Healthy Churches are Messy

August 18, 2013 — 24 Comments

There are as many definitions of a healthy church as there are people who have attempted to define one. The emphasis of church health often falls on numerical growth, but weekly attendance averages are inadequate metrics of health on their own. Doctrine is key, but denominations exist for a reason. Even non-denominational churches cannot (or should not) be atheological. So a wide theological consensus on what is healthy is unlikely. Throw in small groups, mission work, and diversity, among many other things, and it becomes difficult to create a universal set of definitive metrics.

But I believe most—hopefully all—of us can agree on one vital indicator of health: People in our churches should be telling others about Jesus and inviting them to worship services. And ironically, successful churches in this area will often be viewed as unhealthy. Why do some healthy churches look unhealthy from the outside?

Allow me to present a hypothetical case. Assume a church has a 1:1 conversion ratio for three years. A 1:1 conversion ratio means that in this church everyone is reaching one person for Christ every year. On average, each member successfully reaches one person every year. Therefore, the church doubles in size each of the three years. If the church started with 100 people, after three years 800 people will attend. Assuming the 100 members at the beginning were mature believers, this church now has 700 relatively new believers. After these three amazing years, just 12.5% of the church would be considered mature in the faith. Mr. Consultant can now make quite a case for a dysfunctional church. Or so it might seem on the surface.

Here’s my point: The healthiest churches are inevitably messy. The church that is bearing fruit will have many new believers, which means an ongoing struggle to disciple them. This discipleship, however, cannot happen in a vacuum, and it certainly doesn’t happen instantaneously.

A healthy church with a passionate outward focus can expect as much as 50% of the congregation to be loosely connected at any given point. Why? It means spiritually mature people are inviting their friends. Of course, the goal is for people to move from loosely connected to faithful. But once the loosely connected become faithful, the healthy culture of the church should compel them to invite their unchurched friends.

If you’re a church leader and you’re constantly dealing with how to disciple messy, new believers, then it probably means you’re doing something right. Conversely, if everyone in your church is spiritually mature, then something is terribly wrong. In fact, a church full of “mature” believers is quite immature because it means no one is reaching outward.

Healthy churches are messy. It’s easy to look in from the outside and claim, “Half that church is immature!” But such disdain could be misguided. While a state of perpetual immaturity is a recipe for disaster, a constant movement of many immature people being discipled is exactly what Jesus commanded us to do.


Sam Rainer

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Sam S. Rainer is the president of Rainer Research and the senior pastor of Stevens Street Baptist Church in Cookeville, TN.

24 responses to Healthy Churches are Messy

  1. Absolutely great article Sam!

  2. God, please give me a messy church!

  3. The more I have read about biblical discipleship the more I feel like I can’t get it all right. Through this article and other things I have recently read, the heaviness of that has been to leave, without also taking my burden to disciple with it. Great article.

  4. Thank you for putting into words something that has been swirling around my head for some time. Keep up the good work.

  5. Sam,
    Do you have a perspective on the percentage of new Christians a healthy church should have?

  6. A good and very encouraging word as I think about where I serve is currently. Reminds me of Proverbs 14:4 – “Without oxen a stable stays clean, but you need a strong ox for a large harvest.” You can have a clean stable, but to see the harvest you have to scoop some poop.

  7. Murrell – A general rule of church health is a 20:1 conversion ratio, meaning that for every 20 active members one person comes to Christ each year. So, if you have a church of 100, then 5 people will accept Christ in a given year. In the above example, I give a 1:1 ratio, which is very healthy. So, the lower the ratio, the healthier the church. Given these ratios, ideally a church will have 50% of the congregation as new believers. But anywhere in the 25% range I would consider fairly healthy.

    • Interesting article with some very excellent points about the messiness of new believers. I’ll admit, however, I’m a little confused because you state early on in the article that numerical growth is an inadequate measure on it’s own, but then you still seem to zero in on numerical growth, and finally settle on 20.1 (or a generous 25%) numerical growth as a measure of a healthy church in your comment. Isn’t it possible for church to be healthy (biblical preaching/God-centered worship/heart for the lost) and yet be shrinking in numerical growth at the same time for various reasons? I think of churches in hard to reach areas of America or especially around the globe. Church growth in Texas seems (to me) to be a different reality than church growth in upstate NY or in some European city. Thanks for letting me add my thoughts to the conversation!

      • Dan – It is possible for a church to be healthy and be in decline, but it would be a rare case. For instance, if your church is in a small town with one major employer and that employer moves out, then you might see a numerical decline in a healthy church. Even though numerical growth isn’t the only measure of health, however, the vast majority of declining churches are unhealthy in that they do not have an outward focus.

  8. It sounds good but it’s not true. All these assumptions with 1:1 conversions per year or 20 percent new believers are based rather on American pragmatism than the scripture. The gospel is really offensive and unless the Spirit gives new life there will be no conversion at all just like in the days of Noah who preached for 120 years about the imminent destruction without seeing a single convert.

    • Viviu – or, like in the book of Acts, as the Church (just over 100 strong then) poured out on to the streets empowered by the Spirit to boldly proclaim Truth (that was not popular), thousands were added in one day and more were added daily. Remember, God calls His Church to be faithful to “abide in Him” and “be His witnesses”. The Spirit gives results which glorify Christ and honor God. The issue is not so much about the number saved but the real human transformation that takes place through the grace of God. Whether many (Pentecost) or few (Noah), God’s intervention in lost humanity is always significant and builds His Church.

  9. I can confirm this from the opposite perspective. I’m pastor of a church that is perceived as very healthy from the outside. Other pastors in my denomination tell me how jealous they are of my church, that it’s the healthiest one in the area. The sad truth, however, is that the church is completely unhealthy. The appearance of health, which people are very concerned with maintaining, is simply the outward face of deeply held works-righteousness. As I seek to bring the Gospel to bear on this church (as a work of revitalization) things get messier and the outward perception of the church suffers and this causes great anxiety in the pews. It won’t be until people come to understand the Gospel that the world finds offensive that they will be able to accept the truth.

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