“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.




Austin Rammel may be onto something.  Pastor of Venture church in Dallas, North Carolina, his church voted to sell the building and relocate to a school.  It gave them $80k in working capital and the flexibility to grow and contract as needed, in that the school auditorium and side rooms can accommodate between 500 and 900, without looking too empty or too full either way.  (With 2 services, the school gives him space for 1800.)

Moving to the school also helps with the community that distrusts churches, because the church truly is the people and not the place.  And the place is in the middle of lots of families.

What struck me most was his comment in the announcement message about when people liked to come.  Most churches want that core 11am Sunday time, but Austin says the 9:30 time slot actually has the greatest long term growth potential.  He’s working on 2 services,  since “having two Rocked Out Gatherings gives people a chance to serve in one and worship in the other … all while their children are taken care of!”

The church I attend has 2 morning services, at 9:15 and 11 (plus a smaller crowd at 6pm).  I sing in the choir and notice the 9:15 are the faithful regulars, and it stays 70-80% full, even on weekends when the 11am drops to barely half full (I guess irregular visitors take vacation those weeks).\

It makes sense to me.  I attend the first service and, after singing in the second, go off to the Bible study hour.  I find I enjoy the study time more after having worshiped.

(for those townspeople that need to work on Sunday, having a 9 or 9:30 service lets them attend before slipping on the apron to serve lunch to folks from other churches.)

reference:  AustinRammel.com

I was in a committee meeting for a social cause I’m starting, and oen of the members started talking about her church.  She’s part of one of the ministries that’s trying to do more than the church is comfortable doing.  I think she’s honoring the Gospel with the activity, but it’s at cross purposes with the overall strategy of the pastoral staff.  It’s fine to do so long as it doesn’t interfere or take attention away from what the they have planned to do.

So why doesn’t she get on their agenda and show the value?  Seems that church is run by paid staff and self-elected deacon board.  The only whole-church meetings are tightly scripted without option for questions in the open forum.  Votes are taking in the middle of the sermon, where peer pressure gains the assent from the majority comfortable to “sit and soak”.

The frustration for that one activity is poisoning her response to the rest of the church’s activities.  She’s not coming to church as often.  She’s more likely to miss the Sunday small group Bible study.  I don’t know for sure, but I’d bet she’s diverting at least some of her tithe to the outside ministry directly.

What can you do to first prevent this and second restore the one drifting away?

Start by having a culture of listening.  In my church, one of the largest in the area, the pastor makes an effort to circulate in the lobby after serices, and is one of the last to leave on Sunday.   He acts like the pastor of a church of 150 (rather than 3000).It doesn’t make the church less large, but makes it more personable.

Second, I feel that the job of a deacon includes listening to the congregation and hearing the grumblings, to deal with them before they get out of hand.  In one church, we had two strains of discontent circulating just under the surface.  Few knew of both, but they fed off the negative attitudes of the other.  When I discovered the first, adn then the second, I took action to hear the frustrations, and was able to diffuse the one, and then the second, and although the root problem (lack of a pastor) didn’t immediately go away, the congregational attitude shifted.

In most cases, it’s a misunderstanding, or someone didn’t get the word in time.  If you have active listening systems in place, those will be taken care of early before they discontent takes root and poisons the congregational atmosphere.

The greeter is often the first person someone sees when they come to the
church.  They set the tone for the experience.  Their smile and
welcoming handshake puts the person at ease.  They are there to help
take care of any immediate needs, like where to hang a wet overcoat or
how to find the rest room, or where to take a young child for care.

They help the person to their seat and provide instruction as to what
will happen during the service (such as a bulletin or order of service).
In this sense, greeters become the servants of God’s people, the way
Jesus told us.  Remember that at the last Supper, while the Disciples
were arguing over who would get the best seat, Jesus became the servant
and washed the road grime from their feet before they lay down on the
floor to eat (do you want someone’s dirty feet next to your plate?)

Jesus did the mundane task of making them comfortable so that they could
concentrate on what was going to be said later.

Louise Berkinaw speaks of our communities having an invisible wall around it, and the newcomer needing the help of others to “find their way back” to normalcy.  When people do make it through the door, what do they see?  Ms  Berkinow says that “Newcomers don’t know where to make contact.”[1] She
was at the time talking about wives of geographically mobile corporate
executives in the 80s.  Moving to a new town, not knowing how to get
involved in the society of the new community.  So they would sit home a
lot, afraid to do anything that would jeopardize the husband’s career
and their own lifestyle.  It wasn’t much, but it was all they knew. 

Or maybe, your visitor might be someone who had wandered from God, and
is almost afraid to come back to church, and needs someone to give them
the assurance that it’s OK to come back.  The greeter becomes the hands
and feet of Jesus, the loving father to the prodigal child, excited that
they have come back to the community of faith.

In a new report from the Barna Group finds that nine out of every ten Americans (86%) describe themselves as “caring deeply about social injustice.”

We in the church want to think it’s our influence, but in reality it’s part of our God-given nature to help out.  Americans in general care about justice and fairness, and feel a desire to help fix the issue if they have it in their power to do so.

What the church can do is make opportunity to participate.  Rather than restrict who can help to “us only”, find a way for outsiders to help.  Of course you want insiders to lead and need for the newbies to follow guidelines, but maybe the taste of and place of service is all that’s needed to bring someone in.

When my daughter was young, I coached her church basketball team.  My assistant was another dad, not a church member, not strong in his faith.  He sat through each of 10 weekly devotionals and watched me show love and compassion on the court.  He started attending church regularly and soon was an active member of the congregation.

The church used to do a big Easter production.  It took a lot of people to pull it off.  Mike had been attending only services, floating in and slipping out.  But there was a need for more people in the parking lot, and one night of duty turned into regular service and a sense of belonging.

For myself, I was a teenager when I noticed the oldest members had trouble using the ancient church elevator.  I helped them on and off, pulling back the metal cage and holding the heavy door.  When one of the deacons complained about me being there, a more senior elder countered and let me continue that little service.  Small as it was, it was training me for a life of church involvement.

So look around.  My church is handing out food for Easter, using lots of new volunteers.  The greeting committee has doubled itself for that day to stand at the doors and smile, saying “thanks for coming” at both the walking in and the walking out.  How hard is that?

So go ahead.  Get creative.  Let the people serve.


From the Barna survey:

On social awareness, matters of lifestyle, and the desire for simplicity, the self-identities of born agains and others were very similar. Only two of the non-spiritual self-perceptions showed any difference, and those gaps were minimal: born again Christians were slightly more likely than others to see themselves as making a positive difference in the world (83% versus 74%, respectively) and slightly more likely to be fulfilling personal life calling (76% to 67%).

Scott Forbes had turned his life around.  Overcoming addictions to drugs and alcohol, he then earned a bachelor’s degree in addiction and several counseling certifications  He also has a master’s degree in organizational management.  And then a false report undid it all.

Forbes had spent 22 years working for various programs that assist those with similar addictions to what he had overcome.  In November 2004, Forbes became director of Hope Haven in Madison, operated by Catholic Charities of Madison, WI.  It was a promotion and job change from a related job with Catholic Charities.  And it meant he moved offices.

Then in October 2005, a computer disk was found in his old office back at Marquette County Chemical Dependency Service.  The computer disk contained a “significant amount of pornographic images” that included those of children.  They also found working files created by Forbes.  The fact that it was a “read/writable” disk for adding new files later didn’t register with the police.

He was arrested in April and charged with with 17 counts of child pornography, including pictures of two boys between the ages of 13 and 15 and one girl about 8 to 10 years old.

He was fired from his job immediately, before the charges were filed. He challenged the firing, and eventually the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development ruled in his favor.

“The state ruled that I had been terminated without cause,” he said. “But that did not save my career.”

He had lost his job; he lost friends. He had to sell off some family property.   He became a carpenter to make ends meet.

Finally last week, the judge ruled that he had not been given enough evidence when he authorized the search, and if he had he’d known the evidence was too flimsy to make a case.  He ruled the evidence inadmissible.  The jury of 10 women and two men unanimously found Forbes not guilty on all charges.

Vindicated, he admitted it has made him stronger, but then added “I’d have been fine with being less strong.”

(reference:  capital newspaper)


The lesson for us is to have adequate liability insurances for your church.  A false accusation based on the slimmest of connections ruined his career, his reputation and – but for the faith of his wife – could have ended his marriage.

You know the concept of the bystander effect.  That is the sociological term where a person in a group is less likely to get involved in an emergency situation or request for help than someone standing alone.  The research shows that people will watch a crime but not get involved, thinking they are not qualified or out of fear for their own safety.  Not until one of their number acts will anyone else move to get involved.  Usually it takes a direct personal appeal to a single individual (by name or with eye contact – even if randomly chosen) to get them to get involved. (more…)

Robbie wrote a great post called “No Youth Volunteers: No Youth Ministry”  He gives the qualities of a good youth volunteer: Crazy, Radical, Caffeinated, Brave, Dreamer.

For instance, he says “A Youth Volunteer steps out of their shoes & walks in a teenagers shoes. The best leaders are the ones that relate to the youth, where the youth are at. … Youth volunteers take the Gospel & radically mold it to where the youth are. Jesus did ministry the same way”

The good youth worker sees past the exterior and sees a teen to find themselves in a culture that is constantly changing, trying to find some hope.  “They dream about what God could do…and take action.”

The pastoral youth leader is there to plan, to pray, to organize. But it’s tough doing it alone.  Every church that is committed to reaching teenagers for the Gospel needs mature volunteer believers who will look past their own discomfort to pour themselves into the next generation.  They’re out there.  Go get them.

 I met the leaders of a division of a certain volunteer organization. They do essentially the same as dozens of other community service organizations, but this group requires you be trained by them to do what others have been doing for decades. Then, if you want to participate in one of their trips, you have to go with one of their chapters, on their schedule. Many – myself included – would participate more, except my work schedule hasn’t let me match up with the trips sponsored by my local chapter. I asked if there was a way for me to find a trip to join up with a different local chapter, but they tell me they don’t have the structure or the people to handle non-standard requests, or to let you serve less than their standard one week’s service.

When I went to refresher training, this leader made an odd comment to the group, lamenting that only 20% of the ones they train actually go with them on one of their trips. When I asked him about his comment privately after the training, he claimed it was an example of the Pareto 80/20 rule, and there was no reason to expect anything different. He wouldn’t listen when I tried to tell him differently.


Westchester Church in Grand Prarie, Texas is taking a soft sell to making friends in the community.  Free breakfast, hot and fast, no strings attached.

The problem with the way most of us do giveaways is there is a catch.  You gotta show up on Sunday and listen through a sermon.  They did that at the rescue mission that I did an early sermon at.  They had to listen to the sermon first to get fed after (so don’t preach too long!)

What Westminster does is give free breakfast on Friday to folks on the way to work.  They arrive around sunup and set out signs, cones, coolers, and muffins.  They position several people out at the street to invite the traffic in and a couple at the tables handing out the food and drink.   Everything is prepackaged to stay clear of health department rules.

On average, it takes about 20 seconds to take an order and fill it, and send the people on their way with an encouraging word. They have make strategic contacts with the community (including the police stopping by for free grub).  It costs a couple hundred dollars – an average day is around 80 cars.

The point is that they are connecting with their community, the people that live or work near that church.  It’s already on their drive path. 

You may wince at spending a couple hundred on stuff with no commitment, but how much is a single newspaper ad? (hint:  multiple hundreds of dollars for a small impression)

Source:  http://illogicalstrategy.com/?p=25   

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