Why Churches Don’t Grow, Part 1

I am a student of church growth and church health and have benefited from the writings and research of Charles Arn. Recently he wrote an article called, “Why Churches Don’t Grow” for Building Church Leaders network. This short article is right on target. In this two-part series, we will look at his list of five growth restricting obstacles:

  1. The Pastor
  2. The church members
  3. Perceived irrelevance
  4. Using the wrong methods
  5. No plan for assimilation

All of us know that healthy churches grow just like healthy plants or animals or even people. It is a natural process so when a church is not growing, we must ask, “Why not?”

If we understand the reason for why a church is not growing and then address that specific issue or barrier, then we can work on the cure for better health. The first two growth restricting obstacles are…

1. The Pastor

Arn lists there different causes for the pastor’s inhibiting the growth of a church:

  • The pastor does not have a priority. Churches grow when they have a priority for reaching the un-churched. When the pastor doesn’t, the church won’t.
  • The pastor does not have a vision. No vision for outreach is as much a barrier as no priority. Growing churches have pastors who believe God wants to reach people in their community and assimilate them into the Body.
  • The pastor does not have the knowledge. Working harder is not the secret to effective outreach. The secret is working smarter. Unfortunately, little is taught in seminaries or Bible schools about how to effectively reach and assimilate new people.

Lack of a specific priority, vision and knowledge all point to the gap of a church focusing its energy and resources on reaching people. If the pastor does not have a heart for reaching lost people then usually the church will not have the heart either. We lead by example.

When was the last time, as a leader, that you shared a witnessing opportunity you experienced or other ways you have connected with un-churched people? When have you taken someone with you to have conversations with a lost person? We must lead our people to get out of our building and taking the Gospel and ministry to the streets.

2. The church members

Sometimes a church has a great leader who has a vision and passion for reaching people with the Gospel but the church members are apathetic. If church members are satisfied with things as they are or have a bunker mentality (no one is getting in here!) then a church will not grow.

Arn says, “Church members can keep a church from growing when:

  • Members have no priority for reaching the lost. “Sure, our church should reach people,” some say. “But me? I’ve got three kids, a job, membership at the health club, and a lawn to mow. Someone else with more time should feel compelled.”
  • Members have a self-serving attitude about church. When members believe the priority of the pastor and the church should be to “feed the sheep,” the message that newcomers hear is: “We like our church just the way it is…which is without you!”
  • Members fear that new people will destroy their fellowship. When “community” is the number one priority in a church, members will act in a way that communicates to newcomers: “We’re just fine with the people we have, thank you.”

I would love to hear your thoughts on these two barriers. In Part 2, I will deal with the next three growth restricting obstacles.

Keep the Son in your eyes,

Mike James


  1. As I read this I heard God speak to me. I recently fegirud out this same lesson and heard it from my pastor this week. I know it important when the lesson keeps getting repeated you just applied the lesson, and made me realize what I have been trying to do here at home, thanks for sharing and being vulnerable

  2. Great thoughts Trey,
    Yes we need to feed and care for the sheep and teach them to do the same so we are freed up to do evangelism and to lead the congregation to do the same. You are right in challenging the people from the pulpit to share their faith and not let what they hear on Sunday morning just fade away.
    Keep up the good work for the Lord.

  3. Easier said than done but some how you have to change the heart of the church. So many members do think it is all about me and my needs and forget the mission Jesus gave us in Matthew 28:16-20. You might look at the EKG materials by Ken Hemphil that help to do this. Also raise the lever of prayer. Uneless our people are praying for lost people they will not engage them in conversations or invitations.
    Blessings and thanks for your comments!

  4. Sorry you have not found a church that is open to change and growth. They are out there. Sometimes newer churches are more open to new folks than older churches so you might see if there is some new work going on. May the Lord bless you as you follow Him.

  5. In the church I belong to, but have not been to in months, I was an active member of the United Methodist Women. I should mention that the majority of our church members are over 50. Most of those over 60 and retired. We had four younger, (between 25 and 30) women join our group. They were willing to pitch in and do what needed to be done. They lasted less than 6 months. Many of the older women were so negative towards them and their ideas, that they felt they weren’t wanted. The same women who, when asking for volunteers for a project, always became interested in their laps and hard of hearing. They felt they had “put in their time when they were younger”, but didn’t want to relinquish control to the younger members. They were resistant to change. They had the “we don’t do it that way” frame of mind.

    I was on three other commitees and always seemed to meet with the same set of people. It seemed like there was only 20% of the congregation willing to participate in volunteering, being on committees, in the choir, etc. Half of the other 80% complained about everything the involved 20% did.

    When I started going to this church, I had not been to church for decades. I was looking for a smaller church, where I could get to know most of the congration and be involved. I didn’t want to just go to church. I was raised Catholic and because I was married to a divorced man and couldn’t receive the sacrements, didn’t feel comfortable returning to the church. So I started attending services at different churches. Two Presbyterian, one of which I could wait to get out of. The service had about 15, 80 and 90 year old members, who were very nice to meet on my way in. However, when the pastor began down grading the whole nation of Iraq and Iran, I felt uncomfortable. I also attended the Methodist Church I that I eventually joined. I loved the way the pastor preached. Unfortuantely, he was transferred. The new guy is nice, but I don’t have a feel for him, so I am again looking for another church. I will probably go back to the Catholic Church, since my husband has passed. Hopefully, one with a more diverse congregation.

  6. Looks like Mr. Arn is right on target. Our church is stuck on number two, what is the remedy ?

  7. Great article and very spot on. As a person in leadership on staff at a church, I was very convicted when you asked when was the last time we shared a story about someone we witnessed to. I have been very burdened lately about sharing Christ with everyday people we come across, and you are right as far as we shouldn’t expect people we are leading to do that if we aren’t doing it ourselves.
    The only thing I have a question about is where you gave the impression that feeding the sheep should not be a priority of the church. I am not sure that feeding the sheep and reaching the lost are necessarily exclusive. I believe that when the sheep are properly fed then they are then prepared to reach the lost. Jesus told Peter: If you love me feed my sheep. I agree that certainly there is this mindset among many established churches of “Bless me, feed me”, but I see them as starving church people, because if I am truly growing in Christ it automatically causes me to want to share my faith with someone and to see the bride of Christ grow. Anyway, just an insight: Are churches that have a “feed the sheep” mentality but no desire for outreach really being fed at all? Once again thanks for the article!

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