4 Reasons Your Church is Shrinking

4 Reasons Your Church is Shrinking

Aaron Buer

Digital giving apps and tools

Have you ever noticed how easily we can see problems in other people’s lives, relationships and careers?

“Your marriage is struggling? Oh, that’s probably because you constantly say rude things to your spouse.”

“You can’t seem to lose any weight? Oh, it could be that you eat four scoops of ice cream every night.”

“You didn’t get the promotion? It could be that you show up for work at 10 and leave at 3.”

And, of course, we can never see these things in our own lives can we? I can’t tell you how many times somehow has told me something completely obvious about myself that was a revolutionary learning.

“I really do that when I laugh?”

“I really pace back and forth like that when I preach?”

“That shirt really looks like it belongs in the 80s? Interesting.”

We all need outside perspective. We often just can’t see reality in our own lives. I know you know exactly what I’m talking about!

I think the same principle applies to our churches. When, as it inevitably happens, we go through periods of plateauing growth or even declining attendance, we are often completely dumbfounded as to the reasons.


Because we can’t see reality in our own environments.

So, if your church is in a season of plateauing or declining attendance, you are probably nervous and confused. That’s totally normal! We went through some of this last fall. The key is to understand why, and as we’ve been saying, that usually requires outside perspective.

So, here are a few indicators that I’ve learned along the way. My hope is that if one of these describes your church that the realization might help you get unstuck.


Last week, I attended the Global Leader Summit and I heard Bill Hybels describe leadership in an incredibly simple and clear way.

Leadership is leading people from “here” to “there.”

Great leaders create a compelling vision of “there” and convince people that “there” is so much better than “here” that they are willing to work incredibly hard to get “there.”


Here’s something I’ve observed with churches. Churches that are growing usually have a single “there.” Churches that have plateaued or are declining often have many “theres.” In other words, staff and ministries are sprinting as hard as they can toward their particular “there” but the overall progress is neutralized by the unfortunate reality that everyone is sprinting in a different direction.

For example the "there" for the spiritual formation department is adults attending Sunday School while the "there" for the small groups department is adults joining a small group. The "there" for the senior pastor is higher attendance while the "there" worship pastor is a lower but more engaged attendance. Do you see the subtle differences? Not being united in our "there" can lead to running in opposite directions.

How do you know if you have too many "theres?" You can usually tell by subtle conflicts over time and resources.

  • When the student ministry has scheduled a key retreat on the same weekend that church leadership has scheduled a vision casting event for all volunteers (this actually happened to us once!)
  • When the small groups ministry pushing as hard as the can to get more adults into small groups while the spiritual formation team is pushing as hard as they can to get more adults into Sunday morning classes.
  • When the college ministry schedules a mission trip during the missions conference.

Does your church have a singular driving vision that everyone, in every ministry, is striving toward? If you are plateaued or shrinking, this might be the first place to start. Get on the same page about the what, why and how of your church’s vision and mission.


Have you ever been to a great party?

It doesn’t matter what kind of party we’re talking about.

All great parties have something in common. They are engaging. They keep your interest. They are fun.

Have you ever been to a lame party? You know what it wasn’t? Engaging.

What did you want to do? Leave as soon as possible!

THE OFFICE -- "Here Comes Treble" Episode 906 -- Pictured: (l-r) Rainn Wilson as Dwight Schrute, Jake Lacy as Pete, Brian Baumgartner as Kevin Malone, Leslie David Baker as Stanley Hudson, Creed Bratton as Creed Bratton -- (Photo by: Chris Haston/NBC)

I’m not saying that your church has to be a rave but I am saying that it must be engaging. People who are engaged serve, give and invite. People who aren’t, well, they go find an engaging church where they can serve, give and invite.

Here are a few indicators of whether your church is engaging:

  1. Are you speaking to the issues and struggles people are actually dealing with?
  2. Do people laugh in your services?
  3. Do people hang around before and afterward?
  4. Do the kids in your church love the children’s ministry?
  5. Do people love serving in your church?

Churches that are engaging grow. It’s pretty simple. If you feel that your church might not be all that engaging, then it’s probably time for a survey or focus group.

What is it that your people want? What do they need help with? What do they want to do? I’m not saying that you have to cater to their every need but if your people are clamoring for a sermon series on how to handle money or if they are searching for an opportunity to serve the homeless in your city then engage them!


Here’s a truth my own church is wrestling with right now. This generation wants to serve. They want to get involved in the needs of the community and they are demanding that their church be engaged with the needs of the community. I have observed that the vast majority of 20 somethings are migrating to churches that are active in the community.

In 2003, I read a book called "The Search to Belong".


This book gave me words for a cultural shift I was observing in students and in young adults. The main idea was that people want to belong before they believe. In other words, people wanted to experience the Jesus community before deciding whether they wanted to follow Jesus.

I still think this is true but I believe there has been a further shift. Based on what I observe with students and post-college young adults, people often prefer to serve before they belong, before they believe.

What I’m saying is that a non-believer will often join a serving experience with followers of Jesus long before they will step into a church or a small group. The focus here is on the order of questions this generation is asking of our churches. And, the order is important.

  1. First, do you care about the world?
  2. Second, do you care about me?
  3. Lastly, do I believe what you believe?

Let me summarize, if you church is all about what happens within the four walls of your church, you’ll probably lose the next generation of Jesus followers to a church that is missionally focused within your community. And, you most likely won’t evangelize this generation effectively unless you are active in the community, showing people that you care.


I like to garden but I’m kind of a terrible gardener. I would much prefer to pop some seeds in the ground and just sit back and watch. But, I’ve learned that if you want a decent crop of Roma Tomatoes you have to weed, water and prune.


A few years ago a friend of mine, who is a prolific gardener, pointed out that I should be pruning everything off my tomato plants except for the main vines and the sections that are producing fruit. I listened to him and couldn’t believe the difference in yield.

Why did the pruning work? Because, the plant only has so many resources and when I trimmed off everything unrelated to the purpose... tomatoes appeared! All those resources were applied toward what truly matters.

I think you know where I’m going with this. Growing churches are strategic. They decide what truly matters and they focus resources on what matters. Declining churches are often unwilling to prune what used to work, or what an influential segment of the congregation is comfortable with.

Leaders who move people from here to there must be willing to prune what isn’t directly related to the mission of the church. So, an important question to ask, if you are experiencing a season of plateauing or declining growth, might be:

“What are we doing that isn’t perfectly aligned with our mission?”

And secondly,

“Does it need to be pruned?”

It’s often impossible to see reality in our own environments, whether that’s our personal lives or our churches.

My hope with this post was to share a few common inhibitors to growth in churches. Perhaps one of these ideas struck a chord with you and helped you see reality in your own environment. Or, maybe you’ve seen another factor or you’ve experienced something that helped propel your church forward.

We’d love to hear about it. Share your ideas in the comments below.

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