Why new churches fail

I think there are two reasons new churches fail.*

Just Do It

For folks in the circles I typically run in (read: postmodern young adults) anything that seems like it comes from the immediate past era of church work is anathema. This especially includes strategic plans, goals, and objectives. We don’t like quotas. We don’t like benchmarks. We don’t like deadlines. And, because most of us want to do something fun and creative, we incensed at the idea that our funding will get shut off after 3-5 years. “They can’t expect us to be ‘self-sufficient’ in 3-5 years! This new kind of church doesn’t work that way!”

The way churches begun by this kind of person usually gets started is the “Nike Method:” just do it.

When we begin churches of this kind, we just jump in. We don’t think. We don’t plan. We just do. We live in the moment. We have fun. We talk about communities growing organically, and of trying to not stifle the Spirit. This means we don’t press too hard on one another. We don’t hold one another accountable for anything, because, usually, there’s nothing to hold each other accountable for. Why? Because we’re trying to find that one thing we can all agree on, and there’s always someone who “doesn’t feel called to that.” Believe me, I’ve sat through these marathon meetings. They suck. Hard.

Listen. Gathering a group of people and submitting yourself to one another is all well and good. I think it happens to be a large part of what Church is. However, it neglects a very important point: being church is not just about being with other people.

Business Plans

At the other end of the spectrum we find the hyper-anal method of starting a new community of faith: The “Church Should Be Run Like A Business” Method.

As much as I am annoyed by “just do it” churches, I am even more loathing of these. And that’s because, well, the church is not a business. I don’t think I need to expand on that. I wrote a lot about it in Open Source Church.

When we begin churches of this kind, it’s all about conformity. This is the way we do things. This is what we are “about.” This is how you will operate. We have pre-defined boxes that you can check, programs you can consume, and metrics we need you to hit. We treat people like cogs. No wonder they are leaving and not coming back.


Sorry to end on that downer of a note. But am I anywhere close to right?


*I’ve been reading Eric Reis’ The Lean Startup. These thoughts are reflections on what I’m reading.

12 thoughts on “Why new churches fail”

  1. I think there is another reason new churches fail: most new endeavors fail. We just need to embrace this and instead of trying to figure out the magical formula for a long-lasting institutional church, go out and plant extravagantly. Plant 10 church hoping 1 will last a good long time.

    The other side of this is to measure success differently. Is a community that forms and then breaks apart within 5 years a failure if during that 5 years the measure of love and mercy in the world is increased? How many lives could be touched or transformed utterly for the better in 5 years? Why is a church only a success if it lasts 100 years or gets 1,000 members?

    1. I think you make a fine point, Aric. But I do want to press your logic.

      To be sure, a great many new endeavors fail. Some of the reasons they do will never be known to us. But, regardless, most of them can be known to us. I want us to push beyond this dogmatic position and ask “Why do most new endeavors fail?”

      I am also with you that there is not a magic formula, but 1 for 10 seems like bad stewardship to me.

      Different scorecards? Yes. That picks up on the stuff Reggie McNeal talks about, which I referenced in this post. But still: How do we get to five years? That’s an eternity for most new churches.

      1. Definitely. We don’t want to hold much in a dogmatic way. I’m fine with examining the reasons, but I think we get paralyzed in analysis in this denomination. We don’t plant a church until years of demographic study have been done on a neighborhood etc.. etc…

        I think that 1 for 10 is pretty generous actually and I think we can learn this by looking to other fields. How many small businesses last 5 years? How many patents ever get turned into meaningful products? How many garage bands get record deals? etc… Furthermore, how much of this creative failure is necessary before success is a real possibility? How many times were great novelists or musicians rejected before they broke through? Edison tried thousands of materials for lightbulb filaments before he settled on the right one.

        In the same way I think we should encourage church planters to not treat it as a one-shot event. Go and try something. If it fails, learn from that experience dust yourself off and try again. A 3x failed church planter might plant a thriving community on their 4th try.

  2. There always needs to be that dynamic tension between heart and head, between spirit and business. i think all start up churches need two leaders not one organizing pastor so that both of these values can be held in tension. It is not easy and there will be conflicts, but it is a both/and not an either/or.

    Also most start up churches are still holding to close to the old models, which are really not working any more of course. This makes a start up appear less risky, but actually makes them more risky. We need more radical ideas going out side the box which is actually less risky even though it is less understood.

  3. While the church may not be a business, I have witnessed churches garnering great ministerial success in adapting a business model.

    My former church, one of about 1,500 active members, recently spent upwards of $14 million expanding their sanctuary. Even with the economic slump in 2008/2009, all pledges came in on time and in full. Note, this is a straight-line, run of the mill PC (USA) body.

    The senior pastor, installed for more than 25 years, heads a staff of four associates, three music ministers, and countless other employees. He may not be “touchy-feely” in his pastoral approach, but he knows each member by name and, admittedly, runs the church like a Fortune 500 company — again, to great success. The church has been a fixture in town for more than 50 years, and has consistently proven a leader in outreach ministry, mission, and service. Meals on Wheels, now a massive program, began in our church’s kitchen more than 30 years ago.

    I realize “success” depends upon your own definition, and I may not love everything about the church, but steady growth and sustained membership is nothing to look down your nose at, especially when the denomination’s long-term loss of membership has finally reached a critical stage.

    I guess what I’m driving at is, in this particular church, the senior pastor runs a very tight ship that operates very smoothly. The leadership is remarkably harmonious, and major schisms among the congregants is rare. While I may have issues, even some misgivings, about such a style, you cannot deny his/ the church’s success in providing a dynamic, thriving, faith-filled and Spirit-lead body.

    1. I am always excited to hear about ways that church is working, and your line “I realize ‘success’ depends upon your own definition” gets to the heart of the matter.

      What, exactly, defines the success of a church?

  4. I’ll pause a moment to agree with Aric that 1 per 10 may not be bad — in many investment and development fields, that’s not bad at all.

    More important, I think, is that you equate business model with anal. Thriving businesses that I know about aren’t anal — business models come & go, &c. This is a point you must reconsider: business is not equal to anal, or the other words you use.

    How do we know a business is thriving? I suppose two good but different signs would be satisfaction with their job (often a major factor in a privately-held company) or sales & profit. Either could be an image to develop. But do not both point to a communal goal (with accountability)?

  5. What’s clear to me is that for any medium to large scale organizational endeavor (and any NCD is medium to large scale from an organizational perspective) to be “successful” by pretty much any measure you need a few things and you need them in balance:

    1) Vision – This is the fun part. The big ideas, and while not a seminary grad myself, I’d bet you seminary-types spend a lot of time thinking about this sort of thing. It’s the part of all of this that I’m good at too.

    2) Execution – This is the details part….personally, I hate this stuff, but there are loads of folks with amazing gifts here. I think the best situations arise when you pair someone with Vision with someone who’s got skills related to execution….

    3) Commitment — This is the part I’ve been thinking about the most. How do we feel about some level of mandatory activity (either financial or times/talents) requirement for membership in an NCD? Is that sort of “requirement” an anathema in the modern left-of-center church?

    I think if you can manage to get a nice tri-force style blend of the three, your chances for “success” greatly increase……

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