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.