A Check-up for Churches
By Zoe S. Erler
healthy church

Pastor Bob Smart doesn’t mince words. When he accepted a call to Christ Church in Normal, Illinois, some 30 years ago, the church, he says, was “shallow, lukewarm, unhealthy, dead.”

With the congregation whittled down to just 15 couples, Smart says there was not only a lack of shalom, there was no vision.

“A spirit of resignation” had taken hold, Smart says. There was no real hope, just this sense of “get in church, get married, have a house, retire, and lick yogurt in a mall in Florida in the end.”

It’s Harder to Do Church

According to a 2018 report on the state of the PCA issued by Roy Taylor, then stated clerk of the PCA, 70% of American congregations have plateaued or are declining. In the PCA, the number was 60%.

Terry Gyger, former executive director of church planting for Redeemer City to City in New York, says that decline can be quantified by lower attendance, giving, and fewer additions to the church by conversions, among other factors.

“It’s harder and harder to do church in our culture and society,” says Gyger, who now runs a group called Anago Partners that trains pastors to better lead their congregations. “We’re in a kind of post-Christian period and some of our churches don’t adapt well, they’re just doing the same things over and over, thinking it’ll make a change.”

Paul Hahn, former coordinator for Mission to North America, now interim pastor at Pacific Crossroads Church (Los Angeles), says he believes that many PCA churches aren’t healthy. Some are critical, he believes; others can be easily treated.

“I think most of us are willing to say that to ourselves before God,” Hahn says. “We have a very hard time saying that in front of others, especially pastors, because if I say that, then I feel like I’m [criticizing] my ministry.”

Seven Signs of Sickness

If you want to know what a sick church looks like, says Harry Reeder, senior pastor of Briarwood Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, Alabama, keep any eye out for seven key symptoms, illustrated in his book “From Embers to a Flame”:

  • Chronic dependence on programs to pull a church out of a rut — a program that will “turn their church around”
  • Overemphasis on nostalgia and tradition at the expense of forward thinking
  • Reliance on the dynamic personalities of charismatic leaders, rather than on the Spirit’s work among the body of believers
  • Being on maintenance mode rather than having a growth mindset; viewing themselves on a “life-support system, rather than on a life-saving mission”
  • Excuses and a “victim” mindset
  • A negative reputation in the community
  • Distracted from their primary goal of preaching and living out the gospel

Reeder also points out that size is not always an accurate indicator of health. Like a human body, a church can be large but unhealthy; or small but healthy. It’s also true that large churches can be “a mile wide and an inch deep,” and that smaller churches can be prone to insider thinking. They are sometimes insular, like “small, exclusive clubs where the ‘initiated’ are highly initiated.” Such churches find it hard to reach the lost for Christ.

The goal should always be health, not growth, Reeder says, because growth flows out of health.

Some churches show milder signs. They even appear healthy on the surface, while in reality they dilute the power and strength of the gospel.

Randy Pope, former pastor of Perimeter Church outside Atlanta, and author of the discipleship curriculum “The Journey,” explains: “A church may be very good at shepherding and caring for its people, it may be outstanding at being able to attract people, and it may be good at serving the community around it … but unless you’re building into the lives of people in depth and quality, character, godliness, and holiness, then we’re winning people to something less than what God has given to us.”

“We don’t have church vitality because we don’t have prayer capacity. It’s not sexy or flashy, but it’s available to everybody.” – Paul Hahn

A Case Study in Recovery

In 2012, Intown Community Church (Atlanta) hit a low point. Loss of confidence in leadership led to the resignation of its senior pastor, attendance had dropped from 800 to just over 300, more than half of the session had left the church, the bank refused to renew the church’s mortgage, unity was strained, and a promising future was hard to imagine.

Still, the church was healthy enough to realize how sick it was. Several elders and other members began reaching outside of the church for help, and Gyger, who had just retired from his position at Redeemer, agreed to step in as an informal interim pastor. With Gyger’s help, the session began the arduous task of healing the church from the inside out. Project Nehemiah was born.

“Terry came in at a point where we were in desperate need for several things, beginning with relational reconciliation,” says ruling elder Jim Wert, who has been a member of Intown since 1983.

The elders began to pursue greater transparency, confessing and repenting of sins committed against each other and the church. They also invited John Smed of Prayer Current to lead the congregation through an intensive engagement in prayer, and then began long-term efforts to build better structures of prayer into the life of the church.

“We need[ed] to change our culture, not just tips on how to pray better,” says Wert.

Like the prophet Nehemiah who arrived in Jerusalem to survey the damage and help the people rebuild, Gyger helped the congregation gain a new vision for how they wanted to move forward, through surveys, focus groups, and the hard work of reconciliation. By 2015, the congregation was ready to issue a call to a new pastor, ultimately hiring Jimmy Agan in June of that year.

After six years of gradual rebuilding, the church had an average attendance of close to 450, prior to the pandemic. But the real change is experienced more in spirit than in numbers. Wert says he believes there is a stronger sense of trust among leadership and a greater intentionality about reaching beyond the walls of the church building, for example, among the refugee communities of Atlanta.

“The feel is different and it’s not triumphalism. I think there is a real sense of humility, [and] a sense of waiting and of hope.”

Five Habits for Health

In Hahn’s assessment, it’s not just the Intowns of the PCA that need help. All churches need renewal, he argues, even the healthiest ones.

We need to take the stigma out of all this and admit renewal has to be a way of life. Pick your favorite church, Hahn challenges: Redeemer in New York or Perimeter outside Atlanta or Christ Covenant near Charlotte. Even these churches need renewal — badly, today. Renewal simply has to be a way of life for all Christians, for all churches, at all times, he says.

And almost always, renewal follows fervent prayer; that’s the first component of a healthy church, according to Hahn. “We don’t have church vitality because we don’t have prayer capacity. It’s not sexy or flashy, but it’s available to everybody. And it has always — always — been the prerequisite to revival.”

A second component of a healthy church is a concern for evangelism. “If a church can begin to see people coming to faith, it energizes the church,” says Hahn.

Healthy churches also rely on laypeople to live out their individual roles in the body of Christ. They don’t over-depend on the clergy to shoulder the ministry load.

Hahn goes on to point out that the real work goes on in the neighborhood, at work, and in the supermarket. Vibrant churches are made up of people who live vibrant lives Monday through Saturday wherever they live, work, and play; where they love their neighbors — and their enemies.

Active cultural engagement establishes the church as a sending place, not as an ivory tower. Hahn says this requires a willingness to be driven by faith, not by fear; to believe that Christ will preserve His people as they engage with the ideas and institutions of secular culture.

Finally, healthy churches display kingdom diversity, Hahn says. “Not diversity the way the world would define it, but the way Jesus defines it and the way the early church pursued it. We need to beg God to help bridge that gap. It will require prayer and sacrifice and intentionality.”

Slow and Steady, Back to Life

Gradually, Christ Church in Normal, Illinois, began to revive, says Smart, now 28 years later. Its pre-Covid membership was over 425, with around 100 participating in a campus ministry, seven men pursuing seminary training for new church plants in the area, and some 60 members engaging in life-on-life discipleship groups.

“Even though I thought there was a lot of transformation taking place, it wasn’t until we did intentional discipleship that real change came,” Smart explains. This change looked a lot like the simple things of Christianity: a long-time believer who started sharing the gospel with friends for the first time, people sitting down for dinner in each other’s homes to talk, individuals taking the time to love and delight in each other.

“We tend to overestimate what we can do in the short-run,” Smart says, “and underestimate what God can do in a long-term ministry of loving well.”

Resources for churches seeking renewal:

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