Church growth statistics are helpful because they encourage us to stop thinking in at least five unhealthy ways.
By Scott McConnell
Lifeway Research recently released a study on church health revealing four factors that predict church growth. The four factors are:
- New commitments to Jesus Christ through your church
- The rate these new commitments get involved in your church
- The portion of worship attendees who are involved in small group discipleship
- Church size
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 these four factors that make a church more likely to have grown in its worship service attendance in the past five years.Researchers identified four factors that make a church more likely to have grown in its worship service attendance in the past five years. Click To Tweet
There are clear limits on what research and statistics can tell us about ministry and God’s activity in people’s lives. But because God has created our universe with order and desires for His church to be orderly, good research and analysis can help uncover these patterns.
Why does knowing these four factors matter? How are we any better off seeing these church growth statistics? They are helpful not because they reveal something we have never seen but because they encourage us to stop thinking in at least five unhealthy ways.
1. Stop feeling helpless about your church’s numbers
Often, the reason pastors and church leaders don’t like to look at (much less report to anyone else) statistics about their church is that they have no idea what to do about the numbers they see. If attendance is up, it is rarely clear why. Sure, you see who is coming, but it is hard to figure out how to encourage that to happen again. When attendance is down, that slanted line never says what to do about it.
Examining predictive church growth statistics moves us from focusing on output metrics to leading indicators. When attendance dropped quickly for all churches during the pandemic, people were quick to point out worship attendance is not the end game. This is true. But it is an indicator of what you ultimately hope for—your congregation walking more closely with Christ.
How is worship attendance an indicator of that? If people exist to worship God individually and corporately as a church, participating in worship together and gathering with the people Jesus called to “love one another” can provide an indicator if someone is headed in that direction. But that is an output. To know what actions are needed, we need to see leading indicators like the factors in this research to know how we can influence the output.
2. Stop thinking you don’t know what to do
One of the top reasons pastors left their last church is because they felt they had taken their church as far as they could. God may indeed be moving pastors to new places at just the right time to use them in ways He has been preparing them for. But until that day, you are responsible to lead your congregation to walk with Christ more closely.
The number of new commitments to Christ is one factor predictive of growth in worship attendance over five years. Pastor, you know what to do to influence this number. No, we cannot turn someone’s heart to faith in Christ. But Scripture is clear people don’t believe until they hear (Romans 10:14). Encouraging and equipping your congregation to tell the gospel and to invite more people to hear the gospel is the leader’s work, along with modeling these same behaviors.
Often, Satan puts the thought in your mind that you don’t know what to do. When that happens, call it what it is—a lie. Scripture doesn’t tell pastors to exhort their church once, or correct them once, or teach them once. The work of ministry is present tense, constantly teaching, rebuking, and training in righteousness.“The work of ministry is present tense, constantly teaching, rebuking, and training in righteousness.” — @smcconn Click To Tweet
It is true congregations don’t always respond to this leadership. Scripture tells us the answer to this dilemma as well. “Though a righteous person falls seven times, he will get up” (Proverbs 24:16a, CSB). The problem is not that you don’t know what to do. Saying and thinking you don’t know what to do is defeatist. Your need in that moment is to update or adjust how you are doing it.
As you teach the truth, how can you connect better? As you encourage evangelism, how can you motivate a few people to respond? How can you encourage a maturing believer to start a new small group Bible study?
3. Stop thinking you are supposed to create church growth yourself
If our to-do lists as church leaders are all about what we can do, we are missing the point of this being Christ’s church.
When doing predictive analysis, a statistician’s goal is to explain as much of the variance in outcomes as possible. In this case, the four predictive factors do not predict everything about changes in worship attendance in five years. In any field of study, you can never explain everything.
This is even more true in ministry. We must always leave room for God’s activity in our analysis. We must always make room for God’s activity in our leadership. And we must continually invite God’s activity in our people.
4. Stop thinking there is a silver bullet
It is natural for our minds to seek to simplify situations, trying to figure out the one thing we need to do to make the situation better. But reality is rarely that simple. It is helpful to determine the next step or the one action that would generate the most good. But ignoring other factors or steps may set us up for bigger problems.
As noted above, this predictive analysis doesn’t explain everything about changes in worship attendance over five years. So, we need to keep our eyes open for other factors, even as we address these. Putting consistent effort into evangelism is vital for a congregation. But we must also have plans in place and people to walk with a new believer. And we must be encouraging everyone to participate in a small group.
5. Stop worrying about what you cannot control
One of the factors that predicts the change in a church’s worship attendance is their attendance today. In this moment, you cannot change your church’s current reality. As you focus on changing your church’s future reality, do not let your current size distract you from focusing on the factors that impact it.“As you focus on changing your church's future reality, do not let your current size distract you from focusing on the factors that impact it.” — @smcconn Click To Tweet
So, why is this factor helpful? In statistics, this measure is also considered a control factor. By including this in the analysis, we can say with confidence that the other three factors are predictive, controlling for church size. In other words, statistics related to the three elements of ministry (evangelism, assimilation, and involvement in discipleship) are predictive of church growth in any size church.
To take this conclusion from statistics to your role as pastor, the things in which you are called to be faithful matter.
Too often in ministry, our greatest defeats occur in our thinking. When we focus our thinking on what God can do and on what we know He has called us to do, we can be faithful and fruitful.
For permission to republish this article, please email Marissa Postell Sullivan.
Scott is the executive director of Lifeway Research.
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