Tag Archives: healthy church systems series

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Healthy Church Systems Part 24: Seeing the Lost

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I shared a meal with a pastor of a recovering church recently. The church had gone through a long decline, watching long time members pass or move away. Its financial support became fragile and its future uncertain. The one thing that we both agreed on was that it would have been only a matter of a few years before this local expression of Jesus’ church would have faced the difficult question of whether it was still viable or not, needing to close its doors.

It happens. Churches that once were fresh and vital stop renewing themselves with people crossing the line of faith. The congregation grays. The once vibrant youth ministry degenerates into the few remaining kids who will graduate and move on with their spiritual life somewhere else that is not their ‘parent’s church.’ The church will stop being the obvious choice of ‘already’ Christians moving into the neighborhood as new local churches are launched that attract their attention.

Does being an older congregation have to mean the slow dying of your church? I know of a church that is over 200 years old which still touches the lives of hundreds of people. To continue to be a living congregation, it has had to ‘revision’ itself a number of times. Each generation of leaders has had to refocus the church on its reason for existing and guide the people of the church to remember why Jesus called them together in the first place.

No, aging is not the problem for local churches. If you asked me to name the most debilitating reasons churches die, I would point to two—the failure of the congregation to take Jesus seriously about being the church and the failure to see the lost.

Failing to be the church is a pretty broad statement with plenty of potential interpretations. But I think most church leaders get it when I point to the mission statements that characterize many congregations. They all go something like this: “We exist to bring glory to God by making passionate disciples.” Many varieties of this exist, but most churches recognize that the core of being the church is knowing that Jesus is our head. All authority has been given to him and, in turn, he has given to his people the mission of making disciples everywhere.

Declining churches have forgotten this. Their mission statements still declare that this is their mission. But what they really believe in is comfort. The comfort of each other’s company. The comfort of the old truths being taught. The comfort of their generation’s way of ‘doing church.’ The comfort of having paid their dues, of having sent out missionaries overseas, of days of glory in the past. They have become ‘Dones’ without even leaving the church. They are done with their personal investment in Jesus’ mission for his church and have created a safe society where they can be with people like themselves.

They are still busy, though. Still raising money for worthy causes, still attending important church events as long as they are physically able, still studying their Bibles, still praying for people, still showing care for each other. But they have stopped being the church that Jesus commissioned them to be. Unless they become convinced of this, their local fellowship someday will cease to exist.

This leads me to the second, related reason that most local churches do not last 200 plus years. They stop seeing the lost. I do not mean that they do not believe there are lost people in their neighborhoods or that they do not know anyone who is lost. They just become spiritually blind to them, sometimes willfully so. The church of the pastor who shared a meal with me had been in its building for many years. But though at is zenith it had hundreds of attenders, people who lived in the homes right across the street, people by the way who could be seen as obviously unchurched by the congregation as they drove weekly into their church’s parking lot, did not attend the church. No one even knew the names of these people. And though the church had children’s programs that the kids on the block would have been attracted to, no one ever reached out to invite them in.

These are the faceless lost. I have been in churches where no one prays for the lost or even has a friendship with a lost person. I have also had the privilege of being part of local churches that knew who the lost were and prayed for the lost by name. I have seen churches go into neighborhoods like this one and seek ways to connect with those who were open to the gospel, or at least open to a relationship.

Which is why this church is recovering. Intentionally, the people decided they were going to renew their mission as a church. They began to find ways to impact the parents and children that lived across the street as well as other places in their town. Now these people are crossing the street to come attend their services. This year the church has baptized more people than ever in recent years. The church is growing in a fresh way. Certainly there are challenges. The finances have not caught up with the need yet, although the pastor pointed to steady growth in that area as new believers become more discipled. If this church keeps up its current focus, it will possibly grow to be larger than it has ever been in the past in the coming years. And then it will have to revision itself again. And again. And again. Each new generation will have to say ‘yes’ to Jesus’ mission and see the lost for themselves.

Perhaps you see your church on the way up or down. You recognize the time has come to rethink your church’s mission. Or you know that the people of your congregation have stopped seeing the lost too. Need help?

Converge Southeast offers you several tools. If you are seeking to revision your church, we can help you with Upgrade. Upgrade is a one year interactive process which leads to congregation to examine its spiritual life, its structures, seek a renewed vision from God and plan strategies on how to reach the lost with new eyes. Upgrade works with the pastor to help him develop as a leader so he can guide the congregation in revisioning itself.

Perhaps you feel that your church is pretty healthy in many ways, so that a full year process is not necessary. But you know that the people of your church are not seeing the lost the way they should. Converge offers a training tool called Networking. This simple training process helps people rethink their calling as witnesses, helps them to identify lost people in their network of friends and family, teaches them to pray for them by name, and guides them in building relationships with the people in their network. They will also be taught how to put their own witness for Jesus into words for the time when the door is open for them to share it.

May your congregation renew its mission. May your people glorify God by making passionate disciples.

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Healthy Church Systems Part 22: What Happens When You Do Not Invest In Leadership Training

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A pastor of a church which had been at over 500 asked me to help him understand why his congregation was declining. They were culturally relevant in how they sowed the gospel in their community and had many good things happening. As we explored the Healthy Church Systems Matrix together, the pastor recalled how, in the first years of the church, he had filled his house to overflowing with young leaders in whom he was investing. And for reasons of ministry growth and time pressures, one day he simply stopped. That day he woke up to the long-term impact of his decision.

The difference between churches that grow and those that are plateaued or declining is the attention the leadership gives to raising up more leaders. No church can continue to grow without increasing its pool of leaders, because it is having more leaders, not more people, that fuels retention of growth. New leaders are the glue for new people who need to connect with your congregation. These new leaders offer relational connections and provide necessary shepherding to people who would otherwise slip out the back door, feeling like no one cared. Having new leaders trained and willing to take charge over such vital ministry is essential to healthy church growth and church multiplication.

But many churches have no intentional leadership training process. There are several reasons for this. Often, it is because the pastor has never been part of a church that had a leadership training process, so he has no idea he needs one or, if he does, what it should look like. Another reason is that all the ‘needed’ leadership slots are filled. What I mean is that all existing ministries have leaders and, maybe, there are a couple of available leaders on leave. Why train more leaders?

Often, these churches have no clear plan to expand their Growth Systems so that more people can be served. Expansion of ministry is only initiated by an intrepid person who comes to the existing leadership with an offer to lead a new Bible study or needed ministry. The fact that the person offering is already showing leadership reaffirms these churches’ veiled assumption that when there is a need, God will raise up a leader. So they think they do not need an intentional process.

One of the most common reasons a church may not have a leadership training process is usually generational—the leadership is mostly owned by one generation who are not thinking properly about the future. They see that the church has good leadership with all the slots filled with people like themselves. If they need a new leader, it will usually be someone who affirms their generational values. They see the next generation coming, but they feel no urgency to develop leaders among them. They may believe that real leaders rise up naturally. More often it is because they fear the future and the changes that those of the next generation are advocating. Being the gatekeepers into the church’s leadership is their way of protecting the church from what they consider unbiblical and unspiritual. If it must happen, then keep those ideas in the youth group and away from the adult Christians!

The outcome of this thinking often compromises the future of their church. As the leaders age, the vitality that marked earlier phases of the church’s outreach drains away. People get tired and gear back the level of time and effort they put into the vision of the church. The time comes when the vision that guided that generation no longer seems to fuel passion for Jesus’ call to make new disciples. And so the next generations—not every person, but significant slices—begin to drift away, perhaps to other fellowships or nowhere.

I have lived long enough to witness this aspect of church life in churches of various sizes. I know of a church that began struggling for its life after years of being a large church. The senior leaders who had dominated the church’s direction were passing off the scene through aging and death, leaving the congregation with a questionable future. The added sadness to this situation was that within a short distance was a newer church whose leadership was made up of the children and grandchildren of the generation who had dominated the church’s leadership. Instead of training and empowering the next generation, they effectively encouraged them to practice their leadership gifts in Jesus’ kingdom somewhere else.

Look at your leadership and answer the following evaluation points honestly:

How many leaders does the church have who are from the same generation? Do not think of this as questioning the value and integrity of senior leaders. They will continue to matter. Instead, think of the church’s future. If the larger percentage of leaders come from the same generation (75% or more), you have the opportunity to guide the current leaders to develop the next generation now as an alternative to a long-term process of dying as a congregation.

How long have these leaders served in their ministry? Leading in Jesus’ kingdom has no retirement plan, but there can be a collective mindset that resists healthy change the longer leaders serve together. I once was the only ‘new guy’ on a leadership team that had been together almost ten years. Their opposition to any idea that was not theirs was phenomenal and was killing the ministry they were leading.

How many are mentoring a younger leader to step into their place? Leaders who are not investing in those who might be their coworkers or even their replacement, are not doing their job. “Commit what you learned from me to trustworthy men who will teach others.” is how Paul instructed Timothy. The ongoing mentoring of the next generation of leaders is a marker by which the health of a congregation can be evaluated.

Over the years, how many young adults have left the church to lead in another church in the community? I hear reports all the time from pastors who lament that several promising young leaders left their church to help plant a new church or minister in another congregation. They wondered why they did not stay and minister in their home congregation. It is hard to know the full answer to that question, but it does remind us that if we do not know how to open up leadership to the next generation, they will not sit quietly and wait. If your church has a growing age gap between the generations (lots of people in their forties to sixties and plenty of teenagers or school age children, but fewer and fewer 20- and 30-somethings), then pay attention. Find out why they are leaving and where they are going. This kind of information can help you rethink the status quo.

Next time I will talk about how to build a healthy leadership training process.

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Healthy Church Systems Part 21: Connection

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Shirley and I once visited a church whose pastor I had coached (poorly, as it turned out) in the Connection System. We were greeted extravagantly at the door, personally escorted to the refreshments, handed great brochures about the church’s ministries and led to our seats in the empty main room—where we were left with another visiting family for 15 minutes while the regular attenders of the church had what sounded like a party with each other out in the hall. Smooth process, but a bad system because they forgot the main thing: people are looking for relationships when they come, not a conveyer belt to the right seat.

If you want to retain those who come into your gatherings, this is a critical system for you. Connection means enfolding into the congregation the people God sends to you. In preparing to connect with new people, two questions must be answered to develop a healthy Connection System. People who visit are asking these unspoken questions: “Am I wanted? and Am I needed? If you intentionally answer these questions adequately within a reasonable period, you will retain more of your visitors.

Visitors may say they came to your gathering for a variety of reasons, but the real reason they are there is that the Holy Spirit drew them to your gathering that morning. You have the opportunity to connect them to the congregation so that hopefully they will stay to hear and receive the gospel over time, becoming mature disciples and co-workers with you in the Kingdom. Before they come, you need to prepare all connection team members, as well as your entire congregation, to be ready to answer the question, “Am I wanted?

But let’s keep this simple. The goal of a good Connection System is to lead visitors from their first visit to their becoming part of one of your Growth Systems as quickly as feasible. This means that if your connection team can move new people into a small group, ministry or mission within the first months of their arrival, they will find deepening relationships (Am I wanted?) and get a chance to serve others in some capacity (Am I needed?). Making this the ultimate goal means that you have to pay attention to your Growth Systems if you want to increase your church’s capacity for retaining visitors. Moreover, to increase the number of small groups, ministries and missions, you have to develop more leaders of 10 or 50 to fuel this increase. These systems are interlocked, so the failure in one will trigger loss in the others. Keep that in mind when you evaluate your systems.

In forming your Connection System, think of the process in light of the following progression:

Connect with visitor within the first ten minutes relationally (arrival). The reason I say “within the first ten minutes” is because research has shown that visitors tend to make up their minds about whether or not they will return again in that critical period. Notice that this is probably before they have heard the first worship song and long before the pastor preaches. What they are looking for is relationship, especially if they are unchurched. Caring about the service itself is secondary to this.

Begin your “Seven Touch” process (first two weeks). Seven touches is a process where you and your team connect personally with the first time attender, starting with their first visit. It does not matter what you choose to use as a touch (email, phone call, invitation to return, meet the pastor) but remember they are looking for relationship and you cannot have a relationship with an email or gift. A personal call or visit still goes a long way to move people towards connecting. It also serves as an opportunity to sow the gospel. After all, you are not after recruiting an audience, but making disciples.


Invite the returning visitor to an upcoming event (by end of second week). It takes planning to carry this off. But this is one of the fastest steps in helping people make up their mind to connect. At such an event they can be introduced to Growth System leaders who not only get to start a relationship with the visitor, but also invite them to attend their small group, ministry or mission.

Connect the visitor to one of your Growth Systems (by eighth week). Visitors become part of a congregation and stay long term only if they develop at least six new friendships in the first six months. Otherwise, even people who said ‘yes’ to Jesus will probably leave because they feel personally that they are not wanted. They will definitely sense they are not needed. So when they stop coming, they will not feel the kind of loss you might in losing them. Keep this clear in your mind: Your gathering is not going to hold people to your congregation unless your team is intentional about connecting people deeper into the life of the congregation.

Because of its critical nature, one church I know recruits its best people for this team. They are charged not just with meeting people, but making sure these people are guided into the life of the congregation. They check to make sure that nothing in the building will disrupt the visitor’s experience—dirty bathrooms, too cold or hot temperature, unsightly materials out in the greeting areas. They also check the church’s signage to assure that visitors can find their way to wherever they need to go in the building.

Of the eighteen systems, the Connection System has the most moving parts. Included in this system besides actually greeting people are hospitality, ushering (yes, you need people to guide people to where they need to go) and childcare. How you do childcare makes a huge statement to visiting young families who are leery of leaving their child with strangers. All of these different components need to be overseen by the same leader who is charged to make sure the quality of service does not vary between them.

You will continually need to adjust and change these parts as the church grows. Why? Because it becomes increasingly more difficult in a larger church with multiple services to spot who is new. By the time your congregation reaches the large church level (500+), visitors have to start self-identifying. Nevertheless, the actual parts of this system remain constant from one size level to the next and these parts can be integrated into new formats that continue to encourage new people to be integrated into your congregation. Every person you retain allows you to see them grow as disciples. That is what makes this system so important.

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Healthy Church Systems Part 15: Discipling Culture

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A premier pastor of a former generation was mentoring a group of younger leaders of which I was part. During one of his discussions, he mentioned that in the years since he retired from ministry, he had visited over 250 churches all around the country and never had seen a comprehensive discipling system in any of them. He saw this as one of the great weaknesses of the church of today.

In truth, churches are discipling people, but not in the way that produces great results. Instead of a thought through approach that recognizes what it means to teach new believers to obey everything Jesus taught us, both through the Word and through living it out before them, many churches’ discipling process has a catch-as-catch-can feel to it. With no clear guidelines, each new believer has to figure out for him or herself what they need to know. For many, they just look at the lives of the other church attenders and within six months, they have learned all they think they need to know. I wish this was an exaggeration.

This is a major reason why developing your discipling system is so critical. Many people who are currently populating your church have not been well discipled. This is not just true of young believers. People in major leadership roles often have serious deficiencies in their learning to obey everything Jesus taught. When you realize that the goal of discipling is to lead believers towards ongoing transformation into the image of Jesus, then you will begin to take the need to develop your discipling approach very seriously. It should never be left to chance nor should you believe that the disciple will discover what he or she needs to know without your guidance.

Here are some major questions you have to ask about your discipling process to develop it well:

  • What are the necessary pieces of our discipleship process?
  • Where in our church life do we do the pieces in our discipleship process?
  • How do we do the pieces of our discipleship process?
  • How often do we offer each piece of our discipleship process?
  • Who is responsible for each piece of our discipleship process?

Discipling is the second half of the Great Commission. Clearly, merely guiding someone to believe and be baptized is not the end of the process of making disciples. Like evangelizing, your ultimate goal is to create a discipling culture, where everyone is not only seeking to grow in their knowledge of God and His grace, but are putting it out there for all younger believers as well. Although you may develop group training components for certain parts of your process, people learn to follow Jesus from other followers (and not just the pastor!).

Critical to long-term success of any discipling process is awareness that most—not all—discipleship material starts with four assumptions. These assumptions, if not realized and addressed, will produce weaker disciples who will someday and in some way question their faith. These four assumptions are: 1) New believers understand the process of sanctification, which is the work of the Spirit in their lives, saving them from the power of sin. This is so often assumed that some materials never even mention it. 2) New believers automatically trust God with their lives. Surprisingly, many do not and do not even know why. 3) New believers believe the Bible has complete authority to guide them. Most new believers have precious little biblical knowledge and have been exposed to cultural debates denigrating what the Bible says on numerous subjects. Yet much discipleship material plunges new believers right into looking up biblical passages, expecting them to accept scriptural truth. 4) New believers understand and embrace a biblical worldview—God is creator of all and reigns over His creation, evil in the world is the result of rebellion, humankind and the world itself has been affected by this fall, etc.—after confessing faith. This is wishful thinking. Seek materials that address these issues if you want to develop strong disciples.

And don’t just think in terms of adults. I was personally challenged a number of years ago by a teacher who reminded his class that we often reserve discipling for adult believers. He pointed out that churches had the opportunity to invest years of discipling into children and teens who grow up within the congregation. But often churches fumbled on this, having no comprehensive plan beyond teaching children Bible stories or the teens a lot of the ‘how to’ issues that come up for them. I pass on his challenge to think through a clear discipling pathway for your non-adults or you will see the tragedy that happens in too many churches, kids leaving the faith because it is not their faith. And while they may return years later, they still will lack discipling in their lives.

The task is to develop new believers from the acorn to the oak. I find that this is the hardest system for most leaders to put together because very few of them have ever been through a discipling process themselves. So they have no template to look back on to guide them in putting this system together. I have had this statement confirmed over and over by pastors with whom I work. However, once pastors develop a discipling process, they find it is one of the easiest systems to implement.

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Healthy Church Systems Part 14: Evangelizing

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Easter Sunday morning, a number of Converge churches were baptizing new believers. One pastor told me they baptized seventeen. Another relayed that his church baptized ten new believers. I love these reports, because hearing about people moving from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of Jesus reminds me how rewarding it is to work with a movement of churches focused on the main things. I want every church to experience the joy of people confessing Jesus as Savior. But many churches have never developed a complete system of evangelizing and are seeing few people cross the line of faith. Often churches settle for much less than the harvest God is willing to give them

There are only two ways to grow a church aside from a baby explosion among your young couples. Churches gain new people either from transfer growth or conversion growth. While all churches like to see new people joining the congregation, growth does not necessarily indicate that your church is fulfilling its vision. It may mean that you have become a repository of ‘already Christians’ who like the worship, the preaching or the programs. If your church is to realize the purpose for which God has brought it into existence, you will need to develop an effective evangelism system. System here means more than creating an evangelistic approach. It means creating an evangelizing culture where all the people in your congregation live to share the gospel with those around them intentionally through their lives and words, because they are full to overflowing with gratitude for what God has done for each of them through Jesus.

Evangelizing is half of the Great Commission, the part that is the proclamation of the good news about Jesus. An evangelizing system is not about whether or not you, the leader, personally are able to share the good news about Jesus, either through your preaching or witness. The function of this system is to help the church to become evangelistically effective.

What I have learned by working with churches is that many leaders do not know the components of an effective evangelizing system. They may be familiar with an evangelism program they have seen work in another church and may have actually made that program a part of the training process. Yet the results turn out less than they hoped and attenders just do not seem to stay consistent. How can a church do it better?

There are five critical questions you have to ask yourself as you look at your way of building an evangelizing culture. Each of these five represents a needed component for developing an effective evangelizing culture. Even if only one is missing, the culture will not be established.

  1. The Gospel: Is our understanding of the gospel sufficient for the task? The church must have a clear and comprehensively defined understanding of the gospel to inform believers and guide their proclamation. When people are taught to reduce the gospel to, “You are a sinner. Jesus died for your sins. Turn to him and be saved so you can go to heaven,” then they have an inadequate understanding of the good news about Jesus. Taking the time to define and teach the gospel is foundational and often overlooked in this system.
  2. Training: What are we training people to do? Not every believer is spiritually gifted to be an evangelist. But all are called to be witnesses. Unfortunately, many training programs are trying to turn everyone into evangelists. What leaders need to find are ways to train people to build relationships, to use prayer and to learn how, as the Spirit opens the door, to be and share a witness of God’s work in their own lives as tools for reaching lost people.
  3. Prayer: When do we spend time praying individually and corporately for the lost? Many churches have intentional prayer times, but if you listen, few pray for lost people by name. If evangelizing is supposed to be a partnership with the work of the Spirit drawing people to Jesus and the believer giving witness, how will the believer even be concerned for lost people, much less sense the timing to speak into their lives, if the church never prays for these that God will save?
  4. Accountability: How do we hold people accountable to stay on task with witnessing?Accountability makes evangelizing important. This is the component most churches never develop, yet it is one of the main reasons people stop witnessing as they get busy with other good ministry work. They stop thinking about evangelizing or plan to get back to it someday. One of the saddest meetings I ever attended was with a planting pastor whose team had planned to spend the year leading up to the public launch of the new church by building relationships and witness with lost people. Quizzing them one month before the launch, the planter learned than NO ONE had built a single relationship. After the meeting, he realized that the problem was that he had never held them accountable monthly on this task, so it never happened.
  1. Macro-Evangelism Strategy: “How does this congregation work together to reach lost people with the gospel?” A church that does not have a game plan to evangelizing the lost together is engaging in wishful thinking, because most people need the structure of a team in order to stay engaged in evangelism. A healthy church has more than one macro-evangelism strategy and encourages segments of the congregation to develop strategies for their workplace, neighborhood and city. Whatever strategy the church pursues, this system is clearly at the center of the congregation fulfilling its vision. All strategies that the church develops should bear that in mind, so that the people for whom they have compassion are at the focus of these strategies.

One last question: Do those you baptize yearly equal 10% of your attendance? 5%? 1%? Less? If you are called to be Jesus’ witnesses in your community, your region and to reach out to all over the world, at some point you have to measure how well you are doing at your calling. If your church is not seeing a growing harvest, it may be that you have neglected developing a culture where your attenders expect to see lost people come to believe the gospel. Examine your system and see if these components are present. If they are not, the missing pieces are probably the reason your church is missing its calling.

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