The Truth Behind Stagnant Churches

There was concern on every person’s face as they looked at the numbers. There in black in white was the undeniable reality that the church was shrinking. Attendance month-by-month was definitely lower than last year and last year was lower than the year before.

“Maybe we need to ramp up the VBS,” one leader suggested. “We used to get all kinds of people coming to that.”

“No, social media is the future,” another said. “We need to find a young person to help us start posting and tweeting.”

“Our community is mostly young families,” said a third. “I keep saying we have to up our game in our programming for them.”

Round and round the discussion turned. When it stopped the group was no closer to a real solution than when they started. The reason? They failed to see the truth behind their churches attendance numbers. The truth was both more simple and more personal than they wanted to admit.

According to a new LifeWay Research study, 61% of Protestant churches in the United States are stagnant or declining in attendance. When church leaders begin to recommend solutions it seems that they usually boil down to some variation of “Do more, better.” Provide more programs, more targeted programs, more contemporary programs, more relevant programs, slicker programs, programs with better music, programs from the latest and greatest Christian celebrity. But, when the new thing starts, it’s the same old people who show up.

More and better programs won’t give you the church growth you’re looking for. Sure, it’s possible you’ll attract a few new people here or there, but whatever you did to attract them is what you’ll have to continue to do to keep them. The result is a church full of religious consumers who primarily want the church staff and leaders to meet their needs. This isn’t exactly the biblical model.

More and better programs won’t give you the church growth you’re looking for. John Barcanic

I think the solution is both easier and harder.

Dr. Tian Zheng, chair of the Department of Statistics at Columbia University estimates that the average person knows about 600 people. Of those, UK study determined that a person typically has around 40 relationships with people who could legitimately be called friends.

The longer someone has been a Christian, the greater the percentage of those friends and acquaintances will be other believers. Members of stagnant churches spend most of their time with other church people, whether from their own church or other churches. The simple truth is this: The most common reason churches stagnate is that the membership has fully mined their current relationships for potential new attendees.

The last I heard, 82% of unchurched people would attend church if invited by a friend. So, either we don’t know any unchurched people or we aren’t inviting them.

Now, here’s where it gets scary. According to missiologist Todd M. Johnson, 20% of non-Christians in North America don’t even know a Christian! So, while we are all huddled together in our stagnant churches trying to figure out how to produce more and better programs, more than 13 million people in our land don’t even know someone who can tell them about Jesus.

We don’t need new programs, we need new relationships. If just five people in a church each brought only four non-Christians into their circle of 40 and invited them to church, 16 new people would attend who never had before. And, they would be exposed to the gospel, through their new friendship with believing Christians, in ways they never would have otherwise.

The truth is we simply need to ask. It’s both simple and personal. If we are willing to get to know new people who don’t yet believe in Jesus and invite them to church, most churches will grow. And a lot more people will place their faith in Christ.

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