Most churches are born healthy. Church plants are small, underfunded, and grow slowly at first – but they’re normally healthy. How can that be? That doesn’t sound like the description of a healthy organization. Don’t most pastors and church consultants associate size, budget and growth with health?
However, the Bible does not define church as an institution but as collective and worldwide bodies of believers. Therefore, church health is not a measure of its organizational characteristics but of how healthy its members are. Are the believers who attend your worship services out of shape or are they so spiritually fit that their love for Jesus pours out of them between Sundays? Do they consistently eat right (e.g. dive into scripture) and work out (e.g. practice the Great Commission)? Are they passive, private, pensive or powerful – sharing their faith eagerly and serving others generously?
In those terms, church plants are typically healthy because their leaders and members haven’t yet faced the expectations and temptations that accompany large congregations, big expenses and rapid growth. Aspiring pastors have little to lose. They’re hungry to listen and learn. They have time to invest in personal discipleship. They get involved in local causes and reach out to help families in need. They’re unwilling to be diverted or dragged down. They make sure to surround themselves with those with deep faith and pure motives. When the church launches, it’s healthy because the pastor and his humble entourage are each individually healthy.
A church plant is like a newborn – it can’t subsist on its own. It needs the care and nurturing of strong leaders, dutiful servants and faithful supporters. It won’t be alive at the end of the week without constant attention. We wouldn’t consider such a fragile being strong and healthy. However, if the members of that church – even if it’s just 10 people – are each disciples who are making disciples, then what the Lord sees is a church that’s extraordinarily vigorous.
Where the infant church begins coming down with a cold is when it starts to grow. Similar to when entrepreneurs start a new company, at first they’re heavily focused on understanding the market need, reaching out to the community, serving customers, and training the first few employees well. Freshmen congressmen likewise listen closely to constituents, make campaign promises they intend to keep, and are eager to fight for the district on Capitol Hill. But soon the political parties get their hands on those naïve newbies and the lure of power makes them forget the ideals that led them to run for office in the first place. Entrepreneurs soon get caught up in the bureaucracy of running the business and take their eyes off the evolving needs of customers, despite the fact that it was that laser focus that led to the company’s early success. Our newborn, once-healthy church follows a similar cycle, battling increasing influence by anchor families, splits, squabbles, personnel, and politics. It’s all a pastor can do to keep all the parts of the church body moving in united fashion in the same direction.
Those internal struggles are signs of unhealthy members, meaning the church is catching a cold. However, it’s the response of church leaders to those challenges that determines whether that simple cold will turn into the flu or pneumonia. Over these next 5 weeks, we will discuss five of those responses that are sure to turn a few sneezes into an ambulance ride to the hospital or terminal stay in hospice…
For each of these we’ll discuss alternative responses that can nurse the church body back to health.
Symptom #1: Centralize
As the newborn church becomes an adolescent, it experiences growing pains. We’ve seen leaders choose one of three possible paths to provide structure for growing congregations and overcome barriers that threaten to tear the fragile youngster apart:
- Add layers to the organizational hierarchy and give senior staff more control
- Grab greater pastoral control
- Flatten the hierarchy and turn over more responsibility to lay leaders and members
The preponderance of blogs, articles and books today suggest variations of #1 and #2, wrongly defining church as an institution and not as the “called out ones” (i.e. ekklesia), “those belonging to the Lord”. Rather than seeing members as the individual stones that collectively serve as a Church without walls in 1 Peter 2:5-9, they reference that verse to encourage pastors to bring those stones together to build a physical church with walls. Because they look at church and see an organization run by leaders, they attribute growing pains to poor leadership and recommend institution-building strategies for leaders to follow, like:
- attract more non-believers through big events
- get people to do “church chores” or to join small groups
- be more bold in asking for money
- hire staff and delegate responsibilities
- add more services, seating and parking spots to give the appearance of “health”
They say ailing churches should centralize more – the worst possible prescription – because they define “church” incorrectly. In a manner of speaking, centralization takes the big “C” off “Church” and makes it a little “c” – more about building a single church rather than building the Kingdom. Because the overall pie of frequent churchgoers in America is shrinking, one church’s growth typically comes at the expense of other local churches (i.e. “transfer growth”). The big “C” for many churches has now become “Control”. Too many pastors in our experience hire young “yes” men and women, don’t disciple members, and hesitate to release members into external ministry without staff oversight, instead pushing only internal service options.
A Better Alternative
Rather than institution-building, Option #3 recommends disciple-building. It suggests empowering and equipping members to take “ownership” of their rightful, biblical roles as the living, breathing church. There is far more growth potential in a church where members are given some authority to lead as opposed to a pastor-led “genius with a thousand helpers”. Churches need less centralized control, not more. As opposed to the advice of nearly all so-called “experts” today, revitalizing a church is not about leading better, it’s about leading less and empowering more.
It’s Your Turn
How healthy is your church?