“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.

 

 

 

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.

According to a Hartford Seminary study, churches that had been declining and have begun the turnaround have several key indicators in common:

1. more contemporary worship.  They see this as a cause, rather than an indicator of willingness to be adaptable.  I see it as the latter.  Many emergent congregations are moving to chants and hymns, which are not within the “contemporary christian” genre, and even some of the more popular worship songs within that genre are recast hymns.  It is not the use of drums and guitars, but a willingness to refresh the music to match the tastes and desires of the target audience.

2.  a strong sense of identity and mission – Dorothy Campbell writes of the need for a spiritual gate-keeper.  Maxwell writes of the need for a visioning leader.  Both indicate an organization that knows who it is and why it exists.  By regularly describing that identity and mission to all who attend, they are able to shape life solutions for what’s been called a “meaning-hungry culture.”

3.  do little things well – the attention to details matters.  Basic cleanliness and reduction of accumulated clutter adds a lot to the appearance of a vibrant church.  (3-year-old magazines on the give-away rack indicate a stale church.)

4.  recognizing volunteers  – the church is built on volunteers, but people get tired of doing the same thing over and over with no reward.  we hope God will one day say “well done” but we like to hear it from time to time here on earth. 

5.  contacting inactive members. Just because they don’t come to your church doesn’t mean they go somewhere else.  For some, they just drifted away.  For others, it’s a simple issue that needs addressing, or a disagreement with someone that no longer attends (or has died); with that issue resolved, they might be disposed to return and renew their activity.

This is not a definitive list.  There is a longer discussion in my book “From the Brink: Hope for Struggling Churches.”   But this is a good start.  Any congregation can do these with little or no injection of new cash, only a change in attitude.

 

source:

http://www.courier-journal.com/article/20091002/NEWS01/910030301/Many+congregations+continue+to+shrink

What is the strength of your church?  What is its mission?  Who are the target audience?  Are you focused enough to check progress, or are you scattering random seed to the wind?  You have to plant the right seed in the right soil to gain the expected harvest.  Anything less will be a disappointment.

The “National Survey of Megachurch Attenders” has been released by Leadership Network (www.leadnet.org) and Hartford Seminary’s Hartford Institute for Religion Research (http://hirr.hartsem.edu/). Officially called “Not Who You Think They Are: The Real Story of People Who Attend America’s Megachurches,” it says that megachurches (over 2000 attending consistently) are more likely to attract younger, unmarried, better educated and more affluent.  It also says they attract based on paid staff (pastor and worship team), and have higher rates of uninvolved attenders.

45% of megachurch attenders never volunteer at the church, and 40 percent are not engaged in a small group, the mainstay of megachurch programming.

By contrast, the small church is focused around family or community / neighborhood.  Your task, in leading a church through a turnaround, is to know what God has called your church to do and to whom you are to minister.  Start by assessing the community needs and the available resources already available within the congregation.

For example, if your neighborhood has widows or single mothers of young children, and your congregation has mechanics or handymen, you could provide

  • free labor
  • training for minor/routine repairs
  • advice on picking a professional

All 3 are valid expressions of love and concern, and get you into the community.  True, megachurches could do it better, but the survey suggests they won’t.  That’s for you.

—–

1.  http://hirr.hartsem.edu/megachurch/megachurch_attender_pressrelease.html

2.  www.leadnet.org/megachurch

3.  http://hirr.hartsem.edu

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%).

In the mail this month came 4 requests for contributions from a particular charity I used to contribute to regularly.  They ought to be dominating their niche, but continue to struggle for funds.

When I worked with them a couple of years ago, they were struggling to pay each month’s basic bills, and had lost competent field workers for non-payment of support funds.  I provided them strategies that ought to have doubled their income by now.  And I suggested ways to increase their volunteer pool such that they should have needed to operate their own lodging at the charity site to handle the stream of volunteers.

They have a unique selling position in how they operate at the point of impact, but their headquarters back-office is getting in the way of resounding success.

The prevailing mindset of the charity leadership reflects the training of the Director, who had been a marketing manager in the 90s.  Even today, except for the logo, their marketing looks so dated and generic it would be hard to distinguish from the other end-of-year mailouts I got.

I’d guess they will miss-read why I gave this week, and why I picked the particular envelope to use.  There were the standard weepy-eyed children pics in one, an urgent appeal for cash to make budget, a cheery newsletter, and a matching grant offer.  I sorted through the list and gave to the one that seemed to provide the most benefit to the organization.

I know these people.  I’m guessing they’ll look at the response rates and assume that it took a matching grant letter to pull a donation out of me.  They’ll do the analysis of the results and repeat the one that garnered the most response, and will repeat it several times in the coming year.

Trouble is, I had already decided to be generous to half a dozen charities instead of spending lavishly on my family, and they were in the list.  (If there had been an offer to support a particular cause or volunteer, I might have chosen that one instead!)  They didn’t ask for my opinion of the organization, what mattered to me about what they do, about what I might support in the future.  They don’t know what it will take me to go from $50 a year to $500 a year, or what it would take for me to move from occasional donor to again be an active volunteer.

They will continue to assume they know what will work, and that they continue to struggle because the market is saturated and the economy is bad.  They will believe their own research that supports their assumptions.

And they will stay a small, struggling charity.

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…)