Preaching Articles

How many churches in this country—in your denomination, of your church-type, in your county or parish or town—have stopped growing? It depends on whom you ask. Go online and you’ll soon have statistics coming out of your ears on this subject. In our denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, the most significant number—one that seems to have held steady for over three decades—is that some 70 percent of our churches are either in decline or have plateaued.

Plateau. Funny word to use for a church. One wonders how it came to be in use. Why didn’t they say “mesa,” “plain,” “delta” (ask anyone who lives in the Mississippi Delta—flat, flat, flat!), or even “flatline.” Of course, in the emergency room to “flatline” is to die. No one (to my knowledge) is saying a non-growing church is dead, just that some things are not right.

Healthy churches grow. Non-growing churches are not healthy, at least in some significant ways. If it’s true that seven out of ten pastors in our family of churches lead congregations either in decline or stagnation, this is a situation that ought to be addressed. And to my knowledge, everyone is addressing it. Everyone has an opinion.

My single contribution to this discussion is directed toward the shepherd of a stagnant flock: “If your church has plateaued, make sure you haven’t.”

Bill Day, the numbers cruncher and evangelism professor at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary (as well as pastor of Parkview Baptist Church in Metairie, LA), gives his definition of growing, declining, and plateauing: The church that increases 10% in a five-year period is growing. Decline 10% in the same five-year period, and your church is decreasing. Plateauing means your church fits neither group.

Here are ten statements to pastors of churches that are either stagnant or are in decline.

1. Some churches are easier to pastor than others.

When Bob began to pastor Easytown First Church, to his amazement and relief, the numbers turned around almost immediately. People loved him, they began responding to his leadership, the pews filled, and soon they were bringing in chairs. Bob was elated.

That’s when he made a mistake. Bob decided the great response was because of his terrific preaching and inspired leadership. And who’s to say he was wrong? After all, had he preached poorly or led haphazardly, the story certainly would have been different.

But Bob became critical of churches that were not growing and pastors who were not leading in dynamic ways. Without knowing it, Bob had become part of the problem. He was discouraging pastors of troubled churches, when what they needed was an encouraging word.

I have pastored both kinds of churches. Serving at Easytown early in your ministry can sure be nice. It can also give the young preacher a heady dose of ego. I’m afraid I pontificated on matters I knew nothing about and criticized denominational leaders for not doing what we were doing. I cringe with embarrassment over some of the statements I made.

Either because of the Lord’s sense of humor or of fair play, He let me get hold of a church that did not respond to my dynamic personality (!) or bag of tricks. At the annual associational meeting, when certificates were handed out to those who led in baptisms (a practice of dubious merit, I must say), I was embarrassed by our small numbers. As if to break me of disparaging even one person coming to Christ, the Lord eventually let me see how it felt for our church not to make that “top-ten” list at all.

Some churches are easy to pastor, some are hard, and all are different. Not all methods work in every church.

2. Some pastors have the gift.

Argue with this all you please, but I will go to my grave believing that preachers like John Bisagno could grow a huge church in the Sahara. They say “Good morning” in a way that makes you look around for an aisle somewhere to walk down.

As the old saying goes, “Some were born on third base and think they’ve hit a triple.” I’m not saying Bisagno is this way; he has helped more pastors (including me) to become Kingdom-growth-minded than anyone I know. But for some of us, those without the “gift,” turning a church around is hard work.

3. Even if my church has plateaued, I don’t have to join it.

Just because my church is not growing does not mean I have to stop growing. Don’t give in; don’t throw in the towel. Don’t stop learning and growing and looking for ways to make a difference.

4. Some churches should not grow—at least, not yet.

Some churches do not grow for good reason: They are sick. The last thing in the world they need is for a hundred new members to join them next Sunday. They need to get some matters right with God and with their neighbors before the Lord is going to allow them to grow.

I watched as a small congregation tried to self-destruct. The unhappy members ran the pastor off, along with the group which supported him. As pastor of the nearest church, I watched this from the outside and did not understand all the issues, but my personal conclusion was that the pastor was a fine man, and the ones who left would have been excellent members of any church. In fact, several joined my congregation and became just that.

As soon as the pastor left, the disgruntled few looked around, found an unemployed preacher, and made him pastor. The man of God walked in, saw all those empty pews, and decided the church needed to grow. He announced a week of revival services. They printed leaflets and hung posters, then held their meeting. But nothing happened. The community wanted none of what that little group had to offer.

The merciful Lord in Heaven clearly decreed that little bunch would not be allowed to mess up a new crop of young believers. They did not need to grow; they needed to repent.

5. The pastor’s problem is not the church members’ or deacons’ problem.

“We announce visitation, and no one comes.” “I handed out assignments, but none of the deacons made their calls.” “These people are just like the ones following Moses—headstrong, stiff-necked, hard-hearted.”

The people are not the problem, pastor; they are your opportunity. You are your biggest problem, pastor. If you want your people to minister in the community, go minister in the community yourself. If you want your people to visit in homes, go visit in homes yourself. If you want them to take door-to-door surveys or prayer-walk blocks, go do it yourself.

After you’ve done it for six months on a regular basis without telling a soul that you’re doing it, invite the rest of them to join you.

6. The most urgent task is to become a person of intense prayer.

If you love your church and have a burning desire to see it live once again and make a lasting difference in your community, tell the Lord.

The tendency for pastors with a hurting desire to help their churches grow is to look for human saviors—some pastor of a big dynamic church somewhere whose brain they could pick or whose conference they could attend. That’s not entirely wrong, but it’s out of order.

It’s prayer time—time to spend concentrated time on your face before the Lord finding out what He wants for His people. Keep reminding yourself (and Him) that these are His people. He died for them, you didn’t, and their welfare and health means far more to Him than it does to you. Seek His face; ask for His will.

The Lord may tell you His entire plan during a two-day prayer retreat. But I’d be surprised if He did. More likely, He’s going to give you some immediate direction for your leadership and sermons, but you’re still going to have to spend quality time on your knees pleading for His intervention.

Expect this to take six months, a year, several years. Some have said if the church has been stagnant for six months, turning it around will take six months. If a year, then one year. If 40 years ... well, surely it won’t take that long! (I’m not sure what I think about this principle.)

7. Go to conferences and read the books on reversing plateaued churches. But do not look for a program for your church; look for a key idea.

There are experts out there who would willingly come into your church (for a fee), take over the show, and rearrange all the furniture to get the church growing again. But then they would leave, and you would be left to deal with the consequences. You don’t need that.

When you sit before pastors with “turnaround” stories, listen in two directions at the same time: to what they are saying, and to the Holy Spirit.

When something is said and all the bells go off inside you, that’s what you came for. The Holy Spirit is fingering this principle, that story, this strategic ministry, that idea.

8. Don’t be surprised if the Holy Spirit has you start with small improvements.

Someone in our church called my attention to a needy trailer park. A seminary student in our church wanted to try to reach the people there. We sponsored him. No big deal. At first, it was just an arrangement between the student and me, the pastor.

In time, as leaders came and went, God sent us a young man with a real heart for the families in that park. He began reaching the kids, some of the parents began to respond, and our church members began to get involved.

This became the finest mission experience of any church I ever pastored. Before long, more than 60 members of our church were involved to some degree with the young pastor, his wife, and that trailer park. It’s my observation that this compassionate ministry helped make it a truly healthy congregation.

“Who has despised the day of small things?” asks the prophet in Zechariah 4:10. I think we can answer that. Our spirits despise small things. We want big numbers, big programs, big responses. Anything wrong with 3,000 people coming to Christ in one day? Not a bit. But great results often begin with tiny deeds, such as prayer-walking a neighborhood or putting someone in a leadership position who becomes a key player.

9. Start even smaller than that.

Walk over your campus. Are the restrooms clean? Do the hallways need painting or brightening up? What do the grounds look like? Never, ever pass a piece of trash on your property without picking it up and walking it to a dumpster.

Even if your sanctuary has not changed since the 1950s and looks every bit as dated as it is, and even if you can’t afford a renovation, you can get a bucket of paint and cover the fingerprints on the walls. You can scrub the floors. You can see that wastebaskets are emptied each week.

Schedule a “work day” on a Saturday. Encourage your students to brighten up their rooms. Appoint two or three of the most persnickety matrons to walk through the buildings with one of the men and make a list of improvements to be made. Talk it up, serve breakfast early that day, and make it fun.

Don’t overdo it and don’t over-expect, pastor. Don’t make this an all-day thing. Two hours on a Saturday morning with 20 or 30 adults can make a huge difference. If they uncover more tasks to be done, ask them if they’d like to have another such work day six weeks later. That’s far enough in advance that they’ll agree, but not so distant that they’ll forget about it.

Go for little improvements at first. See that the church sign represents the church well and is changed weekly, even if you have to do it yourself until the Lord raises up a responsible volunteer. If your sanctuary looks bare, ask a florist to lend you some greenery on the weekends, or even rent you some. When the congregation responds enthusiastically, see how people would feel about purchasing the greenery.

Use the word “experiment,” as in, “We’re going to experiment with this.” It won’t sound as threatening or as permanent as, “We’re making this change.”

10. Thank people. Encourage them. Praise them. Send them notes.

You have two choices, pastor. You can harangue the people on Sunday because they are not what a church ought to be, or you can applaud them as they take baby steps in that direction.

I’m in favor of the pastor calling names from the pulpit of people who did well this week. (You’ll want to work hard to not leave someone out who should have been included. If you do, be sure to include him/her the next Sunday and apologize for omitting them.)

Write thank-you notes on the church letterhead. One or two sentences are all that’s required. Tell them how much better the church looks with those new flowers in front and how it is a glorious witness for the Lord. Tell the custodian how pleased you were to hear someone comment on the clean bathrooms last Sunday.

I once wrote a column in the church bulletin thanking our custodian. Andy was not an easy man to work with. He could be curt, and more than once he’d offended some member with a sharp comment on the way she kept her classroom. But when you gave him an assignment, he carried it out well. So I wrote a note of appreciation to let church members know that Andy was responsible for the building looking so impressive on Sundays. A year later, while looking for something in the sanctuary building, I opened a closet. There was my column, taped to the inside of the door. Andy had kept it all this time.

I never forgot that lesson. It matters. As nutrients to flowers and as fertilizer to a crop, so is encouragement to God’s people.

The Lord’s people should be seen as tender plants; if you want them to grow, you must never mistreat them. Instead, handle them with care, treat them lovingly, and keep them in the sunshine with plenty of food and water. Protect them from storms, shield them from careless children, and watch for signs of disease or trouble. They want to grow, and they will—if we do it right.

Dr. Joe McKeever is a preacher, cartoonist and the retired Director of Missions for the Baptist Association of Greater New Orleans. Currently he loves to serve as a speaker/pulpit fill for revivals, prayer conferences, deacon trainings, leadership banquets and other church events. Visit him and enjoy his insights on nearly 50 years of ministry at

Browse All

Related Preaching Articles

Talk about it...

David Buffaloe

commented on Jan 10, 2012

Though I've never met you in person, Joe, I love you and appreciate your writing. You are truly anointed of God.

Doug Wedan

commented on Jan 10, 2012

Joe, Great article. To me the key phrase was, "for those who don't have the gift it's hard work." AMEN to that! We spent 1 1/2 years planning a complete church restart. We closed down the old church, stayed closed for 5 weeks and opened up as a brand new church, new mission, new attitudes, new spirit. It was "hard work", still is, but we can already see God's hand moving again.

Jay Didriksen

commented on Jan 10, 2012

I am disturbed by the lack of Biblical support and perspective in this article. The assumption of a healthy church means growing at 10 over 5 years is more related to worldly practices than anything Biblical I can think of. Also the heart of blame against one group in the church division and calling them the "sick" from the outside seems presumptuous. Are they sick because of how few they are? Has the Lord given you some discernment or insight into the hearts of the people? Instead it sounds to me like some worldly philosophy is guiding your judgment. I can find no biblical mandate or command that pushes numerical church growth as "healthy". Which of the seven churches in Revelation was told they were sick because they weren't growing numerically? This article seems little different to me than asking any business organization coach how churches should grow, believer or not. I pray Church health is so much more than this.

Chris Aiken

commented on Jan 10, 2012

A good word. Though not all easy to certainly is a timely article. Thank you for writing...

Anonymous Contributor

commented on Jan 10, 2012

Though the article is interesting to read, as Jay Didriksen says, there needs to be solid biblical basis for what we say or suggest or analyze a church to be. Numerical strength does not show that the church is sound in doctrine or practicing the Word of God as we cxan see os many mega-churches today are preaching false gospel, etc. God is interested more in quality of people's spiritual life than having a large crowd of carnal christians in the church. Also, it is contradicting when Joe says, "for those who don't have the gift it's hard work." If there is no gift from the Lord, all your labor is in vain, it is done in flesh and not in Spirit! God uses gifted people to do His work. It is surprising how David Buffalo says, "You are truly anointed of God." On what basis? When there is no biblical content and Spirit's inspiration- it is anointing?? I see that a lot of western preachers and writers are using their natural talents or worldly knowledge/philosophy to make an impact on people/readers and that is confusing and polluting God's Church. Too much of head knowledge but no heart experience of God's Word. Too much human methodology and hardly any Biblical basis for faith and practice. May God show mercy to us. 2 cor 4:1. Jude 3.

Phil Wilkes

commented on Jan 10, 2012

Thank you Joe for your thoughtful insights. Many pastors serve in very small churches that are struggling and are discouraged. Your article is a great reminder that God will use each of us where He has placed us. Numbers don't tell the whole story.

Trevor Payton

commented on Jan 10, 2012

Thank you for this very helpful article, Joe. And as for the comment about Biblical support and perspective, I don't think you need to insert chapter-and-verse references in order for an article to be biblically grounded. I myself could list a number of references with most of the points in the article. And I do think that a church's health goes much further than its numerical increase or decrease...but the fact remains that genuine Christianity has always had more than a sprinkle of evangelistic flavor. It could be that a church is healthy in many ways, but is unhealthy in others (ie, no love/desire for the lost). The main goal of a church is not to be a growing church, but rather, a *faithful* church (...and faithful churches tend to grow).

Kerry Hinton

commented on Jan 10, 2012

Thank you for an excellent insights.

Dr. Thomas Norton

commented on Jan 10, 2012

Joe has heard it all before, good and bad, I am sure. I appreciate the article in which he challenges pastors to guard their hearts (Pro 4:23). I also hear the call and concern that we are Bible-based, but what grieves me most here is the critical spirit in which some have responded to this article. Brothers, we are called to speak the truth in love, evidencing our growing spirituality (Eph 4:15). Listen, the easiest thing in the world to do is to find fault with another, which is a given due to our fallen nature (Gal 5:15). The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love (Gal 5:6). Faith, hope, and love remain but the greatest of these is love, the most excellent way (1 Co 13:1; 12:31). We may not agree with a brother in all aspects of his philosophy of ministry, but why do we have to let everyone else know how wrong they are in our eyes? (We are not differing over the gospel here—false doctrine is worth fighting against.) Why not write an article and bring out the biblical principles that we believe need to be emphasized? It grieves me that we can’t be more kind and gracious with one another brethren (1 Co 13:4; Jo 1:14). God make us more like Jesus (Rom 8:29).

David Buffaloe

commented on Jan 10, 2012

I agree with you, Bro Thomas. I find it interesting that #5, though critical, did not have the courage to put his or her name down, or the courtesy to spell my name right. I've known Joe McKeever for many years, and have followed his writings. He is very Bible based. This particular article brought out practical truths that he has experienced through years of service to the Master.

David Buffaloe

commented on Jan 10, 2012

Scriptures supporting Joe's points: #1 Some churches are easier to pastor than others. Compare Paul's letter to the Philippians to Paul's 1 Corinthians. Need I say more? #2. Some pastors have the gift. 1 Corinthians 12:11 But all these worketh that one and the selfsame Spirit, dividing to every man severally as he will. Some men, like Adrian Rogers, G. Campbell Morgan, John Wesley, Charles Spurgeon seem to quickly grow Churches. God set them with their gifting, and I with mine. We can't all be like these men.

David Buffaloe

commented on Jan 10, 2012

#3. Even if my church has plateaued, I don’t have to join it. Hebrews 12:1-3 Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset [us], and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, 2 Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of [our] faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God. 3 For consider him that endured such contradiction of sinners against himself, lest ye be wearied and faint in your minds. Look to Jesus – and keep on going! #4. Some churches should not grow—at least, not yet. 1 Corinthians 11:29-33 For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord's body. 30 For this cause many [are] weak and sickly among you, and many sleep. 31 For if we would judge ourselves, we should not be judged. 32 But when we are judged, we are chastened of the Lord, that we should not be condemned with the world. 33 Wherefore, my brethren, when ye come together to eat, tarry one for another. The Corinthian Church was not growing – it was dying because of internal lovelessness.

David Buffaloe

commented on Jan 10, 2012

#5. The pastor’s problem is not the church members’ or deacons’ problem. Paul said 1 Corinthians 11:1 Be ye followers of me, even as I also [am] of Christ. Are we modeling Christ? #6. The most urgent task is to become a person of intense prayer. 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 Rejoice evermore. 17 Pray without ceasing. 18 In every thing give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you. #7. Go to conferences and read the books on reversing plateaued churches. But do not look for a program for your church; look for a key idea. Inthis section Joe suggested listening to the Holy Spirit. John 16:13-14 Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth: for he shall not speak of himself; but whatsoever he shall hear, [that] shall he speak: and he will shew you things to come. 14 He shall glorify me: for he shall receive of mine, and shall shew [it] unto you. #8. Don’t be surprised if the Holy Spirit has you start with small improvements. See the Scripture on #7. Also, Joe Quoted “Who has despised the day of small things?” Zechariah 4:10

David Buffaloe

commented on Jan 10, 2012

#9 Start even smaller than that. In this section Joe mentioned taking care of our facilities. We are to be good stewards of what God has given us. Colossians 3:23 Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, 1 Corinthians 4:2 Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy. Some of our facilities certainly do not honor the Lord. Think about it. You live in fine houses, but go to a trashed out place to worship? Come on, guys. #10. Thank people. Encourage them. Praise them. Send them notes. There are numerous Scriptures on this. Try "... edify one another, just as you also are doing." 1 Thessalonians 5:11 "All things are lawful for me, but not all things are helpful; all things are lawful for me, but not all things edify. ?Let no one seek his own, but each one the other’s well-being." 1 Corinthians 10:23-24 "Let all things be done for edification." 1 Corinthians 14:26 "...?let us pursue the things which make for peace and the things by which one may edify another." Romans 14:19 "Let no corrupt word proceed out of your mouth, but what is good for necessary edification, that it may impart grace to the hearers." Ephesians 4:29 "...remain in Ephesus that you may charge some that they teach no other doctrine, ?nor give heed to fables and endless genealogies, which cause disputes rather than godly edification which is in faith. ?Now the purpose of the commandment is love from a pure heart, from a good conscience, and from sincere faith, rom which some, having strayed, have turned aside to idle talk...." 1 Timothy 1:3-6 "?We then who are strong ought to bear with the scruples of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, leading to edification. ?For even Christ did not please Himself; but as it is written, 'The reproaches of those who reproached You fell on Me.'” Romans 15:1-3 "...even if I should boast somewhat more about our authority, which the Lord gave us for edification and not for your destruction, I shall not be ashamed..." 2 Corinthians 10:8 "... we do all things, beloved, for your edification." 2 Corinthians 12:19

Anonymous Contributor

commented on Jan 10, 2012

Dear Christian friends and leaders. It appear some of you are thinking that I am criticizing respected Joe's article on the health and growth of the church. No. I am analyzing like you all. I am sure, Dr. Joe is not offended at all as he appreciates free and frank discussion. All mature believers and leaders should be open for scrutiny of their teachings and expect others even to criticize what they write. It helps us all to open our eyes and see more clearly and make sure what we believe is absolute truth and nothing else/ nothing less! It is important that we back up our teachings, writings with enough Scriptural support, even mentioning verses, so that our thoughts are in accordance with the Word of God, how practical or intelligent they may be. Now coming to mentioning my name, here there is no provision as I looked around to do that. About misspelling Buffaloe, it is unintentional. But I feel it is better than writing Mat for Matthew as many are shortening the biblical names as if they are too burdensome to call the full name!! Let us not be offended by such trivials but focus on the truth of God's Word. I do appreciate the experience and insights of dear Joe, whom I don't know at all and I came to see this article as I got a mail from sermoncentral. Today, the focus should be,as I already shared earlier, on the quality of our work and character, rather than statistics in which many are boasting. See 1 Cor.3. Blessings.

Robert Sickler

commented on Jan 11, 2012

I find Joe's article to be an excellent one. I would add, however, the need for preachers to consider the medium of outreach they are using. I remember when, tent meeting, arbor meeting, pamphlets, street preaching, door-to-door witnessing and the good old revival were the preferred methods for outreach. But then, rotary dial phones dominated local communications and preachers sent out phonograph records. Everything Joe said was true, but fixing everything Joe said will not always fix the problem. We need to remember that people born after 1980 have grown up in the electronic revolution and are extremely comfortable with the new communications revolution. Those of us who grew up in the waning years of the industrial revolution are disconnected ? seriously disconnected, but too proud to admit it. Perhaps we are too hard headed to see it! Anyway, after many years and much study, I am convinced our number one problem is knowing how to communicate with the ?post boomer? generations. The message remains the same but our understanding of how to send it forth in the power of the Holy Spirit is seriously lacking. (1 Corinthians 9:19-23) Robert A. Sickler

Edmund Chan

commented on Jan 23, 2012

We are creatures of extremes. Some are intoxicated by numbers; while others are intimidated by them. Numbers don't tell the whole story. Yet on the other hand, numbers do tell a story. To nurse a stagnant church to health is one of the most challenging leadership tasks! To me, the most important factor to deal with is not vision or strategy but with the domineering factor of church culture. Samuel Chand's Cracking Your Church's Culture Code is a definitive book in this oft-neglected leadership issue. And yes, one doesn't need chapter and verse for an article to be biblical; nor does the presence of chapter and verse indicate biblical veracity. May more and more churches grow healthily - in authentic discipleship and intentional disciplemaking!

Join the discussion