aspects of our lives, we need to show unreached people how it is relevant to what’s on their minds. Jesus began his conversation with the Samaritan woman on a topic of interest to her—water. Then, in a microcosm of the disciple-making process, he talked about water that would cause her to never thirst again. Don’t start with your agenda; start with theirs. Here’s a list from Neil McBride that summarizes needs of people today:

  • People feel disconnected and isolated. They are looking for a place to belong and feel part of a family or community.
  • People are feeling the pressure of a busy and stressful world. They are looking for a greater sense of balance and ways to manage priorities.
  • People sense the shallowness of superficial encounters with others. They are looking for authentic relationships.
  • People are feeling empty and drained from striving to meet their desires through work, material possessions, or entertainment. They are looking for spiritual answers to their unfulfilled “hunger.”
  • People are feeling overwhelmed by the pace of change in every aspect of their world. They are looking for help through transitions.

When your church speaks to unreached people’s felt-needs, you will get a hearing, because now your message is—from their point of view—relevant.

Principle 4: Relationships are the glue

Getting people in the front door is one thing—keeping them from quietly disappearing out the back door is another. What’s the primary ingredient that keeps people active in church?

Friendships. Put simply, if people have friends at church, they stay. If they don’t have friendships, they won’t. According to one study, new members who stay beyond their first year made an average of seven new friends in the church. Those who dropped out made fewer than two.

Be a “relational matchmaker” when (and even before) people join the church, and you’ll increase the likelihood of them staying for a long time.

Principle 5: Transitions provide the window of opportunity

Unchurched persons in your community are not equally receptive to becoming Christians or members of your church. Some are quite responsive, others not at all. Jesus spoke of this principle in telling us to turn our eyes to the fields that are “white unto harvest” (John 4:35), to plant the seed of the gospel in good (receptive) soil (Matthew 13:1-9), to preach in the towns that are receptive and leave the ones that aren’t (Luke 9:1-6).

So how do we identify receptive people in our members’ social networks and in our communities? Life-transition events are one important way. Significant changes in people’s lifestyle move them toward spiritual receptivity. Such changes may be controlled events (marriage, divorce, relocation, retirement) or uncontrolled ones (death of a spouse, medical crisis, job loss). Encourage your members to be cognizant of transition events in the lives of people in their social network and respond with genuine Christian love. Develop specialized ministries that focus on transition events, and then develop a plan to share God’s unconditional love with people during these windows of opportunity.

Today, only 15 percent of the 300,000+ churches in North America are growing. But they are growing in every state, denomination, and size. These church growth principles work. But our reasons to apply them should not be to grow a megachurch or to find new people to help us pay our bills or volunteer their time. Our reason should be to reach God’s dearly loved children … because Jesus told us to.

Gordon Dorsey
March 22, 2012
SHALOM BROTHERS @ SIS would you rather have a large church of just people or a small church full of yahvah(god) people.he is not interested in the size of the church but of the heart of the church. shalom pastor Dorsey
Paul Guerin of Destiny Fellowship Church
May 29, 2011
I'm a pastor of a small church plant of just three years. We are growing but very slowly. How can we grow when them churches around us have more money more resources, more people then we do, any suggestions for us?
Bumble Ho of Redemption Point
November 12, 2010
Excellent message! But there must be more than just delivering a message like this. Can you comment more about the prayer, the supporters' network, the self-examining discernment, the trust in the Gospel, etc. All things consider for you to overcome this? And pastor Bill Weems: how's things with you since 2008? Praying for ya all.
Charles Arn
September 23, 2010
Amen, Jeffrey. The Gospel does work as it has (and will) forever! At the same time, I can't help but think that there is more involved in effectively making disciples than just proclaiming the Gospel. Otherwise, why don't all churches that all proclaim the Gospel in exactly the same way, end up being exactly the same size? There are so many other variables in being good planters of the Gospel, in order to reap the greatest harvest. When Jesus told the parable of the sower—about how some seeds fell on good ground, others on rocky soil, others in thistles, the road, etc.—an implication to me is that we should be diligent in planting the seed. We don't make the seed grow, only God does that. But we can (and are called to) have a part in deciding where to plant. And not all places (or people) will be equally receptive.
Jeffrey Wickert
September 17, 2010
I don't recall being called to grow a mega church. I believe it was to make disciples, baptizing and teaching them. We don't grow the church, God does (1 Cor. 3); we are to plant and water. I serve a church that "just" preaches the gospel and it is over 1000 in a community of only 35,000. The Gospel still works as it always did.
Mitchell S Hutchins
September 15, 2010
First I want to thank you, Mr. Arn, for this article. It is my understanding, especially from comment #4 where you make a distinction between the message and the method that using the Gospel message is to be understood as assumed since a soul has never been won to Christ through any other message, nor will any ever be for that matter. Therefore, I want to thank you for offerring methods (ways of presenting the Gospel) which are relevant to the perspective believer.
Dr. Arn: I like Paul's words as well, and do agree that we should do everything in our power to reach the lost. I am a Chaplain at a local prison and know first hand what Paul is talking about meeting people on their terf! I was saved in prison 23 years ago, have been Chaplain for 13 years and a pastor for 10. But though I become all things to all men that I may win some, meeting people where they are won't save them, only the preaching of the Gospel will. I've been to the Bill Gothard seminars, and I guess it's those type of things that I'm speaking to. Counting the empty parking spots to make sure of convenience, empty seats for over crowding. I'm more than willing to go, but not in the flesh, for it profiteth nothing! I also like the words of Paul in (I Cor. 1:18-27) "For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God. For it is written, I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and will bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent. Where is the wise? where is the scribe? where is the disputer of this world? hath not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? For after that in the wisdom of God the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe. For the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom: But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness; But unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God. Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men. For ye see your calling, brethren, how that not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called: But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty;" And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved. He did then, and HE still does today! With or without our tactics. Just go and preach the Gospel. You may not get the same numbers, but you will get the same souls. God's method always suits His target audience.
Charles Arn
September 13, 2010
Good point, Martha... A closer look at how Jesus’ command ("...go and make disciples") was given, in the original Greek, gives us an insight into how he wants us to carry it out. The word “go” (according to a Greek scholar I spoke with) is more correctly translated to mean: “as you are going”. In other words, Jesus was not saying drop everything, pack your bags and go off to a foreign land. He was saying that as you are going…as you are participating in your world…as you are involved in your normal everyday encounters with people…in that context, make disciples.
Martha Beamer of Rehobeth
September 13, 2010
Jesus met the people where they were -- woman at the well, blind man, up a tree, etc....after which he told them that He was the Living Water, the Light of the World, and The Way, the Truth and The Life. Obviously, fewer and fewer people are "going to" hear the Gospel; rather, they are more apt to encounter the Gospel through Jesus' disciples at their point of need.
Charles Arn
September 13, 2010
Mark: I like Paul's words: "To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God's law but am under Christ's law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings." To me, that says, "WHAT I do is not so important as WHETHER I am effective in making disciples." I think those are good words for anyone in any generation that is serious about fulfilling the great commission. The gospel is, of course, the message. But the methods must suit the target audience. Any good missionary knows that! :)
Charles, the Gospel is casually mentioned because we are talking about numbers, growing your church. If all you use is the good old Word of God no one will come, or at least not many! You have to use the methods of the world if you want to reach the world. You don't grow mega Churches by just preaching the Gospel!! Sad.....ain't it!
Charles Bivens
September 13, 2010
Why is the gospel simply casually mentioned under "Priority" 5? Its disturbing to find out that the gospel isn't actually what grows a Church! It seems more important to prioritize sociology and psychology according to this article The gospel, which is the power of God unto salvation, is more and more being moved to the area of irrelevance in growing the Church.
Dell Pfaff
September 13, 2010
PTL Relevant ideas to build on. Thank You.
Sweger Bolona
July 9, 2009
I believe we pastors need to preach such dynamic sermons that we are serious in our calling as God's servants. I salute you Pastor Mckeever for having the courage to preach such sermon. I will be having my own version later...Preach on modern Elijahs!!!
F R of Church
September 12, 2008
Great message. Good analysis .Lord helps us to bring our people in unity.
Mayra Mar
August 26, 2008
ESTÁ BIEN CHÉVERE. REALMENTE ES UN MENSAJE DIRECTO A LA CONCIENCIA DE MUCHAS IGLESIAS. ES LO QUE REALMENTE SE NECESITA EN ESTOS MOMENTOS EN QUE LAS IGLESIAS ESTÁN PERDIENDO EN TIEMPO EN PLEITOS Y RENCORES VIEJOS MIENTRAS LA OBRA DE DIOS ESTÁ SIN TRABAJARSE.
Billy Weems
August 26, 2008
Awesome!! Great sermon! Wish i HAD THIS IN ABOUT THREE OF THE PASTORATES I HAVE SERVED. i MIGHT HAVE STATYED LONGER!!In fact, just went throught a similiar experince. am awaiting the outcome. God bless you for your honesty!!!
Cynthia Deocares
August 26, 2008
really great and very timely for our church...these are the silent killers, slowly groping around its way within the four walls of the church and nobody hadly notice not until the members themselves are swallowed,the only way to deal with it is really to speak up...uncomfortable and hurting but that is the way it goes and that is what the Lord would want his Church to be
Nilo Paguio
August 25, 2008
i''m so blessed as i read your article...I thank God for you Ptr. Joe.I almost forgot that we, Servants of God are human...committed mistakes...failed...ahhh,but God is gracious.Indeed, by His grace, guidance and power of the Holy Spirit,we can serve Him and lead His Church effectively.God bless His Church
William Austin
August 25, 2008
Wonderful message! I have been a pastor for over thirty years and faced many situations where there if friction in the congregation. I have prayed many nights for directions in handling the matter and God has always answered and the situation was healed. I currently serve a congregation that is a small country church that has been hurting because of a previous ministers conduct. Is has been a blessing to minister in this situation because God has taught me what really matters and that is trusting in Him. It is a family church and it is a challenge to get family members to work together, but I see the Holy Spirit at work in their lives. Please pray for this ministry. This message is a blessing.
Powerful stuff and b/c I know this man it makes it even more special! I have faced those same issues and problems, and in the current church I am pastoring I have already had to preach a similar message... God is good! Thanks Bro Joe!
Excellent article. I am blessed to have a supportive congregation, but some of the problem is that we pastors, in our efforts to be patient and humble allow nonsense to go unchecked for too long. Recently, I needed to deal with two church members who were grumbling and complaining. The Holy Spirit challenged me do my job: confront those in sin in a spirit of meekness and tell them to stop. The first man I spoke with began crying as I spoke, and closed his eyes repenting in prayer to God. I was amazed as the Holy Spirit began to do the work ... but only after I was willing to speak up. Much appreciated!
Great message. I''ve been at my church for 8 years, and the record for pastors at this 122-year-old church is 9 years. Lord willing, I will be here for long past that. I''m a second-career bi-vocational guy, and this is my first church. Thankfully, most of the disgruntled have left, and the 2-3 people that are left are finding their influence waning more and more. One of them has a record of simply not liking the pastor, no matter who it is, although I''ve been praying about this for years, and God is helping our relationship. We are about to move into the 20th century with (gasp!) video projection, and it''s sure to spark a new series of complaints from these folk, but we''re moving ahead in the direction we believe God wants us to go in reaching our community. I hope I never have to preach a message like this. I did do something like this in our annual business meeting my first year here - addressed some ungodly attitudes about a specific situation. I got into a bit of hot water, but it was good for the church.

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