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Persistent cough. Runny nose. Low-grade fever.

These are symptoms, all of which can be treated. Got a cough? Take some cough syrup. Runny nose? Take an antihistamine. Low-grade fever? Take a Tylenol. 

Individually, none of these problems are all that concerning. Taken together, it could paint a different picture. There might be an infection of some kind, and treating the symptoms won’t cure the patient. 

Add up enough symptoms, and most people will eventually go to a doctor to get a diagnosis. Smart.

Churches, though, don’t do this. They get stuck because they constantly treat symptoms and never assess if they have a deeper health problem. As a result, churches try new things to fix their symptoms and get frustrated when it doesn’t yield long-term results. 

When we are talking with a leadership team about partnering with us for Strategic Envisioning, there’s often reluctance—they’ll say things like, “we’ve tried everything.” This is rarely true, but even if you had tried literally everything, you might still be in the same unhealthy place.

Guiding a church from being unhealthy to being healthy is never about giving them “tips and tricks” and taking on lots of new strategies; it’s about discovering the small number of actual solutions to their unique challenges and dysfunctions. It’s about treating the disease instead of the symptoms.

This is why it’s important to assess your church’s health. The very first thing we do when we being a Strategic Envisioning process with a church is a Church Ministry Analysis. It helps us diagnose the core issues and gives your church clarifying language to understand the root causes of their dysfunction. 

Obviously, we think it’s far easier for a church to assess their health with the help of an objective outsider—whether that be our Church Ministry Analysis, the Natural Church Development’s survey, or others. It’s difficult for even a skilled doctor to diagnose himself; churches should rely on trusted others, too.

However, if you want to assess your church’s health on your own…

here are two principles and two tips we’ve learned in the 20+ years that TMG has been assessing church health:

Avoid the Iceberg Effect

I’ve already mentioned this, but it needs to be repeated: don’t hone-in on symptoms, identify the underlying problem. It’s well-known that only 10-20% of an iceberg is visible above the waterline. The vast majority of the ice is unseen.

Likewise, it doesn’t take a professional church consultant to see things like low attendance, low group engagement, or struggling finances. Anyone can see that if they have close enough proximity.

Instead, look for the trends that are driving the symptoms. Chart out attendance over the last five to ten years. Do you see a steady decline? Is there a sharp jump up or down? Map this out with the church’s story. What happened at those inflection points? If you see a steady decline, chances are that there are major, systemic problems that have been ignored for years. Which systems are failing? Look for the trends.

You can do this same exercise for finances. Your attendance may be steady, but are contributions declining or increasing? Are people giving the same overall amount but shifting their giving from the general fund to designated giving? What might that indicate? Don’t just notice the numbers, ask questions about why they are what they are.

When looking at the overall performance of the church, take the same critical eye. It’s not helpful to say “we have a failing children’s ministry.” Look more closely. What are the trends that are driving that failure?

When we do a Church Ministry Analysis with a church, we walk away with observations from attendance trends, financial trends, strengths trends, and weakness trends. The results are unique to the church, but we are always able to find the distinct, underlying causes of dysfunction, which enables us to be more effective in guiding the church through a customized process of revitalization.

Avoid the Ostrich Effect

The biggest barrier between your church and a proper assessment of your church’s health is not data; it’s a lack of honesty. Most churches have knowingly or unknowingly buried their head in the sand like an ostrich. Like a kid who doesn’t want to hear her mom tell her to brush her teeth, your congregation might have its figurative fingers in its ears saying, “La, la, la! I can’t hear you!” 

Unfortunately, most churches aren’t honest brokers with themselves about what’s working and what isn’t. 

Let’s take a concrete example. One of the most frequent things we hear from declining churches is that they love the Bible and that they excel at teaching the Bible. Sometimes this is true, but sometimes it isn’t. 

I once worked with a church that made the claim: “We are really good at teaching the Bible and we have excellent Sunday School teachers.” I went on to visit one of these classes, and as a seminary-trained individual, I can assure you the teaching wasn’t excellent. It’s not that it was boring; it was patently false teaching. It was well-intentioned, but it was just wrong. Objectively. Regardless of your denominational background.

I went on to ask the elders what the approval process was for selecting Sunday School teachers. Answer: no process. Most had simply taught for years (even decades). 

I asked what the oversight process was, specifically for approving content or curriculum. Answer: no process. 

They assumed that longevity in the position meant quality. They assumed they had great Bible teaching. In some respects they did, but it was extremely inconsistent. They had their head in the sand, fingers in their ears.

Churches have a self-image that they reinforce by ignoring hard facts. If your church is going to assess its health, you’re going to need to be aggressive about discovering the truth—the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Two Survey Tips: Don’t Survey Everyone & Keep it Anonymous

Most church health assessments, including the one we use at The Malphurs Group, use some sort of survey. There are two key mistakes that churches make when they conduct the survey.

The first mistake is that they survey the whole church. Instinctually, in the pursuit of becoming an honest broker, you’ll assume that hearing everyone’s opinion will enable this. It won’t. 

People with an ax to grind will fill the survey with negative comments and negative rankings, unnecessarily driving your averages lower. The negative comments will be the “loudest” comments in your assessment, and if they aren’t constructive or accurate, they’ll compound your problems not solve them.

People who are uninformed or overly-positive (afraid to be honest) will do the exact opposite. They’ll skew your numbers up in an inaccurate way, or worse, if they are uninformed they’ll just “wing it” without context. This isn’t helpful.

Instead, create a survey group of no more than 35-50 people. You can use the same principles that we mention in the “Building a Team” article to help you narrow your group. The criteria are the same, if less stringent, for the survey group and the revitalization team.

The second mistake is that sometimes the surveys aren’t anonymous. This causes two problems. First, people won’t be as honest when their name is on it. They don’t want to hurt the pastor or board’s feelings. 

Secondly, it will change your opinion of the people who took the survey. It’s human nature, and understandable. You’d see some people as “on your team” and others as “against you.” It isn’t your team. It’s God’s team, and you’re all on it. Minimize the temptation and just keep it anonymous.

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If you follow these principles when you assess your church’s health, you’ll be well on your way to seeing your church for what it is. You’ll be able to treat the causes and not the symptoms. Your revitalization process will undoubtedly be more successful, because it’s rooted in reality.

Want help to assess your church’s health? Talk with a guide.