There are many reasons one church grows and another does not.
Some of those reasons are within the control of a church and its leadership; some of those reasons are not.
Two things that are often overlooked by churches, church planters and pastors are context and timing. They are incredibly important to churches but things we often don’t talk about.
First, context. This is a mission question and one that I think a church should ask every few years. It is one that gets asked before a church is planted, but when a church is established these are hard questions to get back to and easy to forget.
Here are some questions to consider:
- Who are we best suited to reach as a church?
- Are we near those people?
- If we are, what are we doing to reach those people?
- If we aren’t, do we need to move to reach those people or change what we are doing to reach those around us?
Admittedly these are uncomfortable questions to ask as a pastor, but as a church planter you asked them easily. One of the ways a church grows is by keeping that entrepreneurial, risk taking spirit.
Who are we best suited to reach as a church? Every church and every pastor are best suited to reach someone. The way you preach, the kind of music you have, how much emphasis you put on kids’ ministry, the times of your services and your location all determine many of the people you will reach. Oftentimes you simply have to look at who attends a church, and you will see who that church is best suited to reach, because they are reaching those people.
And who you are best suited to reach as a leader and pastor and where the church you lead should meet are often wrapped up in where you grew up and the kind of environment you grew up in. Not always, but many times.
If you are struggling to figure out the answer to this question, you may simply need to look at who shows up at your church to see who you are best suited to reach.
Are we near those people? Let’s say you are best suited to reach young adults and college students. Are you near those people? Let’s say it is white collar or blue collar. Are you near those people?
The church planter of one of the churches Revolution (the church I lead) helped plant had a heart for the poorest area of the city where he grew up. Many times pastors and churches are not near the people they care the most about, feel the call to reach or want to have an influence on. So they drive past those people to get to where their church meets. That isn’t good mission work.
If we are, what are we doing to reach those people? Let’s say you live and are located as a church near the people you are best suited to reach and have a passion to reach, because you can’t reach everyone. What are you doing to reach those people? Are you reaching out in a way that makes sense to them and is relevant to them?
If we aren’t, do we need to move to reach those people or change what we are doing to reach those around us? This is an easy question before you plant and a hard question after you plant, but I think it is a crucial one to vitality in a church.
The answer to this question does not always mean you move or abandon your vision, but I think a church needs to be willing to ask it. In our area, people do not travel more than 20 minutes for church. This is a reality of traffic patterns and timing with sports and other activities. And you know, the further people get from a church, the less involved they are, the less engaged in mission they are, the less likely they are to invite people and the less likely those people are to come.
Last thing about location, do you meet in the best spot possible for who you are as a church and what you are trying to do? If you are portable, the school or place where you meet is connected to who you are as a church. We think long and hard about this when we plant, but it goes out the window after we get started.
It isn’t just context and location that matter, but timing.
This is having an understanding of when you plant, when you grow, how that works in the life of the lead pastor, the church and the city you are in.
I always chuckle when I go to church planting conferences and a megachurch pastor stands on stage and says, “We started with no people and no money. We preached the gospel, and boom! People just showed up.” While they are trying to be inspiring, it isn’t helpful and usually not even close to accurate.
This overlooks how long a pastor has been in an area, if they’re known, if they were part of a larger church before they planted, if they were a traveling camp speaker or a well known youth worker in an organization. Did they work in a large college ministry? All of these factors work into timing.
Many times a church will get planted and not grow, and within a few years it no longer exists. A year or two after that church was planted, a new church is planted nearby, and that church finds stability, grows and becomes self-sufficient. Some of that is timing. The timing of people being ready, the timing of the church. Those are all things out of our control but are important to remember. They are not to be excuses for a church or for a pastor to say, “I was faithful and nothing happened.” But it is a reality to the question of why a church grows or doesn’t grow.
When planting a church, it is not just the call of a pastor and having funding and people, but asking the question, “Is the timing right for this church? Have there been churches planted here before? Have they succeeded or failed?” Many times a church takes off after others have closed down. This is the work of a leader understanding the “soil” in which he is seeking to plant seeds.