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Want to Grow Your Church? Maximize Parking Lot Use, Church Growth Expert Says

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Sam Ranier, pastor at West Bradenton Baptist Church in Florida and a contributor to the Christian Post, recently wrote an article titled It’s Time to Release Churches From the Myth of Infinite Expansion. Here’s some of what he had to say:

Every church has limiting factors. No church grows exponentially every year. Infinite expansion isn’t possible. Even the largest churches stay at the top of the list for only about twenty years. Each generation has its own group of biggest congregations or fastest-growing congregations.

Compare any lists of the largest churches from the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, or 2000s and you’ll find different churches leading the way. By virtue of their size, big churches are constantly shifting. Indeed, some of the largest churches from twenty and thirty years ago no longer exist today. They grew rapidly, declined just as quickly, and eventually disbanded.

No church should die, whether the congregation is large or small. God wants every church to be biblically faithful and grow both numerically and spiritually. The myth of exponential growth has its roots in the attention garnered by churches that grow rapidly over several years. Other pastors examine these growth models and try to emulate them. Truth be told, these churches often flourish because of demographic factors that don’t necessarily transfer to different locales. Maybe they’re in a fast-growth corridor of a large metropolitan area. What people tend not to examine quite as much is how many of these churches fade from the growth lists just as quickly as they arrived.


The distinction may seem nuanced, but there is a difference between the mentality of multiplying disciples and growing a large church. There will always be an attraction to rapidly growing institutions, organizations, and movements. I cannot fault people for gravitating toward something that’s growing. However, every case of exponential growth — whether in business, religion, or the academy — eventually reaches an inflection point, a pivotal moment when the organization must make fundamental changes in its operations if it wants to continue.

So far, so good. Infinite church growth is a myth; a lie preached up at countless church growth conferences. In the 1970s and 1980s, the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) church movement was one of the fastest-growing sects in the United States. Many of the Top 100 churches were IFB. Today, only two IFB churches are on the Top 100 list. The IFB church movement is in freefall, attendance-wise. Many of the IFB megachurches from the 1970s and 1980s are now shells of themselves or closed altogether. Convinced of the lie that God wants churches to infinitely grow, IFB preachers continue to “work the plan.” However, the “plan” no longer works.

The same can be said about Evangelicalism in general. Evangelicalism is dominated by what I call predatory church growth practices. The Bible seems clear on the matter: churches grow through winning souls to Christ, baptizing them, and adding these new converts to the church. The Great Commission, right? However, MOST church growth comes from Christians changing churches; Baptists becoming Charismatics, Methodists becoming Baptists, and so on. Megachurches come into an area and pillage older, established churches, saying “Look at what God has done!”

What has God done, exactly? What I see are the machinations of men. Armed with surveys and demographic studies, church planters look for communities where they can maximize their brand. Most church planting operates according to modern business practices, and not the teachings of the Bible. I live in a quad-county area filled with Christian churches. At least 300. We don’t need any more churches. Yet, church planters convince themselves that Bryan or Defiance, Ohio are communities ripe for harvest; that God wants them to plant new churches that are identical to congregations already in existence. And sure enough, these new churches grow. However, no one seems to notice or care about where the growth is coming from or that small, struggling churches closed their doors after losing members to the new church in town, If, as Rainer says, no church should die, why does he promote church growth methodologies that actually facilitate the death of older, established churches? Why not work with the churches that are already established instead of planting new congregations? Or do churches become so ingrown and incestuous that nothing can save them from death? I am surrounded by dying mainline and Evangelical churches. Once the endowment money runs out or they can’t find a pastor to work a full-time job for part-time wages, these churches will either close or merge with other like-minded congregations.

A megachurch in Toledo recently established a franchise in Defiance. Just what we need, right? They found a struggling, established church and took it over. Megachurch franchises are currently all the rage. The goal is to expand the brand. This, of course, leads to increased attendance and income. And make no mistake about it, it is the “numbers” that matter. Success is measured by asses in the seats and money in the plates.

While Ranier admits that:

It’s exciting when a church grows from 20 members to 40 in one year; then from 40 to 80 the following year, and from 80 to 160 the year after that. But, ongoing exponential growth is an unachievable goal for a local church. We should celebrate this growth but not expect it to continue to accelerate year after year. Churches tend to get into trouble when they construct campuses, build infrastructure, and hire personnel with the expectation of ongoing exponential growth.

The Bible suggests that “ongoing exponential growth is an achievable goal if churches commit themselves to following the teachings of Christ and aggressively evangelizing the lost. That has always been God’s way. Most Evangelical churches are social clubs and not hospitals for the sick. The vast majority of members are passive participants who rarely, if ever, share the gospel with sinners. This reveals an ugly fact about Evangelicals: they really don’t believe what they are preaching. People come to church because they want their felt needs met. They want to “feel” God’s presence. Megachurches, in particular, gear their services and programming toward meeting these felt needs. Professional musicians, emotion-driven music, and catchy lifestyle sermons feed and meet congregational emotional needs. When churches can’t meet these “needs,” congregants pack up their families and move elsewhere.

I spent twenty-five years in the ministry. I was primarily a church planter. I loved the thrill of everything being new and exciting. In 1983, I started an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist church in the rural southeast Ohio community of Somerset. Somerset had two Catholic churches, a mainline Lutheran church, a Methodist church, a Charismatic church, and a Church of Christ. Somerset needed an IFB church, right? — a True Christian® congregation.

We started in a storefront building with sixteen people in attendance. By the end of the year, we moved to a larger building. Two years later, we bought an abandoned Methodist building, five miles east of Somerset. By then we were running one bus route, averaging fifty in attendance. And then came the super growth years. We became the largest non-Catholic church in the county (and proudly advertised this fact). Over the next three years, the church grew exponentially, reaching 216 in attendance. By then we were running four buses. Two local IFB churches had split, and we gained fifty or so members (with checkbooks) from these congregations. Over time, these disgruntled Christians found yet another preacher they were unhappy with — me — and returned to former churches or sought out new churches. By 1989, church attendance was back in the 50s, the buses were sold off, and I focused more on teaching the flock instead of winning the lost. On my last Sunday at Somerset Baptist, fifty-four people were in attendance — many of whom had been members from early on.

Ranier suggests that if churches want to grow, they need to maximize their building and land use. Again, I don’t necessarily disagree with him. The typical church building is used a few hours a week and then left empty to collect dust the rest of the week. Several years ago, Xperience Church moved to the Defiance Mall, spending almost $2 million dollars to rehab and modernize their space. I thought, at the time, moving to the mall was a good idea. In fact, why not get a bunch of churches to move to the mall? That way, Christians can pick and choose which church to attend. These churches all preach from the same Bible, and allegedly believe the same gospel. What makes each church different is its music, pastor, programs, and amenities.

Over the years, I had congregants who drove thirty minutes to an hour to hear me preach. They loved Pastor Bruce or “Preacher,” as I was commonly called. I often thought about all the churches they passed on their drive to “Bruce’s church.” Was I really a more accomplished preacher than all these other pastors? Or, were people attracted to my friendly, winsome, compassionate personality? I suspect the latter. Evangelicalism is largely personality-driven. Let a congregation change its pastor and what happens? People leave. Their attraction was to the man, and not the message. Once the man is gone, people move on, hoping to find yet another friendly, winsome, compassionate preacher. And so it goes, with congregations facing near-constant membership churn.

Strangely, Ranier focuses on maximizing parking lot use. He sees limited parking access as a hindrance to church growth. Certainly, if people can’t find a place to park, they won’t attend your church. However, these are far bigger issues Evangelical churches face than the lack of parking spots.

Evangelicalism has a marketing and messaging problem. Evangelicalism is one of the most hated sects in America. Why is that? Evangelicals are known for what they are against. Young adults, in particular, are turned off by Evangelical support of Donald Trump and their incessant wars against our culture. Ask yourself, “What are Evangelicals known for?” Name one positive thing that comes to mind when thinking about Evangelicals.

As long as Evangelicals are at the forefront of culture wars, then they shouldn’t be surprised when the unwashed, uncircumcised Philistines of the world don’t want anything to do with them. “Well, Bruce, your problem is with the B-I-B-L-E, and not Evangelicals.” Maybe, but the only “Bible” I see is in the lived lives of Christians. Anti-LGBTQ. Anti-abortion. Anti-same-sex marriage. Racist. Misogynistic. Bigoted. Patriarchal. Arrogant. Judgmental. Divisive. Over the past sixteen years, thousands of Evangelicals have commented on this site or sent me emails. Rare is the person who is kind and thoughtful. Most often, they are mean-spirited and judgmental, with no interest in understanding my story. I “see” Evangelicals clearly, and there’s no chance in Heaven, Hell, Purgatory, or Ohio that I would ever darken the doors of an Evangelical church. While my reasons for this are many — mainly intellectual, in nature — how Evangelicals treat me and other unbelievers certainly plays a part.

By all means, Evangelicals, pave your parking lots and maximize those parking spaces. Church hoppers (Evangelicals who hop from church to church, always looking for a better show) will appreciate improved parking. However, until Evangelicals take a long, hard look at themselves in the mirror and change their ways, they will not reach the ever-increasing number of NONES and other unbelievers.

Bruce Gerencser, 66, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 45 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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  1. Avatar
    William Tibbs

    No church will realistically last forever. Eventually, a church will die, and that includes the historic ones. My Presbyterian church has been around since 1700 and already has 323 years of ministry to be proud of under its belt, but someday, it, too, might well close for good. After all, none of the churches Paul planted or served on staff at after his conversion are around today, and the same goes for modern churches now. In my time alive, I’ve been a part of the following churches:

    Bogotá Baptist Chapel (1996-1999)
    Graham Baptist Church (2000-2006)
    New Beginnings Christian Faith Center (2006-2009)
    New Testament Baptist Church (Broward location) (2009-2016)
    First Baptist Church of Southwest Broward (2016-2021 for full time, in parts 2021-present)
    National Presbyterian Church (2022-present). 

    You could also add in the First Baptist Church of Washington,D.C., which I attended for three weeks in December of 2021 before leaving due to its functionally Unitarian, woke theology, as well as the Fourth Presbyterian Church of Bethesda, MD, where I attend on Sunday evenings. 

    Of the churches I listed, all are still around today except for:

    Bogotá Baptist Chapel 
    Graham Baptist Church 
    New Beginnings Christian Faith Center 
    New Testament Baptist Church (Broward location voted itself out of existence earlier this year)

    The first church was basically a congregation for Americans (mostly white Southerners) who were living in Colombia for work, and left for home in America as soon as their Colombian time was over. The pastors were mostly American missionaries as well. I do not really remember this church due to being a toddler when we left. 

    The second church was a traditional Baptist church that became a Spanish church thanks to the efforts of Pastor Oscar Ramirez as the Hialeah area became more and more Spanish as Hispanics replaced the black and white Americans who had lived there for years before then. When Graham closed for good in 2017 under Pastor Josue Hernandez (its last pastor according to Florida state records), it’d been a Spanish congregation for quite some time. Graham was always a small church even when I was there in the early 2000s as a kid, and while I do remember some new people coming on occasion, it was largely the same group of old whites until Pastor Ramirez came and began a Spanish service after the main one that eventually grew into the main church itself. Besides the later Spanish ministry, we paid the bills by allowing a Jewish group to use our trailer of an auditorium for their Sabbath services on Saturdays. I actually remember when they came to Graham to do a cultural presentation for us in about the end of 2001 or beginning of 2002 when I was five going on six—my first major contract with Jewish people. The pastor then (Dr. Jack Hill) had a PhD. in Jewish studies and knew a lot about them. However, there were no Jews at all in the congregation as members at any time whilst I was there. Completely different from my church in D.C. where about a quarter to thirty percent of the church is of at least partial Jewish heritage (I sit and am friends with a Jewish family there—the Greens). 

    The third church was a non-denominational plant begun by a black Georgia pastor named Tim Bennett and his wife Angela after he moved to South Florida in the summer of 2000 to take a job as an assistant pastor at Flamingo Road Baptist Church, now Potential Church. New Beginnings, planted in either late 2004 or early 2005 lasted in all for about seven or eight years tops before it gave up the ghost. This congregation was for most of its history made up of American and Caribbean blacks with Hispanics thrown in, though it early on had a few white Americans in the congregation when it was meeting at my elementary school. Although it was largely black (the blackest church I’ve been to for sure), Pastor Bennett liked to bill NBCFC as “an intentionally multi-cultural, multiracial church,” even when the facts on the ground said that it was largely black with Hispanics making up a sizable minority. Quite a few of the whites there were married to Hispanic women (eg. John and Elaine Ziegler and his bother George, whose wife was a Cuban blonde and Elaine’s biological sister). We also had an Indian woman in the congregation whose husband and children also attended services occasionally. Her name was Anju Kanchan, and we used to give her rides every Sunday. New Beginnings’s downfall was that it just simply could not last at all. The area where I’m from is the West Pines/Miramar area, and there are only two established churches therein that are both Catholic (St. Edward’s and Blessed John XXIII). Non-Catholic churches pop up all the time and do not last for several reasons. Even though New Beginnings was unsustainable in the long run (and I think the Bennetts knew this as church planters), the only reason they kept it going was because they wanted their daughter Alia to graduate with her friends and not have to go through the trauma of a new place she only did kindergarten in (Georgia). Alia graduated high school in 2012 (she’s two years older than me and should be twenty-nine now), and the last service the church had was around the same time, when they declined to only five members and were meeting at the Sunset Lakes Clubhouse my old Scout troop used to use. The state records list New Beginnings as a dissolved corporation, with its last corporate action ever being a transfer of remaining funds to Jorge Reinosa in 2019—a full seven years after the church closed. By then, the Bennetts had returned home to Georgia and Tim was pastoring a church there. When I contacted Alia on Facebook once and asked her why the church closed, she told me she didn’t want to talk about it for her own personal reasons. It seems she wants nothing to do with Christianism anymore based on her FB posts. 

  2. Avatar
    MJ Lisbeth

    When I read about “church hoppers,” I think of former mayor Rudy Giuliani’s campaign to “clean up” Times Square and other areas where prostitution, drug-dealing and other kinds of crime flourished.  The illegal enterprises weren’t stamped out; they simply moved to other areas—or found ways to operate more covertly.

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    It’s interesting to look around Bergen County, NJ to see the churches. Every town has a Catholic church – even the small 1 square mile town with population under 5,000 residents where I live. In the same town is a small “gospel church” as well as three Korean evangelical churches (one is considered a local megachurch though it’s nowhere nearly as big as megachurches in more rural parts of the country – the other 2 are smaller churches). In other towns, you’ll find a few mainline churches, and almost all of those rent out their space to Spanish-speaking or Asian congregations to use on Sunday afternoons and weekday evenings. These mainline churches also often rent space to preschools and daycare centers, and to groups like Toastmasters and AA as meeting places. The Catholics and immigrant populations can still bring in congregants, but a lot of Catholic schools in the area have shut down so obviously their numbers are waning too.

    A lot of people, particularly younger people who are more progressive, don’t see the value in what churches are offering. Period.

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    Bruce I suspect they did drive the extra mile to hear you. You write with a coherence that must have characterized your in-person sermons. Shucks, given the chance you mighta saved me. (from whatever)

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    Recently, Michigan changed the law so Marijuana dispensaries could be legal. At least in my locality, to put one up the zoning has to be industrial and not proximate to a school. The result is that every bit of industrial land now houses a dispensary. Oh and how the people complain about it on Facebook. I think it is funny that they’d rather have a vacant property than a little shop that pays taxes and extra taxes too, because Marijuana is taxed extra. This reminds me of the abundance of churches that every area has. No one complains about having too many of them, and then of course they don’t pay taxes.

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    One of the local Baptist churches just closed a couple years ago and after it sat vacant awhile it was bulldozed and turned into a Wendy’s restaurant. I think that will be the eventual fate of many for two reasons- one is from Generation X and younger we aren’t interested in the hate and bigotry that American Christianity preaches. I say American because I know of congregations in Europe that seem to not care about one’s sexual preference, gender identity or race. And the second reason congregations are declining is something literally no one ever mentions- Americans don’t want to get out of bed early, get all dressed up in suits and dresses and go anywhere on a weekend morning. People are exhausted mentally and physically from the week’s work, want to relax or spend time with family and don’t want to have to go somewhere and have a Preacher yell at them while they are half asleep. Also folks in general are more introverted or much less social so they have no need to be around others in order to get their emotional needs met. Not to mention some folks have to work on Sundays. Seeing as I belong to 5 subgroups of people that Baptists hate is why I haven’t darkened their doorsteps since I was 18 yrs old other than to attend dinners the church held after certain family members’ funerals.

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    Yulya Sevelova

    With American churches, it’s usually about power and control, which ties in with all that money 💰🤑 tied into the first two obsessions,lol. Small wonder that so many people became ” nones ” and refuse to return to church.

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Bruce Gerencser