Pastors and leaders can evaluate their congregations by asking four questions associated with predicting church growth.
By Aaron Earls
Small, normative-sized churches can be healthy congregations serving Jesus and the community in which He has placed them.
For many churches, however, there is an opportunity for numerical growth. Many people may be physically near the church building but spiritually far from God. Regardless of whether a church sits on a city block or a rural road, most congregations are surrounded by both non-Christians and lapsed Christians.
Lifeway Research found a majority of both U.S. Protestant pastors and churchgoers consider someone to be a regular churchgoer if they attend twice or month or more. Recent surveys from both Pew and Gallup, however, show a minority of Americans attend church regularly. And the number seems to be shrinking. As of August 2022, the average U.S. Protestant church was at 85% of their pre-pandemic attendance, according to Lifeway Research. Still, nearly 1 in 6 pastors (17%) reported church growth during the pandemic.
In a Lifeway Research study on church health focusing on small group involvement, evangelism, discipleship, and congregational assimilation, the analysis found four factors that predicted church growth.“Small, normative-sized churches can be healthy congregations serving Jesus and the community in which He has placed them.” — @WardrobeDoor Click To Tweet
U.S. Protestant pastors reported their average worship attendance for Fall 2017 and 2022. Then by examining pastors’ responses to other questions about their churches, researchers identified four factors that made a church more likely to have grown its worship service attendance in the past five years.
The four predictive factors are evangelism, assimilation, small group discipleship, and church size. You can evaluate your own church by asking each of the questions associated with each factor.
In the past 12 months, how many people have indicated a new commitment to Jesus Christ as Savior through your church?
This should be obvious, but the more effectively evangelistic a church is, the more likely they are to have grown numerically. If you want more people at your church, you need to reach more people.
The average U.S. Protestant church saw 15 new commitments to Jesus in the past year. But most churches saw far less than that. Around 2 in 3 congregations had fewer than 10 people make a new commitment to Christ as Savior in the past 12 months, including 17% who saw no new commitments through their church.
Churches wanting to grow their worship attendance can start by focusing on increasing their evangelism. If you had no new commitments last year, make it a priority to have at least one this year. Or if you had four, aim for 10. If non-Christians live within driving distance of your church, you have an opportunity to grow.
Among the new commitments, what percentage have also become active in the life of your church?
If you want to grow, help new converts transition into active participants. Weave them into the fabric of your congregation.
On average, 79% of new commitments become active in the life of the church. A slight majority of churches (56%) say they retained all their converts in the past year. As a bright point, churches are more likely now than at any point in the past 15 years to say they retained all the new commitments.
This is an area where smaller churches or those reaching fewer people have an advantage. In fact, large churches are the least likely to say they’ve retained all their new commitments in the past 12 months (35%). Small churches that can reach new people for Christ and make them feel a welcomed part of the congregation can keep those they reach with the gospel.“Small churches that can reach new people for Christ and make them feel a welcomed part of the congregation can keep those they reach with the gospel.” — @WardrobeDoor Click To Tweet
3. Small group discipleship
What percentage of your current weekend worship attendees are involved in some small group, Sunday school class, or similar group?
If you’ve reached new people and they feel at home in your church, an important step is to get them involved in small groups. A higher percentage of worship attendees involved in groups means a church is more likely to be growing its worship service.
The average percentage of worship service attendees who are involved in some type of small group discipleship has fallen from 50% in 2008 to 44% today. Currently, a quarter of churches (24%) say less than a quarter of their churchgoers are part of a small group, up from 17% who said that was the case in 2008. Fewer than 1 in 5 (19%) say at least 75% of their attendees are also small group participants.
Right now, this is a weakness among small congregations. Those with fewer than 50 worship service attendees are the most likely to say less than 25% of those attendees are involved in a small group (39%).
If you want a growing church and a healthy church, strive to increase the percentage of churchgoers involved in a small group.
4. Church size
What is your current worship attendance?
Churches that evangelize, assimilate new converts, and get them involved in small groups are likely to grow. Because of that, growth is a self-repeating cycle. Church size predicts church growth because those churches are often already doing what it takes to grow.
A 2020 Faith Communities Today study found the average U.S. congregation sees 65 people gather each week. The average church is getting smaller, but the average churchgoer is going to a larger church. While 7 in 10 churches have 100 or fewer weekly worship service attendees, 7 in 10 churchgoers attend a church with more than 250 each week.While 7 in 10 churches have 100 or fewer weekly worship service attendees, 7 in 10 churchgoers attend a church with more than 250 each week, according to the Faith Communities Today study. Click To Tweet
This does not mean, however, that small churches cannot grow. This only indicates that larger churches are more likely to have grown in the past 15 years. For the normative-sized church, the focus should be on the first three factors—reach new people, get them involved, and plug them into a small group.
Regardless of a church’s size today, if a congregation is committed and successful at those three factors, they’re much more likely to be a healthy and growing congregation in the future.
For permission to republish this article, contact Marissa Postell Sullivan.
Aaron is the senior writer at Lifeway Research.