10 Warning Signs of a Church Plateau

The warning light in my car came on. I couldn’t believe it.

You’ve felt that emotion too. That moment when you look down and see the warning light on.

Really!? “Why did this have to happen to me today?” I asked myself.

As I pulled out of the driveway with kids in their car seats, snow falling down, temperature in the single digits, and running late, I couldn’t believe my check engine light came on. Why today of all days?

Honestly, I wanted to avoid the light. Today wasn’t a good day to deal with that kind of issue. I had far too many things on my mind–important things. I wanted to get caught up on my work for the week, and I had planned to take my wife and kids out to dinner that week.

But as I looked at the check engine light, I thought about long wait times, expensive repairs, restructuring my time, and asking others for help.

You’ve been there. You’ve seen the dreaded warning lights…and you have likely avoided one or two of them.

But what happens when a warning light goes off that reflects a church plateau?

Do you avoid it? Does your heart sink? Do you convince yourself it would be too inconvenient to deal with the warning sign now?

I know your pain. I know the desire to focus somewhere else rather than the core issue. I know the pain of wondering when you’ll get around to the primary factors inhibiting your church’s spiritual and/or numerical growth. Don’t let it get to the point that you experience church plateau.

I compiled a list of typical warning signs pastors face when they are on the verge of church plateau. Don’t feel bad if you are experiencing one or more of these. Stop, reflect, identify them, and then take action.

church plateau

10 Warning Signs of a Church Plateau

1) Volunteer numbers have decreased or stalled

Do you have fewer volunteers actively serving now than three months ago? If so, it may be time to focus on volunteer mobilization and recruitment.

Don’t know how to recruit more volunteers? Does it feel like everyone already does too much? Try creating some new volunteer opportunities or train those who are currently serving in how to oversee groups of volunteers.

2) You spend your time putting out fires rather than planning for growth

Most people struggle to quantify this one. But on average, how much of your time do you spend planning versus putting out fires? Look for a general tone of tyranny of the urgent vs. careful thinking about ministry direction.

3) Staff are leaving and not developing

How long has it been since one of your staff members left? Do you develop your staff? Do your staff members develop and train volunteers?

For the overwhelming majority of churches, adding more and more staff members will not sustain the ministry. Consider how leadership development and leadership coaching play into your plan to build into yourself and your staff. If you can develop your staff and train them to develop your volunteers, your ministry will be positioned very well for growth.

4) Facility issues are disregarded to handle urgent shortfalls

Have you noticed a few cracks in the wall in one of your buildings? Does your facility need some additional TLC?

I find this warning sign over and over as I work with pastors and churches. A rundown facility often indicates a church or ministry that has plateaued, is in decline, or may soon begin to hit a church plateau.

5) The church’s vision looks back more than it looks forward

When you talk about vision, do you primarily remind people of the past? Or do you paint a picture of a future that they haven’t yet experienced?

I encourage you to always remember and thank God for what He has done. But don’t let gratitude for the past usurp future vision clarity.

6) The church’s core values are more aspirational than actual

Be careful with this one. Very very few churches can truthfully say that all their values manifest as actual core values. For that matter, very few individuals or families can either. (I know I’m guilty of this one.)

Do your core values reflect your present identity or what you aspire to become? A core value of evangelism comes to mind when I think of aspirational values. Many churches claim to value evangelism, but few of their main leaders shared their faith in the last year. I would call this an aspirational value.

Don’t use this warning sign as an excuse to judge or criticize others. We all have values that are more actual and others that are more aspirational. As we help church leadership teams clarify their actual and aspirational values, we see excitement among the leadership as they uncover new areas of focus.

7) Young families seem to flock to another nearby church

This painful warning light happens all the time. If you find yourself thinking, “why do all the young families go to that church?”, then this warning sign likely applies to you.

When churches complete our church ministry analysis, I love seeing the impact of clarity on the group’s thinking. I recently worked with the church where almost 100% of the leadership team indicated that they needed to do a better job with young adults and young families. After I processed the data and presented it to them, everyone in the room shook their heads with an emphatic “YES.” If your church avoids this warning light, it could have disastrous long-term effects on the viability of your ministry.

church ministry analysis

8) Evaluation considered something that might happen in the future

When your church focuses primarily on survival, evaluation gets pushed aside. It kills me to see this happen.

Evaluation and debriefing create a culture of excellence, because ministry quality gets the attention it deserves.

9) The concept of small groups doesn’t usually extend beyond “Sunday school”

I believe that God is using thousands of Sunday school classes all over the world. So please don’t hear me saying that I think we should eliminate Sunday school. That’s not what I’m saying at all.

But if the only context for community, spiritual growth, and service is through your Sunday morning Sunday school classes, you may need to reassess your approach to community, discipleship, and service. Small groups held outside of Sunday mornings create an additional context for spiritual growth. They create a context for guest assimilation. They make a church that is growing a place that continues to feel like a family.

10) Guests attend, but often do not stay

Do you wonder why your guests continue to visit, but don’t stick around? Plateaued churches battle this reality week in and week out.When we consult with churches, we help them set up a first impressions ministry that directly addresses guest assimilation. If you don’t get yourself in the mind of a guest, your on boarding process will likely discourage them from deepening their involvement.

I absolutely love doing mystery worshipper consultations for churches. Warning signs like those in this post quickly jump out at guests, and we have the opportunity to point those out to the churches we work with. In fact, I recommend that every church have someone do a mystery worshipper evaluation at least once a year. In the words of a policeman I spoke to recently: what gets tested, gets improved. And what gets improved, no longer functions as a warning sign–it’s now a sign of health. Rather than these warning signs serving as obstacles, they become highlights of your ministry and its impact on your community and world.

Is it possible that your church may have plateaued? Which of the warning signs apply to your context? How do you plan to address them? Leave us a comment below and let us know.

mystery worshiper


Dr. Aubrey Malphurs is the Founder and Visionary Leader of the Malphurs Group (a church consulting firm) and the Senior Professor of Leadership and Pastoral Ministry at Dallas Theological Seminary. He frequently writes on Pastoral Ministry, Church Leadership DevelopmentStrategy, and Vision and also serves churches and denominations as a Consultant and Speaker (The Malphurs Group church consulting team also provides Leadership Coaching and Sunday Secret Shopper Consultations). He is also a husband, father, grandfather, fisherman, and a diehard Florida Gator fan. @amalphurs | website

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