Why Churches Stop Growing

tI am reviewing a new book Innovation’s Dirty Little Secret by Larry Osborne for Cross Focused Reviews. Osborne is a senior pastor at North Coast Church, a megachurch of 9,000, in San Diego County. He speaks extensively on leadership and spiritual formation. He is the author of many books and a consultant to non-profit and business leaders.

The book, which I recommend reading, addresses reasons why churches and organizations stop growing and what can be done about it.

Stuck in the past. In brief, innovation’s dirty little secret is that most innovations fail. They fail because many leaders are not competent to help their church or organization grow. Osborne writes, “Some churches insist on maintaining the same programing, ambiance, and worship style that helped them grow thirty years ago. While this protects the past and keeps their aging members happy, it also guarantees that their nursery will remain empty.” What is the solution? “The only way a leader and a leadership team can overcome this natural tendency to protect the past at the cost of the future is to find ways to identify and release gifted innovators in their midst.” For growth to happen, the change leaders need a special insight to predict what will work, a unique courage to take carefully calculated risks, and extraordinary flexibility to change QUICKLY. Sadly, most leadership teams lack these traits. Instead, they do the same familiar predictable thing that no longer works, they are deathly afraid of change and taking risks, and they are rigid and inflexible.

Groupthink, herd mentality, unanimous decisions. Our natural inclination is to look to others when deciding what to do or how to think. A herd mentality is a powerful force in most group settings. It allows the more powerful people to frame the discussion and set the agenda. They try to please certain “important people.” They are politically motivated. They gravitate toward keeping the status quo. They tend to reject anything that doesn’t fit their standard paradigm or hasn’t been done before. Genuinely unique rebels and innovators are hard to find, and if found they are rejected and ridiculed.

Past success leads to arrogance and elitism. The leadership looks down on others. They think their success is due to them. They forget fortuitous timing and divine coincidences. Their arrogance discounts anything it doesn’t understand or hasn’t seen yet. It is particularly dismissive of anything proposed by those younger than them. They refuse to listen to fresh thinking, or to outside advisors. They are restricted by their traditional structures that no longer work. They overtrust the old recipe. They reject young eagles. Rather than nurturing them, they clip their wings, force them to pay their dues and wait their turn, while the old tired leaders continue to keep their reins of power and control.

The book concludes excellently by proposing several things that will support future change, growth and innovation.

Don’t ask what a previous great leader would do. New leaders need to ask the right questions. What are our unique strengths and weaknesses? What is the current reality? What do we need to do to better fulfill our mission? An important question NOT to ask is “What would the previous leader do?” This is a waste of time. It is impossible to know. We only know what they did in a previous era under different circumstances. Even if the situations are exactly the same today, the circumstances and culture are not. Interestingly, Steve Jobs famously told Tim Cook right before his death to make sure no one at Apple asked, “What would Steve do?”

Enforcement without room for leadership. Poor leaders live in fear that future leaders will betray the mission. The worst thing they do is to assume that younger future leaders cannot be trusted. It is a toxic combination of arrogance and distrust. It sabotages innovative leadership. Sadly, most churches and organizations have too many rules and regulations. They dictate and promote control. They think they are protecting the mission. In effect they sabotage the mission. When these rigid rules are all spelled out, there is no room for leadership. There is room only for enforcement.

The freedom to disagree. Every leader has a short list of non-negotiables that are not based on Scripture, morality or integrity. They simply reflect a leader’s personal values and priorities. Tomorrow’s leaders need the freedom to disagree with some deeply held convictions, and the freedom to act on it. (These are not about moral issues because right and wrong do not change over time.) One of the best things a good leader can do is to leave behind a legacy of continual change and innovation. He makes sure that those who follow has the freedom to do things he would never do. He paves the way for them to lead in ways that are counter to our deeply held convictions about how things ought to be done.

The humility and honesty to highlight past failures. Good future leaders need a humble and honest view of the past. The problem is that our idealized memories of the past often look better than the harsh realities of the present. With time gory days become glory days, and uncreative leaders look like superstars! Good successful organizations and church leaders need to be humble and honest enough to highlight and even memorialize their dark days as well as their victories. A leader or leadership team who highlights the successes and buries the failures is romanticizing and idolizing the past. They refuse to sincerely examine and learn from pains and failures. They present an unrealistic dishonest view of the past that will soon be discovered.

What has your experience been with your church or company?


  1. Thanks for sharing Ben. This is a “must understand” topic in my observation. I think equally important to understand would be the meaning of “growing”.

    How do we tell if a group or church is growing or dying? I would contend growth has little to do with increase or decrease in numbers. Numbers and stats follow, and tell the story of the past, but numbers do not lead. If we are led by numerical tracking, we are being led by the past to ignore the present and be unprepared for the future.

    One characteristic then of a dying church or group would be an obsession with making decisions based on numbers. As you mentioned: “Good future leaders need a humble and honest view of the past. The problem is that our idealized memories of the past often look better than the harsh realities of the present.”

    I think we should look for the marks of the one, holy, catholic, apostolic church and identify whether we see the fruits of the Holy Spirit among the group. How open and transparent are they? How do they handle authority? How much do they honor reality around them? How well do they understand their core values? How connected are they to other groups? I think those are some of the questions to ask when determining health of an organization.

  2. So I’m really glad to be part of a company who understands more than a lot of churches about this topic.

    I learned more here at this company in 6 months (and was treated better) than 24 years in ubf. RIP UBF.

  3. One of the things churches especially seem to want to do is re-brand themselves, as businesses might do when failing.

    So… anyone know what this “Shepherds Church” thing is all about? This seems to a California chapter of ubf? Clearly this is a ubf outpost, but why the “Shepherds Church” name? [Note this is not Shepherd’s church, which would imply the church belongs to Jesus. The church is called Shepherds Church without the apostrophe, denoting a group of shepherds gathered.]

    Are some ubf chapters going rogue and renaming themselves?

    • Shepherds Church is known in UBF as the El Camino (Los Angeles II) chapter. The director of Shepherds Church was originally part of Los Angeles (Downey) UBF. He separated and began his own ministry. After sometime he rejoined UBF officially, but I think they are still using the name Shepherds Church when referring to themselves outside of the UBF conversation and reporting. Someone please correct if I am wrong about this.

  4. By the way, Isaac Kim’s blog is a good way to keep up with news at ubf :)

    Isaac Kim’s report about the 2014 staff meeting