To Grow A Congregation

If you want your numbers to improve, you need to refresh your perspective first
(originally published in The Congregationalist 12/19)


According to Gallup, church membership has been on a steady decline since the 1970s, and in the past two decades, that decline has increased sharply, with 20% fewer church members since 1999. Asylum Hill Congregational Church (AHCC) in Hartford, Connecticut, saw its membership following this downward curve. The church has a history spanning 150 years, but it’s future was uncertain because all of its most populous years were at least a quarter century behind them. To change that trajectory was the challenge of Fathom, a future design firm I co-founded. We set out to help AHCC grow and live into their next chapter with intention and purpose.

Through this experience, we developed an approach that consistently results in renewed energy, engagement, and organizational growth, not just with AHCC, but with other churches and community impact organizations. Interestingly enough, this approach doesn’t include the typical strategic or tactical solutions so many organizations focus on. Instead, we begin by guiding leaders in adopting shifts in perspective that allow future growth initiatives to be successful. This article highlights five key perspective shifts that we have specifically seen bring greater success to Congregational churches.

From serving the past to creating the future

Any organization that has a history of success, by default, uses a lot of energy to protect that history. Churches are often rooted in history, so the gravity of the past is strong and breaking free from it is no easy task. When engaging a church, my first question is: Is it OK to keep doing what you are doing? Or are things are not OK enough to try something new? This might sound like a simple question, but unless there is a commitment at the level of “we can’t keep going on like this,” there will not be the willpower to break free from the way things were done in the past in order to invite growth. What’s most important for the success of any new initiative is leadership. Those with authority and influence must take the bold step to create courageously what’s needed, and key to AHCC’s success was that commitment at every level. By “create courageously,” I mean, be willing to set aside that impulse to “know what you’re doing,” long enough to let new voices and ideas surface. Equally important is committing to acting upon those ideas without any guarantee of success.

Question to ask your church: If what we are doing isn’t working, what is there to lose trying something brand new? Are we serious enough about growth to try something new?

From “Who’s here?” to “Who’s wanted?”

As member-driven organizations grow into an acceptable population of attendees, the energy often shifts from attracting to retaining. Of course, making sure you don’t lose members as fast as you find them is important (a lot of the fastest growing churches suffer from this condition referred to as “having large back doors”). When churches experience the loss of members, they often double down on keeping people there. Before long, little if any energy is put toward bringing in anyone new. Losing attendees and members is a natural thing. As the old sales mantra goes, “The day you land a new client is the day you start to lose them.” Make sure you have a clear idea of who you are interested in attracting and that your members are extending invitations to them on a regular basis. One of the first acts for AHCC was to define who they wanted to attract, and what they wanted to be known for.

Questions to ask your church: What are the invitations we are extending? To whom? Why would they care? What will they experience when they get here? Who will they tell about that experience?

From quantity of events to how remarkable the experience is

When growth is the focus, a lot of organizations will create more and more events, programs, and content. Ideas are a-plenty and acting on all of them can exhaust resources quickly, leaving little time to create experiences to remember. What I find interesting is how little is done to communicate and market new events and programs. I subscribe to the “nine-lives” philosophy. Any event or program you create should have nine lives, not just the one life that happens during the event or program itself, but also promotion, anticipation, and of course, photos and information shared online afterward. For AHCC it was all about prioritizing which events and programs, if enhanced, would have the greatest effect. Not surprisingly, this began with Sunday service, where the first hints of a renewed focus began to emerge to the congregation.

Questions to ask while planning any event: Where are the people we are trying to attract? What are we doing before the event to draw their attention? How will we capture or follow up on the event to continue the experience, and share with our community what’s happening at our church?

From following the example to being the example

Churches that need to grow typically try to replicate what other churches are doing, usually looking at examples of other churches in the local community. The result is multiple churches in the same area offering the same things, which further hinders the ability of all of those churches to stand out. Congregational churches benefit from applying their own spiritual advice to their organizations: instead of looking on the outside, look on the inside. With AHCC, we began by identifying the core ideas they wanted to be known for, which wound up being three affirmations: inquiry, acceptance and impact. The church’s entire focus—and both the source of every new idea and the standard by which those ideas are measured—is living up to, encouraging, and investing in those affirmations.

Questions to ask your church: What is it about our members, our values, and our venue that makes us unique? Who would enjoy that uniqueness? What kind of experiences could we create that would amplify those distinctions?

From protecting the scarcity to investing in the abundance

The last point I will make is that when a church looks back at times that seemed better than today, it can provoke a reflex to protect what exists for fear of losing any more ground. I see a lot of churches paralyzed by a scarcity mindset. As a result, they tighten their grip and end up losing more of what they’re trying to hold on to. Instead of thinking about what’s been lost, a healthier mindset is to think about what you have. What are the resources and people you have access to that could be invested in to create a platform for growth?

If we reference the Bible, the first Christian churches were established with relationships committed to a belief. Nothing more. With an abundance mindset, any church that exists has many gifts. AHCC has learned to leverage its gifts and now has a 150 member “growth team” who are actively out in the community, extending invitations and delivering powerful experiences.

The central question, then, for any church interested in growth to ask itself is, “What are we using our gifts for?”

About Brent Robertson:

Brent works with leaders to design futures worth believing in™. A partner at Fathom, he champions an approach to strategic planning, leadership development, talent engagement, and market differentiation that prioritizes people and relationships over the status quo to generate valuable organizations that matter. As a result, his clients don’t simply plan their futures, they bring them to life.

Pictured: Erica Thompson, recently installed Senior Minister of AHCC and Brent Robertson, Co-founder of Behind them are flags representing the three Affirmations that are the center of every event and experience they create.

Photo Credit: Steve Laschever,