When we first came to Midland Free Church in 1990, about 80-90 people were attending, but shortly thereafter, the church began to grow. Then we exploded with growth. Over the next 15 years, we watched attendance grow to 1,500 on two different church campuses.
These years were fun, stressful, hectic, and exciting. I will never forget them!
As attendance climbed, we did the normal American thing—we built bigger facilities. We assumed the growth would never stop.
In 1996 we moved to a 14-acre campus, then in February of 2005, we moved into an even larger third campus. We beefed up our staff for the next anticipated growth phase É which we all knew was right around the corner.
But then something happened. We stopped accumulating numbers as we had for the previous 15 years. For the first time, we "leveled out" numerically. We kept attracting new people, but we also started losing more than we had before.
The new facility was so spacious that many were caught off guard by a feeling of "being lost in a crowd." Gradually a number of core families, who had been a part of Midland Free for years, began making their way to the exits.
As one exiting, former elder told me, "I didn't sign up for this—large video screens and a loud band … no offense, but it's just not us anymore."
Over the next several years, we lost about a third of our congregation to job transfers and unhappy people leaving our church.
But something else happened, too. We backfilled the people we lost with hundreds of new folks.Today we still have about 1,500 attending, but it is a very different congregation.
We've analyzed the situation again and again and again. We've come to all sorts of conclusions about why there's so much "churn," why the total number isn't increasing. We are still attracting and retaining people, otherwise we would be one-third smaller than we are today.We are still seeing new conversions to Christ, and many getting baptized. We still hear regular stories, from the stage, about how God is touching people through the ministries of Midland Free.
Our finances are doing reasonably well, considering the economic downturn, and we are still sending people to the mission field. Our elder board is healthy, and so is our staff.
We launch new initiatives from time to time that seem to energize the congregation. Our facility is used seven days a week by those inside and outside the church, and we have numerous outreach ministries into our community. The consensus seems to be that the preaching and worship services are stronger than ever … but … we are not growing like we used to.
Many keep asking, "What's wrong?"
I've asked it myself. Something changed.
As I've thought about this situation (for five years now), I've come to the following conclusions.
1. Our situation is not unusual. Recently our staff read Gary McIntosh's book Taking Your Church to the Next Level. McIntosh offered some encouraging reminders that the first 10 to 20 years of a church's existence are quite often the best years in terms of numerical growth.
He says that most churches reach their maximum size in year 20 to 25. That was precisely our situation. The book showed us how we were following the common life cycle of a church. McIntosh says that most congregations, regardless of denomination, stop numerical growth around year 25.
"All churches," he writes, "are inclined to follow a basic pattern of growth, plateau, and decline."