Why do some churches grow and others don’t?

Church growth scholars admit that it is difficult to explain precisely why some congregations grow and others don’t. Church growth is complex, and there is no way to reduce that complexity to a simple formula.1 However, church growth specialists such as Peter Wagner, Christian Schwarz, and Ken Hemphill have studied this phenomenon in different countries and cultures, and have developed various models relating to healthy, growing churches. An analysis of these studies and field observations indicates that these congregations have taken 10 specific initiatives.

1. Have a trained and visionary leadership

Growing churches have visionary leaders. These leaders are optimists who “precipitate,” concentrate, and lead all church activities toward God’s vision for that congregation and toward what produces growth. They generate enthusiasm. They are agents of change who know what the church and the community need and how they can meet those needs, using the gifts the church members have. They are trainers.

Schwarz’s studies show that pastors of growing congregations recognize the potential of their laity. Such pastors do not need to be superstars. They just have to be people who train other believers for service.2

Kirk Hadaway, a researcher and critic on church growth, says: “No unusual abilities or gifts are required to pastor a growing church. One does not have to be a dynamic orator or a master of administration. On the other hand, one must be committed to reaching the lost and to developing members. A pastor must also have vision. Growing churches are different in character, and that character can be described as ‘life.’ Often all a pastor must do to bring a congregation to life is to supply a spark and nurture the flame.”3

2. Develop ministries according to gifts, evangelism according to needs

The Holy Spirit bestows upon members various gifts. The leader’s role is “simply, to help church members to find out and recognize the gifts God has given them, and to find a service according to those gifts. When believers live in consonance with their spiritual gifts, they do not work by their own efforts, but the Spirit of God works in them. In this way, completely normal Christians can have an extraordinary performance.”4

One study revealed that 68 percent of members in growing churches said: “The tasks I perform in the church agree with my gifts.” In congregations that do not grow, only 9 percent agreed with that statement. The same study also showed that in growing churches, voluntary co-workers received more training than in churches that do not grow.5

Charles Chaney, a church-growth expert, says that wherever spontaneous congregational growth has occurred, biblically and historically, the reason has been that the laity was “mobilized and motivated to a spiritual ministry.”6 Gottfried Oosterwal points out that one of the basic factors behind the worldwide growth of the Seventh-day Adventist Church is the mobilization of lay members and meeting the needs of the people they minister.7

Robert Schuller has employed this principle for more than 35 years in the Crystal Cathedral of Orange County, California. This church has implemented an evangelism program focused on meeting the needs of people through more than 150 ministries. Schuller says, “The secret of church growth is to meet the need and supply for it.”8

McGavran, forerunner of the church growth movement, states that growing congregations have about 60 percent active members: 20 percent in direct evangelism and 40 percent in internal work, but focused toward growth.9

3. Spread the contagion of spirituality

Christ’s method for evangelism is spreading the “testimony” (Matthew 24:14).* The “boldness” to preach the gospel was one of the marks of growth of the primitive church (Acts 4:13, 31; 13:46; 14:3; 19:8; 1 Thessalonians 2:2).

Many groups with erroneous doctrines register high growth basically because of their enthusiasm to spread their message. “Enthusiasm by which faith is lived…nearly always parallels the enthusiasm for one’s own church,” and this produces growth. Members of 76 percent of growing congregations, according to Schwarz, said: “I am enthusiastic with my church,” but only 33 percent said so in decreasing churches.10

4. Follow biblically based priorities

Growing churches have their priorities arranged in biblical order: relationship with God, relationship with the home church, and commitment to church work. In church work, evangelism is the priority, and then comes social involvement.11

The basic reason why conservative churches grow is their priority of evangelism over social work. Besides, these churches are more strict and serious with regard to their membership.12 Further, according to Roger Finke and Rodney Stark, who analyzed church growth in the United States from 1776 to 1990, churches stopped growing when they “rejected the traditional doctrines and stopped doing serious demands on their followers.”13

5. Adopt functional structures

Structure affects church growth. Specialists note two types of structure: functional and traditional. Schwarz observes: “Our research succeeded to demonstrate and certify that the sickly phenomenon of traditionalism…is in a markedly inverse relationship with both the growth and the quality of the churches.”14 Fifty percent of the members of decreasing churches said, “I consider our church as traditionalist,” but only 8 percent said the same in growing churches.15 Traditions are good only when they are based on the principles revealed by God’s Word. What hurts the church is not Bible-based traditions but traditionalism that prevent the church from making the necessary changes to continue growing.

Consider the apostolic church. The need to better serve the widows made a change of structure necessary. The result was that “the word of God increased; and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith” (Acts 6:7). After studying the biggest congregations of the world, John N. Vaughan stated that “almost every large church has become large because it took courageous steps to reorganize along the path to growth.”16

6. Plan inspiring worship services

Schwarz’s studies have shown that growing churches have “inspirational worship.” “The question if worship has meant an ‘inspired experience’ is in direct proportion to its quality and quantitative growing.” In growing congregations, 80 percent of their members said that the worship in their churches has been an inspiring experience; but only 49 percent said the same in decreasing churches.17

7. Develop a program of cells

If one point stands out as the most important in church growth, it is the principle of multiplication of cells. Schwarz’s study has shown that the more decisive the practice of cell groups, the more rapid the church growth. In growing congregations, 78 percent of members stated that their churches “encouraged conscientiously the multiplication of cell groups through division,” while in decreasing churches only 6 percent stated the same.18

The greatest miracle of Pentecost was not the baptism of 3,000 people, but that the new believers “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42). One reason for their perseverance was the establishment of “home churches.” This approach was decisive for survival in time of persecution. “During the time of persecution, the concept of small groups in the home blossoms and the church grows spiritually and in number.”19 Ellen G. White states: “The formation of small companies as a basis of Christian effort has been presented to me by One who cannot err. If there is a large number in the church, let the members be formed into small companies, to work not only for the church members, but for unbelievers. If in one place there are only two or three who know the truth, let them form themselves into a band of workers.”20

8. Be friendly

Friendship is an important factor affecting church growth.21 Its absence causes apostasy and its presence encourages the return of those who have been away. Recent studies in growing Hispanic Adventist congregations of Southern California revealed that the motivation for the opening of a new church or ministries is friendship and the spiritual level of the founder members. The friendship was like magnetism to bring and to retain the new members.22 Win Arn suggests that new members should find at least seven new friends in the church during the first six months.23 Eighty percent of apostasies happen during the first year. New members test their new friends, the love they receive, and the groups they have left outside the church. These factors are important in their decision to remain or to leave.

“Growing churches have a higher ‘love quotient’ than those stanched or decreasing churches.”24 This “love quotient” generates joy and good humor. Laughter among believers have a meaningful relationship with church quality and growth. In growing congregations, 68 percent of the members testified, “in our church we laugh a lot.” In decreasing churches only 33 percent said the same.25

9. Make disciples

The move from membership to discipleship is an important factor in growing congregations. The more effective the disciple-making process, the stronger the church growth is. It doesn’t matter which method is used in making disciples, so long as it is motivated out of love and service to create new ministries and churches. “The single most effective evangelistic methodology under heaven is planting new churches.”26

10. Value differing human aspects

“People like to become Christians without crossing racial, linguistic, or class barriers.”27 “Churches around the world and throughout history have grown basically among one kind of people at the same time, and this indicates that they will continue to grow in this way until the Lord returns.”28 Growing churches are made up of a fairly homogeneous group, or have valued all the groups inside the church. The early church succeeded in avoiding this difficulty with its mission to all ethnic groups (Matthew 28:18-20; Acts 2, 10, 15). Valuing all human groups was crucial in the growth of primitive Christianity. “It may be taken as axiomatic that whenever becoming a Christian is considered a racial rather than a religious decision, there the growth of the church will be exceedingly slow. As the church faces the evangelization of the world, perhaps its main problem is how to present Christ so that unbelievers can truly follow him without traitorously leaving their kindred.”29 To raise this issue is not to support racism of any kind. For Spirit-filled Christians, the question is not homogeneous or heterogeneous churches, but church growth that fosters mission with purpose, fellowship with love, and evangelism with sustained nurture.


Any congregation in search of growth must not ignore these 10 characteristics. The main point is that there is no one single factor that leads to membership growth, but the harmonious working of several characteristics to achieve a single purpose.30

Growing churches know that only God produces true growth (1 Corinthians 3:6). The natural church growth will continue to be a supernatural work as the growing of a plant. Human planning and activity have their place, but the decisive factor will continue to be the mysterious and powerful work of the Holy Spirit. “‘Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord of hosts’” (Zechariah 4:6).

Daniel J. Rode (Doctor of Missiology, Fuller Theological Seminary) teaches homiletics and church growth at Universidad Adventista del Plata. His address: 25 de Mayo 99; 3103 Libertador San Martín, Entre Ríos; Argentina. E-mail: factlsa@uapar.edu

* All Bible quotations are taken from the Revised Standard Version.

Notes and references

  1. C. Peter Wagner, Your Church Can Grow (Ventura, Calif.: Regal, 1984).
  2. Schwarz, Christian, Las 8 características básicas de una iglesia saludable (Terrasa, Barcelona: Clie, 1996) p. 22, 23.
  3. C. Kirk Hadaway, Church Growth Principles (Nashville, Tenn.: Broadman, 1991), p. 92.
  4. Schwarz, p. 24.
  5. Ibid., p. 25.
  6. Charles L. Chaney, Church Planting at the End of the 20th Century (Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House Publishers, 1982), p. 81.
  7. Gottfried Oosterwal, La Iglesia Adventista del Séptimo Día en el mundo contemporáneo (Libertador San Martín, Entre Ríos, Argentina: SALT, 1981), p. 7.
  8. In Roger Dudley and Des Cummings, Adventures in Church Growth (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald, 1983), p. 80.
  9. In Daniel Julio Rode, Características de una iglesia saludable (Libertador San Martín, Entre Ríos, Argentina: Imprenta de la Universidad Adventista del Plata, 1999), p. 56.
  10. Schwarz, p. 27.
  11. Wagner, Your Church Can Grow, p. 87.
  12. Dean M. Kelly, Why Conservative Churches Are Growing (Macon, Georgia: Mercer University Press, 1986), p. 22.
  13. Kenneth Hemphill, El modelo de Antioquía: Ocho características de una iglesia afectiva (El Paso, Texas: Casa Bautista de Publicaciones, 1996), p. 201.
  14. Schwarz, p. 28.
  15. Ibid.
  16. John N. Vaughan, The World’s Twenty Largest Churches (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1984), p. 29.
  17. Schwarz, pp. 31-37.
  18. Ibid., pp. 32, 33.
  19. Kurt W. Johnson, Grupos pequeños para el tiempo del fin (Florida, Buenos Aires: ACES, 1999), p. 45.
  20. Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church, (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1948), vol. 7, pp. 21, 22.
  21. Oosterwal, p. 20.
  22. Daniel Julio Rode, Los siete signos vitales de crecimiento de Wagner en seis iglesias adventistas hispanas del sur de California (Pasadena, Calif.: Fuller Theological Seminary, 1994), p. 235.
  23. Win Arn, The Church Growth Ratio Book (Monrovia, Calif.: Church Growth Inc., 1990), pp. 23, 24.
  24. Schwarz, p. 36.
  25. Schwarz, pp. 36, 37.
  26. C. Peter Wagner, Church Planting for a Greater Harvest (Ventura, Calif.: Regal Books, 1990), p. 11.
  27. Donald A. McGavran, Understanding Church Growth, ed. by C. Peter Wagner (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1990), p. 163.
  28. Wagner, C. Peter, Your Church Can Be Healthy (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1979), p. 56.
  29. McGavran, p. 155.
  30. Schwarz, pp. 38, 39.