Where Is Church Growth Actually Coming From?

Where Is Church Growth Actually Coming From?

Church growth has been a hot topic for a long time—and with good reason: Things that are growing are things that are living. But with literally thousands of articles, experts, and opinions about church growth, we wanted to take the opportunity to ask actual churches that experienced actual growth exactly where that growth came from.

So we partnered with Barna Group, a market research firm that specializes in studying the religious beliefs and behavior of Americans. They designed and ran a deep dive survey into the truth about church participation and growth in 2019. We knew their experience and knowledge would help bring invaluable insights to our customers and our team about the church’s state of participation.

What Churches Tried in 2019 (And What They Accomplished)

We asked churches about the new initiatives they tried in 2018-2019, and what they felt had most contributed to growth in their ministries. While it can be difficult to directly correlate action to result in any setting, there were some clear trends in their answers.

Larger growing churches as a whole, tried more things than smaller churches. But larger churches avoided more traditional tactics like print advertising, newspaper ads, or rebranding their church.

Overall, for the church we surveyed, it was clear that social media was king. In fact, more than 80% of all pastors and church staff responded that they had made some sort of social media effort within the last two years. But not everyone was sold on social media or using it as a tool to spur growth. Larger churches were almost twice as likely to utilize paid social advertising than small churches. Small churches were 25% more likely to default to traditional print advertising.

Among all ministries we surveyed, there was an obvious move away from physical initiatives and toward digital tactics like social media and church apps. It wasn’t surprising to see that Sunday school came in at the bottom of the list. Fewer than 20% of churches added Sunday school for either children or adults.

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Knowing that there was a shift towards more digital tactics that effectively drove growth, we took a look at the type of people being added to churches that have a strong digital presence. While middle-aged and young adults tend to be churches’ primary source of growth, mid-sized churches (250-499 attendees) tended to experience a surge in children.

On the flip side, smaller churches are more likely to use traditional outreach and advertising techniques, and are also more likely to attract older adults.

The study also revealed the initiatives that had the largest positive effect on church growth among the churches that were surveyed.

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Let’s be honest…

Church growth in the way it’s normally talked about, can be a bit of a misleading phrase. The issue isn’t always about getting new visitors. In fact, most churches see plenty of new visitors, but do these visitors come back? Do they get plugged into small groups? Do they start giving?

Most churches don’t just want new people to show up, they also want to be there for new people in meaningful ways. They don’t want to just see attendance grow but have nothing else change. They want to grow participation.

While every church’s participation scorecard is slightly different, we saw strong correlations between a church’s growth and their attitude towards inviting new attendees and community members to participate. The healthiest churches nurture people to the next step, no matter where they’re starting from. In fact, the smaller churches were more than three times less likely than the larger churches to have a plan for engaging new visitors.

That’s why we created a framework to help churches better engage with newcomers and get them connected to the church.

Want more? The full church growth report dives into more data on common barriers to attending worship services, how churches measured engagement, the common ways people heard about local churches for the first time, the most popular outreach initiatives churches tried in 2019, and how churches can better nurture engagement and growth.

For the full story, click here to get your free copy of the 2019 Chruch Growth Report today.

2019 church growth report

Davina Adcock
Copywriter at

Davina manages content at Pushpay and has several years of experience writing for tech startups, magazines, and companies that serve the Church. Alumna of The University of Texas, she enjoys two-stepping in the Lone Star State, visiting cool AirBnbs, and eating pad kee mao.