Church growth isn’t simply an interesting theoretical subject. For many churches, it’s a necessity—or even an emergency.
In a 2003 study, the Barna group found that 60 percent of Protestant churches in the United States had less than 100 adults. Some of these are churches that have plateaued here, and some are churches in decline. In 2014, 3,700 American churches shut their doors. The good news is that, in the same year, more than 4,000 churches started.
Whether you’re a brand new church plant, or an established church with declining or stagnant attendance, your needs are the same. What steps can you take to grow your church? How can you make sure that you’re a destination for visiting families?
If you’re looking for new strategies to grow your attendance, you’re not alone. Every month, there are more than 2,000 Google searches for church growth ideas, ways to increase attendance, and strategies for reaching more people.
How do you grow your church?
When you start looking at church growth manuals or checking the Internet for strategies for increasing your attendance, it’s hard to vet the good suggestions from the bad. Are people actually trying the methods they’re suggesting? Are they current?
That’s what some colleagues and I wanted to find out. So we surveyed and interviewed pastors from 100 of America’s fastest-growing churches. We asked them what they’ve done, and what most contributed to their growth.
And from that research, we’ve put together 20 strategies to help you boost your church attendance.
Small-scale strategies to grow your church
These church growth strategies require very little up-front spending or specialized skills, and focus on the smaller picture, such as individual neighborhoods and schools. They’re the kind of shoestring ideas you can use to grow your church no matter your congregation’s size—whether you’re 10 attendees or 5,000.
Growing your church from the inside out
1. Create a simple mission statement that makes church growth a priority
Having a mission statement is important. It allows the community to gather around a common goal and vision. It’s important that your mission statement makes growth a priority and naturally facilitates the church’s goal and vision.
Most growing churches encouraged simplicity like “Come see the church—go be the church” or “Love God, love others, serve many.” This makes the mission easy to remember, understand, and rally around.
Almost every church interviewed spoke of being influenced by reading Simple Church by Eric Geiger and Thom Rainer. In the book, the authors define a simple church as one:
“. . . designed around a straightforward and strategic process that moves people through the stages of spiritual growth. The leadership and the church are clear about the process (clarity) and are committed to executing it. The process flows logically (movement) and is implemented in each area of the church (alignment). The church abandons everything that is not in the process (focus). (pages 67-68, emphasis added)
Many appreciated the uncomplicated but profound way Simple Church helped them refocus on the simple act of defining their process for creating disciples and eliminating any program that wasn’t part of that goal.
2. Say “no” to programs that distract from your overall strategy
This deserves to be highlighted as its own strategy. Your church has a limited amount of energy to expend. If that energy is wasted on things that aren’t in line with the church’s ultimate mission, vision, and goals, it cannot be harnessed in ways that will actually realize your goals.
Once they’ve pinpointed what their mission and strategy is, fast-growing churches have realized the need to eliminate programs and activities that are a distraction for leadership, volunteers, and members.
Church growth is a natural byproduct of learning to say yes to the right opportunities, and no to the wrong ones.
3. Make (and promote) invitation forms to grow your church
CASE STUDY: Kent Jacobs, lead pastor at Epic Church in Philadelphia, made it a point to spend several minutes every week asking everyone to invite their friends, family, neighbors, and co-workers. Then he would invite people to pray that the church’s empty seats would be filled.
They also created invitation cards customized with the sermon series graphic on the front and the address and meeting times on the back. A blank space was left so congregants could personalize their invitation. Ten personal invite cards were placed on every chair in the auditorium and each member was asked to distribute them during the week.
Nearly every church we spoke to was putting personal invitation cards on every chair in the auditorium for people to use, and intentionally taking 5–8 minutes to emphasize the cards at every service. Remember, you’ll also want to think about how to follow up with first-time visitors.
Having a church app is a non-intrusive way for congregants to introduce people to your church. People are totally comfortable downloading an app and checking it out, and it can be a casual and helpful way for your church goers to connect others to your church for the first time. They’ll get to know your church’s culture before they ever have to step into the building. (Our eChurch app can help you with this, by the way!)
Growing your church through community involvement
4. Volunteer to do yard work in a particular neighborhood
These kind of service-oriented ideas are simple for anyone to take part in. It’s a great way to build relationships with the people in your community, while communicating that your church exists to serve them.
If you have the budget for it, it’s a smart idea to get t-shirts for your volunteers so that people in your neighborhood can visually make the connection between the work being done in their neighborhood and your church.
You could also have cards made with your church’s name, address, and service times to hand out to people that you end up interacting with.
Some ideas for things that you can do:
- Park clean up
- Neighborhood litter pick up
- Christmas tree pick up
- Fall raking
Having a tough time finding volunteers? Check out these 10 ways to inspire your church members to volunteer.
5. Serve free coffee at neighborhood bus stops
This is another great service idea that requires very little investment but is so countercultural that it makes a huge impact. Do you have bus stops where people congregate? Serve them some hot coffee and maybe some baked goods.
It isn’t too expensive to print up stickers you can put on your disposable cups with your church address and service times, or you can hand out cards. But you want to make sure you do it in a way that doesn’t overshadow the fact that you’re trying to do them a kindness with no expectations.
6. Meet teachers and parents by serving a nearby elementary school
No two schools are the same, so you’ll want to get together with the principle and other school administration and find out where their pain points are. Churches have found great success meeting needs like:
- Painting their playground equipment
- Cross-walk monitors
CASE STUDY: David Kinnan at Fountain Springs Community Church in Rapid City, South Dakota did a SWOT analysis of his city so he could identify the strengths, weaknesses, and opportunities. One of things he discovered was that Rapid City public school teachers were among the nation’s lowest paid.
They decided to focus on one school and went in to meet with principal, superintendent, and faculty. At the time Fountain Springs was not large and didn’t have a gigantic budget, but they did have builders and laborers. After seeing a very old and crowded teacher’s lounge area, they asked for permission to completely rebuild it during the summer. Permission was granted, and that summer they tore down walls, installed new cabinetry, put in new carpet, new furniture, and added a top of the line espresso machine. Not only that, but the church continued to supply the lounge’s coffee, creamer, sugar, etc. They also had a group of moms go to the school three times a week in the mornings and provide baked goods for all the teachers.
When asked why they decided to take on such a huge project, Dave pointed to the snowball effect of increasing the morale of teachers, which in turn increases the morale of children, which ultimately affects the morale of the community.
7. Partnering with local government to grow your congregation
Many of the fastest growing churches have staff on the local city council and meet regularly with the mayor, police, school district(s), the fire department, and other local agencies and charities. Not only do these regular check-ins help create a good relationship with important civic leaders and public servants, but they help you keep your finger on the pulse of local needs.
An added perk of building these kinds of relationships is the trust that you build in the community. If you build and maintain your local network, you’re going to be the first place these agencies call when they know of a need you can help with, and the first place they send people who could use your community and services.
8. Growing your church by partnering with neighbor churches
Several churches were proud of the things they were able to accomplish when they partnered with other churches, and they grew (both in number and in depth) because of them. Putting on community events like Easter egg hunts or summer movie/BBQ nights with other churches gives everyone an opportunity to build the kingdom—together
9. Recognize local opportunities for church growth
Sometimes the answer is so obvious that you miss it. Does your town have defining elements like:
- A military base?
- An artistic community?
- A strong sports culture?
- A college?
Find ways to serve and include the people who are part of this culture.
CASE STUDY: Discovery Church, one of the fastest-growing churches in Colorado Springs, is part of large military community. So they decided to honor the men and women who serve. They put on a family event with family activities, live music, a huge BBQ, and a message from a former Navy Seal. Not only did local military bases cover it, some provided free transportation for all the men and women who wanted to attend. Over 2,000 people showed up, many of whom now call Discovery Church their home.
10. Saying “Me too” provides a safe place for visiting families
Many churches talked about the intentional ways they made their churches a safe place for people who might have had a bad experience with the church, or completely doubt the existence of God.
Responding to people’s fears, frustrations, and anxieties with, “Me too.” Has been a way for churches like Discovery Church in Colorado Springs and Flatirons Church in Boulder, CO to communicate empathy and shared experience with people who are regular attenders. (Fun fact: Discovery Church’s website is MeTooPlace.com!)
A congregation that doesn’t encourage pretense, or maintaining a image of having it all together can be enticing for people who are curious about church, but nervous about not measuring up.
Mid-scale strategies for growing your church
These church growth ideas have more up-front costs than the small-scale church growth strategies, but they don’t require huge investments like remodelling your building! These methods will likely require some staff and a budget.
Smaller churches might discover within these suggestions budget-friendly ideas that they can rework for their own congregation.
11. Use multiplication as a church growth strategy
It might seem counterintuitive, but many churches have proven that multiplication is a legitimate strategy for church growth. Many fast-growing churches have planted new congregations before they were entirely established or even had more than one service.
This meant sending a new church plant off with 100–200 people they couldn’t afford to lose. Every time a church planted early like this, they would be anxiously excited—what if this backfired!? But each church told stories of the new plant flourishing and the empty seats in the original church being filled with new people. If you’re considering this option, ask yourself these 12 questions before you start.
12. Promote congregational stories on social media
God is working in the lives of your congregation. Social media provides a wonderful opportunity for them to share their stories, and by doing so, you expose their friends to God’s work, and the church’s involvement, in people’s lives.
Social media can also be an effective tool for boosting attendance for specific services, like Easter.
CASE STUDY: Epic Church created Epic Stories: a series of videos featuring recent people who have been baptized. These videos are easy to share on social media. They ask powerful questions and have each person tell their story. The goal was to make every visitor feel a connection—that Epic Church was full of people just like them. People who have questions, doubts, and rough spots in their lives. Attendees were encouraged to share the videos that week, and they were also posted on Epic’s social platforms as well.
13. Figure out your ideal demographic for church growth
Almost every church in the 100 fastest-growing churches had a demographic in mind when they put together sermon series, hand outs, and outreaches. Some might be single parents, unchurched, or young families with children.
CASE STUDY: Epic Church’s ideal demographic was young, urban professionals. This demographic informed their entire approach to messaging, graphics, music, etc. They would even target that demographic with bulk mailers. In fact, if you watch their Epic Stories—you’ll find that many of the people ended up at Epic after receiving one of their postcards.
Research has shown that the value of mailing targeted invitations to your community cannot be overemphasized.
14. Communicate clearly with church visitors via signage and staff
Visiting a church can be a daunting for people who have never attended before. The fear of embarrassing themselves by doing something wrong can be the tipping point to keep people away. Many quickly growing churches are taking that into consideration—from the moment people drive into the parking lot.
By investing in clear, readable signage, visitors know exactly where they’re supposed to go. Many churches have parking lot attendants who lead visitors to VIP parking spots reserved just for them. This special parking wasn’t only a special perk for visitors, it alerted other staff members to greet them and help them find where they needed to go next.
CASE STUDY: Andy Stanley’s North Point Church has identified families with young children as their target demographic, so their signage tells visitors with young children to park in a special lot near the building to make it easier and safer to take their children to classes.
Once inside North Point you’re handed off to the “Inside Team” who gives you a tour of the facilities, introduces you to key pastoral staff, and then sits you near the front so you can connect with Andy before and after the service.
But it doesn’t stop there. After the service, you are invited into the back room where you’re seated in comfortable furniture and greeted by a volunteer. This smiling volunteer will ask you about your time at North Point. With an iPad they will show you the children, adult, and small group programs for the church, as well as a half a dozen volunteer opportunities that you can join. The entire time the volunteer will chronicle your interests and when you are finished (5-7 minutes later) you’ll be promised an email with all of this information by Monday morning.
15. Grow your church by incentivizing visitor cards.
Most churches with visitor cards wish there was a way to convince visitors to fill them out and turn them in. One church found an ingenious way to do exactly that:
CASE STUDY: Pastor Todd Steven from Friendship Community Church in Mt. Juliet, TN was trying to address the poor return of visitor cards. Too often visitors just don’t fill them out or turn them in. So they announced that for every visitor cards that was filled in and turned in with the offering, Friendship Community Church would donate $25 to a local non-profit on their behalf.
The money was donated in the visitor’s name that day—and by Monday, the visitor had received either an email or physical thank-you note from the non-profit for the donation. Pastor Stevens saw a 95 percent increase in visitor card success. It also helped communicate to the visitors that Friendship was a very generous church and that they knew local non-profits well. Since incorporating this change, 80 percent of all their known visitors were staying on and becoming members.
16. Grow your church by reflecting your city
Church doesn’t have to be an uncomfortable and foreign place for visitors. If you can bring in elements that they’re already familiar with, it can feel like home on their first visit.
CASE STUDY: Next Level Church’s pastor, Matt Keller, wanted his church to look like his community. So they they incorporated elements of the city into all of their marketing pieces. Then they integrated cultural elements, like Spanish, into their worship music. They also began looking for new ways to connect to their community. When their community has any sort of gathering, Next Level wants to be there and add value. Whether they’re providing free food, bleacher cushions, or handing out water, Next Level Church is there. They embrace the community, and as a result their church reflects their community’s multiculturalism.
17. Adding value to community events contributes to church growth
Finding ways to add value or serve people during community events has been a huge win for many churches. Some churches have had success handing out water and Gatorade during marathons—also providing tents to get out of the sun and for massages. Others handed out seat cushions at football games and track meets. For some, it was as simple as opening the doors to the church and allowing parking at the church parking lot.
CASE STUDY: New Life Community Church in Lincoln Park (Chicago) co-sponsored a “Movie Night in the Park” with the city. They made parking available at the church, and opened up the church building so people could use the restrooms. When they weather was bad, they opened up the auditorium for the event.
Some churches have taken advantage of their strategic location to view 4th of July fireworks, and made a day of it with free BBQ, snacks, games, water balloon wars, etc. They invited the community to camp out on their church lawn and join them.
Some churches spent less than $500 on this, but saw lots of fruit from relationships being built with neighbors, many of whom have begun attending.
18. Get people involved in volunteer opportunities sooner
Another trend seen with quickly growing churches was sharing volunteering opportunities with visitors. Churches have found that communicating the opportunities for involvement up front makes visitors more likely to return.
Many churches have staff greet new people and ask key questions to identify areas of interest and giftings, and then share opportunities or ministries they might be interested in. It also gives the church a natural reason for follow up interaction.
Large-scale ways to grow your church
These big-budget strategies have been used by larger churches to ensure they remain healthy and growing. The following suggestions will require a larger budget and more staff.
19. Create entrepreneurial opportunities for growth
Research has shown that fast-growing churches are entrepreneurial by nature.
CASE STUDY: When The Crossing in Quincy, IL. was just a small country church, they saw that they surrounding area had an usually large number of poor, destitute individuals and alcoholics. So they began planting in a very unique way. Pastor Jerry Harris began by creating Celebrate Recovery groups throughout Quincy. Because so many lived below poverty line and most of them were unemployed, he opened a thrift store in Quincy and began to staff it with workers from the Celebrate Recovery programs.
He began asking his church to donate their unused items to this thrift store. This helped raise community awareness of what The Crossing was doing for their community, and it brought much needed income to those unemployed members. Third, by practicing sound business and marketing principles, Pastor Harris was also able to make the thrift store quite profitable, while still allowing all workers to take anything they needed home and to discount anything for anyone who was in need. So he decided to do this in a neighboring community. He first planted the recovery group, then opened a thrift store—and only after those were successful did he plant a church in the town.
If you go to The Crossing’s website today, you will see that he has planted a second location in Quincy, and then spread out to Macomb, Kirksville, Pittsfield, Hannibal, Lima, Mt. Sterling, and Keokuk. All of these locations have decreasing populations, but growing congregations.
20. Cater your building to the demographic your church wants to grow
CASE STUDY: Everything at Flatirons Church in Lafayette, CO reflects their decision to target unchurched men—even their building. Their building looks like a cross between Gander Mountain, Cabelas, REI, and Big Bass Pro Shop.
After noticing a lot of tattoos on their members—and knowing that many tattoos come with a story—they hired a photographer and took amazing high-res photos of the many tattoos and found out their stories, and made a collage of them all on one large wall in their narthex.
Set your growth metrics
It’s important that you think through the metrics you’ll use to ensure that your goals are on track. As Jim Fowler argues in his post 3 Barometers for Church Growth, attendance probably isn’t the most helpful measurement. You’re not trying to gather a crowd; you’re working at growing the church. It’s helpful to find a barometer that will reveal your ministry’s effectiveness.
Here are Jim’s suggestions for metrics:
- Baptism: This criterion helps you gauge your ability to convert visitors into followers of Jesus.
- Participation: Looking at how many people are getting more involved in the church’s community life through various ministries and service helps to know how well you’re discipling them to submit to Christ and to each other.
- Membership: This is a great indicator of how committed people are to Christ and the body.
And of course, giving is a great metric to consider as well—it shows your congregation is committing their resources to making disciples of Jesus in your community. Plus, if you use a digital church giving solution, it’s one of the easiest metrics to track.
No matter which metrics you use to track growth, encourage your church leaders take ownership of them.
Making these church growth strategies your own
If it makes sense to start trying out these ideas, do so. In the end, church growth is about recognizing and capturing your unique opportunities. Each of these stories are about churches who saw a problem or opportunity and came up with a unique solution.
In the end, committing to a strategy that feels right for your church is the key. Many reading these suggestions might be thinking, “We’ve tried a lot of this stuff.” But the place where many churches stumble is they try them a couple times, see no immediate return, and abandon them for a new strategy. Making these suggestions part of your culture, and not just quick fixes is essential.
So use these suggestions as a springboard for your own church growth strategy, or use them as inspiration for your own extraordinary ideas!