Every church has a life cycle. Aubrey Malphurs represents this by using the bell curve approach or as he calls it “the sigmoid curve”. The bell curve of church life involves a start (birth), growth, various levels of plateau, decline and eventually death. Everything has a life cycle, even churches. The key is to create new growth at the top of the curve before the natural down hill momentum carries the church toward decline. The majority of churches (70%) never reach the age of 100. For new churches, the 15-20 year mark usually takes them to a point of natural plateau unless they are consistently evaluating ministries and refreshing the churches vision statement.
All declining churches were at some point in their history at a plateau in membership and chose either to ignore it, become indifferent to it or the church failed in efforts to overcome it.
Often times when a church reaches out to their state convention or a consultant for help they are in such deep decline that it is almost impossible to stop it. One of the most critical decisions church leaders must make is what actions to take when attendance plateaus and growth stagnates.
How do we define attendance plateau? If your regular attendance has not seen more than 5% growth in a two year span, you are likely at the top of the curve. Churches at the top of the curve have plateaued in attendance and if nothing is done inevitably it will begin to decline. If this is your church, don’t panic! Remember that these plateaus are a natural part of the life cycle of every church. What you do with this discovery will be the key to where the church will be on the life cycle curve in 10 years. Most causes for stagnated attendance are completely fixable.
Here are 5 common reasons why church attendance becomes stagnate.
The vision of the church becomes stale and uninspiring.
When a new pastor is brought to a church often the first item on the agenda is to cast a new exciting vision for the ministry of the church. Often the pastor will take the first year to evaluate, plan, pray and have dialogue with key leaders in order to cast a new vision for the congregation. The church’s vision involves what the mission and purpose of the church would look like if it is fully realized. The pastor reveals the new vision with excitement and enthusiasm to which the congregation is emboldened to more effective ministry. However, over time this vision runs its course and loses forward momentum. Over time vision must be re-cast, renewed and refreshed. I believe that a pastor must inspire the congregation with a new vision statement every 5-7 years. A Holy Spirit led vision has the capability of rallying the congregation and awakening even the coldest of hearts to the grandiose Christ led possibilities of ministry effectiveness. If the vision of the pastor has grown stale it will not be spoken of and will become only a faint dream of past success. Pastors must ask God for fresh vision on a reoccurring basis.
The church is not staffed properly for continued growth.
I was recently speaking with a pastor who wanted to increase the number of children and young families that attend his church. My suggestion seemed to be a no-brainer, “You need to bring a children’s minister on staff.” He looked at me as if I had 3 heads and said “Why do we need a children’s minister when we don’t have any children to minister to?” Staff shouldn’t be hired simply based on existing needs, they should be hired based on future wants. I said to the pastor, “You don’t hire a children’s minister because you HAVE children in your church, you hire a children’s minister because you WANT to have children in your church.” Your church may be stagnant simply based on the fact that you are not adequately staffed. Three good questions to ask in relation to this point are: Have we staffed for growth? Are current staff members able to lead the church to the next level of ministry? Are current staff members serving in roles that have outgrown them? Not all staff positions have to be paid positions, some will take a position simply for the experience and passion they have to serve and use their spiritual gifts.
The church isn’t utilizing its current space effectively.
For about a 1 year period the church I was pastor was stuck at the 300 attendance mark. We would occasionally have more than 300 in Bible study but not on a regular basis. To fix this I reached out to one of our state missionaries to come and lead our church in small group training. As I finished giving him a tour of our facilities he turned to me and said, “The issue you have isn’t how you are doing Sunday school, it is the space limitations that are holding you back.” Of course! How could I not have seen that? The maximum capacity of educational space in our church was around 300-325 and most Sundays we were bumping capacity. We did a space inventory and reconfigured the way we were using our building. We instantly found more room and eventually built new youth space and a children’s building. As soon as we found more space we broke the 300 barrier! The old adage goes like this: If you are 80% capacity, then you are FULL! Time to start planning for future space. Some questions to ask in regards to facilities: Do your buildings limit our growth? Is there other ways to configure your space that will maximize its potential capacity? Does the church need to start a second worship service? Is the facility outdated and in need of a fresh look? Is it time to begin discussing a building campaign?
New Members aren’t effectively assimilated into the church and new believers aren’t being discipled.
If either of these are true in your church the attrition rate will sky rocket and thus attendance will plateau. The more new members and attenders buy into the vision and ministry of the church the more attendance growth will continue. Assimilation describes the method in which new members and attenders become deeply connected with the church. Churches need to require new member classes in order for membership to be finalized. The more new church members understand the function, purpose and vision of their new church the more they will attend, serve and invite others. Also a church must train a core group of disciple makers in order to effectively fulfill the Great Commission. Matthew 28: 18-20 is not only an evangelistic statement from Jesus, it is a clarion call for disciple making churches!