Bob Whitesel

What is the “Great Barrier to Church Growth” and Why has it Fallen?

A mother church (a church that plants other churches) would often ask me to help reach these former attendees. And, I would interview them in focus groups. I found they didn’t often leave the church because of a tension or disagreement … but because of access. As they grew in their faith and became more involved in the church, they also were no longer traveling just once or twice a week to the church. Because of ministry opportunities, committee meetings, training, etc. they were now driving multiple times every week to a church. Their journey of discipleship was being impaired, because longer travel distances created a barrier to access.

There’s always been an almost impenetrable barrier to church health and growth. But innovators such as Charles Fuller, Billy Graham, Chuck Smith and David Fusco have been able to break it. What is this barrier and why is it so powerful?
For almost 40 years, researchers have found that the distance people will drive to a church is a main factor in their attendance and long-term commitment. Recent research from the Baylor University Religion Survey confirmed this. Baylor found that a majority (68%) of church attendees drive under 15 minutes to a church. While this pertains to the majority of attendees, some may drive longer in rural areas and shorter in congested areas.
Research continues to support that this four-decade thesis holds true: the majority of your attendees will always be coming from within a 15-minute drive.
How I learned about this barrier from my mega-church experience.
As I was studying church plants as the minister of evangelism and church growth at a megachurch, I found that the majority of people who stopped attending our church did so because they found a church closer to where they lived. I remember interviewing one person who said, “We liked the preaching. And the worship was outstanding. But we travel almost 40 minutes each way. And that’s time we could spend as a family. And, as we got more involved, we traveled back and forth even more often. Now there’s a church just 10 minutes from our house. It isn’t as good, but it’s good enough.”
After interviewing dozens of people, I discovered that an initial factor in their attendance was the good preaching and excellent worship of our mega-congregation. But over time the tedium of a longer drive would wear upon the attendees. They would then find a church nearer home. It might not offer preaching or worship as professionally. But the shorter drive would promote more family time, as well as allow more trips back and forth in their volunteer efforts.
My thesis, in part, was that though initially attracted by high-quality preaching and music, over time people found a church nearby that was “similar enough” in theology, worship, volunteer opportunities and quality.
What causes this barrier? Access. Here are first two of three principles to overcome it.
I would soon be asked to help coach churches that were suffering from this barrier. I discovered the solution usually involves three principles.
1. As people are moving out of the neighborhood and into areas further than a 15-minute drive away, there are new cultures springing up around most churches.
Sometimes called suburban flight, more recently it’s occurred in the reverse, with a gentrification of urban areas (i.e. young suburbanites moving back to the inner city).
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