Identifying and Overcoming Growth-Restricting Obstacles

John Uhlig

It is not uncommon to see a new congregation, given a vision, a leader and a motivated core of lay people, begin from point zero and grow quite rapidly. These churches grow because they have dedicated laity excited with the potential of their church and very aware that if their congregation is going to minister to its community, they are the ones responsible to God for its effective leadership. In their new setting, these young churches are unencumbered by inhibiting traditions or unproductive programs. A brand new church can usually get off to a flying start! But for an older congregation, the story is quite different. Usually growth is far from spontaneous and instant success is rare. Growth is slower, there are many discouragements, and patience is a virtue. The following is a list (based on this writer’s personal analysis, experience, and study) of some key “growth-restricting obstacles” which must be understood and overcome for plateaued or declining older congregation to experience renewed growth and outreach.


Many older congregations have a very definite view regarding the role of their pastor. He is to shepherd them-that is, serve them. He is there for them-for their needs and their comfort. He leads them beside still waters and makes them lie down in green pastures. He is there to refresh their souls. He is expected to visit them in their home regularly, to call when sick, to counsel when in trouble-for this he is paid. The concept of Ephesians 4:12 is not a part of their tradition, and he is not perceived as a gift from God to train the laity for their ministry. It takes time to get a membership to think of itself in terms of serving rather than being served.


The older congregation once was young. In infancy and adolescence, members had an overriding desire to see the church grow and mature. Members worked long, hard hours making evangelism calls, inviting friends, going house-to-house, knocking on doors. There was a dynamic,a magnetic cohesion, a common goal which knit them into a working fellowship. And success came-growth sufficient to carry on a comfortable program. No need now to work so hard. Take a breather; enjoy the fruits of labor, relax and take your ease in Zion. So the period of relaxation comes, much like semi-retirement. Just enough evangelism work is done to maintain a comfortable attendance level. But it is done mainly by the pastor and a few faithful. “This is the time to enjoy all that we’ve worked on so zealously – the beautiful sanctuary, the lovely organ, the soft pews; it’s their turn.” It takes strong leadership and sometimes outside assistance to guide a congregation out of the “country club” mentality and back onto the battlefield of soul-winning.


Jesus clearly delineated His priorities for the Church in Matt. 28:19: (1) Evangelizing-“Make disciples of all nations:’ (2) Baptizing-Bringing the blessings Jesus bought on the cross to His people, and leading them in a commitment to His authority and His Word, in a local congregation, in regular worship, study, and service. (3) “Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you…” The Christian is taught, with the purpose of knowing and doing God’s will. And the highest and best work a Christian can do is to make disciples.

As congregations grow older, they often unconsciously rearrange their priorities. “#1”-Evangelism, may become “#4” or it may be all but shelved.

Sometimes education simply for the sake of education takes over the number one spot The emphasis may be on music, or building, and this displaces outreach. The priority may be with social action. All these emphases are important but they must be ranked under the priority found throughout the
Scripture witnessing to the fact that “the Son of man is come to seek and to save that which was lost.”

In many older churches, fund-raising even can become the number one item. Programs have been developed over the years,and each has become “sacred” in its own right Each requires funds and more funds. So often it happens that the raising of money becomes the major item of concern at every church board meeting! This is surely a signal that something is wrong!

To grow and expand, the congregation must re-study its priorities and place its programs under the authority of God’s Word. This again takes leadership, daring, time and patience. It is not always easy to restore Jesus’ priorities for the church to their rightful place.


As a congregation drifts farther and farther away from the original founders and from their original purposes, a degeneration inevitably takes place. New members are added who share neither the fervor nor the clearly defined goals of the founders. First and second generation children of the founders do not have the old enthusiasm, dedication and zeal.

For such a church, the spiritual fires in its members must be rekindled in youth and adult alike. An easy task? Not at all! Its children and members much be rescued from this “generation degeneration curve,” and recommit themselves to the urgency and necessity of reaching those in its ministry area.


Ordinarily the older congregation has been affiliated with a denomination a longer period of time. Inevitably, the influence of the denomination is felt. Where this influence is good, the results in the congregation are positive.

For example, the denomination may maintain a world-wide expanding mission front. It seeks the support of its churches, and this is to be welcomed. The congregation shares in the spreading of the Gospel-the number one priority. Or, the denomination maintains colleges and seminaries for the training of future pastors, missionaries, and Christian day school teachers. The congregation’s participation in such efforts are all for the good.

But suppose the denomination has begun to shift its priorities! Social action and political involvement is being advocated. Or purity of doctrine has become the clarion call. Or, education for the sake of education is championed. Or, suppose the fiscal burden has become heavier and heavier, necessitating endless pleas to the congregations.

What happens is that congregations heeding these pleas and yielding solely to denominational direction, begin to rearrange their priorities to suit the denomination. These goals may become the single congregational emphasis replacing the more worthy goal of disciplining men and women at home and around the world.

The pastor-leader may be hard pressed to maintain his and the congregation’s denominational loyalty and remain true to the imperatives and priorities of the church, But he must always keep the biblical priorities first and organize all his efforts and the resources of the church toward this end.


The Bible clearly teaches that each Christian is a priest of God in his own right, with all the privileges and the responsibilities of God’s priests. He believes that the Holy Spirit has “gifted” him with special abilities to do special work suited to his gifts as determined by the Holy Spirit. He is to discover and use these gifts-as a priest of God in the service of Christ’s Church.

However, it is easy for long-established members of older churches to pay only lip-service to this teaching. The drift is to “let George do it,” or even “let the Pastor do it-that’s why we’re paying him. Older congregations often have a larger proportion of inactive Christians; ones who have accepted Jesus but have kept Him off the throne in their personal lives. They have yielded intellectually to the claims of Christ as Savior but not as Lord of their lives.

The task of the pastor/leader is to lead these people out of the “reserves” and into active participation and involvement in the Great Commission. This takes understanding, patience, time, instruction, and exhortation. But only spirit-filled Christians, “walking in the Spirit” will bring about expansion and growth.


The older a congregation gets, the more resistance there is to change and new ideas. This concept often has a parallel in the life of an individual as he grows older. He has settled down and become comfortable,and he resists jostling.

But growth and expansion sometimes means changing people, changing programs,and changing ministries; not for the sake of change, but for the sake of effective ministering to the needs of a changing world. The leader should be prepared for resistance. It’s natural. But growth-directed persistence pays off.


Some churches and denominations adhere to a custom of confirmation of their children. This involves special instruction for youth in the seventh and eight grade. The course includes the chief doctrines of Scripture, entering on the atonement through Jesus Christ. Adults desiring to join the church go through a similar course on an adult level, extending fourteen to sixteen sessions.

Christian indoctrination is surely achieved, and this is a strong plus.

However, there are some weaknesses in the system. Confirmation often is looked upon as graduation-as having arrived-having reached the zenith. It can be implied that there is no more to learn and no more for the member to do except attend church service. To be sure, this is not intended, but it often happens.

Youth, having “crammed” and studied for two years of intensive training, seem to be “spiritually tired.” They don’t flock to the youth programs. Sometimes they are less than excited about worship services and Bible classes. In some cases, they have achieved intellectual understanding without volitional and behavioral commitment. They are not ready for witnessing and disciple-making. The emphasis is so much on indoctrination, they have missed entirely a deep personal relationship with the living Jesus in their lives.

Dropouts among the youth are heavy. A study of this writer’s congregation done some years ago showed a 70% drop-out eight years after confirmation.

The parents who “pushed” their children into and through the confirmation years, rest on their laurels now that the task is done. They have done their duty. Little more is required of them.

All too often this feeling of “having arrived” also carries through in the adult class. Too many feel that they are at the peak, having climbed the mountain heights of confirmation. It takes effort to get them into Bible classes. To involve them in witnessing, and evangelism requires a lot of push-pull. This condition is certainly not conducive to expansion and growth.

To conclude this report with no further statement on the great potential for growth of the older congregation would be at least depressing, at worst incomplete.

The older congregation has many unique pluses which a young congregation often lacks. It has a resource of talent in its membership. It has leadership and often a skilled and experienced staff. It often has money and a good location. Yet the reason many older congregations experience plateaus and/or decline is not their lack of potential. It is most often their inability to focus “church growth eyes” on the number of “growth-restricting obstacles” that often appear as a congregation matures and “grows up.”

The problems must be understood and challenged. They must be dedicated to God and resolved. Then the older congregation can once again begin to see growth, outreach, and return to renewed energy for seeing Christ’s greatest desire-the salvation of men and women-become an exciting reality through their congregation.

(The original source and/or publisher of the above material is unknown.)