5 tell-tale signs your congregation is insider-focused

So many churches that aren’t growing wonder why they’re not growing.

Maybe you’ve wondered the same thing about your church or a friend’s church.

Of course, people point to many reasons why their church isn’t growing, but underneath all of them is one root cause: insider-focus.

Churches that stop growing almost always have lost their heart for outsiders.

Even if many say they’re still passionate about reaching new people, their actions deny their intentions.

So how do you know whether your church is focused on insiders?

Here are 5 tell-tale signs:

1. Personal preference drives decision-making

In insider-focused churches, member preference rules. Everything from the preaching to the music to the programming gets evaluated through the lens of whether people ‘like’ it or not.

As a result, people-pleasing rules. As soon as a church leader hears that member X isn’t happy, the expectation is that the leader will try to placate the member or make the changes necessary to keep him or her attending.

The challenge is there is zero objective standard.

The standard is whether people like it.

As a leader, you end up playing whack-a-mole because different people ‘like’ different things, and no one can agree on what they like. Which is exactly why churches end up adding far too much variety to their services and too much programming to their menus.

In your attempt to please everyone, you please no one. And besides, as I outline in this post, your church can’t be for everyone anyway.

Regardless, if personal preference drives decision-making, you will always make bad decisions.

2. Emotion trumps mission

Insider-focused churches have a mission, it’s just that no one lives by it because emotion trumps mission.

How does that happen?

Because members are so bent on pleasing themselves, discussion about future direction becomes very emotional: it becomes about what people feel, who’s happy, who’s not happy, who’s thinking of leaving, who might stay if X changes, and what would need to happen for people to be satisfied again.

As a result, leaders make emotional decisions trying to appease the unappeasable, and congregations react in kind: emotionally.

Lost in all of this is one thing: the mission to reach people.

3. Sacrifice is non-existent

In an insider-focused church, no one sacrifices anything for the sake of others, because people believe others ought to sacrifice to please them.

If the church exists to make you happy, why wouldn’t people sacrifice more to make you happier?

In outsider-focused churches, the opposite is true.

Insiders sacrifice for the sake of outsiders. They realize that when they give, others live. That when they decide the church isn’t about them, the find a joy that is so elusive to selfish people.

Externally focused churches realize that sacrifice for the sake of others is a pathway to joy.

Internally focused congregations never understand that.

4. Any growth is mostly transfer growth

Do some internally-focused churches grow? Sure…that can happen.

But it’s not real growth. It’s not mission-induced growth.

In an insider-focused church, almost all the growth that takes place (if any happens at all) is transfer growth. Not the kind of transfer growth that happens when a new Christian family comes to town or a family makes a once-in-a-decade move to a new church.

The transfer growth that insider-focused churches usually attract is the kind of growth that attracts serial church shoppers.

And guess what transfer growth often looks for? A church to make them happy.

Best wishes with trying to make them happy.

5. Innovation is dead or on life-support

Most insider-focused congregations aren’t excited about the future, they’re afraid of it.

For the most part, insider-focused churches cling stubbornly to the present or the past, preferring the way things are or the way things used to be over the way things could be.

As a result, innovation dies. New ideas are shot down. Anything that would reach people who currently aren’t being reached is viewed with suspicion or even called ‘unfaithful.’

Members end up liking their church ‘just the way it is,’ which usually means they like it smaller and smaller every year.

So what's the antidote?

The antidote to insider-focus is simple: your mission.

One of the best ways to refocus your mission is this: focus on who you want to reach, not on who you want to keep. I learned that truth years ago from my friend Reggie Joiner, a co-founder of North Point Church and now CEO of Orange. Reggie is so right.

An external focus will beat insider drift every day, all day.

So, shift your focus. Focus on who you want to reach, not who you want to keep.

Will you anger some members? Yes.

But they will have other churches to go to. The unchurched don’t.

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About the author


ChristianWeek Columnist

Carey Nieuwhof is founding pastor of Connexus Church north of Toronto and is author of several books, including his latest #1 best-selling work, Lasting Impact: 7 Powerful Conversations That Will Help Your Church Grow. Carey speaks to church leaders around the world about leadership, change and personal growth. He writes one of today’s most widely read church leadership blogs at careynieuwhof.com and hosts the top-rated Carey Nieuwhof Leadership Podcast where he interviews some of today’s best leaders.