Church Leadership

8 Illnesses That Could Be Killing Your Church Growth

August 11, 2014

I was digging through some old seminary notes this morning and came across this interesting bit about church growth. Many churches wonder what is limiting their ability to grow. In my experience, I’ve noticed that it’s not usually only one factor but, rather, can be a combination of several key factors. This post may be helpful in diagnosing the symptoms that that may be affecting your local context.

Side note, a great tool for measuring the strengths and growth areas of your church is the Natural Church Development Survey (NCD Survey). You can find out more about it at the NADEI website here.

Before looking at the 8 Illnesses, it is important to look at what it takes for a plateauing/declining church to turn around.

Four Axioms of Church Growth

1. The pastor must want the church to grow and be willing to pay the price.

2. The people must want the church to grow and be willing to pay the price.

3. The church must agree that the goal of evangelism is to make disciples.

4. The church must not be suffering from a combination of the following terminal illness.


Ethnikitis/“Ghost-Town” Disease:

This illness occurs in an urban church that was once a neighborhood church ministering to the people in that neighborhood. In time, people moved out of the neighborhood to suburbs and a new ethnic group moved into the neighborhood, but the church continued to minister to the same ethnic group. It depended on people who once lived in the neighborhood coming back to the church on Sabbaths, even though they now live in a new community. This results in a church becoming an island of one kind of people, in the midst of a community of another kind of people, with very little communication between them. This church will eventually die, usually within 5 years (although some may last 15-20 years), unless it changes its ministry focus.

Old Age:

This terminal illness affects mostly rural churches — occurs when the town is dying. Few people in the town do not belong to the church, most people are moving out, and the ones remaining are getting older. The inevitable result is death.

People Blindness:

This is the malady which prevents us from seeing the important cultural differences that exist between groups of people living in geographical proximity to one another — differences which tend to create barriers to the acceptance of our message.

This creates problems in communicating the message as well as in holding on to new converts. It occurs when one cultural group insists that its cultural expression is superior to the other.

(Let me put a plug here for a weekly series that I’m writing for the Haystack TV. You can read the first installment here.)


This occurs when one or more churches unite to conduct an evangelistic meeting. The cooperation between churches actually hinders the Evangelistic results. Unless there is a plan disciple the new believers in a specific local church and the connection to a local church is obvious and central, the results will be minimal. This is especially seen in cross-denominational evangelistic meetings, although the problem can exist in denominational cooperation.


This occurs when interpersonal relationships within the church become so central that they are the focal point for almost all church activity and involvement. Church members spend most of their time enjoying each other rather than seeking the lost: navel-gazing.

Those who grow up in a SDA environment assume the culture, whereas those converting struggle with accepting the culture. If the established group does not help the unestablished group accept the culture and be accepting of their struggle, new members will not adapt and will be lost. A church which has difficulty assimilating new members may be suffering from koinonitis. This is very prevalent in the SDA church.

Sociological Strangulation:

This is a slowdown in the rate of church growth, caused when the flow of people into a church begins to exceed the capacity of the facilities to handle it. This is a simple one: if your building is too small, you simply cannot add more people unless you have two services, plant another church or buy a new building.

Arrested Spiritual Development:

This disease occurs when the members of the church fail to grow spiritually. People in the church are not growing in the things of God or in their relationships with one another. The result is that the total health of the church deteriorates and the church cannot grow. This can affect even first generation Christians, whereas St. John’s Syndrome affects primarily second-generation Christians.

St. John’s Syndrome:

This is the disease of lukewarmness. People are Christian in name only, their faith is only routine, church involvement is simply going through the motions, and belonging to a church is a family tradition or a social nicety. It is a disease that affects primarily second-generation Christians. Its best prevention in the church is to make certain there are always plenty of first-generation Christians around. Thus a priority on evangelism is a necessity.

Have any questions or comments? Feel free to leave them below!