5 Keys to Explosive Growth

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Bil Cornelius shares multiplication secrets they've learned along the way.

Acts 1 and 2 tell us that the early Church went from 120 believers to 3,120 believers overnight. But that’s not all. Acts 2:47 tells us that “each day the Lord added to their group those who were being saved.” The number of Christians grew daily! And Acts 4:4 says that many of the people who heard the disciples’ message believed it, and the number of believers totaled about 5,000 men, not counting women and children.

So, how many people are we actually talking about here? Conservative estimates at this point put the number of believers around 20,000. In the first year after Christ’s death, the number of believers grew from 120 to 120,000.

Not only is crazy, go-big, huge growth possible, it’s biblical. Like the early church of Acts, your church—if growth is part of your and your people’s vision—can go big with these five keys that both of us have discovered in our experience of leading churches and people.

For the last seven years, I (Bil Cornelius) have led Bay Area Fellowship in Corpus Christi, Texas (bayareafellowship.com). Today, we’re 4,000 people strong and we’re focused on a goal of planting 10 churches a year over the next 10 years. Bill Easum has 35 years in pastoral ministry and is now one of the signature voices in church growth, consulting with  churches nationwide (easumbandy.com).

Here’s what we’ve learned:

KEY #1: GET DOUBLE VISION.

People develop the habits necessary to create the future they want. Another way to put this: You get what you expect and believe will happen. Yet, most people don’t believe this. But we’ve learned that a large part of your future is what you picture it to be. So maybe what you need is a bigger picture of the future.

Picturing your church as twice its current size and living into that picture will help you assess how you currently spend your time and how you should be spending it. You’ll soon realize you can’t continue doing some of the things you’re doing and personally survive. Ask yourself: What do I need to stop doing now, and what do I have to begin doing?

KEY #2: ASK AND BE PREPARED.

When was the last time you challenged your church to pray for your goal of doubling the number of people finding Christ and worshipping with you every Sunday? Ask them to pray specifically for people they know who need God. But here’s the rub—you can’t ask your people to pray if you’re not praying.

One night, I (Bil C.) asked our church, Bay Area, to commit to praying for our church growth 10 hours a month. Then I told them that while they were praying that month, I would commit to praying 100 hours. Hundreds of people signed up to pray. And our church exploded once again. We cannot ignore the prayer principle: When we pray diligently, we get big results.

But don’t pray for rain without first opening an umbrella. Often, we pray for God to do something; yet, do we prepare for it to happen? It does no good to ask God to double your attendance if you’re not expecting and preparing for an inflow of people.

We constantly hear pastors say that they need more volunteers and servants but can’t find them. Answer this question: If 50 people knocked on your door and said, “I’d love to work in the youth ministry or the children’s ministry,” would you be prepared to involve them right then? Or would you have to respond, “Can I get back to you in a week?” If you’re not prepared for people to come, why are you asking God to bring them to your church? Think about these specific areas and evaluate if your church is expectant and ready:
  
Space. Do you have enough seating and children’s space to accommodate twice the size of your church?

Parking. Do you have enough parking spaces, and enough time, volunteers, etc., to transition cars on and off your property before the next service begins?

Servants. Do you have enough servant volunteers to keep up with the growth?

Money. Do you have the money to support new services and extra support staff? 

Appearance of space. When you walk into your building, does it rival the quality of a popular mall or other 21st century venue that’s in the business of attracting people? Does the atmosphere of your facility send the right message to first-time guests? Does it say “God is moving today” or “God moved here 50 years ago”?

Remember, you don’t need a new or expensive facility to communicate a relevant message, but you should capitalize on the facility you’re using. 

Preaching. If your worship services were filled with more non-Christians than Christians, would your preaching need to change? Is it filled with Christianese? Do you take time to explain a Bible story or summarize who the apostle Paul was before you quote him?

Most pastors preach as if everyone in the room is a Christian and grew up in church. Take time to evaluate your messages and delivery. And train your church to appreciate that you’re designing your sermons for the people who aren’t there yet.  

Personal appearanceDoes your appearance send non-verbal messages that you’re current or outdated? Don’t change who you are, but stay updated in who you are. Dress conservatively, country or urban—whatever—just make sure you match who you’re trying to reach, while staying true to you.

KEY #3: BRING IN LOTS OF NEW PEOPLE.

If you want a full house, set a date and invite your entire community to church at the same time. It’s one thing to have visitors come now and then, but we’re talking about going big and changing a city. If God is leading you to do something big, don’t invite three or four people; invite thousands!

Galatians 6:7 tells us, “You will always reap what you sow”—a time-tested principle that will always be true. If you invite five people, don’t expect anyone to show up. But if you invite 150,000 people, there’s a good chance you might fill up the place! Focus all your efforts on one big day. 

When we launched Bay Area seven years ago, we went big. We’d been meeting in a small group in an apartment. Soon, we outgrew our space and moved into a small storefront. The momentum was growing and so was the excitement. When our group reached 25 people, I (Bil C.) said, “Alright guys, we’re going to spend every dime we’ve got and blow it all in one weekend. Let’s launch. And let’s do this big.”

The first Sunday, 236 people showed up and Bay Area Fellowship was born. As expected, the next week’s attendance dropped to 150 people. But compared to the size of the group that launched the church, we knew we’d succeeded.

So how do you invite that many people at once?

Word of mouth. The No. 1 way to invite people is by word of mouth. And the cost ratio for word of mouth is phenomenal: zero. The biggest influx of people results when your friends bring their friends, who bring their friends and so on. That’s why some churches can grow by a thousand people in worship in one week when it took them years just to get to that same number the first time. The larger a church grows, the more important word of mouth becomes.

Direct mail. We both repeatedly used direct mail and highly recommend it. Compared to other mass communication methods, direct mail is an inexpensive, effective way to tell your story. People have to pull it out of their mailbox and throw it away. And for half a second, they look at it before tossing it. But they did look!

The real power of direct mail is when it’s read the third or fourth time. Advertise in direct proportion to how you want to grow. However fast you want to grow is how much and how often you should advertise. The best time to use direct mail is when you’re announcing a sermon series or hosting a special event.

Television and cable. The larger the church, the more important TV advertising becomes, if for no other reason than creating and maintaining your church’s image. Both of us used TV quite frequently. I (Bill E.) found that 2% of my former church’s annual visitors came as a result of TV ads, and 95% of them joined.

We’re talking about running 30-second spots numerous times during a short period of time. If you enlist a knowledgeable person (a media buyer or someone who works in cable TV) to shop for and schedule these ads, chances are you’ll get some for free. Don’t try to shop for ad placements yourself. You don’t know the questions to ask.

Prices for ad spots on both cable and network TV will vary regionally, so it’s pretty impossible to give you a figure for how much to spend. Whatever you do, don’t spread out your advertising. Focus it on a couple of days so that people see so many of your ads they wonder if you bought the TV station!

Web sites. A church Web site appeals mostly to younger Christians who are shopping for a church. It’s not likely that many non-Christians will seek out and look at your Web site. Nevertheless, a good Web site can close the deal. It’s now possible for any church to have a professional-looking Web site for very little cost. You can purchase the template and ask someone in your church who knows a little bit about Web text and design to manage the site.

Radio. This medium didn’t do much for either of us. If you don’t run spots during drive time, don’t do radio. But in some areas, radio makes more sense than TV due to the difference in costs per ad. Its real benefit is the ability to target a segment of the population that you can’t with TV. For example, radio has not worked well for Bay Area’s main worship services, but the student ministry at the church has found it to be very successful.

Newspaper. Neither of us puts much stock in newspaper ads, especially the church page. If you must use the newspaper, position your ad in the personal columns, entertainment section or sports pages. 

Media combinations. The combination of multiple impressions in diverse media brings your advertising to a tipping point. We recommend using a mixture of word of mouth, direct 
mail and cable television to reach unchurched people.

At Bay Area, we put two direct mail pieces in each worship bulletin (we always print more direct mail pieces than we need for the actual mailing). At the end of each worship service, I (Bil C.) ask everyone to hold up their two mailers. Then I ask everyone to pray: God, would you lay upon my heart a friend or family member that I can give this mailer in my left hand to? And I tell them that when God gives them a name, write it on the mailer. Then we pray again—God, would you please give me a name of a neighbor or a co-worker that I can give this other mailer in my right hand to?—and again, I ask them to write down a second name. A deliberate prayer like this helps everyone understand that God put these people on their hearts. Then I commission everyone, in the name of Christ, to invite these people and bring them to church.

That same week, we send out the direct mail piece to as many homes in our area as we can afford. This way, people receive the mailer and are also approached by friends who ask them to come and check out the worship. We also run as many TV ads as we can afford. Using this strategy means that now people have received the mailer; had a friend invite them to church; 
and saw the church on TV. The odds are they’re going to check out our church because everywhere they turn they run into it.

Don’t think you can afford all this? 
  
Look at your budget. How much money are you wasting on things that have never resulted in any growth? 

Why not divert that money to causing a feeding frenzy around your church? I (Bill E.) have seen that most churches waste money on events and ministries which never result in more people finding Christ. For example, if your annual budget is under $500,000, you don’t need to pay someone to handle the money. Or do you have some support staff you could do without for a period of time?

Another option: borrowing the money. At one time or another, your church has probably borrowed money to build. Isn’t the salvation of people more important than buildings?

Or, what about savings? We know—you’re saving it for a rainy day; but didn’t the ark float by recently? Isn’t that money being wasted when it could tell your story to those who need to hear?

KEY #4: RETAIN THE LION’S SHARE.

To retain people today, two things must happen. First, people have to form significant relationships. Second, they need to grow spiritually. Here’s how that happened for both of us.

Small groups that multiply. Any small-group pastor who never talks about multiplication doesn’t need to be a small-group pastor. Get as many people as you can into small groups, but keep the focus on multiplication. Too many churches look at small groups primarily as a place for believers in the church to learn or share. We don’t see them that way.

Small groups primarily serve three purposes: they are the training ground for the future leaders of your church; they are incubators of faith for new people coming into the church; and they are the catapults for sending Christians into the world to invite their friends in to discover the body of Christ.

Call every visitor. One of the most incredible discoveries I (Bill E.) have made as a church consultant is that the average pastor in a dying church seldom makes personal calls to the few visitors the church draws. That blows my mind.

When I pastored Colonial Hills Church in Southaven, Miss., I personally called every visitor until the church was 500 in worship. Bay Area was running more than 1,500 in worship before Bil C. turned over the calling of visitors to someone else. Both of us called each visitor on Sunday afternoon. You should too.

Every study we’ve found shows that people are much more likely to return to a church if they’re contacted within 48 hours of their visit. At Colonial Hills, the members, on their way home from church, took a gift to every first-time visitor. In growing churches, it’s not unusual for first-time visitors to receive three or four contacts with the church the first week they register their contact info.

Add a worship service. It doesn’t matter how many services you have. If you are anywhere near 80% full in any of the prime hours, it’s time to start another service. Three services now? Add a fourth one! If your vision is big enough, you can find a way to do it.

We’ve both seen that nothing grows a church as much as adding a quality worship service. Who would have thought that Bay Area could run 4,000 in an auditorium that seats only 750? The first thing Bil C. did when the church jumped to 90 people was start another service.

The key is to ensure that you have enough people in a service for it to feel big. Usually, this is about 50% of the capacity. If you have less than that, we recommend saying to your congregation, “Hey folks, there’s 50 people here today, which means that you need to go out and bring in another 25 people next week. You know you know them.”

Remember those two mailers in the bulletin? Ask them to take them out and write down a name and then pray the prayer we gave you earlier. They need to know you take it seriously.

KEY #5: EQUIP AND MOTIVATE THE NEW PEOPLE.

Develop a creative sermon series with a high “felt need” appeal. When you put creativity and a high felt need together, you get real growth. Last year, I (Bil C.) preached a series titled “What Does God Have to Say About Sex?” and we saw an increase of 1,000. 

Build services around special days. Special days help you break growth barriers quickly and enlarge the vision of your people for what they’re capable of doing when they work together.

A word of warning here: When your church is first starting out, on holidays, everyone goes home to mom. If you’re not a destination church, Thanksgiving will probably be your least attended weekend. As Bay Area grew bigger, we became a destination church, and people invited their parents and friends to attend with them to see what God was doing.

The best days for an event are secular holidays, like Fourth of July or Super Bowl Sunday, and Christian holidays like Christmas and Easter. Special days in the fall are optimal because it’s typically a season for great church growth.

Recognize. What about a teacher appreciation day? Find a local restaurant to sell you $20 gift certificates for $10—tell the manager they’re for teachers in the community. Then give them to all the teachers who show up that day. What other special days will work in your church without much money? Little League day? Firefighters or police officers day?

Don’t bring in special guests. If you have to spend a lot of money for an outside speaker, don’t! There’s no need to blow your budget on a special guest. If you do, they better be someone so incredible that their appearance will cover what you had to pay multiple times over.  

Sit down right now where you are and visualize what you’d have to do to double the size of your church. Remember, if it’s possible, you don’t need God to make it happen. If it seems impossible, He’s probably waiting for you to ask.   


Adapted with permission from Go Big: Lead Your Church to Explosive Growth by Bill Easum and Bil Cornelius, published by Abingdon Press, 201 Eighth Avenue, South Nashville, TN, 37201-0801. abingdonpress.com.
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