In my work as a church consultant, I’ve worked with many different churches in many different stages within the life cycle of a church. I’ve noticed some patterns and themes reoccur in churches. For example, when I have encountered issues I’ve come across previously in other places, it’s not unusual for there to be related challenges that seem to go together with that issue. It was ultimately this observation that helped me develop my thinking around growing the church and the essential 15 keys of church health.
Common issues and related challenges also mean there can be common solutions and related fixes. This isn’t a formula of course; churches are a beautiful yet bizarre mix of systems and people. All leaders are different. Contexts and settings vary. But in talking to different church leaders, they will often use language to describe some kind of unseen but felt ‘barrier’ that is impacting their stage in the life cycle of a church. They may say they are ‘stuck’, or describe a glass ceiling. Sometimes there is a number that may be put on it, with the leader expressing frustration in not knowing how to continue growing the church or push part this attendance number – whether it is 50, 100, 250, 400, or whatever.
The Life Cycle of a Church
The stages of growth in the life cycle of a church that I’ve identified are:
I’ve adapted the STARs model of business evolution to growing the church. For this purpose, the ‘growth cycle’ shows a missional church (often a new church, whether that is a church plant or a rebooted church) at the beginning of this cycle, and the later stages of growth through visionary, alignment, and multiplication stages. Each of these four ‘growth’ stages can progress, or can slip into plateau. From there, there either needs to be recovery back to the growth cycle, or a plateauing church will enter the crisis cycle and stagnate. A stagnant church needs immediate intervention to bring it back to the growth cycle, otherwise it will decline.
I’ll briefly summarise each individual stage further on, and spend later posts digging deeper into them individually.
Growing The Church in its Life Cycle Stage
I want to be clear and say that numbers of attendance or membership are NOT the indicator of a church’s stage in the life cycle. Attendance and financial giving may well be clues, but the life cycle stage is revealed by the mentality of the leaders, especially the Senior Leader, and of the people. I’ve seen churches of different sizes in all of these stages. So it isn’t necessarily about size. Some of these churches remained in the same life cycle stage for too long. Experience has shown me that the most common reason for a church not moving out of a stage was the elements of leadership in the church who didn’t want to change their style of leading. They failed to understand that growing a church means learning to lead differently according to the stage in the life cycle the church is in.
Leaders Can Help Or Hinder Growing The Church
Churches either grow, or they do not. Understanding our key numbers will help us truly know this. This growth may be quick, or it may be slow. There can be seasons of acceleration, and times where the opposite is the case. Whilst growth may seem arbitrary and random, there are certain decisions church leaders make that impact the church growth of the congregation they lead. Jesus does indeed build the church and cause it to grow, but we, as under-shepherds, most definitely have a part to play. Having a flock of sheep is one thing, but knowing how to lead them, where to lead them, when to lead them, and how to lead them in different seasons is another thing entirely.
I’ve noticed that each stage of the life cycle of a church has its own flavour and character. By identifying what season our church is in, we can adapt our leadership to make the most of the current season and set ourselves up for the next.
Think of the life cycle of a church like the four seasons. They share consistent factors year to year, yet can still be different. Summers can vary in heat, winters may or may not have snow, and some springtimes are wetter than others. Yet, we all identify traits for each season. Seasons also transition into the next seamlessly. Fall isn’t announced with every tree suddenly becoming leafless, for example.
So it is with these stages in the life cycle of a church. There will be overlap and shared characteristics, or even competing characteristics, as seasons blend together. Some actions cross multiple stages, whilst others become ‘out of season’ and ineffective. All this is to say that this idea of church stages is meant to be a helpful diagnostic tool and not a formulaic template used to create cookie-cutter churches. I simply wish to highlight beneficial leadership practices that help with growing a church – numerically and in maturity – so we would know what to do in the stage we find ourselves in.
The phases in the life cycle of a church I’ve identified are
1. Missional Stage
2. Visionary Stage
3. Alignment Stage
4. Multiplication Stage
5. Plateau Stage
6. Stagnancy Stage
7. Decline Stage
The Missional Stage
The Missional Stage is normally right at the beginning of a church’s life. All hands are on deck, everyone is involved, and there is energy and excitement amongst the busyness. Mission and evangelism are key in this stage. Money is tight but no-one minds. The family feel amongst those part of the church is palpable as everyone has their say, and they seek to see others join them.
The Visionary Stage
The Visionary Stage is characterised by a strong leader who begins casting a vision for the future. Growth is happening and new initiatives and ideas are springing up – there is no shortage of creativity during this time. It can feel a little like a rollercoaster and not everything works out, but there are the beginnings of a leadership team, even if the senior leader is ultimately making the decisions and doing the lion’s share of the ministry.
The Alignment Stage
The Alignment Stage is marked with many focused leaders making things happen. There is an intentional clarifying and development of things like culture and structure. Ministries multiply, succeed and are sustainable. The church has an increasing number of paid staff, and instead of mostly generalists who do whatever needs to be done, the majority of the team are specialists focused on one main area of ministry. There may even be staff on the payroll who are not in a pastoral or ministry role but in a non-secretarial high-level administrative function.
The Multiplication Stage
The Multiplication Stage is flavoured by critical mass – there is no shortage of resources, whether people, leaders, finance or gifting. Perhaps campuses, church plants or multi-services are routine in the life of the church. Whatever the church does has a level of excellence and success about it, and growth seems to come naturally without even trying.
The Plateau Stage
The Plateau Stage is the result of drift and complacency. Continual focus and self-awareness prevent it, but for some churches, it seems inevitable when they’ve seen a measure of success. In one sense, the plateau stage is hard to identify because all the visible markers of health are there – functioning ministries, healthy finances and a competent team. It will still attract an influx of people, but the focus will now be on the people within the church as opposed to the people outside of it. A program-driven church and a staff-centric culture are all red flags of a church in plateau.
The Stagnancy Stage
The Stagnancy Stage is the first steps towards the end. This will often show with the twin challenges of declining finances and a haemorrhaging of people – particularly those who are strong leaders, visionaries, pioneers, innovators and creatives. Methods and practices have become entrenched and sacred cows have arisen. Change is resisted, which is unfortunate because change is what is needed to arrest the stagnancy. A radical change of leaders, vision, culture and structure may be what is needed to freshen up and revitalise the church.
The Decline Stage
Finally, the Decline Stage marks the potential death of a church. At this point, a relaunch, replant, or reboot is needed – really, it’s about resurrection rather than resuscitation! Nostalgia, tradition, tribalism, and politics have caused the remaining faithful few to hang on – and they won’t change for anyone or anything. When the money runs out or the last person is left standing, the inevitable happens – sadly, the church stops.
These are the seven stages of the life cycle of a church. The transition between each stage is marked by an overlap of characteristics. Each stage has its strengths and challenges. I’ll spend the forthcoming posts examining each stage in-depth more thoroughly, including the main challenges, risks, and key steps for each. I will consider the general characteristics and some good practices to lead well during each stage. These will touch upon the following:
- Who the Senior Leader primarily influences the church through
- A principle to encourage people in that cultivates growth
- An area of ministry philosophy to clarify
- A group to empower to accomplish what is needed
- Key ministry vehicles to build
- Areas of structure to develop
- People to recruit and hire
- Snares to avoid
It is my hope that there are principles of value that you’ll be able to use to help you navigate your stage well – and prepare for the next!
I’ve helped numerous church leaders navigate their way through growing a church and moving through the life cycle of their church. To find out how I could help you, get in touch with me. You can also see what other leaders who have worked with me have to say.