Mary Deckert

Mary Deckert has over 40 years’ experience in multiple communications and strategic functions including leadership, marketing, crisis management, creative and problem-solving roles in government and business (both private and public sectors); for-profit and ... read more

The New Rules For Church Growth for Smaller Churches

If you’re reading this article, we can assume you have a passion for growing your church – whether you feel like you’re better at reaching new people or helping people who are already in your church grow spiritually doesn’t really matter. What matters are the new rules, particularly for small churches. Understanding those rules and learning how to leverage them for your church will be the game-changer you’re looking for.

What you need are strategies, real strategies, that will stand the test of time no matter what crops up as the newest and latest gimmick. 

But you also need tactics – ideas of things to do right now that will help you achieve your goals. 

Things that don’t take a lot of people or money; things small churches can realistically do. 

… And a little insight from the eyes of those who work in the trenches doing exactly what you’re trying to do is helpful too. 

The insights, tactics, and principles we offer here have been hammered out on the anvil of local church ministry and are not based on 2-3 years of experience, but decades of failures, refinements, and mid-course corrections that ultimately led to success. 

It’s not rocket science or the latest and greatest, it’s experience that’s birthed insights.

Let’s be honest. Growing a church takes work – there’s no magic wand, nothing we can say in this article to make it easy or it would have been told by everyone else already. 

But please, please, please hear this: It’s work, yes, but it’s not complicated

It is entirely “doable,” even if your church has fewer than 100 people, or 50 or 20. Even if you’re a new church plant.

Foundational Growth Pillars

1. Ministry, Not Growth

The first pillar is quite simple, it focuses on the reason you got into this business in the first place – focus on ministry, not growth. 

Sound too simple? It is, that’s what makes it so good. 

Don’t focus on “marketing” – that’s always numbers based; if you do, your plan won’t work because you were focused on the wrong thing. And don’t focus on “visitors” – that leads to frustration and again, a focus on numbers. 

When you focus on ministry and you do it at scale, the overflow will be people visiting your church in numbers you can’t even imagine. 

Do the right thing and God will make it grow. Chris Abbott focuses on what’s most important in this video, The #1 Overlooked Secret to Church Growth.

2. Sheep, Not Tools

The second principle plays off the first one – if you focus on ministry, the people you encounter should be treated as sheep you shepherd, not tools to be used to achieve your ministry goals. 

In Sticky Church, Pastor Larry Osborne says, “I’ve noticed over the years that it’s becoming increasingly fashionable for pastors in churches with a strong evangelistic or innovative bent to claim they don’t like being around Christians. If you only reach out to non-Chritians and nurture new Christians, what’s going to happen when those new Christians become plain ol’ Christians, the kind you hate to be around?”

It’s easy to use people in your church to grow the church instead of seeing them as sheep to be shepherded, even if you don’t intend to do that. 

If you are too outwardly focused on the community, you may tend to see the people in your church as a way to bring others to church with them. Never forget, they need to be ministered to as well!  

As Osborne says, “If the back door of a church is left wide open, it doesn’t matter how many people are coaxed to come in the front door, or the side door for that matter. We’ve become so focused on reaching people that we’ve forgotten the importance of keeping people.” Don’t do that! 

For insights into Pastoring the volunteers in your church, check out Chris Abbott’s How to Be a Good Pastoral Leader.

Beware: “Shiny Object Syndrome”

Before I dig into the growth strategies, it’s important to remind you to be consistent in what you do. 

Don’t get distracted by the latest & greatest or what the church down the street is doing. We call that the “Shiny Object Syndrome!” 

We all want a quick solution to whatever our problem is, whatever our pain point. But know this – nothing will fix it overnight. 

You need to pick a plan that is going to work and keep working at it, encouraging your congregation to do small things and take small steps. 

Plan benchmarks and celebrate when you reach them. 

If you’re consistent, it will eventually work. And your and your congregation’s faith will grow along with your church.

Growth Strategies/Tactics

Although the “how” to get things done–the tactics–can and do change as the world changes around you, they should be born out of strategies that are time-tested, that don’t change as frequently, and that encompass your ministry values.

1. Always Be Inviting

The first is to always be inviting, no matter your church size or budget. 

That means you need to create an invite culture and that typically means you need an invite system.  

As James Clear says in Atomic Habits, “You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.”  

Or 3-time National Championship Football Coach Urban Meyer says, “Average leaders have a quote. Good leaders have a plan. Exceptional leaders have a system.”  

Be an exceptional leader and create a system that ensures you will be successful at creating an invite culture in your church. 

How? So, how, exactly, do you set up a system to create an inviting culture? 

The best way is to automate the tasks, a system that does the majority of the “inviting” for you. 

Through CMU’s Grow Program, we set that up using Google’s money to automatically invite people within a certain radius of your church, and automatically follow up with them to make sure no one falls through the cracks, easy peasy. 

You can do it on your own, but that takes people and a whole lot more money. If you’re short on staff, limited on budget and always looking for volunteers, this is the way to go. 

If you’d like to try it on your own, Chris Abbott offers critical steps in a free YouTube video: Small Church Growth Ideas for 2023.


If you are looking for a team to come alongside you and just do this for you, then you may want to consider the Grow Program from CMU. It’s not a great fit for every church but for $397 per month you get a team of people who will help you: 

  • get qualified for the $10,000 per month in free Google Ads
  • build out the Automatic Invite System
  • run invite ads for your church that are specifically designed to bring in new visitors every Sunday

Not every church is looking for something like this and not every church has room for new families, but if your church does and you have a little bit of extra money in the budget then you can invest $397 per month into the Grow Program and get $10,000 in Google Invite Ads.

And if you don’t have a specific marketing/communications budget, approach it like a mission opportunity – find someone or some people who have a heart for your community and pitch your vision, much like you would raise funds for local missions.

2. Weekly Ministry Opportunities: The Goal is One New Visitor Each Week

The goal is really quite simple – get one new person or family to visit each week. Just one, that’s all. To do that, you need ministry opportunities every week that reach out to people in your community. If we want visitors, we should be ministering to people on a weekly basis – remember the first foundational pillar: ministry first!

In order to do that systematically, you need a system to provide those ministry opportunities, a simple process to get ministry at-bats every week, a simple method but one that provides amazing ministry opportunities along the way. 


And at this time, one of the best ways we’ve found to do that is through prayer ads. If you pray for people within 10 miles of your church, statistics show that 10% of them will visit. 

The beauty is, again, its simplicity: Pray for ten people, if you invite all ten of them, at least one will plan a visit. 

We have a whole course for CMU Grow Churches on Plan Your Visit that’s too much to include here, but it’s easy to wrap your brain around the concept – all you need is 10 ministry opportunities each week to achieve the simple goal of one visitor every week.

Additional Tactics: In order to successfully implement this strategy, you’ll need some leadership recruitment and development, especially in smaller churches. 

As Pastor, you’ll need to be the chief recruitment and leadership officer, recruiting people, casting a vision for what you hope to accomplish, and developing your core and leadership team first before you can become an inviting church. 

This is something you need to do personally, there’s no magic wand. Tell them you plan to have a minimum of 50 new visitors this year – one per week – with a long-term goal of creating a culture of invitation in your church. Start small and build your core and leaders first.

Once your core is in place, you can cast your vision to your congregation. Think of it as in-service Evangelism. Once a month during your weekly service, take five minutes out and do a prayer time. Lead people through how to invite the community this month. Provide tools (a script for phone calls, messages for text or social media posts, etc.) Do it right then and there during service. That way everyone in service participates and you become known as a church that prays and invites the community in. 

You’ll find a wealth of resources and ideas in CMU’s Personal Evangelism Witness Kit. For more insights into helping your congregation invite, check out CMU’s Crash Course for Pastors, a  joint effort with Church Fuel. The video on Are Your People Personally Inviting Others to Church is especially helpful.

How: The best way we’ve seen to kickstart and maintain this continual ministry opportunity circle is to develop a prayer campaign – it’s worked over decades of ministry albeit in different forms. Currently, we suggest using a combination of Facebook Ads and  Google Search ads, mainly because 1) Facebook is the largest social media platform and 2)  you can get Google to pay for the effort so why wouldn’t you? (Skeptical? See CMU’s Ultimate Guide to the Google Ad Grant to find out more.) 

But the concept has been carried out in several different formats over the years, adjusting for cultural and social changes. 

Basically, you reach out to your community and offer to pray for them, that’s all. Who doesn’t need prayer? Even the most skeptical people are amenable to you praying for them. When people trust you with prayers, as you minister to them, you earn the relationship “right” to invite them to church. And we’ve seen them respond time and time again.

To complete the circle, simplify all your communications and marketing tools to say they exist to offer to pray for the community – your social media exists solely to pray for the community, that’s its primary goal – Facebook, Instagram, all of it. That simplifies your social media process and helps you achieve your goal of weekly visitors through prayer ads. 

What Happens if Facebook Ads Go Away?

You might be wondering, what happens if Facebook Ads go away or Google stops the grant and you can’t afford to keep running ads? Two thoughts: First, CMU is already working on the next generation of prayer ads that are not dependent on Facebook because we know that social media platforms are fleeting. That’s what we do – we keep on top of things so you don’t have to. But secondly, this is more a strategy than a tactic. 

The need to pray is never-ending. People will always need prayer and the Church will always have a calling from God to pray for people. 

The communication channel can and will change – for goodness sake, in the 1990s, ministries would hang out at gas stations, pay for people’s gas and offer to pray for them. A thousand years from now, there will still be people who need prayer and people called by God to pray for people. Parts will always be true and parts will always be changing. Let us worry about what needs to change and you concentrate on what doesn’t change – the ministry of praying for people. 

The idea is if you want to have ministry influence in your community, you need to have ministry consistency. And the easiest way to do that is to pray for 10 people each week. Ten people, that’s all. Statistics show that about 10% of the people you pray for will show up to your church, so if your goal is one new visitor/family a week, you need to pray for 10 people. 

See how easy that is? 

3. Focus on the Next Generation

If you want to be a growing church, the lead pastor and leadership team has to prioritize reaching the next generation. 

If you invest in anything, invest in reaching young people, specifically kid’s ministry. If you are a smaller church that wants to be a growing church impacting your community and culture, you need to put a big emphasis, resources, and leadership priority on reaching the next generation!

From The Trenches

Sound difficult? It’s really not. But don’t take my word for it. Listen to the folks in the trenches, folks just like you:

Terri Porter from Abiding Word Church in Sterling, IL recognized the huge benefit of processes and systems,

“We have definitely seen an uptick in our plan your visits this year since just starting the Google ads in August. Our website has truly seen a jump in visitors also. But more importantly, we have seen some of the people who planned visits come through the doors, stick, and ultimately make decisions for Christ! Thank you for helping us take some small steps this year to educate ourselves and start to put into practice better processes!”

Keith Irey from Genesis Church in Marion, OH says,

“Heads up we’re getting crazy plan your visits. And we’ve had over 1100 new visitors to our website in the past 8 days between the Grow Google ads team and running the ads on FB! 13 plan your visits this past week!”

Douglas Falk from Kingdom Impact Wilmington in Chesapeake, VA says:

“I'm getting great reports with the prayer ad. I got 13 prayer requests in 2 1/2 days. And 2 plan your visits so far.”

Cornerstone Church in Americus, GA, is a small church in a small town in rural Georgia. The first time they ran the prayer ads, they prayed for 56 people in six days and 9 of them planned a visit! 

It took Jeremy England from Journey Community Church in Dallas, TX about 6 months to understand the importance of systems and consistency. 

“I just wanted to share a celebration.

We launched our Facebook ad/selfie video last week and we’ve already had 9 families plan a visit.

That’s equal to about 28 new people. For reference, our average attandance is around 26-30.

I wanted to share this because you all will get how cool that is, but also we are just about 6 months into CMU Grow.

Admittedly, it sometimes feels like nothing is really happening as we are following the system.

But I always think back to a video that Chris and Ryan did where Chris talks about the Fly Wheel.

It takes a lot of effort to get going, but then it really starts to go.

I know there are things we have skipped (we are a small church and small staff), but we keep consistent, both in updates, contact and material, and showing up regularly is the most important thing we can do with what we have.”

But our favorite story is from Pat Bruce, Mill Creek Baptist Church in Ostrander, Ohio. Pastor Pat has become known as “the Pastor who prays” in his community.

“I went to the hospital to encourage one of our members. Had a nurse that recognized me as the Pastor who prays from Facebook.

She asked. ‘Can you pray for some of my other patients?’

I spent three hours walking the floor praying with patients throughout the ICU.

Amazing time. Exhausted but rejoicing in several folks having asked the Lord in their hearts.

Again more crazy fun. We had enough prayer requests come in after a couple of days my wife says revival is taking place.

It’s refreshing to see the preacher on His knees for people.

I will say it’s been a long time since I have had as much excitement and anticipation serving our Lord.” 

Pastor Pat was a bi-vocational pastor who was able to go into full-time ministry because of the growth in his church from the Prayer Ads.

They grew from a church of 25 to over 100 in the first year using the prayer ad campaign. 

More importantly, they prayed for more than 3,000 people, started several growth groups, and now have more people involved in small groups than their total attendance before starting the prayer ads. 

Attendance at the church was triple the norm on Christmas, and just kept growing. They’ve had new people every single week, most have joined the church and several have accepted Christ.

They continue to grow almost a year later, achieving record attendance almost monthly.

 For more insights into how small churches can implement this strategy, check out This Small Church Used Prayer Ads to Get 209 New Visitors.

Growth In a Nutshell

The simplicity of these strategies and tactics is what gives you the strength and the ability to carry them out, no matter your church size, no matter your church budget. It’s easy to wrap your brain around it.

Your simple goal is to get one new family every week. You need a simple process to follow that gets you ministry at-bats every single week, consistently, without much effort on your part. The best system we’ve seen to date is prayer ads – you pray for 10 people within 10 miles of your church every week, chances are good that if you invite all 10 of them, at least one will plan a visit. That’s it!

How CMU Can Help

Let’s be honest, to consistently pray for people in your community you’re going to need a system that automates much of the task – if you don’t have a system, you’re not going to be growing your church. You need something to consistently give you ministry opportunities each and every week, a system that moves those ministry opportunities into visitors.

It’s work, but it’s not complicated. To do it well, it’s probably going to also take a coach that can get into your business to help you do it. A coach with a long-term perspective, that can lay out small steps you can take one at a time as fits your church and your situation. CMU can be that coach. To see how we can help you grow your church, check out CMU’s Grow Program