How Church Growth Really Works

Open sign

I got a call from a fellow church communicator who’d been tasked by her pastor-boss to come up with an ad campaign to draw 200 new households to the church by the end of the year. She wanted help. As we chatted, I wondered if her pastor understood how church growth really works.

After listening to her story, I tried to tell her to quit. What I heard was a pastor’s desperation and an ill-advised dependency on marketing to solve the problem.

Here’s what I wished I could tell her boss.


How Church Growth Works

Most churches are closed communities.

This doesn’t mean they’re bad or to be shamed. It’s just human nature. People develop friends, and like to gather with them. The downside to communities of friends is that the more defined they become, the more exclusive they can become.

To overcome this, churches must be intentional about looking outside their walls.

Many churches look to marketing principles and tactics to initiate growth. But it starts long before marketing enters the picture.


Two Ways Churches Grow

When you boil it down, it’s pretty simple. There are only two ways churches grow.

  1. New people come “cold”, on their own, or
  2. New people come on the arm of a trusted friend.

That’s it. There is no option 3.

Early in my ministry at Ginghamsburg, where attendance tripled from 1000-3000 in two years, I heard a statistic through the large church consulting firm Leadership Network that 90% of church growth happens with option 2.

I don’t know what the source is for that statistic, but after 20 years of observing church life, I believe it.


Cold Growth Is Overrated

We spend way too much time and energy on cold engagement. Think of all the resources your church has spent on the premise that you can create high enough brand awareness to increase cold growth.

While this isn’t impossible, it’s very difficult to get return on this investment. And it has little to do with the quality of the marketing. The reason is that the bar for cold visits is simply too high. 


Church Growth Has to Overcome Several Obstacles

Consider: your brand has to be so comfortable with a prospective newcomer that they would feel no qualms about making the choice to visit. That means they must be comfortable with:

  1. the kind of people who attend – do they look like people I’d like?
  2. the age, style and upkeep of the facility – does it look current or creepy?
  3. the church’s brand awareness within the community, if any – does the church seem friendly?
  4. the form and function of the church website – can I figure out what’s going on, and get my initial questions answered?
  5. the form and function of the campus signage – if I make a visit, can I figure out where to go and what to do?
  6. the communication within the church, or how insider, mediocre, confusing or shaming it may be to a guest – what happens if I walk through the door?

I list these in order.  Leaders and pastors put much emphasis on #3 and #4 but if the regular attenders all look like they joined 40-50 years ago, and the building looks like it’s from 40 years ago, then no amount of cool website or signage will bridge the gap for a stranger to want to visit without some sort of personal context or invitation.

You just simply won’t get cold walk ups.


Even if You Do It All Right, You Still Don’t Get Many Cold Walkups

Your prospective visitor may enter your door with fear and trepidation, but only if the people don’t look too alien, and the building resonates, and maybe an ad campaign or community message hasn’t turned them off, and the style described on the website isn’t too bad.

Once inside, the first word out of a greeter’s mouth may make or break it. Even if the visitor clears bars 1 – 5, often something happens in the lobby (narthex) or in the worship service that turns the visitor off, and they don’t return.

Instead, most people come because of the second way – the invitation of the friend. (This is why I don’t spend much time as a church creative director on community ad campaigns.)


Most First Time Guests Attend Based on a Recommendation

All of the same obstacles still apply in the second way churches grow, on the arm of a trusted friend, but the newcomer overlooks everything else because they trust their friend.

This shifts the burden to your church members. Now, the reputation of the visitor’s friend is  on the line.

The onus moves to the friend’s perception of their own church. They may like it personally, but is it worthy to invite their non-church friend?

Here’s how to find out.


Four Experience Questions

Based on a list by Richard Reising in Church Marketing 101, here are 4 Experience questions that all need an “yes” answer before most people will risk putting their reputation on the line by inviting a friend to church:

  1. Will they fit? This is a question of demographics. Is there a 25 year age difference between the average person in the room and your friend? Many churches get stuck here at #1. The answer is to know your neighborhood. Speak their language; don’t try to force them to learn yours.
  2. Will they feel welcome? This is a question of hospitality. How comfortable is the environment, the feng shui? Yes, it matters. If your paint is peeling and your floor stained, people notice and react.
  3. Will they get what you’re promising? At my church, we get regular inquiries on the Facebook page about the preaching schedule. They’re looking for the consistency of knowing the the regular “A” team preacher is going to be in the pulpit. Same for music and production values. If the program varies greatly from week to week, people won’t feel confident to invite others.
  4. Will they get something out of it? This is the core, isn’t it? Is the church service worth going to?

So is marketing worthless? Not at all.

What I am talking about here is true marketing. Buying ads is advertising, not marketing.


Marketing begins with listening, not selling.

The principles of marketing force clarity of thought and action. A focused message and presence ensures people know who you are. And of course good tactics are vital to keeping people engaged.

I’m cautious about trying to buy brand development in town because I don’t like false advertising. I believe in the power of personal recommendation.

So don’t get too excited about marketing campaigns or paid ads. Instead, regularly check if your members can say “yes’ to each of the four experience questions above. If you’re hitting on all four cylinders, then marketing can be a helpful addendum to the powerful organic growth of your members inviting their friends.


About the Author

Len Wilson

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Christ follower. Storyteller. Strategist. Writer. Creative Director at St Andrew. Tickle monster. Author, Think Like a Five Year Old (Abingdon).

4 Comments on “How Church Growth Really Works”

  1. Golden, Len!
    I especially liked the statement about the more defined a community becomes, the more exclusive it becomes. In a recent conversation among UMC pastors, it was mentioned that we are generally dealing with 4 generations of people, while many of the fast growth mega, or soon to be mega, churches target only 2 generations. Our natural generational diversity ought to make us more attractive for the long run.
    My perception/thoughts: When we think about who we want to attract, we might be selling ourselves short. What we have to offer is the bottom line. On the DIY Network show, Stone House Revival, the host says, “People take the heart out of these old homes. I put it back in.” I’ve got to get our former seminary teacher’s updated book about wineskins! “Marketing” our heart, if we’ve discovered it, is a good start. Thanks for your always thought provoking stuff!

    1. Thanks Greg! Yes, demographics are only one way to understand the people you’re connecting with, and perhaps the least helpful to the work of the Holy Spirit. I’d suggest psychographics and what I’d called “spiritgraphics” are better.

  2. I wonder if Paul would have answered yes to any of the 4 questions … he grew the church in Corinth by being a living example of the love of his Lord, Jesus Christ, the God of all Comfort, such is what grew the flock

    1. Hi Madelyn, thanks for posting, and great question. It may have been rhetorical, but I’ll answer anyway. I don’t know that any of us can speak with confidence how Paul would have answered any of the 4 questions.

      I do think we can speak with confidence that Paul was aware of his socio-cultural context and ministered with savvy in that context. In Acts 17, when speaking to pagans, Paul quotes a pagan in order to be able to speak of Jesus: “For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.”

      Paul doesn’t ask people to first understand the signs, symbols and languages of his faith in order to preach the good news of the gospel; instead, he uses the language of the broader culture to create a favorable environment to preach the good news of the gospel.

      In the same way, the purpose of these questions is to create a favorable environment for us to preach the good news of the gospel of Jesus.

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