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5 reasons churches are moving from vertical growth to horizontal growth

Two of the most dramatic trends in churches the past decade are declines in attendance frequency and the move to horizontal growth.

I have written and spoken at length about the trend of declining attendance frequency of “committed” church members. But I have not really unpacked why churches are moving toward horizontal growth.

Definitions are in order. Vertical growth refers to an increasing number in the same place or unit. For example, if a church has grown from 150 to 175 in attendance in its 10:30 worship service, it has a vertical growth of 25. The growth takes place in the same service.

Horizontal growth is the term we use to describe numerical growth that takes place by adding units. For example, if the church above decided to start a new worship service at 9:00 am, and total attendance of the 9:00 am and 10:30 am services grew to 225 from 175, we would say the growth of 50 was largely horizontal growth.

So why is growth more likely today with additional services, classes, groups, venues, and campuses? Why do we see the horizontal strategy to be more pervasive today? Here are five key reasons:

  1. Horizontal growth is usually better stewardship. It is typically better to add a second worship service than to build a new worship center from a stewardship perspective. The church can accommodate more people without more capital expenses and debt.
  2. Horizontal growth can offer more choices to reach different demographics. As an example, a Tuesday night worship service may reach those people who have to work on Sunday mornings. Churches can often reach a wider demographic with more options.
  3. Horizontal growth reaches Gen X and the Millennials who typically prefer smaller gatherings. They like the resources of larger churches, but they also prefer the smaller gatherings of smaller churches. A larger church can get smaller through additional services, venues, and sites.
  4. Horizontal growth can reach a new community without abandoning the church’s current community. Such is the advantage of an additional site or campus in another part of the community. One church, for example, is located in the suburbs, but had a heart to reach the urban core in the metropolitan area. It leased an old warehouse and started reaching a large slice of the unchurched urban population.
  5. Horizontal growth often has many of the advantages of church planting without planting a new church. Many of these examples could be accomplished with a church plant. But starting something brand new without the resources of an existing church is challenging. Horizontal growth can sometimes capture the benefit of both worlds.

Is horizontal growth a prescriptive strategy for churches? I don’t think so. I see it more as a descriptive reality. And I will be watching this trend closely to see if more people are reached with the gospel. Then I will get really excited about it.

Originally posted at

Dr. Thom Rainer is president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention.

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