I recently had a friend reach out to me for some advice on growing their small town church. His situation is very similar to many others in small rural communities. He was asked to take over a denominational church that had been struggling for years and had dwindled down to less than 30 people attending. At one time the church had been successful, but because they haven’t been willing to change, they were on the verge of having to close their doors. What follows in this post is the advice I gave him and the advice I would give you if you were in a similar situation.
Before we jump in, let me just say, you have a very difficult task ahead of you. It is very hard to build momentum in an established church that has seen better days. Especially one that is apprehensive about change.
Less people attending also means less volunteers and generally less money coming in. I don’t think it’s impossible, but I do think you’re going to have some days you want to quit and some days you want to run your head through a wall.
If you think you’re up to the challenge, then here is where I would begin.
- Build Relationships. Lots of them, inside and outside of the church. When you have less than 50 people attending, you should know everyone’s name, the names of their kids, and the names of their pets. The benefit of a small church is you really can know everyone. When they miss church, check up on them. When they’re in the hospital, stop by and visit for a minute. You’re not going to be able to do this forever. Eventually, you’re going to need to recruit others to help, but in the beginning stages, this falls on you. Also, make a point to get to know others in the community. Know who works at the bank, who runs the local grocery store, the old guys who are always sitting at the same table at the local meat and three. You get the idea. Make it a point to go to local ball games, hang out at the library, and go to community events.
- Form a Core Team. This terminology is generally used for church planters, but in essence that is what you’re doing. Once you’ve started building relationships, I want you to choose three to six couples to be on your core team. These are people you can trust, people you enjoy doing life with, and people who can help you execute the vision you have for the church. Just call it your small group in the beginning so no one gets suspicious. These are the people who are going to help you turn around the church. Start holding meetings with them to share your ideas, hopes, and dreams, and make it a point to listen to theirs. They’re much more likely to buy into the vision if they’ve played a part in forming it. If you can’t recruit this team, you’re going to fail.
- Get the Right People in the Right Places. Ideally, the people on your core team should be the people leading the most important ministries in your church. The big three in my mind are kids, first impressions, and worship, in that order. In some churches, the entire congregation votes on these positions. That’s why it’s so important to build those relationships and have a solid core team. Unfortunately, in some churches, change is only possible when you overthrow the old regime. Just be careful that they don’t overthrow you first.
- Start Making Improvements. Not only in the way you do ministry, but in the way your facility looks. New flooring, new paint, and new fixtures can do wonders for an old building. If you don’t have the money, you can try to raise some, or just fix what you can. A lot of churches would look better if they just de-cluttered and had a really good cleaning. For instance, if you have fake plants in your auditorium, get rid of them. I’d also try my best to get rid of pews if you have them. You can adjust the numbers of chairs you have to help with critical mass, but you can’t adjust the number of pews. And even if you could, they still scream “traditional out of touch church.” Sorry, pew lovers.
- Rename or Rebrand. Ideally, I would never want the denomination in the church name. Because what happens is that someone who has a bad experience at a church that’s the same denomination as yours will never come to your church. Your church and that church may be completely different, but you’re labeled by that denominational name. Now, by all means hold on to the beliefs of the denomination, just don’t put it in the church name. I know that’s not always possible, so for the rest of you, just rebrand your church logo to make it look more modern. Try to avoid doves, and fire, and those other things that were popular in the 80’s.
- Celebrate the Small Wins and Learn Patience. Realize that this is going to be a marathon and not a sprint. For every three steps forward, you’re going to take two steps back. Learn to celebrate the small wins, like a new family joining the church, a person getting baptized, a young couple dedicating their child. My friend has seen 25% growth at his church in the 6 months he’s been there. They’ve grown from 28 to 35. That’s something to celebrate. The church I serve only grew by 5% last year, and you know what, we were celebrating. Getting people involved in church is difficult right now. They have a lot of options, so celebrate the small wins.
This is by no means an exhaustive list. There’s so much more I’d like to add, but I’d rather hear your thoughts. What would you add to this discussion? Leave a comment and let us know, and if you’re in a spot where you’d like some help with your church check out my coaching page and see if I could be of help to you.
Sometimes addition happens through subtraction. I can’t remember who was the first to say it, but this is a phrase that has stuck with me throughout the years. I think one of the reasons I remember it so well is because I love math and numbers. But the other more important reason is because it’s turned out to be true over and over again. The main point is sometimes it’s good when people leave your church.
I feel like the church I serve has been pretty lucky through the years. In the past twelve years, we’ve transitioned from contemporary to modern, we’ve totally revamped our constitution and bylaws, and we’ve had three different worship leaders.
Through it all, we’ve only had a handful of families leave. A couple of the families helped lead worship and didn’t survive the contemporary to modern transition. Another worship pastor parted ways to pursue a full time worship position. And I don’t think anyone left when we changed our bylaws, which has to be a miracle.
In each instance, our church got stronger. We always ended up replacing the people we lost with people who better fit our vision. Seeing people leave your church can be painful, but it also may be a blessing in disguise.
When is it good when people leave your church?
- When they don’t support the vision. The church I serve didn’t have a clear vision starting out. This meant people with strong personalities would project their own vision for the church. This created a mess that took several years to get out of. If you have people who are fighting against the vision you are fighting for, it’s best to ask them to find a new church that’s more in line with their vision.
- When they’re doing more harm than good. This could be people who gossip, people who are constantly stirring up drama, or people who just complain all the time about everything. These people are the equivalent of someone farting in a crowded elevator. As much as we’re called to love people, sometimes it’s better if you love them from a distance.
- When it creates an opportunity for someone else. Sometimes good people you love leave the church. These hurt the most, but it also creates the opportunity for someone else to step up and get involved. Don’t dwell too long on what you lost. Start looking for someone who can take his or her place.
- When God calls them somewhere new. This was the case for our former worship pastor. He had a desire to do full-time ministry, but we didn’t feel like he was the right fit long term. We ended up parting ways, and shortly thereafter he received a full-time position at a great church. Not everyone is going to stay at your church long term, especially when you’re in a small town, so be thankful for the time you have with them.
What are some other reasons it’s good when people leave the church? I’d love to hear your ideas and experiences. Share them in the comments below. Also don’t forget to subscribe to the blog to get tips on church growth, leadership, and more delivered to your inbox each week.
The church I serve recently hosted a “Friends and Family Day” in which we saw our largest attendance of the year. It was awesome seeing all the new faces and how our volunteers connected with new guests. I’m hoping that we see many of them come back and get connected over the next few weeks. Getting first-time guests to come back is the key to church growth.
I’ve heard that in order for your church to grow, you need to see the same number of first-time guests throughout the year as your average weekly attendance. For example, if your average attendance is 75 people, then you want to see more than 75 first-time guests throughout the year.
That may seem like a lot, and it is, but you have to realize that many people who show up to your church will never stick. And others who’ve been attending your church for a while may leave for various reasons throughout the year. Without getting guests connected to the church, the church ends up shrinking.
First-Time guests are like oxygen to a church. In order to keep breathing, you have to keep bringing them in. Otherwise, you die.
They’re that important, and because they’re important, there are some things you need to know about them.
- They primarily show up because of a personal invite. The majority of guests you will see are there because someone invited them. If you’re not seeing enough first-time guests at your church, it’s because the congregation isn’t inviting. This could be caused by a variety of reasons that we don’t have time to get into in this post. Just know that, you cannot encourage your church to invite enough. I offer a few ideas on how you can do that in this post.
- They’re checking you out online. It’s 2018. If you’re a pastor of a church that doesn’t have a website, stop reading this post and go get one. Nothing makes a guest think that you’re out of touch and out of date like not having a website. The only thing worse may be having a website that confirms that you’re out of touch and out of date. It’s just too easy of a fix. You can’t let this happen. If you have no idea where to start, spend a few hundred dollars and get someone to create it for you. It’s well worth the money. One last thing, having a Facebook page is great, but it shouldn’t take the place of your website. You’re leasing space on Facebook. They can change the terms anytime they want, and they do. Get a website that you own.
- Most of them have preconceived notions from past church experiences. This may be different in other parts of the country and world, but in the southeast it’s hard to find someone who doesn’t have at least some kind of church experience. Even if they didn’t personally experience it, they’ve heard stories. These bad experiences are normally what keep them from giving church another chance. So, when they do take the step to try church again, you need to be careful that you don’t confirm what they already believe. That’s why you have to be really careful about who you let greet people. They run into one rude person on their way to the auditorium, and you’ve more than likely lost them.
- It doesn’t take long for them to decide if they’ll be back. I’ve heard different stats on this, but most of them fall somewhere between 3-12 minutes. That’s how long it takes a person to decide if they’ll ever be back to your church once they pull into your drive. At my church I want to create a “Wow” experience that brings guests back. You can find out how to do that here.
- They often have a consumer mindset. Many times we use the word consumer in a very negative context, but I don’t want to do that here. The truth is, we’re all consumers. We’re all looking to get something out of church. If you weren’t leading a church and you were looking to attend one, would you pick one that your kids hated? I wouldn’t. I want my kids to love the church, and it’s hard for them to love it if they don’t even like it. The truth is for some of you, you’re leading a church that, if you weren’t leading, you wouldn’t even want to attend. That’s a problem.
- Deep down, they’re really looking for connection. Most guests come in looking for a friendly church with a great kids’ ministry, good music and a relatable pastor. Those are the things that get them to come back, but connection is what keeps them coming back. Deep down, they’re looking for a friend, they’re looking for answers, they’re looking for purpose. They want to connect with people, and they want to connect with God. When that happens, growth happens, in their lives and the life of the church.
What are you doing to connect first-time guests to your church? Share your ideas in the comments below, and if you would like to talk about this further and learn ways you can better reach your community send me an email. Also, don’t forget to subscribe to get tips on church growth, leadership, and more delivered to your inbox each week.