“Do you want to be well?”[i]

On the surface, it was an odd question for Jesus to be asking. Here was a man who had been sitting at the well for 35 years, waiting for healing from the crippling disease. To Jesus’ question, he tried to make excuses for himself: “I’ve been here all this time,” he complained, “but every time the angel troubles the water, someone else jumps ahead of me and steals the blessing. So I go back to waiting.”

But that wasn’t the question Jesus asked. In John 5, Jesus asked if the man truly wanted to be well, or whether he was content to rest on excuses. Sounds like a man I met who has been homeless for 15 years. He showed up at our church once right after the Sunday morning service complaining of being hungry. He said he, his wife and the three kids living with him in an old Mercury had spent the night in the Wal-Mart parking lot, since they didn’t have anywhere to live. We scrambled and found a warm bed for his wife and kids in one place, a bed for him in another, and meals all around. But it wasn’t to his liking. He said he wanted them to be together. But as the story came out, for the past 15 years he has worked day jobs when he could get them, then spent the nights in motel rooms – at $35 a night. Thirty days at $35 a night is almost enough for security deposit & first month’s rent at one of the area’s low-income apartments, but that’s not what he wanted. I don’t think he wanted to be well, to have a steady job, an apartment of his own, food on his own table. He wanted handouts. He even brought the kids back to church in the evening, had them walk around the parking lot in t-shirt and shorts, with no shoes on their bare feet in the cool night air, just as we were leaving evening service. He wouldn’t come inside the church. He just wanted us to feel bad and give him something[ii].

And still Jesus asks, “Do you want to be well?” Do you want to be free from the things that hold you back? I hear the same from churches. “We can’t grow because we can’t do the programs that the big churches do. They have lots of staff and lots of money, and anytime they do something, they’ve got lots of people to do it with. We’re small and we don’t have that kind of money and we don’t have the people to do the fancy camps that bring people in. We can’t afford the fancy graphics systems and video projectors. If we had video projectors and a band, then people would come to our church and we could pay our bills. Did you know that big church paid over ten thousand dollars for their video projectors? And they have three of them! Three! That’s half our annual budget! If we had half the money they blow on all that fancy equipment, we could be big, too.”

You know that’s not the answer. Jesus isn’t asking why your church isn’t healthy. He doesn’t want your excuses. He wants to know if your ‘want to’ still wants what your words say you want. Jesus offers a new thing. Just as Jesus wasn’t offering to help the man cut in line, he is not offering to let you keep failing. He wants you to be well in a new way.

Like the prophet Ezekiel. In chapter 37 of that prophet’s book to us, he tells of when the Lord took him to a desert filled with bones of people long dead, bones dried in the sun and wind. God asks the rhetorical question, “Can these bones live?” Ezekiel wisely answers, “Only you know, Lord.” So God told him to prophesy over the bones. To prophesy is to speak the words of God, to create an effect. The prophesy held the power of God in it, and the bones gathered themselves together, grew flesh and skin and became whole. But still there was no life in them. Again Ezekiel prophesied, and the Spirit breathed life into a mighty army.

Jack was a good pastor. But got so involved with doing good things in ministry and evangelism that he forgot to maintain the connections to his family. And when his wife left, he lost his position at the church. So he became a missions volunteer to New England, where less than 10% of the population attended ANY church on a given Sunday. And after traveling the region for a couple of years strengthening the fledgling churches there and encouraging their pastors, we offered him our pastorate, a parsonage and a salary. We were a congregation of 45 southerners, transplanted into Massachusetts, struggling to pay the bills. He taught us to think outside ourselves. We learned first-hand the scripture “you have not because you do not ask.” So we asked. Other churches sent people and money to help rehabilitate our dilapidated buildings. They came by the busload to help us hold summer camps. With their help, we offered 5-day a week half-day camps for the town, teaching basketball, drama, music, and Vacation Bible School. We had almost as many kids the first summer as members in the church – 35 in all. The second summer, parents started calling to book a spot in February, and 85 came. By the third summer, we had to limit enrollment to 110. Some of those kids came on Sunday, and brought their parents, who brought their friends. The church is now a missions-sending congregation of about 200, and closing in on 15 years’ of annual “Super Summers.”

I took those ideas with me when I spent a year helping a small church in Virginia that was slowly dying. The verse that drove me that year was Ephesians 3:20, “to Him who is able to do more than you can think or imagine, be all glory in the church.” The problem, I told them, was that we weren’t thinking big enough. They were whining about why they couldn’t flourish under the old rules, and I kept asking if they really wanted to be well. Together, we found a federally-funded program run by the city that passes out nutritious meals to school aged children, and volunteered to be a host site for the distribution. We got 75 neighborhood kids in the building every day, 5 days a week, for 9 weeks. Some of those kids began to hang around all day, playing ping-pong, or volleyball, or on the playground at the city park next door. We got to know them and they got to know us. They brought their friends and their siblings. The church youth group grew from 3 to 20, and the elementary attendance went from 8 to 18. Helpers from outside the church volunteered their time, and a work team cleaned up the building for us. Long-time members were amazed at what was happening. It was truly “more than they could imagine.”

Isaiah 43:18-19 tells us to “Cease to dwell on days gone by” and see God do “a new thing.” The first stage in any 12-step recovery program is recognition that you have a problem. To stop dwelling on past glory, recognize there is a problem and begin to look forward to a different future.

This is the situation that Nicholas Imparato and Oren Harari wrote about in Jumping the Curve[iii], saying that the normal “bell curve” of an industry is early growth to match an untapped market need, followed by a period of relative stability, finished out by decline and then widespread failure of the lesser players in that market segment. He says it is unlikely for such a business to ever regain its position as a leader in the marketplace. The “curve” also reflects the normal life cycle of the average church: rapid growth at the beginning, high activity in the middle, followed by gradual – and then rapid – decline. They will continue to do what they’ve always been doing, but the “market” has changed, and the old ideas no longer work.

Some would interpret this data to suggest that once a church ceases to grow and starts consistently losing members, its downward path isn’t likely to change, and it may be more useful to the kingdom of God to cease operations altogether, rather than let it suffer a lingering death. The facts match the research. Dean N Kelley says that “having once succumbed to debility, a church is unlikely to recover, not because measures leading to recovery could not be prescribed and instituted … but because the persons who now occupy positions of leadership and followership in the church will not find them congenial and will not want to institute them. They prefer a church which is not too strenuous or demanding – a church, in fact, which is dying.”[iv]

Sociologist Gary Farley has focused on small churches and rural churches. His research suggests that the normal life span of a church is less than 50 years, and it is unlikely for a church to survive much past the 40th anniversary unless it reinvents itself.[v] I believe that the word “unless” is an important word. This is the “jump” that Imparato and Harari wrote about. There has to be a new thing done. There has to be restoration of the original enthusiasm, done in updated ways. At New Colony, the results of the series of “church family meetings” affirmed our heritage but changed our style. We “jumped the downward part of the curve” and – by the grace of God – began to do new things, creating a new period of growth, which stabilized at 4 times the size of the pre-restoration church.

The problem, of course, is that even though most pastors say they want to be well, to grow, to be effective congregations for the Kingdom of God,[vi] a number of them don’t know how to begin. so long as God doesn’t ask them to do anything that hasn’t already been tried before. (Many of these churches will actually spend more effort recreating the form of some other church’s successful idea without first doing the underlying work that enabled that other church to be successful.) They are like the unproductive fig tree of Mark 11 that Jesus prophesied against, the one that withered from the roots up and died in a day. These people would have us give the building and assets to an emerging congregation and send the members away to sit on the back pew of another church.

I serve a God of second chances. Perhaps these don’t know they’re not well. When my mother had cataract surgery, she was astounded at the result. She had forgotten that the world wasn’t full of washed out colors. She didn’t know what it was to be well until after the healing. In the same way, when my son was young, after persistent infections in his ears, he had surgery to put tubes in them; he was at first scared of the toilet flushing, a sound this boy could not remember hearing.

In hundreds of churches, the membership doesn’t know why they aren’t successful as a church, why they can’t seem to get ahead, can’t grow. They don’t know that what they experience week to week isn’t normal. They think it’s because they don’t have a dynamic preacher, or an attractive location, or a modern facility. So they don’t believe it will ever be any different. For them to be well – to be a fully functioning community of maturing believers who are evangelical in their Gospel and nurturing in their fellowship – it means they will have to overcome the inertia of their past. Some are burdened with indebtedness or worn-out buildings, but even more carry the heavier load of old ways of thinking.

So I ask the trick question: Is Jesus all-powerful? Or rather, can Jesus do anything he wants? I say a trick question because the answer is the all-too-frustrating “it depends.” Does our God have the ability to assert Himself into the affairs of his people and do with them whatever he wants at any given moment? Yes, the creator of the universe has it in His power to do anything He chooses to do. But He limits himself by the affairs of men. Just as He will not force a conversion, but only ask for wholehearted love and obedience, He also will not force an unwilling congregation to move beyond the limit of their faith. Look at Jesus’ actions as recorded in the 6th chapter of Mark. Scripture says “he could do no miracle there except that he laid his hands upon a few sick people and healed them.” Nothing? The all powerful Son of the Lord Most High, who had just raised a 12-year-old girl from the dead (Mark 5:41-42), was limited? Mark 6:6 gives the answer: “He wondered at their unbelief.”

And therein is the danger. Scripture warns us to not put new wine into old wineskins. I personally do not agree with those who interpret that to mean we should shut the doors on struggling churches and instead focus all our energies on starting new congregations. Rather, I interpret that scripture to say we need to limber up those wineskins, to be healed like the withered arm in Luke 6:6-11, to stretch forth and be transformed by the renewing of our minds and hearts and spirits. When they “reset the tent pegs and loosen the cords,”[vii] they will be transformed into a new kind of church, in which new wine will flow freely, for the glory of God.

This book hopes to help those congregations discover where they are, what’s working and what needs to be changed, and then strategies for recovering the excitement present when the church was young. It is not so much new methods as much as a collection of the best ideas I can find, a restatement of a number of standard methods “reframed” for today’s world. The goal is to remove barriers for empowering on-fire people to advance the Kingdom through the church.

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If you were to measure the coastline of the United States, from the tip of Maine to the southern tip of Florida, in hundreds of miles, it is 2,300 miles long. If you were to measure actual miles, counting the inlets, bays, and mouths of rivers, the number would more than double. But if you tried to accurately measure the coastline with a 12” ruler, with all the irregularity of the coastline which is not actually ruler straight, it would multiply exponentially, giving a distance in many thousands of miles. Which is correct? They all are, depending on how you measure.

How you measure is a function of what kind of answer you need and how accurate it needs to be. The rule in the military is cynically described as “measure with micrometer, mark with chalk, cut with an axe.” If were going to cut with an axe, an eyeball estimate is good enough. Cutting with a crosscut handsaw is more precise, but not so much so that chalk isn’t fine enough. If the doctor wants to cut me with a scalpel, I trust he’s taken the time and effort to measure closely, to cut only what he has to.

If you choose to conduct a survey, unless the group measured is very small or the consequences especially important, statistical sampling is good enough. A quorum of a tenth of a large organization is usually sufficient, or a third of a medium-sized group. Having a range of choices or open-ended questions will make simple scoring harder but will often bring more meaning to the study than a simple yes/no survey. You will want to ask enough questions all at once to get a clear picture without overburdening the responder. A five-minute survey is easy to complete, but when five minutes turns into twenty, the person you’re asking may get frustrated and walk away. But if you don’t ask enough questions, you’ll have to interpret data you don’t have (or you’ll have to bother the same people again.) I recently took a survey where the church asked who I was, the birthdates of everyone in the family, how long in the church and what the parents were involved in, but nothing about the activities of the children (which is a truer indication of the time availability of the parents), nor did it ask what I wanted to be involved in, if I were asked, allowed, or had time for. Three more lines on the paper, or some blank lines on the back, would probably have given more insight into the congregation than simply culling the rolls for who’s actually attending.

But be careful that you avoid what Kristin Zhivago calls the “metrics pit.”[i] In spite of your best efforts to gather meaningful data, the lack of an understanding of why the survey, and how the data is going to be used, abused and interpreted will often lead to a poorly-executed survey or results no one believes. Non-representative samples can tell you things that are not generally true. In statistics class, we used the textbook How to Lie with Statistics, and we joked about the “three out of four doctors surveyed” commercials by asking how many of those four still works for the company.

Start Where You Are

Ezekiel 33 gives the warning to the watchman, to the one who sees the truth, to act on that knowledge. It is the same as when Peter offered the altar call in Acts 2. James 2 tells us that knowing and not doing is sinful. But where do you begin?

I hear tales of people widowed after a long marriage, thinking they’d like to have a new spouse, but they’ve been out of the dating world so long, they’ve forgotten how to go about it. Some churches are like that. They’ve done the same things week after week, year after year, they don’t know how to do anything different. Or they grow comfortable with doing the same things over and over, and may not want to change. It’s similar to the trouble with clear cellophane or wrapping tape: if you lose the end, and it sticks to the roll, you forget where that end was and can’t find it again!

Change is painful. The more ingrained the behavior, the harder it is to change it. Recovered drug addicts and alcoholics know the agony of detoxification. If you’re a coffee drinker, and you suddenly stop your caffeine, you’ll feel the physical effects, too. In much the same way, the habits of being a renewed church will be unfamiliar.

Start with what is within your grasp at the moment. Do what you can do and don’t worry about the rest until later. Trust that the resources you need to be able to do what is essential for today are already in your grasp. As your awareness of issues grows and new resources are given to you, address them at that time.

Start with the suggestions in the following chapter, addressing the core values represented on the circular organizational chart. Return to what you know to do without a doubt. In the same way that John Wesley was told to “preach faith until you have it, then preach faith,” you need to be diligent in prayer, Bible study, worship and the fellowship of saints. In all likelihood, you will be like the object of C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape, and the devil will begin to attack, to get you to give up and go back to your old ways.

[i] Zhivago Kristin. “ Escaping the Metrics Pit” http://www.cmomagazine.com/read/100104/metrics-pit.html

[i] [i] John 5 (v1-9).

[ii] (I’ve seen him since, at the food pantry, taking bags of groceries in the minivan newer than mine.)

[iii] Imparato, Nicholas, and Harari, Oren, Ph.D; Jumping the Curve: Innovation and Strategic Choice in an Age of Transition, (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1994)

[iv] Kelly, Dean N., Why Conservative Churches are Growing (NY: Harper & Row, 1972),page x

[v] Farley, Gary E, PhD “Some Twenty Observations about Non-metropolitan churches confronting change,” Appendix Two in Working Paper: The Churching of the Metro-Fringe, a case study of Southern Baptists in Kansas City/Raytown, 1945-1995. North American Mission Board, File 1029, Revised March 29, 2001

[vi] Farley, ibid

[vii] Isaiah 54:2

Copyright 2008, Harwin House Publishing, Hampton, VA, All rights reserved.

No part of this postmay be reproduced or transmitted in any form whatsoever, electronic, or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any informational storage or retrieval system without the expressed written, dated and signed permission from the author.


6 Responses to “Assessing the Need in Your Church”

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  3. Kosaitis Says:

    Meridia ex
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