“So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.” – Matthew 7:17-20

A healthy church produces good fruit

The sermon this morning used this text.  It was preached one way for the congregation, but the readers here are church leaders.  Church leaders worry about the size of the congregation, and whether those that do come are getting anything out of it.

I’m not saying bigger is better, or smaller is healthier.  There are healthy megachurches and dysfunctional small churches.  But size over time can give an indicator of other issues.

  • A church in a transient community – like a military town or near a college – can watch a significant portion of the membership leave each summer.  The health of the church becomes apparent quickly if incoming military don’t see value right away.
  • The number of children or teens in a church is an indicator of the future longevity of the church.  Unless it is situated in an age-restricted community, the lack of children means the size will decline over time.
  • The number of volunteers is a good indicator. We know active volunteers give more than passive attenders.  The ratio between volunteers and paid staff should show a large difference. Therefore a church will a low percent of volunteers will generally struggle for money.

The causes of poor church health tend to be rooted in one or more of the same factors:

  1. Doctrine preached and taught.  Dean Kelly’s “Why Conservative Churches are Growing” continues to be relevant.  Churches that teach the Bible – what it says and what it means in daily life – tend to have more active congregations, and more easily retain visitors.
  2. Volunteers are valued.  Volunteers are motivated not by money but by accomplishment. Most will continue as long as they feel they are making an impact either in the organization or toward the organization’s purpose.  When what they do is cancelled without a recognition of their sacrifice, they will be less likely to volunteer anywhere else, and often will quit attending.
  3. Outreach is community-focused, not manipulation to grow the church.  Most people today understand when they are being marketed.  But most will accept some demand on their time to gain a benefit they desire. (Stop by a church that’s doing a food give-away in a poor neighborhood. People will sit for an hour waiting for a handout.)
  4. Prayer is God-focused. Yes, we pray for the sick. But when the only prayer is about us, our needs, our wants, that’s missing the mark.  A healthy church prays both in worship and for it’s community.

Healthy churches don’t have to be big, but they do need to make an impact.




The sermon on the mount has been taught in many ways, but one useful approach is less common.  You can see it as a 12-step program.


  1. When he saw the crowds, Jesus went up on the mountain.  When life presses in, and it becomes overwhelming, change your physical surroundings.  Get out.  Go to a quiet place that’s different from the daily routines.  It may be a simple as  a day of Sabbath Rest (rather than a day of Sunday meetings)
  2. His disciples came to him.  Or as James 5:14 suggests, call for the elders.  Get around people that support you.  Nurture that support system in good times and call on them in the bad.
  3. He began to teach.  Jesus gave of himself in a way that affirmed his authority over circumstances.  What are you good at? Go do it.  Who needs  your help? Go volunteer.
  4. Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Admit your weakness.  The beginning of healing is to admit you have a problem.  Often we need to do steps 1-3 before we can get to this stage.  That’s natural.  Admit your condition and turn to the path of looking for God.
  5. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.   It’s OK to grieve over past mistakes.  Admit them and let God forgive you, then agree with God and forgive yourself.  Take comfort that the past is past and you can make a new start.
  6. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Begin again.  Don’t rely on your own devices.  They got you where you were, and you didn’t like it there.  Adopt the position of a humble learner.  
  7. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.  We have so many resources around.
  8. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. Forgive.  It’s said that nurturing a past offense, holding a grudge, is like you drinking poison and hoping the other person dies.  Instead.  Show mercy. Forgive even if they don’t deserve it.  
  9. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.   When you remove other distractions, and try to see life from God’s perspective, you begin to see the true nature of God.  
  10. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.   The most respected people in history are the ones that stopped the arguments, that spoke out and acted to create peace.  They are called children of God by their society.
  11. Blessed are those who are persecuted. Not everyone will agree.  Expect opposition from those not as far along.  Forgive them with love and humility.  (see steps 6 & 8)
  12. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven,  Take joy in the things of God.  Celebrate with friends.  Be the support to someone else in step 2.

It’s not an easy journey, and not always linear.  Sometimes we feel we can jump to step 10 or 11, then fall back to needing step 4, or step 1.  Start again.  Practice daily.  The rewards are out of this world.

“This generation wants meat. They are tired of silly events that have a little Scripture thrown in, or events where junk food is served up large and the Bible doesn’t make the menu. ”

Alvin Reid is one of my favorite thinkers, especially where it comes to young adults.  He’s been looking at the spiritual landscape and calls today’s rising young adults “A Generation of Carnivores.”  They migrate to and fill a church where the pastor will “teach the Bible verse by verse, sometimes an hour or more weekly.”  It takes some preparation and presentation, but they will respond.

Not so, he says, the older generations.  We’ve trained them to need “dumbed-down” sermons” of spiritual milk.  But if you do that, you can grow a crowd without growing a church. It will  take staff and effort but have no base, and very few committed tithers.  Those kinds of members “donate” a little time and money to the cause-of-the-month, but have no staying power.  We know that won’t work to sustain your church long-term.

There is a younger generation of believers who are tired of “do the minimum” Christianity. They want it straight, they want it real, and they want it now. If you teach the Bible, and if young adults you teach sense you genuiely love them and love Jesus, you can get right in their grills. In fact, you must. If however they perceive you as a smart aleck, or you stereotype them to the extreme, you will lose them. And you will never have a chance with unchurched  young adults.

Do this and live.


Dr Alvin Reid is Professor of Evangelism at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, author and frequent speaker at youth events.

When Jeff Bezos and his wife quit their Wall Street jobs to create a company in the garage with makeshift furniture and a loan from his parents, he embodied a spirit that is worth emulating.  Who among us doesn’t admire the person who gives it all up to chase a goal that’s bigger – and succeeds.

And now, as the president of, wildly successful and rich beyond his dreams, what drives Jeff Bezos?  To the 2010 graduating class of Princeton, he related the story of one summer with his grandparents.  He was using his adolescent mind to do fancy math calculations, and ended up inadvertently insulting his grandmother.

In response, his grandfather told him, “It’s harder to be kind than clever. ”

And so his speech to Princeton was about gifts and choices.  He called cleverness a gift, something given to you.  But choices are actions taken by you, often in how the gifts are used.

“You can seduce yourself with your gifts if youre not careful, and if you do, it will probably be to the detriment of your choices.”

And then he asked a series of troubling questions

1.  How will you use your gifts? What choices will you make?

2. Will inertia be your guide or will you follow your passions?

3. Will you follow dogma or will you be original?

4. Will you choose a life of ease or a life of service and adventure?

5. Will you wilt under criticism or will you follow your convictions?

6. Will you bluff it out when you are wrong or will you apologize?

7. Will you guard your heart against rejection or will you act when you fall in love?

8. Will you play it safe or will you be a little bit swashbuckling?

9. When it’s tough, will you give up or will you be relentless?

10. Will you be a cynic or will you be a builder?

11. Will you be clever at the expense of others or will you be kind?

In conclusion, he reminded all of us who listen with ears to hear, that one day – God willing – we will sit and reflect on what we have done with our lives.  Will we be satisfied with the results?

“In the end, we are our choices.”

Hear it yourself, if you dare.

Most struggling churches see the solution to their problem as growth.  They will look to consultants and literature for  methods and options for growth.  But before we jump to conclusions, we need to know the outcome we want to see when we’re done.

The first question is to know why you want to grow, and in what areas.  If you just want numbers there are a number of gimmicks you can try to attract folks to come and sit in the pews, but never engage deeply in the life of the congregation. There are a number of mega-churches that seem to use that model.

If you want a community of deeply devoted followers of Jesus Christ, growing in understanding, compassion and mission, that’s a different problem.

People return to a restaurant where the food is good and the service is good.  They become regulars there when they can find community in  the place, knowing and being known by the staff and the other patrons.  They are more likely to contribute financially there than any other restaurant.  They may even help out if there is a need and a request.  Such it is with community.

Numbers are nice.  But as mentioned before, numbers should be the byproduct.  Focus on well-done liturgy, music that is appropriate to the demographic of the community, and opportunities to involve congregants in the tasks of the church.  Provide quality Bible study and training in how to explain their faith to their neighbors and friends.  Hold regular social gatherings.  Honor workers at all stations (from leaders to greeters) and acknowledge their service publicly.

Challenge members to be missional minded in inviting friends and coworkers. And always be open to include the outsider and the newcomer.

Do this and when growth happens, it will be healthy growth that remains vibrant.

I just found a Bill Hybels interview that says a healthy church will always evaluate what it is doing and what the culture is doing, and will change as needed.

I like the exchange about 5 minutes into this 7 minute interview,  where he says when they learn something new about how to improve, they approach the congregation,apologize for “not waking up to this sooner” and ask permission to do it.  And usually the church responds “Thanks for your honesty, and lead on!”

How often do you evaluate what you’re doing in your congregation.  Are you doing the same summer camp you did 20 years ago because it used to work?  Are all your services scripted the same (opening, 2 songs, welcome, 2 songs, offering, special, sermon, invitation, closing)?  Does the head deacon always wear the same suit?

It is vital to any healthy church to always watch the results of what you do, and evaluate outcomes at least once a year, with a hard look at least every five.

One of Jesus’ more common teaching models to interpret scripture is to begin with “you’ve heard it said…but I say to you.”  This phrase came to me when I read a report of a meeting of church planters.  They were popping off one-liners, and one blogger recorded them. The one that struck me was

It’s easier to give birth than raise the dead.

The mantra among the denominations has been that churches not adding daily to their number are dead, and we should “let the dead bury the dead.”  People want to “be fed” and are encouraged to leave the troubled church and join the big one down the street, because “a church alive is worth the drive.”

I submit to you the better explanation is that

It’s easier, cheaper and more biblical to heal a sick adult than grow a new one.

I submit that if the doors are still open, the church still has life there.  We should not be in the business of euthenasia just because it’s more fun to start new things than to take care of business.  It’s fun to make babies, but hard work to change their diapers, drive them to daycare and little league, teach them to do homework and to drive, and then turn them loose on society as responsible adults.  But it’s what we have to do.

Do you know that it takes a huge amount of effort and tens of thousands of dollars to start a new congregation?  But if you spent half that much time and a third of the money, you could probably restore a struggling congregation (if it’s willing – see discussion here). 

What does the Lord require for the struggling church to be healed?  To want to be useful, to have faith, and to be doers of the Word and not just hearers.

We may need some new churches, but more than that, we need renewed churches.  (…and fewer dismissive catch phrases)

Internet marketing trainer and ad copyrighter Ray Edwards has a great new year’s post titled “Begin Again in 2010.”  In it, he gives his readers encouragement to not only make resolutions, but actually keep them this year.  But to do that, it helps to write real goals that matter, and that you have motivation to keep.

Ray says his 2010 New Year’s Resolutions “represent hope and aspiration.”  His big 7 are:

1.Love God
2.Love others
3.Create value
4.Create happiness
5.Be here now
6.Clean up messes

Pretty good for you to emulate for you church.  Loving God and loving others ought to be your normal process, since God’s great command, as said by Jesus, is to

Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and your neighbor as yourself.

Items 3 & 4 are related in you church; the purpose of the church is to give life-changing answers to meaning-hungry people.*  When people have solutions to the vexing problems of life, they gain joy, which is deeper than temporary happiness.

The idea for “Be here now” is what I addressed in my book Hope for Struggling Churches, chapter 5 (Notice).  It’s hard to love on people from a distance.  Instead, practice hospitality. Keep in touch.  Write letters – meaningful notes.

Do you know what it feels like when you’re struggling spiritually and get a hand-written note in the mail that says “You came to mind and you were in my prayers today?  I value your friendship / your insights / your dependability.”

6 & 7 are tougher in struggling churches, but probably most important.  One of the biggest problems in struggling churches is unresolved disagreements between members, and the worst solution is for one to leave over the matter, taking their spiritual gifts away from the congregation. The pastoral leadership team needs to help the resolution of any and all outstanding issues they identify, and to do so in love.

Item 7 is important if your expenses traditionally exceed income, or there isn’t enough left over from in-house expenses to be generous, especially to missions.**

The solution may be to stop doing ministries that don’t support the core mission of the congregation, and focus attention on those that are most important.  Jim Collins’s Good to Great says the difference between a great company (church) and one that is merely good is often that the great ones focus in on doing what they do very well, and let go of those things that get in the way of doing that one great thing.  

Bake sales are OK, but not if they take time and money away from ministry; if you only sell to yourselves, what have you gained, except discouraging against regular charitable giving without expecting a return?

This is not an exhaustive list, but it’s a good start.  


*(Kelly, Why Conservative Churches are Growing)
** Estimates are that >70% of church offerings are spent on building operations, but less than 2% on world missions (and only 30% of that 2% to areas without an effective Gospel message.)

There’s a lot of duscussion about the failures of the institutional church.  However, most of the discussion is about why the church of the 1950s has failed, and why their approach is the new definitive way to turn around the church.

One model “proves” it’s point with a 3-column chart.  Column one is their description of the first thru third century church.  Column two is their assessment of “mid-twentieth century”  church.  Column three is their approach.  It should come as no surprise that their approach matches the early church description in column one, almost word-for-word.

I don’t buy it.  Neither should you.

It’s a false dichotamy.

Very few congregations have a “member benefit” mindset.  And by calling it “member benefit” they’ve used a loaded catch-phrase.  Didn’t Jesus define the standard of authentic faith as when the congregation loved one another in visible ways?  Didn’t the Jerusalem church in Acts 2 spend a lot of time feeding and teaching the church members?  Sounds like it was beneficial to be a member.

There’s been a lot of study about what the new church model ought to be.  I’m not convinced there’s anything wrong with the model, though there needs to be some adjustments.  The complaints in this model are valid in some cases.  There are some church leaders that act unbiblical in their dictatorial domination of the congregation.  But that’s not the norm.

Most congregations are led by men and women who love God and love His people.  Most congregations are filled with people doing church the best they know how.  They’re not resistent to change. Most of them have color TVs, microwaves, and cell phones.  They get new cars every few years, try new restaurants, even use the computer.   They faithfully take miracle medicines, read their Bibles and give their tithes.  Most pray for the lost and the missionaries.

The task for the 21st century church leader is not to make the modern church look like a 2d century congregation, but to organize culturally-relevant congregations to worship God, care for one another and spread the Gospel, updating the methods without compromising the core.  And without having to create a paper enemy to joust at.

One of the challenges in turning around a church is overcoming the community’s “bad feelings” about the church.  Some is that a church is by nature often at odds with the world. But in many cases it’s because of bad choices by previous pastors or members.  These need to be addressed.

Pastor Horst Bittner of Tubingen, Germany noticed a spirit of darkness in the town when he was first posted there to take over the church.  It was everywhere, even in the church.  During a period of prayer, it was revealed to him that Tubingen had a long history of anti-semitism, and many Nazis – even Gestapo – had attended Tubingen University. Some of his church memers were the children and grandchildren of concentration camp guards.  Since “the sins of the fathers are visited upon the children”,  pastor Bittner led his congregation to repent for the sin of oppression of the Jews.  They repented for their own families, and for their neighbors.  They took prayer walks around the community to fight against the spirits of darkness there.  When they did this, revival broke out.  He is now organizing marches of Germans from the cities out to the concentration camp sites and leading inprayers of repentance.  In some cases, the marches include former prisoners and former guards, and they are able to be reconciled.

Your church’s past is probably less dramatic.  But think of your own history.  Was the church started as a mission or church plant, or was it the remnant that left during a church split to form a new congregation?  In that case, the church should repent of the division.  There are times a division is necessary – the reformation involved disagreements between the established church heirarchy and the new congregations.  But when the honest theological differences give rise to anger and bitterness, the people slip into sin; that sin – however old – needs to be repented from.

Sometimes the issues are more recent.  Did the church allow sin to go unchecked and merely breathed a collective sigh of relief when the person(persons) involved left?  The stain of the sin remains, and should be dealt with.  Is there lingering anger between members?  Get over it and repent. 

This is not the only action needed to turn around a church, but will certainly hinder the restoration.

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