Church’s Growth Stalled? Ask Why (Look Before You Grow, Part IV)



Has your church reached a size threshold that it’s having trouble breaking through?

Church leaders have a deep desire to participate in the building of Jesus’ church. So it’s not surprising that pastors and other leaders can feel discouraged when their church seems stuck on a plateau.

Many factors can account for a church’s expanding and contracting over its life span—too many to cover adequately in a brief post. (Earlier posts in this series can be found here, here, and here.)

Remember that the Lord is the church-grower. God gives the increase. The first place to go for guidance is to the Lord and His Word, because leading and growing the church is the Holy Spirit’s work first of all.

Church growth isn’t usually a straight line upward. A “stall” could be a temporary gift of refreshing from the Lord. A plateau provides a season for everyone to rest, rejoice, recover, and regroup. There are usually seasons of growth, then stasis or even contraction.

Ask “Why?”

When a church finds that it’s been on a plateau for several years or more, it may be due to spiritual, organizational, or cultural factors (or a combination):

  • Spiritual factors. A decline in numbers often signals spiritual concerns. The plateau may be a symptom of spiritual problems such as:
    • Conflict among members or leaders
    • Shallow busyness
    • Neglect of disciple making
    • Neglect of evangelism
  • Organizational factors. Your church’s plateau may be as large as you will grow because of:
    • The limitations of your structure. Having too small a staff for your membership or lacking a leadership-development process will impact how large your church can grow. Growth may have stalled because systems have not been scaled up or upgraded to match the new reality. Your current systems may not be adequate to sustain a church any bigger than it is now. Carey Neiuwhof wrote, “You know why most churches still don’t push past the 200 mark in attendance? You ready? They organize, behave, lead and manage like a small organization.”
    • Even if a church is poorly managed, it still has a system, and that system produces predictable results. Management expert W. Edwards Deming famously said, “Your system is perfectly designed to give you the results you’re getting.”
  • Cultural factors. Both the church’s internal culture and the surrounding culture influence the church’s growth potential.
    • Resistance to change is a major drag on growth. Now, not all change brings growth, but all growth brings change. A dying church is changing, but it’s not growing.
    • But a church that truly seeks to grow will have to make changes, often significant ones. “Simply put, church size does matter for how a church is run, much like a married couple who some years later find themselves with a dozen children cannot simply organize their life as they did with their first child—everything must change.” Mark Driscoll, pastor of Mars Hill Church
    • Leadership can be the reason a church’s growth has stalled. Asking “why?” can be a threatening step for leaders to take, because they themselves may be the primary reason growth has stopped. It takes a strong leader who is committed to the true welfare of the church and to the will of God to take that long look in the mirror.
    • Demographics can account for a church plateau. There may be an innate limit to growth because of where the church is situated. It may be landlocked, or it may be located in a sparsely populated area.

Researcher Ed Stetzer offers some hope to plateaued churches:

“[If] a church is in a pattern of plateau, it can likely be kick-started . . . If a church is in decline, it will take longer to change things, and more things will need to be changed, depending on how steep and long the decline is. Moreover, some churches (there’s no easy way to say this) need to die. Whether no one is left, the community has changed drastically, or those who are left are a self-defeating core, some churches have fulfilled their life cycle. The good side is that some dying churches have resources and assets that can be utilized to start something new (see” Ed Stetzer,

In the upcoming e-book version of this series, we’ll look more deeply at growth strategies for the plateaued church.