How Church Growth Really Works (And Why We Call Ourselves Invite Resources)

by Len Wilson

Most churches are closed communities.

This doesn’t mean they’re bad or to be shamed. It’s just human nature. People develop friends, and like to gather with them. The downside to communities of friends is that the more defined they become, the more exclusive they can become.

To overcome this, churches must be intentional about looking outside their walls.

Many churches look to marketing principles and tactics to initiate growth. But it starts long before marketing enters the picture.


The Two Ways Church Communities Grow

When you boil it down, it’s pretty simple. There are only two ways church communities grow.

  1. New people come “cold”, on their own, or
  2. New people come on the arm of a trusted friend.

That’s it. There is no option 3.

I was once a young associate at a church where attendance more than tripled from 1000-3500 in two years. During that heyday, I heard a statistic through the large church consulting firm Leadership Network that 90% of church growth happens with option 2.

I don’t know what the source is for that statistic, but after almost 30 years of observing church life, I believe it.

Cold growth is overrated.

We spend way too much time and energy on cold engagement. Think of all the resources your church has spent on the premise that you can create high enough "brand" awareness to increase cold growth.

While this isn’t impossible, it’s very difficult to get return on this investment. And it has little to do with the quality of the marketing. The reason is that the bar for cold visits is simply too high. 


The Obstacles of Cold Church Growth

Consider: your brand has to be so comfortable with a prospective newcomer that they would feel no qualms about making the choice to visit. That means they must be comfortable with:

  1. The perception of the church in the community, if any – does the church seem friendly?
  2. The form and function of the church website – can I figure out what’s going on, and get my initial questions answered?
  3. The form and function of the campus signage – if I make a visit, can I figure out where to go and what to do?
  4. The kind of people who attend – do they look like people I’d like?
  5. The age, style and upkeep of the facility – does it look current or creepy?
  6. The communication within the church, or how insider, mediocre, confusing or shaming it may be to a guest – what happens if I walk through the door?

I list these in the order of engagement for most people.

Even if you do it all right, you still don’t get many cold walkups. Your prospective visitor may enter your door with fear and trepidation, but only if the people don’t look too alien, and the building resonates, and maybe an ad campaign or community message hasn’t turned them off, and the style described on the website isn’t too bad.

Once inside, the first word out of a greeter’s mouth may make or break it. Even if the visitor clears bars #1 – 5, often something happens in the lobby (narthex) or in the worship service that turns the visitor off, and they don’t return.

(This is why I don't advocate that you spend many resources on ad campaigns.)

Instead, most people come because of the second way – the invitation of a trusted friend.


People Connect Based on Trust

All of the same obstacles still apply in the second way churches grow, but on the arm of a friend, the newcomer overlooks everything else because of one simple but critical reason: they trust their friend.

As an insider, this creates a shift in focus: when thinking about how to engage people outside of your walls, instead of thinking about how to reach people outside your community directly, think about how to equip your existing community to become brokers. To recommend. To invite.

This is why we named Invite Resources as we did. The name is inspired by the namesake of our founding church, St. Andrew Methodist Church. Andrew the apostle was best known for being a connector. He brokered people. He recommended. He invited. 

"Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, was one of the two who heard what John had said and who had followed Jesus. The first thing Andrew did was to find his brother Simon and tell him, “We have found the Messiah” (that is, the Christ). And he brought him to Jesus." - John 1:40-42

Isn't this amazing? Peter, the rock on whom Jesus built the church, only knew Jesus because of the work of their mutual friend, Andrew.

The invitation is the critical first step to the changed life.

We can learn from Andrew.


Expressing Trust Risks Reputation

As a pastor or church leader, this shifts the focus of our attention. Instead of spending as much time, energy and money on reaching the "cold" walkup, what if we began to focus more resources on equipping those in the church to tell their brothers and sisters that they've found the Messiah? 

To do this well, though, we need to acknowledge a critical consequence of this strategic shift. To equip those on the inside to share Jesus, as opposed to looking for cold walkups, we are putting a burden on our church members.

People only vouch for things they trust. We are asking them to risk their own reputations by vouching for the church community.

Now, the reputation of the one on the inside is on the line. 

Your people may personally like or benefit from your the church community, but are they willing to invite their non-church friend?

Here’s how to find out.


Four Questions

Based on a list by Richard Reising in Church Marketing 101, here are four questions that all need an “yes” answer before most people will risk putting their reputation on the line by inviting a friend to church:

  1. Will they fit? This is a question of demographics. Relationships are built on common, shared experience, and common experience largely comes out of similar life stage. If there is a 25-year age difference between the average person in the room and the person outside of the community, it may be difficult to overcome. Many churches get stuck here at #1. You can overcome the lack of common experience, but the answer is to know your neighborhood. Speak their language; don’t try to force them to learn yours.
  2. Will they feel welcome? This is a question of hospitality. How comfortable is the environment, the feng shui? Yes, it matters. If your paint is peeling and your floor stained, people notice and react. How comfortable are you making them feel through your warmth, the water bottle you give them, the snacks and soft seat?
  3. Will they understand the promise you are making? The tagline for Invite is "sharing the promise of the new creation." How do we best share the promise? The metric is not what we say, but what they hear. If the consistency of the day varies greatly from gathering to gathering, the community may not feel confident to invite others.
  4. Will they get something out of it? This is the core, isn’t it? Is the church helping people find life?


Growth Begins With Listening

A focused message and presence ensures people know who you are. And of course good tactics are vital to keeping people engaged.

But they key to growth is trust, and the key to trust is to listen well.

It's not that I am against cold growth tactics. I just don’t like false advertising. When you listen well, you build relationship. And relationship becomes the currency of recommendation.

So if you want to reach people outside of your community, don’t get too excited about marketing campaigns or paid ads. Instead, regularly check if your members can say “yes’ to each of the four experience questions above. If you’re hitting on all four cylinders, then you've already got the seeds of your strategy in place.

Let's remember Andrew, who was confident enough to invite Simon Peter. The confidence of the people within your own commmunity, putting their reputation on the line to vouch for the church to a friend, is how church growth really works.


The working of sharing--of vouching--is a lot easier with good quality resources. To learn more about Invite Resources and equip yourself and your church commuity with good tools, sign up here: