by Terry Camsey, Major –
I’ve almost lost count of the number of principles various experts have claimed to be foundational to the health and growth of the church. Every few years a new book of research appears, claiming to have found the secret to this perplexing challenge. Yet, generally speaking, the church in America continues to decline while in Europe, the figures are frightening.
Sure, there are one or two notable exceptions in many countries…churches that seem to thrive, seemingly against all odds. Their “secrets” have been well-tabulated, and their “how to do it” seminars have drawn the masses looking for (what I describe as) the “magic bullet—one size fits all” kind of solution, with every attendee hoping for a tool that will turn around the church in their local setting, whether or not they have similar communities to the model offered, leadership of the same caliber and quantity, equivalent income streams, etc.
For those able to see beyond methods used to the principles underlying those methods, there are gold-nugget-ideas to be mined. For those who faithfully try to duplicate what they have seen while lacking similar resources, disappointment results, together usually with a determination to continue the search for a “holy grail”!
Willow Creek Association has nine characteristics of a healthy church, while George Barna has described nine habits of highly effective churches. Vision New England came up with a list of 10 characteristics of a healthy church, and Dan Spader of Sonlife Ministries defined nine such characteristics.
Kennon L. Callaghan talks of 12 keys to an effective church, and Leith Anderson describes eight signs of a healthy church. Bill Easum has seven marks of church health, and C. Peter Wagner gives us seven vital signs of healthy churches. Leadership Network cites five windows into the 21st century church, while Rick Warren gives us five dimensions of church growth.
Oh, and I nearly forgot…John Larsson suggested another 26 principles in “How Your Corps Can Grow.” Now, Christian Schwarz gives us eight essential qualities (keys to success) of healthy churches. Altogether (and I am sure my list is not comprehensive) that’s 115 marks, signs, or “what-have-you” to consider. And there is considerable overlap there.
Some years ago I compared, very carefully, C. Peter Wagner’s vital signs against the early growth of the Army. Every one (including the homogenous unit principle—since Booth deliberately targeted the poor of London!) underlay his strategy that resulted in phenomenal growth during the first 30 years or so. C. Kirk Hadaway (Church Growth Principles—Separating fact From Fiction) tested each of Wagner’s vital signs, identifying “factors associated with growth,” “factors associated with decline and growth,” and “factors of the greatest importance.” These were matrixed with Rick Warren’s five dimensions and formed the basis of the new corps evaluation when the corps review was re-evaluated. (Interestingly, the summary at the back is reminiscent of Schwartz’s barrel, but placed horizontally instead of vertically!)
But it is Wagner’s four axioms of growth that most impact on the health and growth of any church. He suggests that no growth is possible unless: the leader wants it and is prepared to pay the price; and, the congregation want it and are prepared to pay the price; and, all agree that the goal is to make disciples; and, there is no terminal disease of the church. Here we have the “nub” of it.
Whichever list of principles is chosen as a template, its effectiveness is both observable and measurable. The bottom line for the church is the addition of souls to the kingdom…souls who are discipled and who, in turn, win and disciple others. DISCIPLES, DISCIPLING! “My true disciples produce much fruit. This brings glory to my father.” John 15:8 (NLT)
And the bottom, bottom line? Well, if Christians do not bear fruit the kingdom will cease to grow. And, if the kingdom does not grow, churches—having lost their prime purpose—will die!