Ten ways to keep your church from growing

A practical guide for the pastor who already has enough problems.

Ralph Blodgett is associate editor of These Times, published in Nashville, Tennessee.

Many churches today struggle with the burden of crowded pews, packed children's divisions, and filled parking lots. Unfortunately, pastors in these situations have few places where they can turn for help. Scores of books on how to increase church membership line the shelves of Christian bookstores everywhere. But no one, apparently, has authored a single book on how to avoid growing, how to keep unwanted people from the community out of a church that already has too many members.

Keeping people away from a church can prove difficult at times, especially when they seem determined to attend. However, if you adhere to the following guidelines, you can feel confident that your church has done everything possible to keep them away, or at least prevent their return should they accidentally wander into your service. These ten rules really aren't too difficult to put into practice; many churches do so with apparent ease. By putting forth only a minimum effort, yours can too.

Check the box for each rule that you feel your church is following. Be as objective and honest as possible; if you aren't measuring up, leave the box blank and go to the next. At the end, add the number of boxes you have checked and find where your church stands by using the handy scoring device.

1) Make your church difficult for visitors to find. This is one of the best ways to dis courage visitors. When you build a church, get the cheapest piece of land you can buy preferably well out of town and on a seldom-used road. (Better yet, have some member donate a piece of property for the new church. That way your chances of having the right kind of property for discouraging visitors is almost guaranteed.)

Above all, don't put up any direction signs that would help strangers or out-of-town visitors locate your building. Don't provide brochures that reveal the location or time of your services to the local motels and service stations. Don't list your services in any community directory the local chamber of commerce or the local ministerial association might publish.

Be careful not to list your church or its services in the yellow pages of the phone book. That's one of the first places a person will look when trying to locate a church. Besides, think of the money you will save by not listing your church along with the others.

2) Don't let your members invite people to attend your church. If you're serious about keeping strangers away, you naturally don't want to invite anyone to at tend. One survey revealed that 40 per cent of the people who started coming to church did so because someone invited them to attend.

Many people simply won't attend a new or different church without an invitation. They fear they won't be welcome, or hate to sit by themselves among total strangers. A personal invitation only makes it easier for them to decide to visit.

3) Give all visitors a cold shoulder. If a stranger is persistent enough to attend your church in spite of the barriers you have erected, nothing will communicate a lack of welcome better than to ignore him or her. Giving visitors a cold shoulder is easy; you don't have to say a word. If perchance the stranger looks your way, simply turn your head. He will quickly understand from your excellent body language that you don't need him in your church. Few who have experienced such treatment will insist on returning.

4) Be on your guard for strangers in your church. When some one walks in the door for the first time, be sure he finds no one posted there to greet him, give him a church bulletin, or show him to the different classrooms. Let him discover for himself where the cradle roll or youth department is located.

Also, be sure to change classes around frequently. That way the person who attends only occasionally will feel he's playing a game of musical chairs. Better yet, don't place the correct class name or age levels on the doors of the different classrooms. Maybe he will feel so embarrassed walking into the wrong class that he will never return.

5) Don't encourage your members to invite visitors home. If a visitor insists on re turning a second or third time—in spite of all your precautions—make sure no one invites that individual home for dinner. Dinner invitations are as dangerous as giving a bowl of milk to a stray cat; the person might never stop coming to your church.

6) Have a limited church program. A church with a lot of different programs related to people's needs draws visitors like a winter feeder draws birds. Need-oriented programs can totally wreck your game plan for keeping people out of your church. Don't conduct Vacation Bible Schools—not only do they en courage children to attend your church, but they often inspire the parents to show up, too! Don't offer classes in "Family Enrichment," "Marriage Planning," or "Christian Finances." Too many people might be attracted to such topics

7) Make your church as uncomfortable for visitors as possible. Anything goes in this category. Don't print weekly church bulletins—all they do is help visitors understand your service and make them feel comfortable. Be sure your church has hard wooden pews. They keep people from getting comfortable and enjoying the service. After all, you wouldn't want anyone to fall asleep and miss the important message you have planned.

In addition, make sure someone talks about church finances from the pulpit every week. Nothing will turn people away from a church faster than a secular service that focuses on money, fund raising, and charts. Even Jesus, visiting the Temple, got pretty upset over the money-changers of His day, didn't He?

Other tricks of the trade that will dis courage all but the most hearty include lots of drafts and a lack of heat in the winter, slippery sidewalks when it snows, and of course a hot, stuffy service in the summer.

8) Never conduct any community-outreach programs. A quick reading of Elmer Town's The Ten Largest Sunday Schools and What Makes Them Grow (Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, Michigan) proves that rapidly growing churches always employ a variety of outreach programs—letters from the pastor to newly weds, letters to new residents of the community (whose names are obtained through Welcome Wagon), cooking classes, sermon tapes for shut-ins, et cetera. Don't publish a monthly pastoral letter. Nonmembers might get hold of it and become interested in the announced topics and upcoming programs. They might even assume that your church has a progressive program and want to at tend. Many people avoid churches be cause they don't realize how much the fellowship could benefit them person ally; you don't want anyone deciding your church has something to offer!

9) Keep your church out of the paper. If you're serious about keeping visitors away from your services, be sure to elect an ineffective, unconcerned individual to the office of public relations secretary. All those growing churches with their crowded sanctuaries and unfamiliar faces each week probably made the mistake of filling this post with someone who takes his job seriously. After all, stories in the local papers about the activities of the church and its members will only create a lot of good will in the community and encourage the unchurched to attend.

Also, don't allow the paper to list your services along with the other congregations'. Especially don't notify the paper of your sermon titles or when you have special services. A lot of lonely people and those searching for help in their lives

10) Above all, keep the church building itself in a run-down condition. Nothing will tell the visitor you don't care about him or her better than forcing that individual to worship in an unkempt, shabby building. Little things say a lot: walls needing painting, water-stained ceilings, a piano out of tune, the absence of tissue paper in the restrooms, dogeared songbooks.

Many other techniques to keep the visitor (and member) away can be used, of course. The guidelines outlined here should serve only to stimulate your thinking. Most likely you have already detected the single motivating principle behind all ten: if you want to keep visitors from attending your church, do nothing.

However, if for some reason you should want people from the community to visit your church, you'll have to develop your own rules. But be forewarned—growing churches are always having problems. It's much easier just to keep people away!


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Ralph Blodgett is associate editor of These Times, published in Nashville, Tennessee.

May 1980

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