“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)

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