Should We Follow the Successful Churches? How Survivor Bias Kills Ministries.


Are you like me? I mean, are you a pack rat when it comes to collecting resources, ideas, and methods of other ministries? I confess I’m an unabashed student of others who seem to be ‘getting it done.’ After all, why reinvent the wheel, right?

It’s normal to look at other successful churches and try to adopt what seems to be the reasons for their success. But take an honest moment to ask yourself, “How is that working out for me?” If it’s not working out well, the answer may just be your survivorship bias. Give me a moment to explain…

During World War II, the United States faced a daunting challenge: how to increase the survivability of its bombers. Analysts closely examined returning planes, meticulously mapping out bullet holes and damage, aiming to identify areas that required additional armor. The data on these battle-scarred aircraft led to a seemingly logical conclusion – reinforcing the tail, body, and wings would enhance survival rates.

However, a young statistician by the name of Abraham Wald had insights that would flip this idea on its head. Wald recognized a critical error in their analysis – it focused solely on the planes that had returned safely, neglecting a vital subset of data: the planes that were damaged and did not make it back.

Wald’s brilliance was in his ability to distinguish between the “seen” and the “unseen.” The planes that returned had endured survivable damage, whereas the unseen planes that never returned were likely damaged beyond recovery. This led Wald to a counterintuitive but profound conclusion: the armor should be added to the unharmed regions of the returning planes – the areas devoid of bullet holes.

His reasoning was crystal clear: the areas where survivors remained unharmed were paradoxically the most vulnerable. By implementing this insight, the military reinforced the engine and other vulnerable parts, significantly improving the safety of crews during combat and saving countless lives.

As you grow your congregation, examining other successfully growing churches for strategies you can adopt is natural. However, this approach can overlook a key perspective – the many churches who tried those same methods without seeing growth.

This is an example of “survivorship bias,” where we focus only on the successes and overlook the failures.

When studying growing churches, we see the “survivors.” But there are likely many more “casualties” – churches who tried those very strategies without success. By overlooking them, we miss crucial data that could reveal flaws in copying their models.

We see examples of Survivorship Bias all around us:

  1. We read books on the common traits of successful churches, but fail to consider all of the unsuccessful churches who possessed those same traits.
  2. We applaud the faith when we hear that a church took out a second mortgage and succeeded, but fail to consider all of the churches who did the same and declined and died in debt.
  3. We study the cultural strategies of the most successful churches, but fail to consider all of the churches that followed those same strategies and fell apart.

Rather than focus only on the winners, consider talking to struggling church leaders to understand why certain methods didn’t work for them. Study declining attendance records (especially your own) to identify when and why growth stalled.

The stories of churches that “didn’t return” can be just as insightful as the successes.

Please note, I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t learn from the methods of other churches, nor am I saying that their methods aren’t correct. Just that it’s only part of the story, and may not be the real reason they’re successful. 

This more balanced analysis will probably reveal that a one-size-fits-all model of church growth is unrealistic. Demographics, leadership, history and other factors make each church unique. This suggests growth strategies should be tailored, not copied.

While we can certainly learn from thriving churches, let’s avoid survivorship bias by remembering that their story is likely not the whole story.

By compassionately studying both the successes and the struggles, we gain a more accurate perspective on sustainable growth.

This broader view, though more challenging, can reveal nuances that produce lasting fruit rather than short-lived gains. It’s worth the effort to consider the unseen along with the seen.

Many pastors (the “old” me as well) get caught up in trying to replicate  everything the bigger, faster-growing churches are doing. “If we only had _______”, when the reality is, the actual success isn’t coming from those visible, flashy, or seemingly effective things… it’s coming from the nearly invisible, almost boring, consistent things that truly build a church… like prayer, relationship, discipleship, and faith-filled demonstration of the power of God.

May God grant us discernment as we seek His will for how best to faithfully grow our unique congregations!

If you’d like another “head in the game” to help you think through your church’s approach to growth, please feel free to reach out.