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Differences Between Growing & Declining Churches: Tony Morgan

Here are some of the key differences we found when it comes to ministry connections:

  1. Growing churches are more likely to have some form of “membership” or “partnership” than declining churches. Though, generally, there seems to be a trend away from offering a membership opportunity in the churches we are serving, growing churches seem to offer it more often. This may speak to the value of buy-in that churches expect for new people connecting to the ministry.
  2. Less than half of declining churches offer home groups and nearly two-thirds of growing churches offer groups in homes. The data gap is compelling on this one. There does seem to be a correlation between helping people connect in smaller environments to develop meaningful relationships that helps churches retain a growing number of people.  
  3. Less than half of growing churches offer Sunday school classes and nearly two-thirds of declining churches offer Sunday school options. The gap in the data is actually even greater here. Only 37% of growing churches offer a Sunday school option. Personally, this is a little disheartening because my early steps in the faith were the result of a Sunday school class. However, when I think back on that time, the fact that the the gathering happened in a classroom on Sunday morning wasn’t the reason why the experience helped to transform my life. It was primarily because of the personal discipleship and mentoring that the Sunday school “teacher” invested in my life outside of the classroom. (Thank you Charlie!)

Participation in smaller gatherings, either home groups, Sunday school or other alternatives, is higher in growing churches.

  1. Growing churches are doing a better job of encouraging people to take a next step into community beyond the worship services…even though they are primarily inviting people to take that step at a time other than Sunday morning. Volunteer engagement is higher in declining churches.

Initially, this was the biggest surprise for me in all of these findings. Growing churches are still connecting 40% of their adults and students in regular serving opportunities, but the engagement in declining churches is even higher.

Let me dig a little deeper on that last bullet. Reflecting back on my engagements with both growing and declining churches, my experiences point to a couple of key reasons why volunteer engagement is higher in declining churches.

First, growing churches tend to reach more new people, and our data confirms they’re reaching more people who don’t yet have a relationship with Jesus. Like with giving, there’s usually a lag in the time it takes for people to cross the line of faith and then mature in their faith before they give their money and their time. Actually, we’re hearing from the churches we serve that the “volunteer lag” may be longer than the “giving lag” when new people connect to the church.

Secondly, declining churches tend to be mature churches with a lot more ministry programming. Though it’s not unusual to hear leaders in declining churches complain about not having enough volunteers for critical ministry areas, they typically still have high volunteer engagement. It’s just spread across many more ministry programs. The more ministry programs you offer, the more staff and volunteers are required.

  1. Declining churches are more than twice as likely to be offering multiple styles of worship. It’s challenging to create compelling worship experiences when you’re trying to offer multiple different styles.


  1. Growing churches are more likely to offer modern/contemporary worship than declining churches. In fact, the data also shows that churches that do not offer any modern/contemporary worship but have a traditional worship service have declined by 5% in attendance over the last year.
  2. Growing churches tend to be more outward-focused. They’re offering worship experiences where people are more more likely to invite someone new…nearly 60% more than declining churches.
  3. Growing churches are more likely to be use a multisite strategy. It’s not a huge difference. The bigger story here may be the 12% of churches who appear to be “MultiStuck” because they’ve embraced multisite but are experiencing decline. This confirms our experience that multisite isn’t the magic bullet for church growth. Multisite helps healthy churches grow faster, and it helps unhealthy churches decline faster.
  4. Growing churches are attracting a higher percentage of kids. This may be because growing churches tend to do a better job of reaching younger families.
  5. Declining churches are attracting a higher percentage of students. We believe there are a couple of reasons why this is happening. First, declining churches tend to have older congregants so they are, therefore, more likely to have students in middle or high school. Secondly, growing churches tend to have more compelling “adult” worship experiences that students want to attend; therefore, they aren’t as likely to attend separate student gatherings.
  6. Growing churches baptize a higher percentage of people than declining churches. In other words, there’s more conversion growth. At The Unstuck Group, conversion growth is one of several factors we use to measure overall church health. It’s encouraging to see churches are growing because they’re spreading the Gospel to people outside the faith.

Just to be clear—this isn’t a comparison of big churches versus smaller churches. This is data that’s comparing the ministry reach of growing churches to declining churches. Both sets of data include churches of fewer than 100 people and megachurches with more than 2,000 people.