“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.

 

 

 

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I was asked what causes churches to die.  Is it sloppy / liberal theology?   a lack of discipleship programs?  the lack of theological education?

One cause is evangelical sloth.  RR Reno claims that “Sloth and cowardice …slink away from the urgency of conviction. Both fear the sharp edge of demand and expectation. Both have a vested interest in cynicism, irony and outward conformity. These vices, not pride, now dominate our culture.” (1)(2)

The remedy is often the professionalization of the clergy, where we leave our spiritual disciplines to our surrogates to satisfy.  And if their own theology is sloppy, all the better to attract  a society of believers having shared slothful theology.

I’ve seen healthy churches led by barely-educated farmers whose only texts were a well-worn Bible and a commentary (the man in mind used KJV and Matthew Henry). 

 Churches struggle when the leadership keeps people from exercising their spiritual giftedness, they come to believe their service is not needed (anybody could do it), and will let other volunteer work crowd out church work (especially those clubs that mimic their giftedness).   When the pastor doesn’t allow for meaningful service, he doesn’t get any.  The people forget how to serve (or never learn) and quit trying.  Lay leaders leave to serve elsewhere, leaving the sitters, and staff start drifting away as well.

And since involved volunteers are more likely to give (and usually give 4 times as much), the budget also suffers.  The staff have to do more and more on less and less.   This causes the pastor to have to work even harder doing the “professional preacher” kinds of things.  I’ve seen churches thrive without a full-time pastor.  I’ve rarely seen a healthy church without  involved deacons in active service.

The turnaround begins when a leader insists on a return to core fundamentals – discipleship, prayer, outreach/evangelism and individuals caring for one another (instead of passing it off on the pastor).   It doesn’t have to be the pastor – this works well if the leader is a deacon – but a pastor is the one person who can stop it.

I’ve seen healthy churches led by barely-educated farmers whose only texts were a well-worn Bible and a commentary (the man in mind used KJV and Matthew Henry).  I’ve seen churches thrive without a full-time pastor.  I’ve rarely seen a healthy church without  involved deacons in active service.

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sources
1. Reno, RR The Ruins of the Church: Sustaining Faith in an age of Diminished Christianity, p8
2. http://www.opensourcetheology.net/node/788