This summer, I took my family on vacation to Universal and we were having a good time. Then four days into my vacation, I found myself in the emergency room with a blood pressure of 200/120. They ran tests and then I spent the next several weeks going to doctor’s appointments, finding the right combination of medications to manage my high blood pressure. During that process, they got family history, blood work, did an EKG, and took my blood pressure regularly. You know what they didn’t do? They didn’t x-ray my knee. They didn’t run an exam on my eyesight to see if I am wearing my contacts. They didn’t even take a throat culture to see if I had strep… I mean, it’s my body right? My heart is instrumental in making all of those things work. They didn’t count how many times I had been to the doctor. Surely if I am going to the doctor and I haven’t missed an appointment, I should be healthy, right? I even looked up high blood pressure on WebMD (by the way, I now have 15 other diseases thanks to that search). If only that actually worked, I mean I am really good at not missing doctor’s appointments. Unfortunately, if I plan on beating my high blood pressure (and I will), my doctors are going to need to assess things that ACTUALLY measure the health of my heart.
A lot has been said about the health of the church over the last several years. Tom Rainer, former CEO of Lifeway, wrote a book a few years ago titled Autopsy of a Deceased Church. In it, Rainer said this about healthy churches:
“Thriving churches have the Great Commission as the centerpiece of their vision, while dying churches have forgotten the clear command of Christ.”Thom Rainer, Autopsy of a Deceased Church
You notice that at the centerpiece of these churches is the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20). That beautiful, wonderful command given to us by Christ before he ascended back to the Father. In those few short verses, we have been given the concept of missions (taking the gospel to all the nations), the idea that we are all messengers of the gospel (baptizing people), and the truth that we are all disciple-makers (teaching them to obey God’s commands). This is the barometer. A church and the health of a church should be measured based on how they are making disciples.
You know what is NOT at the centerpiece of healthy churches? NUMBERS!!!! You cannot adequately define the health of a church through the number of people coming in and out of your doors. That’s like gauging the health of my heart by counting the number of doctors appointments I have gone to. Unfortunately, all too often, this is the ONLY barometer used. Questions like, “So, how many people came to youth last night?” or “Wow attendance in the service has been down, what is going on?” or “People are leaving, there must be a problem.” Now, analytics are certainly useful and we do keep a close eye on the number of people walking through our door; but what I am interested in is how many of those people are walking out of our doors fully committed to living every second of every day for Christ to the best of their ability. Too often, churches and organizations make the grave mistake of making budgets, money, and jobs tied to numbers. The unfortunate realization is that we treat our church, our associations, and our conventions TOO much like a business. I understand the money needs, I really do. However, we see a decline in product, therefore we have to make cuts and the only measurable way we can gauge production is the number of baptisms and salvations. Doing this makes often causes us to cut in the wrong places. Let me explain 3 dangerous ways this is ultimately a death sentence to churches, associations, conventions, and in more drastic cases, church goers if they do not pull away from this measurement of health and begin gauging health by discipleship.
First, when you put such an emphasis on numbers, the inclination is to associate it to tithing members. The erroneous thought is, the more members we have, the more tithers we will have. So the CFOs and the finance committees begin pushing for more and more members. Stop….is tithing something that magically happens when we are saved? When you were baptized, did you emerge from the water and immediately think, “Oh man, I better start giving 10% of my income.” No, you didn’t. If you tithe, it is because you were discipled to do so. There is a lot of good truth in the gospel, tithing isn’t mentioned in the free gift of salvation though. That always comes later. So, what you have is pressure on your staff or, if you are an association or convention, pressure on your churches to baptize more people so that “giving members go up.” Listen to a hard truth, there are more “members” sitting in church today that are not tithing than are. So, obviously, the innate desire to tithe doesn’t come with salvation. What does come is the desire to learn more and draw closer to Christ and in that discipleship, tithing becomes apparent and necessary to the believer.
Second, a church based on numbers almost universally has an unhealthy tie to “the good old days.” They remember when pews were full and the money flowed. The church did whatever ministry they wanted because they had the manpower and resources to do it. Then, as time went on, church attendance began to decline. Money stopped coming in like it used to. Businesses started being open on Sundays in search of a few more bucks. We started playing sports every weekend in hopes of that college scholarship or professional career. Church, which used to be a way of life, now became an option on Sundays and then eventually Wednesdays. So what happened to our people? Did they stop being members? Did they stop being Christian? No, they were never discipled to prioritize church and spiritual growth over other offerings of the world. We thought, it must be the pastor, so we fire him and hire a new one only to experience the exact same thing. And when a pastor came in determined to make discipleship the focus, people got mad and left the church because “everything was changing” and “its not like it used to be.” That’s because discipleship is hard and requires sacrifice of self (see Luke 9:23). Rainer also explained this phenomenon in the “dying” churches he autopsied in his book. He said:
“The most pervasive and common thread of our autopsies was that the deceased churches lived for a long time with the past as hero. They held on more tightly with each progressive year. They often clung to things of the past with desperation and fear. And when any internal or external force tried to change the past, they responded with anger and resolution: “We will die before we change.”Thom Rainer, Autopsy of a Deceased Church
Last and by far the most devastating effect of making numbers the focus of our health is the danger of false conversions. I worked with a camp for a decade that taught, encouraged, and most importantly discipled students to lead a life devoted to Christ. Our director built a rock solid, biblically strong program that was changing not only lives, but communities as well. Then one September, I get a call from our director saying that we were out at camp. The governing body decided that we were not generating enough “salvations and baptisms” from our program and they were going to go in a different direction. By the way, this is the same governing body who’s 5 objectives are completely centered around numbers. I was devastated. We FELT the Holy Spirt working in that camp environment every year as lives were transformed and recommitted to truly following Christ. What were we supposed to do? Tell churches they could only bring their lost kids? The message was clear, discipleship was not measurable in numbers and as a result they could not report on their “product” so there was no room for discipleship at camp. When you put that kind of pressure on staff, camp directors, or department heads in your convention, the motivation shifts from making sure people are saved to making sure people walk and aisle and get baptized. Believe me, there is a difference. Everyone who truly accepts Christ as their Lord and seeks to grow in Him daily, will walk an aisle, make a profession of faith, and get baptized. However, not everyone who walks and aisle and gets baptized truly accepts Christ as their Lord. As a result of a number driven Church Healthcare System, we have created an unknown number of people who think they are saved, but have never made Christ Lord- and in order to save livelihoods, we have turned the gospel of transformation into an ego-driven numbers mill.
I once had a conversation about this very topic and I told someone that I would rather have a youth ministry of 20 kids who want to grow in Christ every day, than a group of 100 kids who are not concerned about growing whether they are member or not. You want to know where your numbers will come from? Do you want to know how to grow your church numerically? Start by growing your church spiritually. As we disciple every believer, the message of the gospel will go out to those who our members interact with. That will in turn lead people to come to church. Then we take the journey of discipleship together. When that happens, multiplication happens. Then watch God create a building full of world altering disciples. Not every small church is sick and not every big church is healthy. Yes, healthy churches often have a lot of people, but it’s not because pushing numbers. It’s because they have bought into following Christ and their life choices reflect that. Let’s start measuring the health of our churches by the disciples we make- the numbers will take care of themselves.
In Christ Alone,
Rev. Bro. Coach
*many thanks to by medical team, Ryan & Michelle who made sure I didn’t sound like an idiot and mess up any of the medical terms or procedures I mentioned here.