The Obvious Reasons Your Church Isn’t Growing – and What to Do About It

Why do some churches grow, and others don’t? How can it be that a really good church – one that offers great preaching, musically excellent worship, and fantastic kids’ programs – just kind of hovers around the same attendance each week, and isn’t seeing new people come through the door?

Straight from the desk of our Director of the Obvious, here are three things that lead to church growth:

  • Transcendent experiences worth talking about;
  • High value connections between people (“high value” = the connection is worth the effort it takes to make happen);
  • A simple, seamless pathway for new people within your target demographic to become engaged with your church. 

These are all completely subjective, of course. What’s transcendent to one person is off-putting to another. Some people are looking for deep, meaningful relationships the minute they walk in your door, while others are just testing the waters and don’t want to talk to anyone. Some people will refuse to take one of your carefully-considered Next Steps no matter how sweet or compelling your offer.

Odds are, the people creating those experiences, in charge of your small groups, and crafting your next steps pathway are pretty sure they are transcendent, transformative, and compelling. They might be under the impression that if you aren’t growing, it’s simply because enough people aren’t being told about those great things that you offer.

This happens in the marketplace all the time. It’s an age-old tension between the marketing side of the organization and the product/service side, and it goes something like this:

Marketing: “If the product teams just listened to their target audience a little more, they’d make something that we don’t have to work so hard to explain.”

Product: “If marketing would just tell the right people about our clearly awesome product, we’d sell more stuff.”

It’s an unhelpful blame game that’s led to the demise of a lot of great organizations. And it’s the same blame game that happens in churches everywhere.

Your church’s leadership wants more/better marketing from their Communications team, and the Communications team wants church leadership to help create experiences that will resonate better with their target market.

Church communicators: if you’re feeling this tension, you have to speak into it.

But how?

Start with measurement. No matter how valid or accurate your opinion is (it’s alway valid and accurate, right?), it’s no substitute for the perspective offered by good metrics.

How many people are having a transcendent experience on Sunday that’s worth talking about? How many people are sharing your content on social media? How many of your visitor connection cards have “A friend invited me” checked off?

How many people are joining groups each week, each month?

How many people are signing up to serve, or giving, or attending a newcomers event?

Start with a good, clear look at your data, and let that speak into the ministry activity that your church is generating.

On Target Audiences

A strategy always starts with “who.”

I don’t know where I first heard that, but it’s stuck with me since, well… forever.

Who are we trying to reach? While the Gospel is for everyone, a ministry model is designed (either intentionally or unintentionally) with someone specific in mind. Preaching, music, programmatic ministry, outreach events, buildings and signage… all of these are designed to serve a specific kind of person.

Who’s your target audience? What do you know about them? What kind of work have you done to better understand their needs?

Here’s an example from the church where I currently serve; I put this together to help our staff understand how they communicate with our target audience:

Where I work, our primary target audience is suburban families who are looking for a church. This is true across all locations. We create experiences with families in mind: Sundays with Kidstown [children’s ministry] and Student Ministry, monthly Family Experience [program for families with young kids], child dedications several times per year, retreats and weekend experiences for middle- and high-schoolers, and special events for families like Harvest Fest [all-church outreach event for young families at two of our campuses] and Watertown’s Egg Scramble. We offer ministries to support healthy marriages, help couples become parents. We introduced a new term, faith parenting, into our lexicon.

There are a few things we know are true about families:

  1. They are busier today than ever before. In Massachusetts, 61% of households have 2 working parents. Children have less downtime and more scheduled activities than ever, and more often than not require a parent to transport them.
  2. They are less likely to have a church background. 75% of families attend church seldom or not at all.
  3. If they do have a church background, that still doesn’t guarantee they’ll like church. 59% of millennials raised in church have dropped out, and 35% of millennials believe that church does more harm than good. (
  4. They are increasingly millennial. Millennials are approaching 40. Millennial women accounted for 82% of births in 2016.
  5. They feel good about their parenting skills. “Millennial moms, in particular, were more likely than other moms (or dads) to say they were doing a very good job: 57% said this, compared with 48% of Gen X moms and 41% of Boomer moms.” (

Most families we are currently reaching and engaging at my church came to us with some prior church experience, and were looking for a quality experience that matched their expectations.

As part of a recent branding project, we developed avatars of the kinds of people we’re trying to reach: “Ethan the indifferent” and “Susan the superwoman.” Both are busy professionals with young kids, and they are at least moderately motivated to seek out church.

So how does the function of communications help reach that target audience? There are a few ways:

  1. Our promotional content that is proof-driven, not pitch-driven. We develop and share content that demonstrates the meaning, purpose, and sustainability of life with God. “People like us do things like this” – we worship, we belong, we serve, we give, and we go.
  2. We put what we offer into a relevant context. The answer is always Jesus, but the question unchurched people are asking isn’t “Jesus?”  We get to Jesus as the answer by starting conversations that focus on meaning, purpose, sustainable living, better relationships, fewer regrets.
  3. We embrace intentional counter(church)culturalism. Church isn’t a social club. We emphasize the aspects of church life that can’t be replicated in our culture. Our goal isn’t to replace peoples’ non-Christian friends with Christian friends. We want to empower people to be Christians who have a positive influence on their non-Christian friends.
  4. Transcendent experiences happen on Sundays, but transformative experiences can happen anytime. We focus on reaching people between Sundays.

The 8 Axioms of Church Communication

#1: You said exactly what you wanted to say, but that doesn’t mean they heard exactly what you wanted them to hear.

If you’re caught off guard when your beautifully crafted call to action doesn’t lead to action, or you’re surprised by those harsh comments on what you thought was a pretty great social media post, or the blog post doesn’t get shared… this is why.

We all have filters. We all have some bias to the way we interpret what someone says. Just remember that bias is also present on the things you say. They don’t sound the same to anyone else as they do to you.

#2: If it’s not on the website, it doesn’t exist.

We live in an on-demand world. SEO matters. The one place people still seek the latest update is your website (that’s changing, but it’s still true). Your website is your growth engine and your cornerstone communication tool.

#3: A strategy always starts with who, and who can’t be everyone.

What makes a movement grow? Starting with your minimum viable audience. Learn about targeting audiences here.

#4: Your brand is the connector between your mission and your culture. The stronger the brand, the stronger the connection.

Investing in your brand pays dividends for a long, long time. I’m not just talking about your logo, colors, and fonts. I’m talking about the continuity between every touch point people experience, from your signage to your website to the volunteer t-shirt.

#5: There will always be more good ideas than there is capacity to execute.

Learn to say no. If that’s too hard, start with “not yet.” No will come.

#6: Design matters. 

In the same way a poorly crafted announcement keeps people from engaging the thing being announced, the quality of the visuals and graphics we produce directly impacts how much people engage with whatever we communicate. This includes everything from social media visuals to signage, wall displays to website. Design isn’t just a value, it’s a tool for reaching more people.

#7: Social media matters. 

We can’t expect everyone to come to us; we have to go to them. The kind of church we are on social media is the kind of church we are, period.

#8: Simplicity matters. 

Simple messages are more easily understood, more memorable, and more repeatable. Simple processes are more easily followed. Simple steps are easier to take. Complexity stifles engagement.

The Caution Tape Effect

You probably love your church lobby after Sunday services. It’s a beehive of activity – conversations and connections, sharing stories and burdens and prayers, new people being greeted, etc.

Now imagine if you took caution tape and blocked off your lobby, so that after church people could not engage with each other, but had to edit the building without talking to anyone.

This is what happens when your church doesn’t have a presence on social media. Just like your people wouldn’t feel as good about church if they couldn’t chat in the lobby on Sunday, there are people who feel less connected when you aren’t engaging them on social media during the week.

The 5 Components of a Successful Brand

Admit it: you love branding. I have yet to meet a passionate, engaged-with-their-job marketing or communications person who isn’t All About The Brand. I am, too! I’ve designed logos, helped a few organizations create new brands for themselves, and worked with and for organizations as they figure out what to do to improve the brand they have. I love that kind of work.

However, too many organizations limit their view of their brand to visual components like a logo or color/font combination. And some say “brand” when they really mean “culture” or “mission.”

Either way, there’s a lot more to a brand than a newly designed logo or visual system. Plenty of organizations with not-so-trendy logos win at branding all day long. And they do it by remembering the 5 components that make their brand successful:

  1. Purpose over promise. You need to have a clear, tangible, repeatable expression of the reason you exist. This may or may not be your mission statement; it could be a tagline. For example, where I work our mission statement is discovering life with God for the good of the world. But we’ve been using a simple tagline lately: find your go. (Actually, we’ve been using the hashtag #findyourgo, but it’s definitely a tagline too.) If anyone connected to your organization – whether it’s attendees, employees, donors, or customers – can’t reiterate the purpose for why you exist, your brand won’t help you grow.
  2. Consistency of narrative and design. Consistency leads to familiarity, and familiarity is good! It doesn’t lead to boredom; it leads to front-of-mind presence, and positive associations. Attach it to everything you do! Creativity should be applied in designing your brand, not in using it. Don’t let brand variations creep into your marketing. Stay consistent visually, costly reinforce your main Big Idea through the stories you tell, the things you celebrate, and the things you ask your people to do.
  3. Emotion that inspires loyalty. Psychologists have observed a strong correlation between emotion and decision making. People who experience damage to the part of the brain that affects emotion also experience a profound difficulty with making even simple decisions, like what to eat for breakfast. Emotion is necessary to help people become intentional about connecting with your brand, about choosing it over the other options that are in front of them. Nike has always been great at this.
  4. Employee engagement is an incredible barometer of a brand’s strength. If your employees and partners aren’t excited about your brand, how likely is it that your brand will resonate with your constituents? If your staff wear your t-shirts by choice, you’re on the right track. Keep going.
  5. Responsiveness matters today more than ever. Be human, not an institution. Take advantage of every opportunity for conversation you get. Lean into social media the way a 13-year old leans into Instagram. Don’t just talk; listen.

There are certainly plenty of other ways to help strengthen your brand. These are just some that I’ve learned along the way, and from great resources like Marketo and HubSpot.

My main point here is: don’t limit your brand work to a visual branding project. We’re all in the branding business, all the time.

Simplifying Your Model

The multisite church movement has been around for some time now. Along the way to adding more sites, many churches have realized something: adding sites doesn’t necessarily mean growth. New locations are being added, but overall attendance and engagement isn’t increasing – at least anywhere near to what was hoped for.

Churches in this situation are almost always experiencing challenges to scaling their ministry across multiple locations. This is primarily a result of one thing: their model wasn’t built to scale.

Maybe it’s a program-centric approach to ministry, or systems for recruiting volunteers. Maybe it’s worship music style, or the way the church manages systems like finance, facilities, or communications. But what they’re finding is that the complexity that developed at the first site doesn’t work across the second, third, or fourth.

If your church finds itself in this position, it’s time to simplify. But how?

Here are a few ideas to get started on the path towards simplification:


Think of two kinds of churches, at opposite ends of a continuum:

Church A has what I call the “legacy of the pastor-secretary” model. Each pastor or ministry department leader has an administrative support resource, dedicated to their ministry or possibly shared with one or two other pastors. The pastor comes up with the vision and strategy, and the administrative person helps with planning and execution. Functions like finance, facilities, tech, and communications are centralized, and the pastor-admin teams work with these centralized departments to do ministry.

Church B has what I call the “internal agency” model. In this model, pastors utilize centralized teams for all of their ministry needs: a marcomm department to create marketing and promotional materials (print, video, digital, etc.), an event planning department to help execute on events and initiatives (at least 80% of our ministries are, technically speaking, events), and facilities, finance, tech, or volunteer recruitment departments. Pastors rely on volunteers more heavily for lower-level administrative functions: room setup and cleanup, for example.

Church A has more redundancy of function across their administrative generalists; those generalists all design communication materials, all do room reservations/setup, all design and printing of materials, etc., and handle any other functions necessary for pulling off the ministry activity. It’s less efficient, and quality suffers.

Church B has less redundancy, because it has people who take on more of those functions: event planning, marcomm, etc.

The central agency model lets the agency act as a constraint on the volume of ministry activity that the pastors can generate, reducing the overall volume of activity. The central agency has the ability to say “no new thing in the pipeline” when they are full of things to execute on.


I know this sounds counterintuitive (all churches need more leaders, right?) but bear with me. In modern, growing organizations, leaders generate activity. Gone are the days of organizations filled with managers of managers who manage. And in churches, this is especially true. Leaders are developed or hired for the express purpose of generating ministry activity. But that increase in leader-driven activity can overwhelm the staff who are given the role of helping implement that activity.

There are three ways to get this under control:

  1. Hire more leaders to manage and control the amount of new stuff the existing leaders are generating;
  2. Hire more support staff who are able to help implement and execute ministry activity;
  3. Reduce the number of leaders generating ministry activity.

The first option helps manage activity better, but at great cost. Not many growing churches have layers of management in ministry, do they? (Maybe I’m wrong in thinking they don’t, but I think they don’t.)

The second option is also expensive. But if you had a lot more support staff, you probably wouldn’t be so concerned with streamlining your ministry model, since you wouldn’t be hurting so much.

The third option is the most direct path towards simplifying your ministry model.


I say this all the time: a strategy always starts with who. Who are we striving to best reach and serve in our ministry? Are we targeting families with young kids? People with felt needs? Upscale professionals looking for a high-quality church experience? People who’ve never been to church? This needs to be defined by your organization’s senior leadership.

Next, ask every ministry to define their who, and the specific objectives that reach and serve that audience. Then you can see how well they align with the defined strategy. The ministries that are most-aligned with reaching the audience that the leadership team defined are put in the “keystone ministries” bucket and get full support. Leverage them for growth, and hold them accountable for it.

Ministries that aren’t aligned with the defined objectives are let go. We can’t keep them going, so we sunset them over the next year. This includes events, even long-standing recurring ones. These aren’t helping us grow, so they have to go.

Some ministries won’t be aligned with these strategic objectives, but the negative impact on the church culture of getting rid of them could set you back more than it helps. These ministries should be put into the “maintenance mode” bucket. Don’t highlight them in your communications, don’t put them in the main menu on the website, and don’t feature them on social media. But they can continue to operate as they currently do.

In a way, these are all variations on the same theme, just different means to the same end. And they aren’t mutually exclusive; you can apply one or all of them.

But no matter which strategy you choose, remember this: begin and end with prayer. Your strategy doesn’t matter if God isn’t behind it.

Listening to a Quieter Voice

Every church comms person hears feedback. Whether it’s from our coworkers or other leaders at church, from volunteers, or from people in the congregation, we hear feedback on our work: “our new website looks terrific.” “I love the graphic for our new children’s event!” Or even, “our new logo is amazing.”

It’s the reason we spend so much time on announcements, email newsletters, and designing that oh-so-perfect visual for our long-running women/men/young adults/etc. connection ministry. We’re all seeking that positive feedback, and – whether we admit it to ourselves or not – it drives a lot of our decision-making.

But there’s another kind of feedback that’s a little harder to hear; probably because it’s external. We tune in to this loop when we’re doing things like planning an ad campaign, working on the SEO of our website, or writing a press release. Our goals and attention are entirely focused on the person who isn’t already part of our church. We gather data, analyze it, and get brutally honest with ourselves when we answer hard questions about how well we are (or aren’t) reaching people.

This external feedback loop is quieter, and harder to hear. I’ve never been in a staff meeting and heard, “nice job with optimizing the SEO on our blog,” or “way to target the right audience with our latest AdWords campaign!” That just doesn’t happen (though I sure wish it did).

Yet these things – how many people find your website, connect with you on social media, and see your ads – are key drivers of church growth. No matter how sticky you are, if you aren’t bringing visitors into your church, you aren’t growing.

I have a weekly dashboard that tracks all kinds of stats: new visitors to our campus web pages, Facebook reach, campus visitors, in-person attendance… this is my primary feedback loop.

Data doesn’t tell me how much it likes my work – at least not in the same way that a welcome team volunteer tells me they like our new info packet. Analytics are a subtler, softer voice. They’re a thousand nods of the head, clicks to learn more, and conversations in the parking lot.

Their voice might not be so loud, but they’re still telling the same stories of lives being changed.

Time for a Gut Check

Growing your church requires a lot of things: solid strategy, strong leadership, compelling content, planning and organization, and some technical know-how. Putting those together in the most effective way possible is essential to taking on the task of growing your church.

But every once in a while, you need to step back for a gut check moment. Strategy, leadership and planning are your engines of church growth, and those engines require fuel. So before you start planning, designing, writing, or meeting, take an honest look at your level of these three things:

Passion – all movements have energy that comes from the collective passion of lots of people. They share it, talk about it, and live it out.

What are you giving your people to be passionate about, that they can’t resist sharing?

Commitment – sustains you through the natural ups and downs that are unavoidable. Commitment is the multiplier to passion.

How are you best supporting the leaders in your community, helping their commitment remain strong enough to weather the ups and downs?

Directional focus – passion and commitment can take you anywhere, but you don’t want to go anywhere. You want to go somewhere. Make sure your teams have a clear picture of exactly where you’re headed.

How clear and well understood is your organization’s mission and vision, and how aligned is your staff structure to that mission?

Leaders need to ask these three important questions at least a few times per year. No matter how good your strategy is, no matter how strong your leadership, no matter how engaging your content is – if you don’t have passion, commitment, and a clear picture of the direction you’re headed, you won’t grow.

The Measurement Mindset

“If it’s not worth measuring, it’s not worth doing.”

That’s an old saying in the marketplace, and it’s especially applicable to the discipline of church communications. The measurement mindset might as well be in your job description. It’s that important.

It’s not uncommon to get resistance among church staff to this idea. How do you measure the work of the Holy Spirit? How does a pastoral care visit get quantified? How do you measure spiritual growth?

But if you’re a church communications person, you are not entitled to resisting this idea. 99% of what you do isn’t just measurable, it’s easily measurable. Here are a few examples of things that are not hard to track and measure:

  • Web site visits
  • Web site visits by new people
  • Social media likes, follows, shares
  • Digital community size
  • Email newsletter open rates
  • App engagement
  • How your congregation is adopting digital communication channels vs. print
  • Live stream views
  • Google searches for your church

Recently I claimed Tuesdays for data gathering and analysis. I thought about “measurement Mondays” but usually Mondays at my office are all about meetings and debriefs, plus planning for the week ahead. So I renamed Tuesday to Tuesdataday.

It might seem a little extreme to dedicate 20% of my week to that one thing, but I did it for a couple of reasons:

  1. Everything I do starts with a strategy, and a strategy always starts with who. Who’s engaging with us on social media? Who’s giving us reviews on Facebook or Google? Are new people finding the right things on our website? Who’s watching our live stream – regular attenders, or new people?
  2. I’m trying to lead by example. It’s hard to make an informed decision without information, and too often churches launch ministries and assess their impact based on anecdotal information. But even a bunch of anecdotes is not the same as data. While it’s hard for some ministries to measure their impact, almost every ministry has some concrete measurement that, if used to make strategic decisions, could help lead to stronger results.

Tuesdataday isn’t just about running reports; it’s about putting that information into a format that our leadership can use. So I take time to process the information, and format it in a way that’s helpful for our senior leadership. (Here’s an example.)

Of course, the reality is that I never end up with the whole day open to spend on measurement and analysis anyway. It’s more like a guideline. But as long as I’m continually working with a measurement mindset, I’ll be making better strategic decisions that have a greater impact on growth.

So how much time do you spend on gathering data and analysis?

What a Bunch of Teenage Activists Can Teach Every Communications Professional

Responsiveness, clarity, and discipline matter as much as creativity.

Vanity Fair just published a behind-the-scenes look at the teenagers behind the #NeverAgain movement. Described as a “meme factory,” this group of students are all survivors of the Parkland, FL school shooting in February 2018.

Their goals are threefold: a ban on assault rifles and high-capacity magazines; universal background checks; and overturning legislation that prohibits the CDC from studying gun violence. Their strategy is to remain a dominant media presence (not just social media) that changes the conversation around gun violence in America.

There’s a lot to talk about in this article, but as a church communicator, I couldn’t help but be amazed at all I can learn from this group of young people. The things they do intuitively are the very things that churches struggle to do occasionally. And where churches are embracing the same strategies as the #NeverAgain group, they’re seeing growth.

Here are a few of the things that stood out to me:

They know where their audience lives. How do younger millennials and Gen-Zers get their news and information? Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and most of all, YouTube. “What a lot of my generation does is come home from school, eat a snack, and watch whatever’s in their subscription box from YouTube. That’s how they got a lot of their information.”

10 million people watched the #NeverAgain/March for Our Lives kids on 60 Minutes. Combined, the core group gets that many interactions on social media almost every day. They understand that influence is a direct result of creating community around content.

They are prolific content creators. They work as a team, and if nobody says no, they assume it’s a yes and move forward. Whether it’s a tweet or a video, they’re always making.

The end goal isn’t online activity, it’s offline activity. And their approach to offline activity is well-managed. They realize they can’t be everywhere all the time, so they planned the DC march and delegated the planning for other regions’ marches. But they sent out briefing documents, conducted conference calls – recognizing that one bad tweet can undo it all.

They stay on-message. They’re not anti-gun, just for more common sense around gun laws. They reiterate the specifics of their agenda over and over again: ban assault rifles and high-capacity magazines; universal background checks; re-authorizing the CDC to study gun violence. They stay on-message, and don’t depart from it.

Responsiveness. They leverage every opportunity. They move fast. From script to filming to social post in a couple of hours, not days. They don’t wait until Monday to jump on an opportunity.

They take risks. These kids are from an upper middle class suburb, and have lives full of opportunity and comfort. But they are choosing the less comfortable road ahead of them for the greater good. They regularly receive death threats, to the point that their office location remains a hidden secret.

They understand how much tone matters. They vet the tone of what they do to avoid too much sarcasm, too much anger, sounding too easy to write off. They are aware of each other’s strengths: some are acerbic and wonkish, some are emotional, some are comedic/satirical.

Basic rules: no profanity. no violence, actual, symbolic or implied. No personal digs. MLK’s third principle of nonviolence: defeat injustice, not people.

They are brash and bold in the brainstorming phase, but cautious in the editing room. They don’t always get their tone right at the start, but they refine it until it works. Anyone else find this remarkable for a team of high school students with a political agenda?