The majority of churches in North America have been experiencing over a decade of decline or plateau. Often, common sense prevails and church leaders will endeavor to put church growth plans into place that will grow their church on a slow, and yet consistent, basis. The fact is, though, churches rarely grow slowly and consistently. When a church is ready to grow, it grows exponentially. What most churches need, more than anything else, is to kick start their growth. Here are five surefire ways to kick start growth in your church.

1. Eliminate the Obvious Obstacles

The most heinous obstacle to growth in any church is unresolved conflict. Of course, we’ve written and spoken and posted and posted some more about the necessity for dealing with conflict proactively. Many churches would rather let sleeping dogs lie rather than dealing with prickly people. They’ll do marketing, attendance campaigns, and engage in all manner of visitor invitations to try and grow the church. However, it’s difficult to get the membership to invite new people when they are aware that the church is embroiled in conflict, even when conflict has been supposedly swept under the rug and is out of sight. Besides that, when a guest shows up for worship in a conflicted church, their very sensitive spiritual-antennae quickly sense that something is wrong. Even those few guests who don’t have particularly sensitive spiritual-antennae, will quickly learn of the unresolved conflict. Since the general understanding of Christianity is that the church should somehow get along with itself, when outsiders discover a congregation is unable or unwilling to deal with mean people they simply won’t continue their spiritual quest there. All that’s to say, deal with your conflict before you try to grow your church.

The second obvious obstacle is reserved for those lucky churches who are faced with the 80 percent rule. Simply stated, the 80 percent rule says that when seating or parking has reached 80 percent capacity, guests will rarely return. In fact, in many cases today capacity may be reached or felt at 75 percent. This particular rule is the number one reason churches over 1000 stop growing. If you’re lucky enough to be faced with this dilemma, then you have several options before you. You can start a second service, you can embrace multi-site option, you can expand parking (if parking is the issue), or any combination thereof (see the Hospitality DVD training set at the 21st Century Strategies store for more ideas on how to deal with overcapacity).

2. Ratchet up Hospitality

Once you’ve eliminated the obvious obstacles, it’s time to ratchet up your hospitality. Poor hospitality is one of the primary reasons first time guests don’t become second time guests. You don’t want to go to all the work of bringing in new guests only to have them never return. Without retention, you’re totally wasting your time. Although books have been written on hospitality (again, be sure to view the Hospitality DVD training set), here are four important ways to help make a great first impression.

First, replace Grumpy the Greeter and Sleepy the Usher with happy, gregarious, attentive, hospitality-gifted people like Dopey and Happy (with a bit more emphasis on Happy and a little less emphasis on Dopey). Remember, these are the first people your guests will probably see when they drop into your church. There really is nothing worse than a grumpy greeter or usher or some member of the hospitality team who is more interested in catching up with local sports scores with Bob then they are in welcoming each and every person who walks through the doors of your church building. Indeed, those who are your front-line greeters and ushers should be the best representatives of your congregation as possible (however, if Grumpy is the best representative of your congregation, you have other problems that this article can’t fix). It is almost always better to endure the wrath of someone you have to replace than to continue with a less than helpful greeter or usher.

Next, get Happy and Dopey Greeter to not stand inside the church building, but to stand outside the church door so that they are visible and available for guests when they arrive. This does a couple things. For one, it lets your guests know where the front door is – and sadly, many church buildings have “front doors” that really aren’t front doors at all or else they have hidden the front doors. A greeter standing outside of the door illuminates any confusion. Besides, there’s almost nothing more welcoming than someone standing outside of the church building waving and greeting as people make their way to church.

Third, smile. Really, smile. You might be surprised how often church members don’t smile at each other, let alone at guests. And when I say smile, I don’t mean a smile through pursed lips. When we did greeter training in Seattle, we used the phrase “Smile with Teeth!” to emphasize the fact that a smile is not a smile unless it reaches your eyes. Train your greeters, ushers, your hospitality team, and your whole congregation to smile with teeth at each other and especially at guests. In fact, when they smile with teeth, remind them that it’s important to actually speak to each other and especially to speak to guests.

Finally, if you’re going to kick start growth you’re going to have to have a worship service that meets the needs and communicates effectively to your target audience. In other words, if you’re trying to reach Unchurched Steve and Terrie, you’ll want to invite them to a worship service that most likely doesn’t use pipe organs or a vocabulary that would impress your systematic theology professor. This is one of the hospitality rules that is broken most often by churches – inviting guests to a service that seems to them to be irrelevant, outdated, and out of touch with their real lives.

3. Get Out of the Office

Kick starting growth begins with you. Church leaders must successfully model inviting people to church. And, because they must model this, they can’t just invite people … people must actually respond positively to their invitation – and the congregation must be made aware that the church leaders have been active and successful in inviting the unchurched. When it comes to staff, therefore, that means they must get out of the office and into the community so they can invite unchurched folks to worship or to attend events with the congregation.

The number one question pastors ask us when we tell them they have to get out of the office is “Where do we go?” The answer is, you know your community better than we do, so why are you asking us? Clearly, you will want to be hanging out where unchurched people are hanging out, that means you’ll need to know your community. If you’re in a larger community and you have multiple coffee shops, or Barnes & Noble’s, or malls, you can probably find unchurched people there most of the time. I used to office at my local Starbucks between four and eight hours each day during the week. During those times I would have multiple spiritual conversations with everyone from staff to customers to church members who dropped in because they knew I’d be there. If you’re in a smaller community, you’ll need to find out where the unchurched people are hanging there. When I was a pastor in rural Kansas, I learned that the two places to hang out to meet folks were Daylight Donuts in the morning and the grain elevator during the rest of the day. Whether you’re in a larger or small community, having lunch on a regular basis at the local junior college provides an opportunity to have spiritual conversations with both students and faculty alike.

But there’s another important way to hang out and meet the unchurched when you’re out of your office that few pastors take advantage of – leverage your members’ networks. Since the vast majority of your members are not professional clergy, they probably hang out with unchurched people most of the time. The exception to this rule are those who are retired and spend most of their time with other church members. But for your working congregation, they rub shoulders daily with folks who wouldn’t otherwise dream of setting foot in your congregation. Leveraging your members’ relationships is actually pretty easy. For those who work the day shift, many take a lunch break with their unchurched friends or colleagues. Invite yourself to lunch – and go ahead and be a real hero: offer to buy. Let your congregants know that you need to be invited to their parties, get-togethers, and events where there will be a plethora of unchurched people. Go cheer on Junior and his Little League team and Beth at her soccer match, and while you’re there get the parents to introduce you to the other parents. Every week you should be spending at least ten hours in direct contact with unchurched folks, and if you’re a small church pastor you should be spending at least 50 percent of your time with the unchurched – presuming you’re serious about growing your church.

4. Special Attendance Day

Once upon a time, the greatest programs on earth for the church were the Bring a Friend Sunday and other programs just like it. Today, it’s surprising how few churches emphasize a special attendance day. Perhaps the reason is that so many of these programs tend to result in the Presbyterians borrowing members from the Methodists, and the Baptists swapping members with the Lutherans. Sure, the sanctuaries get full but there is no gain in new members or even first-time guests (that were actual prospects, anyway). Today, any special attendance day must emphasize bringing in new unchurched guests to the event. It is true, that a special event such as an Easter egg hunt or a neighborhood barbecue may be more attractive to first-time guests than a worship service. And for the record, it is also easier for your church members to invite their unchurched friends to nonthreatening events like these. However, no matter what kind of an event or worship service that you are emphasizing, any special attendance must focus on reaching those who are not already a part of a church.

When it comes to special attendance day programs, you can’t go far wrong using Bill Easum’s Double Day attendance workbook. Not only does he walk you through how to have a successful special attendance day, he also offers training in follow-up and guest retention.

5. Make It Easy to Invite

Finally, you cannot be the only one doing the inviting. If you don’t get the congregation inviting their friends, relatives, acquaintances, neighbors, coworkers, and everyone else then you will never grow your church. Period. You can help your members make inviting almost second nature by providing them key inviting tools. One of the easiest tools you can provide is sermon series and event cards. These are simply business cards, attractively laid out, that invite folks to an upcoming sermon series or event.

You should take note that every sermon series and every event should be targeted to a specific audience. In today’s world, shotgun targeting rarely works and, in fact, shotgun targeting is one of the many reasons so few churches are growing today. Inviting 70-year-olds or 30-year-olds to a disco dance is likely a waste of time. On the other hand, Saturday Night Fever might be rather attractive to 50 and 60-year-olds. A sermon series on Eat, Pray, Love would likely attract 30 to 50 something women, but not so much their husbands. In any event, providing your members with invite cards makes it easy for them to invite others.

As mentioned earlier, special events are also a great way to encourage your members to invite those in their sphere of influence. As I write this, Christmas Eve is approaching rapidly. This should be one of the easiest events to invite people to – make sure your congregation has a number of tools, such as invite cards or even custom Christmas cards or Christmas invitations to hand out to literally everyone they see. Again, block parties, barbecues, and almost any event that includes free food will likely be an attractive event to those in your neighborhood.

And let us not forget guerrilla marketing. We are talking “get the media involved” one way or another when we use the phrase guerrilla marketing. We’ve written on how to write an effective news release in previous articles and blogs so we won’t broach that subject here. The key point to remember is that whatever you pitch or whatever you write to the press must be actual news, not just a ploy to try and get free advertising. They’ll see right through that. You have to think out-of-the-box for this one. Once upon a time, a church giving something away made news. For instance, last year Bay Area Fellowship in Texas gave away several cars and SUVs to guests who came on Easter Sunday. That made news. On the other hand, a local church provided free hotdogs to all comers on a recent Sunday and couldn’t get the press to even mention it in the local events section. That doesn’t mean you have to spend a lot of money, but it does mean you’ll have to think unique. I managed to get onto Good Morning America back in 1995 when I stood out in front of my church every Monday morning giving away free coffee and waving at the 25,000 commuters going to work in downtown Atlanta. Eight years later, a colleague of mine did similarly in Seattle and couldn’t get the press to even take a picture. Out-of-the-box unique is the answer. The great thing about guerrilla marketing is that when it’s successful, it makes it easy for your members to invite their friends. When the church is in the news, that is positively in the news, your members can casually ask “Did you see the article (or the news story or the blog posts) about my church?” It simply makes it easy to open a conversation and slip in an invitation.

Put all five of this together, and you can kick start growth pretty much no matter where you are. Give people a climate of peace, ample space to park and sit, excellent hospitality, and a meaningful invitation from someone they know and trust and growth is almost certain.

 You Might Also Like:

Additional Resources: