Fostering Healthy-Growing Churches

by New Church Starts

by Doug Ruffle, Congregational Development Team Coordinator, Greater New Jersey Annual Conference (and Path 1 Team Northeastern Jurisdiction Representative)

An important part of maturing for people and churches is staying healthy while also becoming actively engaged in the community. The Rev. Dr. Jack Stephenson, Pastor of Anona United Methodist Church in Anona, Florida, undertook a four year analysis of Natural Church Development.  His findings have helped churches discover new ways to utilize this tool for church health and moreover, for new church planting.

One important feature of Rev. Stephenson’s methods is that when churches score well on the survey (thus showing they are indeed healthy) they are encouraged to then engage in a process to discern how they can leverage their health for the sake of Mission. They take on a mission project, so that they can bear fruit. What, after all, is the purpose of becoming a healthy congregation if not to engage the community or wider area of the parish in a significant way to help “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world?” How else can we measure the health of a church’s ministry?

In an earlier blog I agreed with William Temple, who said that the church was the only organization that exists for its non-members. Now I’m saying that churches aren’t really healthy-growing churches unless that growth can be seen outside their four walls in the community or even in the form of new church plants.

We are talking here of a Mission Project that can mobilize the congregation. For some churches, that might mean regular volunteering at the Interfaith Hospitality Network. For others, they find ways to eliminate hunger in their area. Some of our healthiest churches decide to come alongside a church that is struggling and inject new life and vitality by sending out “missionaries.” Still others may want to start a second campus of their church in an area underserved by The United Methodist Church.

Of the 120 churches in the Greater New Jersey Annual Conference who have engaged the Natural Church Development process, 30 churches have made a score of 55 or over in the scale used to indicate health. These churches, rather than focusing on getting even healthier, should now focus on how they can be in Mission in intentional ways to impact their community, general area, or the world. Leveraging another Natural Church Development principle, namely, multiplication, teaches us that the most logical fruit of church health is when that church plants another church. These are the types of mission Path 1 should seek to foster in its new plants. Imagine for a minute if every new church start decided to plant a new church in the future and each of their new churches made the same decision and so on. Now there’s a sustainable model of growth!

What types of missions have mobilized your church? How would you measure a church’s health and what kinds of spiritual “exercises” would you recommend for it to stay fit?