Church Growth: It's all about the pastor

David Murrow writes a piece entitled “Church Growth:  It’s All About the Pastor” over at the Church for Men website.  See if you agree with his thinking:

Can I be brutally honest? When it comes to church attendance, nothing matters as much as the ability of the pastor to deliver good sermons. If a pastor is good at his job the church grows. If he’s bad at his job the church shrinks.

Sounds unspiritual – but it’s true. It shouldn’t be this way – but it is. Each week is a referendum on the pastor’s ability to deliver an inspiring sermon.

Admit it – you’ve gotten into the car with your spouse and begun critiquing the sermon before you’re out of the church parking lot. Or you’ve been asked, “How was church?” What do you talk about? The sermon. Let’s be real: Protestants judge the quality of a worship service largely by the power of the sermon to move them. Nothing else comes close.

This is why the right minister can cause a church to sink or soar. I liken it to a football team: an NFL squad has 53 men, but the team’s fortunes rise and fall on the talents of one man – the quarterback. If he can deliver lots of touchdowns, the team wins. If he can’t, the team loses. Granted, the signal-caller must have good players around him, but as the Denver Broncos are seeing this year, a great QB means everything.

The same is true with church attendance. When it comes to numbers, nothing matters as much as the ability of the pastor to deliver engaging sermons. Preaching is everything.

It pains me to write these words. In an ideal world, what SHOULD matter is prayer, the presence of the Spirit, the love of the people for one another and the church’s ministry in the community. In that ideal world a church should be able to take out one preacher and install another without a hiccup.

And while we’re at it, why does the size of a church even matter? Jesus would choose a church of 12 sold-out disciples over a church of 12,000 passive pew-sitters any day.

We can argue these points until Christ returns, but this blog post is about attendance. Numbers. And when it comes to putting men in pews, nothing matters more than pastoral quality. Every other consideration pales in comparison.

// read more here…

What do you think?  Does it ALL really come down to the ability of the pastor’s preaching skills?

I’d love to hear your input…  leave a comment below…



  • Jeff Borden November 15, 2012 Reply

    Depends on what you’re defining, I suppose. If your definition for church is consumer oriented and you feel a need to enter the fray of the competition of trend and fad, then, “yes,” it probably does rely on the charisma and ability of the leader. On the other hand, if you are trying to follow the Way of Jesus, natural, God-given, and Spirit-led gifts of the leader are but one ingredient…and in the “recipe” of God, what it all comes down to, will always be God and not one man’s skill. In the end, it depends on what you’re cooking… me thinks.

    • Bob Barnes November 16, 2012 Reply

      Absolutely amen comment.

  • daniel November 15, 2012 Reply

    He’s half right. My experience being on the church board taught me that for 50% of the body, it’s all about the pastor. For the other 50% it’s all about their friendships in the community.

  • jackpickel November 15, 2012 Reply

    I would have once agreed with you, but now…not so much. Just had a guy in my church visit several churches in our area over the last few weeks (yea, he got pissed about something at our church and took some “time off”). He came back to tell me that basically most of the other churches were like ours in regard to worship. Their band, format, buildings, preaching, etc. no better than ours (yet, some of them were larger). He concluded we all do about the same thing and the same level of quality. THEREFORE (!) I don’t believe it’s ALL about the quality of preaching anymore. THere are many other factors that now play into the decision consumeristic church members make these days. But then again…I could be wrong!

  • Dee Lauderdale November 15, 2012 Reply

    The size of the church only matters when it comes to being able to pay the pastor/staff. If you take that out of the equation I suspect most guys would prefer to build a church of dozens of disciples rather than thousands of consumers.

    that being said, I think David is on point with his comments.

  • Sondra Jenkins November 15, 2012 Reply

    Now I love good preaching as much as the next person; but what’s flawed in this thesis is the assumption that attendance numbers are the critical metrics for “success” of the church. Jesus’ commission to us was to make disciples, not church-goers; and though there’s likely some overlap in those populations, they are not the same.

  • pietvanwaarde November 16, 2012 Reply

    As a pastor (primary communicator) of one of these larger churches its seems important to note in writing what most astute pastors know instinctively. Though their “performance” on the platform may get the most attention – that performance is actually made/broken by so many other factors and people. There are numerous people in our context who add immeasurably to my weekly teaching activity – research assistants, creative arts people, marketing folks, and guest relations. Each of these contributions make incremental (often imperceptible) adds to the overall experience. And though these contributions may not be talked about as often in the car on the way home, the wise pastor knows this is true and regularly appreciates these other essential pieces of the puzzle.

  • Rick McGinniss November 16, 2012 Reply

    Just thought I would point out that Todd’s question isn’t the same as Doug’s point. In answer to the question, no, it doesn’t “all” come down to the pastor’s speaking ability. But in terms of whether a person – especially a non-Christian – is going to come back to the church for a long enough period of time to consider becoming a disciple, if all the factors are considered, I agree with Doug. The ability of the primary communicator (to quote my friend Piet) is near the top of the list; with condition of the bathrooms and nursery second. 🙂

    • which comment was that of Doug’s?

      • Rick McGinniss November 16, 2012 Reply

        Todd’s question: Does it ALL really come down to the ability of the pastor’s preaching skills?

        Doug’s statement: When it comes to church attendance, nothing matters as much as the ability of the pastor to deliver good sermons.

        Maybe I’m misreading/misinterpreting but those don’t seem to be the exact same issue.

  • Jason Walker November 16, 2012 Reply

    Unfortunately true, but that’s how Pastor’s set it up…it’s not the people’s fault. Pastor’s typically make it all about them. They are the one’s to pray at the start of the service, they give announcements, they talk for 20-30 or more min with little interaction from the crowd, they wrap up the service, etc…etc… while some use paid staff for some elements the congregation is largely left out, sitting and watching the performance no matter their desires or ability to share in the Sunday morning service.
    If Pastor’s would allow the church to be the church and not watchers and responder’s this truth would change.

  • Stephen Canfield November 16, 2012 Reply

    I think the quarterback analogy is very accurate. The quarterback is the most important player on the team, but just like in football he would have to be more than good to get wins, he would have to be great to win without a good supporting cast around him.

    Besides preaching, the other things that really matter in a church are 1. your context (look, feel, design, worship music) 2. your ability to connect people into meaningful relationships, 3. your children’s ministry (especially if you are in a suburban context).

    If I were to put a percentage of importance on things at our 3 year old church plant, its about 40% preaching, 20% context, 30% connecting people and 10% children’s ministry. When I came into our church as an associate pastor, they were going nowhere after a year and a half of plodding along with a solo senior pastor. When I increased the quality in context and connecting, the church went from 45 to 450 in 3 years.

    You can think of it this way, if you want to grow in numbers, you need all of these different areas to be represented. There is a little give in these percentages though, if you are good at connecting people, you can have an under performing QB. If you have a great QB, you can slack some in connecting people.

    What is most valuable to your church community depends on your city, who you are reaching and their age. Our city is young, the average age is 28. The only way we grow and actually keep people is if we are good at connecting them. We could have Francis Chan or Rob Bell preaching in our city and if we can’t connect our visitors with other people our church would stall out. (Funny side note: all these amazing communicators, Francis Chan, Rob Bell, Andy Stanley, if you look at what resources they were working with when they started their church or the city/suburb where they planted its easy to see that only in that specific place would those gifts had worked. I should write a book…)

    When I worked in the suburbs, the preaching and kids ministry were much more important. The adults did most of their connecting Sunday morning, or it was less important. But, they wanted an awesome children’s ministry and a helpful or entertaining message. In the suburbs you can slack on connecting and context.

    There is a minimum threshold on each of these areas, and if the quality slacks below a certain level, it doesn’t matter how good you are at other areas it won’t help. For example, if we connected every person who came to our church with a solid community group, but the preaching was boring, they will go to their group but not church. If our church looked freakin awesome and the music rocked and their was an above average message but we didn’t connect people, in our church we would balloon quickly and then lose all of that attendance.

    So in summary, yes the teaching pastor is the most important piece, but depending on who you are reaching, the giftedness of the teaching pastor combined with these other elements could spell the real world difference in numerical growth.

  • Dr. Larry Lucas November 16, 2012 Reply

    Church growth is about sociology — the unspoken social contract that visitors intuitively identify. Church health and spiritual growth is a matter of theology. A previous study indicates that only 3% of visitors stay in a church because of the preaching; 97% because of the relationships that are rapidly opened to them. The preaching cannot be bad, but with some exceptions it is not a church growth killer. Intentional assimilation and making pathways to personal connections are a more important factor in retaining visitors.

    • Dee Lauderdale November 16, 2012 Reply

      Dr. Lucas, that is facinating info. Do you have a link for that study?

      • Dr. Larry Lucas November 16, 2012 Reply

        Dee, sorry, my files are in storage right now. I don’t think there is an internet link available. As I recall it was a study cited in print by Lyle Schaller or Bill Easum.

        • Dee Lauderdale November 16, 2012 Reply

          Well Lyle Schaller certainly did not say it, “As Dr. Lyle Schaller recently stated, “Ninety-six percent of first-time visitors rate memorable, motivational preaching as the number one reason for returning the next Sunday to churches.”

          I believe David Murrow is correct in his assertions.

          • Dr. Larry Lucas November 16, 2012

            As a long-time student of Church Growth, I can appreciate Murrow’s observations. However, I have found reality to fall within the smaller percentages. There are, of course, exceptions. Thom Rainer put together a recent survey that elevated preaching as an attractional factor for the unchurched — along with doctrinal content, etc. That is up from the (now) traditional assumption that culturally relevant music and worship is more attractional. Worship style was down the list on his survey of the unchurched. However, a similar survey showed that for the churched — not the unchurched — the percentages who remain in a church due to preaching diminishes. Take your pick. Reality is not always found in surveys or studies.

          • Dee Lauderdale November 16, 2012

            I’ve been on staff of a rapidly growing church, I have planted a church and been on the staff of church that went from 1000 attending down to 800 in just 18 months. Plus I’ve got friends who have planted churches that failed and others who grew from 0 to 1400 in 3 years. Based on that experience plus also being a church growth junkie, I believe David is right on.

            Now whether a fast growing church/large church is turning out true disciples instead of just drawing a crowd is another debate for another day.

          • Dr. Larry Lucas November 16, 2012

            My formal studies in church growth theory (and it is theoretical) began in the days of Donald McGavaran, the father of modern church growth theory. It has continued formally and informally over the intervening years. I have been the pastor of small turnaround churches; middle size churches in need of a change agent, and by the grace of God pastored several churches that grew significantly, e.g., went from 400 to 1200. One thing I have learned: there are only a few general principles about church growth that are consistent in spite of chronological and cultural change. The remainder are a will-o-wisp of temporary and theoretical observations that have a limited shelf life. For what it is worth. I have lived long enough to see a number of theories come full circle. The preacher as the primary driver of church growth vis-a-vis preaching is one of them.

      • Dr. Larry Lucas November 16, 2012 Reply

        The study cited is over ten years old. The rate of cultural preference on such things changes exponentially.

    • Stephen Canfield November 17, 2012 Reply

      “Church growth is about sociology — the unspoken social contract that visitors intuitively identify.” Spot on, you can grow a church numerically with a good understanding of why people connect to social structures and then apply some business principles. The true measure of impact is numerical growth combined with spiritual growth. Spiritual growth is much harder to measure but is essential to the equation for a healthy church.

  • Christopher White November 16, 2012 Reply

    The thesis of this article is patently obvious. Churches in America grow or recede based on who is in the pulpit Sunday after Sunday. I don’t know if it is all that related to compelling sermons though. I have attended a few very large churches where the pastor preached mostly pablum and drivel but did it with style and verve. I have also attended a couple of churches where, God love him, the preaching was terrible, but the preacher really loved his people and they could feel it and relate to it and it was a growing church. So, without being snide, I guess I am saying that many churches in America are thriving more because they are personality cults than because of good preaching.

  • Jeff Thompson November 25, 2012 Reply

    The truth is that people flock to good teaching. I don’t understand why this would be perceived as a negative. We’re talking about a person who is faithfully exercising the gift God has given them for the benefit of the Church. This doesn’t make that pastor guilty of building a “personality cult”.

    I do believe that great teaching is underrated in church planting. I’m in the middle of doing just that right now, and in all the evaluations I’ve been through with various organizations, teaching has barely (if at all) come up or been evaluated!

    It’s the vehicle God most consistently uses to get His Word and Gospel to our world. JESUS CHRIST had a teaching ministry and people came to hear Him because He alone had “the words of life”. Why in the world would we look down on a church or ministry that has succeeded by simply passing on the same teachings?

    • Steve Miller December 5, 2012 Reply

      excellent thoughts.

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