Monday, November 1, 2010

Are You Approaching A Plateau?

There is an old proverb that tells us that preventing a problem is easier than solving one. Once a church has lost its growth momentum it often takes years to recover. In fact, according to life cycle research, the plateau is more often followed by a decline than a period of growth. (I'll be doing an article on the Life Cycle phenomena in a later article) 

There is an interesting illustration of this principle. When the Shuttle and other rockets are launched from Cape Kennedy almost 90% of the fuel is spent just getting the Rocket launched and clearing the launch tower. That’s the price to be paid to overcome the inertia that has set in. Once however the Shuttle or rocket has cleared the tower and is now traveling thousands of miles per hour in space, all it takes is some minor adjustments to alter its course or keep it on course.

When considering the future of your church there are numerous signs that the church while still in its growth cycle may be approaching a period where these signs can point out the remedial issues that need to be addressed before the church enters this period of plateau. Addressing these issues early will allow the church to continue its effectiveness in ministry. If you are already in a plateau or even a period of decline the issues raised here may provide a clue as to some of the issues your church must face if its future is to be better than it's past.

Top Ten Warning Signs That You Are Approaching a Plateau
A plateau could be defined as a pattern where the membership or attendance goes up or down annually and over a 5-10 year period by a few percentage points the church membership or attendance has not gone up or down by more than 5%

Lyle Schaller
See his books on
1.    Rising median age.

v   Lyle Schaller points out that a rising median age is a sure telltale sign that the church is approaching if not already in a period of plateau or decline.
v   Seeing the median age of members drop however is harder than wishing it to be so. Generational differences including preferences regarding style of music, programmatic needs, etc, may demand more change than many churches are willing to make. It was Freud who pointed out that people would rather live with the squalor with which they are familiar than move to a better yet unfamiliar place. Transformation Ministries used this concept for plateaued churches that we either face the price of change willingly or we will be forced to change unwillingly through a crisis. 

2.    Rising Median Tenure

v   The concept of median tenure refers to the point in time where 50% of the membership/attenders began attending the church. The farther that date is from today the more likely it is the church will either be plateaued or in decline
v   Growing churches tend to have that tenure point around 7-8 years, plateaued churches around 11-12 years, and declining churches 15 years or more.
v   There are practical sociological reasons why a church when it  is primarily composed of people who have been there a long time that the church will not grow. New persons will be more attracted to a church with a lower median tenure date.  When this rate is higher even if new people visit the retention rate of visitors returning is normally too low to even replace the normal losses every church has.

3.    Conversion Growth Ratio Direction

v   Churches see a normal attrition rate depending on their size from death, transfer out, and reversion of between 6 for a smaller church to up to 12% for a larger church. The rule of 72, which is a mathematical formula, states that if you take either your rate of growth or your rate of decline and divide it into 72 it will give you the number of years it will take
v   The Conversion Growth Ratio is a specific formula that asks how many members did it take to win one person to Christ in the past year. For example if the church had 100 people and saw 5 first time conversions the ratio would be 1:20. In other words it took the effort of 20 people to win one person to Christ.
v   While there has been some variation growing churches normally have a ratio of 1:8 to 1:15. Plateaued churches normally have ratios in the 1:30 to 1:50 range and declining churches are in the 1:70 plus range.
v   It is important to note that the data should not be construed as a point in time fact. The important thing to note is the trend this ratio is taking. It can take a few years to see if our evangelistic efforts are paying off or if our evangelistic fervor is waning.
Dr Bob Schuler

4.    Shrinking Evangelism dollars (total & %)

v   Bob Schuler has often used the illustration of the 10-10-80 principle in teaching his congregation how to manage their money. The first 10% should be given to God as a tithe and an act of gratitude to Him for all his goodness. 10% should be invested in your future through savings. If you don’t invest in your future it creates long term problems that are many time unsolvable. We should then learn to live with contentment on the 80% left.
v   Assuming all churches give a portion of their money to missions not all churches invest dollars in their own future. The result of that is their future is put at risk.
v   Win Arn pointed out that in his examination of the budgets of hundreds of churches growing churches invested 10% of their income on training activities and programs to reach the unchurched
v   The pattern of little or no money being invested in the churches own growth may take time to reverse but like a farmer who plants no seed we cannot expect a return in the harvest if we invest no resources in this endeavor.

5.    Stable or shrinking infrastructure

v   Infrastructure refers to the number of groups or places where people can not only be involved but also develop meaningful relationships with others in the church.
v   Some of you have heard the comment “what good is it to bring new people into the church if we squeeze out the people who have been here for years”. This is a sure sign the infrastructure has reached capacity.
v   A good and workable ratio is to seek to have about 7-10 groups for every one hundred people in your congregation. This gives room for not only the existing congregation but also room for new people.
v   One additional caveat is that after groups have been in existence for more than 2 years the close themselves off to outsiders. There are a variety of reasons for this but it is a good idea well researched and documented that keeping about 20% of your groups “new” (that is they have been created in the last 2 years) is a simple way to insure openness to new person joining the church.

6.    Reduced % of ministry involvement.

v   To quote Lyle Schaller if a new person has not accepted a role or task or become part of a small group within the first year they are already inactive.
v   Research done by the Institute of American Church Growth pointed out that:
o     Growing churches had 60% involvement
o     Plateaued churches had a 43% average involvement
o     Declining churches had an average of 27% involvement
v   Monitoring the involvement of your congregation and watching the involvement trend is part of the diagnostic work that will enhance your ministry.
v   A simple philosophical shift will take the focus of the institution. Instead of asking, “How can we find somebody to do everything we need done?” to “ How can we find something for everyone to do?” This will take the focus off the institution and get it on people; every individual in your church has been gifted and called of God to service. That needs to be our focus.

7.    Reduced # of visitors.

v   It’s a truth often ignored but true none-the-less; “No one joins a church without visiting it first.”
v   Most churches have two problems:
Dr. Charles Arn

o     They don’t have sufficient visitors to replace the normal losses seen annually
o     They do not retain a high enough percentage of the visitors to grow.
v   Charles Arn from Church Growth points out that declining and plateaued churches rarely hold on to more than 10% of first time visitors.  Growing churches rarely hold on to less than 20% of their visitors. He also observed that growing congregations have around 5% of their congregation as visitors (1st or 2nd time) every week. (I’ll do another post at a later date on proven strategies for visitor retention)
v   Developing a strategy that both attracts more and retains more visitors is critical for any church wanting to maintain its growth momentum.

8.    Closed power structure.

v   I had an interesting experience at a church in New York where I was consulting with them. The conversation went like this;

Me: “How long would it take me if I joined this church today to become part of the official board?”
Response: “Would you attend regularly?”
Me: “Yes!”
Response and would you be willing to work in the church and give?”
Me: “Yes, I’d love to serve and would be more than willing to tithe all I make to help the church.”
Response: If you did all that it would probably take 12-14 years.

v   One of the needs new persons feel when they become part of any new organization is to believe that their insights and opinions really matter.
v   People around the church for a long time believe, rightly or not, that the problem with new people is they are always trying to change things. To prevent change the easiest solution is to close the power structure to new people.
v   Growing churches on the other hand believe new people bring a wealth of new ideas and are invaluable in helping the church achieve its mission and so they open the power structure to new people.
v   Win Arn noted that growing churches had about 20% of their formal leadership team come from people who had been part of the church 2 years or less.
v   If your power structure is closed it is a sign that your ministry may become more and irrelevant to the people god calls us to reach.

9.    Reduction in new program units

v   In most churches you can identify approximately one program unit for every 15 persons. These may include classes, groups, children’s, youth or adult activities and a broad assortment of other programs.
v   In declining churches what has been called the “cut-back syndrome” emerges. Fewer and fewer options for involvement are offered and fewer and fewer people are given a reason to participate.
v   Growing congregations are always looking a new ways to reach the unreached and minister more effectively to people. They listen to the dreams for ministry that God places in the hearts of His people.

10.   Shrinking Class II involvement

v   There are 2 Classes of work when lay people are involved in the churches ministry.
o     Class 1 refers to work where the primary audience and the primary emphasis of the program or activity is on people who are already Christians
o     Class 2 work, (not second class work) involves a ministry or activity where the primary focus is on people not yet reached.
v   Keeping approximately 20-25% of your activities outwardly focused (Class 2) is a good benchmark. It insures that the people with a passion for the lost and those who have outwardly focused spiritual gifts have places where there passion and giftedness can contribute to keeping the church evangelistically vital

While this post does not cover every detail on every sign it does seek to give you the pastor or leader some benchmarks you can use to compare yourself to a growing church and if your ratios are starting to shift they can provide an early warning system that some things must change if you want to avoid the plateau. 
George Bullard was speaking at a conference for pastors and the concept he extolled about the need for flexibility and willingness to change is found in his comment. : "It is better to view your church as a cloud rather than a box"
Add your comments to this post so we can all help each other be more effective in seeing more churches grow.

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