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The Chemistry of Church Growth

Ever wondered what your high school chemistry class has to do with the struggles your church is experiencing in growth?

I’m guessing you haven’t. But I want to introduce you to two words from your high school chemistry textbook that impact whether your church is able to overcome growth plateaus. 

  • Inhibitor: An agent that prevents growth or slows the rate of growth.
  • Catalyst: A precipitating factor that can cause an action or a reaction.

So what do those words have to do with a plateauing church? Plenty.

When churches plateau, you can usually find an inhibitor or two that stands in the way of growth. The only way to get those churches moving again is to introduce a catalyst.

When I look at most plateauing churches, I see four inhibitors that are impacting their future growth. But I also have good news. Each has a catalyst that can help you overcome them.

Here are those four inhibitors I see most often.

1. The immaturity of members

Churches don’t grow if their members don’t grow. Immature members don’t understand the necessity of being connected with a church community. Just like children must grow through various stages — they must learn to breathe before walking—our congregants must learn to grow through specific stages. You can’t learn to love God until you know him. You can’t serve God faithfully unless you learn to love him. 

The Bible calls us to believe in Jesus, belong to the body of Christ, become more like Jesus, serve others, and bless others in his name. People who don’t go through these stages don’t stick with your church long-term. 

Catalyst: Every church needs a system to move people through those stages. At Saddleback, we developed the four-part CLASS system to help us do that. I encourage you to take a look at those resources and use them to help your congregation grow in maturity.

2. The fear of members

Many members fear growth because they’re concerned that their needs will slip through the cracks. They question whether they will be loved as the church grows.

The truth is, God never meant for one pastor to meet a congregation’s needs. 

Catalyst: You help people overcome this kind of fear by getting them into small groups. While one pastor can’t meet everyone’s needs as you grow, a small group can.

3. The lethargy of members

We all know people who have sat in churches for decades and don’t do anything. They simply sit and listen. That’s not healthy. To be healthy, you need more than food. You need exercise, too. If you eat too much and don’t get any exercise, you’ll get tired and lethargic. 

The same is true in the church. Members that only feed on God’s Word and never put it into practice will grow more lethargic. We weren’t made to sit and soak up sermons. It’s a quick way to get bored with the Christian life. 

Catalyst: When someone joins your church, they need relationships and responsibilities (or roles). That’s why it’s so important you connect them to a small group and get them involved in a ministry. 

I have seen people who were on the fringes for years, but they came alive when we gave them a significant purpose to express their talents.

Find a tool like CLASS 301 that helps your congregants find their SHAPE (spiritual gifts, heart or passion, ability, personality, and experiences) so they can discover their ministry fit. 

4. Insulation of members

Your church will always struggle to grow when your members have little contact with unbelievers. Without these relationships, your members can’t invite unchurched friends to your church. 

This is a major problem in aging and plateauing churches. New churches don’t have that problem. When you start a new church and start winning people to Christ, those new believers have tons of non-Christian friends. The most effective people for evangelism in any church are new believers, not long-time believers.

Typically, the longer a person is a Christian, the less effective they are at evangelism because they’re spending so much time at church.

Catalyst: You need a plan to get your people into the community and around the world to share the good news. When I was growing up, we were taught to study about missions, pray about missions, give to missions, and then maybe to go.

At Saddleback, we do it in just the opposite way. We focus on getting people to go first. The PEACE Plan is a big part of that. That is our plan to mobilize the church to do what Jesus did—plant churches, equip servant leaders, assist the poor, care for the sick, and educate the next generation.

Although we have sent teams to every country in the world, the PEACE Plan isn’t just about missions around the world. It’s also our plan to mobilize our members to do what Jesus did in their own community. 

I don’t know how well you did in high school chemistry, but there’s a lot at stake when it comes to understanding church growth chemistry. Take some time to assess which of these inhibitors are standing away from your church reaching people. Then think through the corresponding catalysts. You may be just a few steps away from unlocking growth like never before.

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