Karl Vaters: 6 Takeaways From the LifeWay Research Survey ‘The Church Growth Gap’

Last week, Aaron Earls wrote a very helpful article entitled The Church Growth Gap: The Big Get Bigger While the Small Get Smaller. In it, he outlined the results of a recent survey taken by LifeWay Research.

There’s a lot of data in the survey and the article, much of which will take more time to properly digest, but here are 6 of my first impressions after a couple of read-throughs.

1. The News May Not Be As Bad As We Thought

According to the survey, in the past year

  • 28 percent of churches declined by 6 percent or more
  • 33 percent stayed within 5 percent of their previous size
  • 39 percent of churches grew by 6 percent or more

The way this was framed in the article was, “6 in 10 Protestant churches are plateaued or declining in attendance …”

This is technically true, but it could have also been stated in this way, “More than 7 out of 10 Protestant churches (72 percent) are holding steady or growing numerically.”

So why was it phrased the way it was?

There’s a prevalent mindset in church leadership circles that the only acceptable outcome for a congregation is constant numerical increase. So if that’s not happening, the church isn’t holding steady, it’s “plateaued”.

Certainly, we don’t want to get comfortable with business-as-usual, but we need to be more careful about framing every church that held steady numbers for the last year as a “plateaued”.

It may not be accurate to frame it the way I did – clumping the churches with flat numbers along with the growing congregations. But unless we have more information about those churches, they should at least be seen as statistically neutral, not negative.

When we do that, maybe the best way to phrase those findings would be, “while one-third (33 percent) of churches held steady numerically, churches with increasing attendance numbers (39 percent) significantly outpaced those with declining numbers (28 percent).”

That’s far better news than most of us expected.

2. Some Of What We’re Calling Growth Is Consolidation

According to Earls’ article:

This is huge. Not surprising, but huge.

We’re constantly celebrating churches that have rapid growth. But this survey confirms what many have often suspected, but hoped wasn’t true.

Transfer growth can be fast, but conversion growth is almost always slow.

The advent of bigger and bigger churches is not a sign of spiritual hunger as much as a sign that today’s Christians like gathering in larger groups.

That’s not necessarily bad or good. But it’s not growth, it’s consolidation.

3. We’re Not Taking Advantage Of The Strengths Of The Small Church

Again, from the article:

Pause for a moment.

Go back and re-read that paragraph if you need to.


Almost half of very small churches had 10 converts per 100 attendees, but less than one in five medium to large churches did!

With such a significantly higher rate of conversions coming from very small churches, why is there such a relentless push for churches to get bigger? Shouldn’t we be studying, learning from, championing and multiplying smaller congregations?

Certainly, when a church does happen to grow numerically, it makes sense to learn the principles of breaking growth barriers so we don’t lose the gains or put a cap on the increase.

But adapting to a larger size is very different than pushing for, even insisting in a larger size. Especially when the most important aspect of growth – conversions – is being done far more often in smaller congregations than bigger ones.

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Source: Christianity Today