Last modified: Jul 18, 2019

One time, my Sunday School teacher asked me why I don’t bring my friends to church. To my ethnocentric, uber-Indian, stuck-in-a-time-capsule-from-1970 church. I laughed. If I had been drinking a beverage, it would have come spurting out of my nose like a TV show caricature à la The Suite Life of Zack & Cody. I was probably 15, but I knew how ridiculous a proposition this was.

The truth was, my church — like a lot of ethnocentric churches — talked a big game about being for the community around us. None of it felt genuine. None of it felt real. None of it felt authentic.

I explore that idea a bit in this piece — after talking to friends and leaders who have tried to do things the right way.


Point-Blank

I was at a cookout recently when a pastor asked me a question, point-blank: “What makes a healthy church?”

A seemingly innocuous question, right? The cookie-cutter answers would be stuff like prayer, read the Bible, go to church more.

But he was asking me this question because he knew I wasn’t going to resort to these cookie-cutter responses. From all my years of church leadership and consulting with Fortune 500 companies, I intimately understand building healthy anythings requires a little more nuance.

He knew that.

This pastor had previously read my viral piece on the death spiral of the Indian church in America, and he had begun canvassing local Indian church attendees (and a bunch of ex-attendees) to learn about fixing the gaps in his ethnic-specific environment.

So he was looking for some nuance.

But, I froze.

I can’t honestly remember if I’d ever been asked that question before in this context. Professionally, sure. Businesses drop wads of cash every fiscal year to make sure they’re building healthy organizations. They know that if they don’t, employees could abandon ship, customers could stop believing in the brand, and the company could slowly wither and die.

But church leaders typically don’t think about this question.

I’ve talked about how to save a dying church before, and I’ve written about leadership topics for as long as I can remember now. But this question — “What makes a healthy church?” — felt so foreign to me.

I don’t even remember the answer I gave him.

I couldn’t sleep that night.

I talked to my wife about it before we went to bed, and it was one of the first things we talked about again when we got up in the morning: “What makes a healthy church?”

And I realized three things — after I took the time to, quite literally, sleep on it:

  • We tend to forget churches fundamentally are organizations — and leadership directly affects their health or death
  • We tend to vacillate between identities — leaders do more than they should, and churches try to please too many people
  • We tend to over-spiritualize tough questions about the state of our churches

I’ll unpack these three realizations here in this piece because I believe we need to be honest about what it takes to cultivate and sustain healthy churches.

To do this, we’ll have to get through some basic definitions:

  • The Church – the entire body of Christ
  • Church – a local congregation of a Christian denomination

While we believe the former (the capital-C Church) will last forever, the latter (individual churches) can fail.

“The true Church can never fail. For it is based upon a rock.”
T.S. Eliot

It’s an important distinction to remember because we see the stained glass, cross-embossed songbooks, tithing envelopes on the pews, communion wafers, and an altar call featuring an Elevation Church song, and we forget that many of the same pitfalls that have toppled corporations can also topple our favorite local churches.

Not even shouting Jesus’ name from the rooftops every Sunday can prevent or save a church from failing due to toxic leadership, financial mismanagement, and outright lying. (The last two are what effectively ended Peter Popoff’s much-ballyhooed television ministry career.)

Any ol’ run-of-the-mill organization would fail if operating under those circumstances, and churches are no different.

So to effectively start this conversation, let’s first define what makes any healthy organization.

There’s just one tiny little thing to note here: there’s no boilerplate for it.

There are some tried and true methods, but strategies differ if we’re looking across different industries, or if we’re looking across types of organizations. We should expect some overlap, but there’s always going to be some critical differences regarding how to build organizations well.

For example, building a healthy for-profit ridesharing company (à la Uber) will look vastly different than building a healthy non-profit that builds wells around the globe (à la charity: water). There are high degrees of variance in shareholder goals across these two organizations; they just simply want different things. But there’s some common ground.

Typically, a healthy organization is one that establishes real clarity around its purpose.

What ends up crystallizing this purpose? Getting clarity around the vision and mission.

zombies walking toward burning city

Vision vs. Mission

I stopped watching AMC’s The Walking Dead (or TWD, as bloggers refer to it) a couple of years ago after its creator, Robert Kirkman, dropped a bomb on fans during an interview: he’s got no real solution in mind for his story.

We were reminded of this by Kirkman himself in a letter he wrote explaining the abrupt and shocking ending to his TWD comic series the cable show is based on. (Fans had expected this thing to go 300 issues; he stopped at 193, published on July 2019.) His explanation, while fair and believable, kept subliminally telling us: I’m not really sure what just happened, but it had to happen because… it had to happen.

Not the best storytelling rationale.

In the letter, Kirkman admits he’s always just vacillated between storyline superhighways and varying endings — he even felt unsure if the comic’s now-true surprising ending wasn’t worth at least another detour. He couldn’t even decide if this ending should be the ending!

It’s this flippancy that’s driven loyal fans away from a show that was once the most popular thing on cable — by a long shot — to what it is now: a rusted relic that got pretty stale and pretty lame pretty quickly.

The basic formula for any given season of TWD is simple. The main characters travel to a place. They meet some new characters. The place seems safe, but — gasp! — the place is actually not safe. They get stuck in some zombie sitch; some of the characters die in the inevitable melee. Also, they meet bad guys; some of the characters die in the inevitable melee with the bad guys. The bad guys capture some of the main characters. The other main characters must now save them.

Virtually every season. Like clockwork.

Death, taxes, and the TWD formula. That’s what all humanity is guaranteed at this point.

And it’s not that the show is inherently awful. The premise is actually pretty brilliant, a subtle nod to Sartre’s dark and gripping existentialism: the real monsters we meet at the end of the world are each other.

But when a show or story has no North Star, a loyal fraction of its audience will notice. They will always notice. Plot devices drive themselves into the ground, characters run around in circles, and the quality of the writing will dive off a cliff.

That North Star is critical. (TWD viewership has dropped to an all-time low this season.)

For TWD, their story’s North Star was… Umm… Was there one?… My head hurts.

Think of the vision statement as an organization’s North Star, defining the optimal state the organization wishes to achieve (or envisioning what the world would look like if they succeeded in solving the problem they exist to solve).

Alzheimer’s Association’s vision statement is simple: Our Vision is a world without Alzheimer’s disease.

The vision statement is aspirational, driving all players in an organization toward a common end goal.

A mission statement is slightly different; it focuses on the here and now. In other words, it connects an organization’s “Where we’re going” (its vision) to its “How we’re getting there” (its mission).

TED’s mission statement is succinct: Spread ideas.

Some organizations choose to hybridize their vision and mission in one statement.

American Red Cross does this well: Prevent and alleviate human suffering in the face of emergencies by mobilizing the power of volunteers and the generosity of donors.

So does Microsoft: Empower people through great software anytime, anyplace, and on any device.

When you break it down, it's simple: a vision statement describes where the company aspires to be once it's achieved its mission.Click To Tweet

And you’re allowed to refine the mission statements over time. Microsoft probably wasn’t thinking of “any device” in the 1980s when pundits were still laughing at the programmer geeks who thought personal computers were gonna be a thing. But today, they must think about any and all devices on which their software can live. Their mission includes solving for any device so they can realize their vision of empowering people.

Sometimes, those mission statements change. Because eras change. Technology changes. Peoples’ needs change. Communities change. And as long as there’s still a North Star you’re aiming for, organizations still have a reason to keep adapting and keep moving forward.

When you start losing sight of the North Star — or, in some cases when you’ve actually managed to reach your end goal — you’ve gotta ask yourself: Should we continue to exist?

All of this is tough messaging to nail down, and that last question is a challenging one to grapple with. That’s why it’s hard getting organizational leaders to buy-in on clarity and consensus around a vision and mission statement. Rarely do leaders believe their mission can evolve, and even more rarely do they believe in an expiration date for the work they’re doing right now.

In many organizations — including churches and parachurch organizations — the vision and mission statements are often combined into one overarching, driving ethos. Like we’ve seen before, there’s nothing inherently wrong with this; plenty of organizations do it this way, and they happen to do it well.

But the vital thing to remember is that organizations must have some overarching, driving ethos. Some sort of North Star. It’s what ties people in the organization to the work they do every day, and, furthermore, it’s what draws new people to the purpose of that organization.

So how should churches approach their purpose? To start, what’s their North Star? What’s the church vision?

Is the church focused on ministering to and reaching people from the Indian subcontinent? If so, great. There’s a need for church vision like this.

Is the church focused on ministering to and reaching a multiethnic audience in a buzzing metropolis? If so, great. There’s a need for church vision like this, too.

When a church or parachurch organization doesn’t have a real North Star, you’ll know it.

You’ll see them put together events just for the sake of having events fill up a calendar. They’ll schedule more prayer meetings than vision-casting meetings. They’ll try to be all things to all people even though they’re not foundationally — at even a board member level — equipped to be that nimble.

Churches that are sure about their own North Star are the ones that are often on the way to good organizational health.

A church without a vision is just a Sunday hangout with a tax exemption.Click To Tweet

It’s when they start losing sight of their North Star that churches end up dying.

woman taking off a white mask

Authenticity

Just like when there are an absent vision and mission, people generally know if an organization lacks authenticity. There’s no amount of marketing slogans, influencer campaigns, or perfectly-curated social media channels that can mask artificiality for too long.

And if people don’t catch on right away, they eventually will, especially in moments of crisis.

Crisis reveals character because it forces us to grapple with the inconvenient tensions of who we are and who we're not.Click To Tweet

You’re either authentic or artificial.

Authenticity is important because it impacts how people view and trust organizations. In fact, 86% of people say authenticity matters when liking and supporting a brand.

Authenticity matters.

But what exactly is it?

You’re probably looking at the word right now and telling yourself authenticity means wearing your heart on your sleeve. Or being transparent.

For some, the word authenticity conjures up memories of those final few moments of every cheesy, family-friendly ’90s sitcom filmed in front of a live studio audience. There’s that sappy music floating over alternating close-ups of the silly kid who needs a stern talking-to and the empathetic parental figure who says something charming, kisses them on the forehead, and tucks them in goodnight, confident this has taught the child a valuable life lesson.

Danny Tanner was authentic, right?

michelle tanner looking shocked

Well, that’s pretty close!

Simply put, authenticity is tied to three core questions:

  • Who am I?
  • What do I want to do?
  • What should I do?

Those first two questions? You’re probably already familiar with them because they’ve morphed into a maxim of sorts:

You’ve got to behave in a way that’s consistent with who you say you are.

Super easy, right? It almost sounds like a quote you’d smack above your work desk to let people know how super authentic you try to be.

Organizations often feel pretty good about that first question — at telling us what they represent. Corporations do this through their ad campaigns, churches through their pastor’s entourage on Instagram, non-profits through their inspirational landing pages. They tie their identities into what they broadcast to the world, from the messages and images shared to the emotions conveyed.

But is that enough?

I could answer the question Who am I? in one of two ways. I can tell you my name is Charles. I’m in my 30s, I’m 5’10”, and I’ve got brown eyes. All the superficial stuff of who I am.

Or I can grapple with that question some more to paint you a fuller picture of my character. Maybe like a Level Two Grapple of some sort. Based on the things I value, the people I admire, the places I’ve been, the experiences that have shaped me into the person I am today, etc. So, sure, I’m Charles, and I’m all of those things I just listed… but I’m also patient, I value being a great leader, and I try to avoid stressful situations whenever I can.

That deeper route — the deeper understanding of identity — feels different. Feels stronger. That’s why, when speaking about authenticity, legendary American choreographer and tap dancer, Savion Glover, had this to say: “You have to know where it all comes from.”

Grappling with that first question allows us to reconcile the last two questions effectively.

If there’s a workplace conflict between two people I manage, my natural, comfortable, knee jerk response — my answer to the second question — would be to avoid this stressful situation and let things sort themselves out on their own. But the appropriate response — the answer to the third question — would be to act as a great leader and help defuse the situation.

I’m both those things at the same time. My identity is simultaneously about strength in leadership and aversion to unnecessary conflict. But being authentic requires I do the math in my gut and act appropriately to the situation.

Churches and organizations have similar tensions to work out in their quest for authenticity. Being authentic means more than just having a shiny new website, cool swag, and banners hanging over balconies that greet people with a generic “Welcome Home.”

The true calculus of authenticity goes beyond merely behaving in ways consistent with what we tell people we are. It’s slightly more obtuse: it means acting in ways that reinforce the deeper parts of our makeup.

Many churches are very good at projecting an image of what they stand for but struggle to navigate their way through the crucible of inevitable change.

This is especially true of ethnocentric churches, which founders launched as ethnic-specific churches aimed at reaching immigrant minorities. But as times changed, many haven’t been able to hold their heads above water.

Take, for example, an Indian-specific church that was started to minister to and reach Indian immigrants in America in the late 20th century. That is its identity: it’s for immigrants from India. Over the years, the church board has remained a bunch of middle-aged Indian dudes, the women dress in Indian clothes on Sunday, the women must cover their heads to pray, and the main language spoken is an Indian one. The word “India” could be in the church’s name.

At some point, as time passes, the first-generation immigrants and the second-generation Indian-Americans in the church reach an unavoidable impasse; the more one group feels ignored, the less they feel welcome.

So the church’s solutions are often simply responses to their second question. What they do is what’s comfortable:

  • Double down on culture so everybody understands the magnificence of their Indian heritage
  • Double down on legacy so everybody knows how dope the pioneering pastor was
  • Give the first-generation Indian immigrants the stuff they like so they keep paying their tithes
  • Give the second-generation Indian-Americans just enough stuff they like to entice them to stay
  • Do just enough stuff for the community to really make sure the second-generation Indian-Americans want to stick around

It’s formulaic.

But ultimately not authentic.

Especially for a church that was built and imagined to reach Indian immigrants. The stronger solution would be: continue to reach Indian immigrants even if it means the second and third generation Indian-Americans eventually leave.

Stopgap intergenerational fixes, half-hearted community events, and dropping the “India” from the church name are short-sighted and vain solutions. And most people — except for the die-hards and ultra-skeptical homers — know it.

The authentic solution for many Indian-specific churches hinges on understanding their core identity and why the founder launched it in the first place. Out of fear and desperation, many behave in ways that try to solve things temporarily on a surface level. It’s no surprise why millennials are leaving the church. And it’s no surprise why churches die.

This isn’t to say that all ethnic-specific churches are failing, or that the remedy for those incredibly unhealthy churches is to just turn their attention to immigrants. Remember what I mentioned earlier on: there is no boilerplate to what makes a healthy organization hum like a finely-tuned machine. There’s no one single template for this. Every organization is different, and they’ve got different stories, inspirations, and struggles.

But this much is true: to be authentic, churches must grapple with where they come from and what they were imagined and built for.

Some won’t.

Some will.

And some don’t even realize when there’s a problem at all.

man selecting frame from old filmstrip

Over-Spiritualizing Real Problems

Martin Scorsese asks young directors one question over and over again every time they find themselves getting lost in the weeds of their projects.

What are you making?

It seems like a silly question. What are they making? The director knows what they’re making. They’ve signed on for this. They’ve read the script. They’ve seen the cast. They’ve seen the storyboards. They know what they’re making.

But Scorsese has experience under his belt. He knows when there’s a problem that needs to be solved on set or in the script, a director’s desire to fix every small thing can steer them away from their one big thing. Their one central focus.

What are you making?

It’s a question intended to reorient the director around their purpose even as things get chaotic and muddy. Things inevitably get chaotic and cloudy over time. As more and more variables come into play. As you get further and further away from why you’re here to begin with. (Whether they inevitably respond appropriately to the question is another story entirely.)

For church leaders, a take on this question would perhaps be: What are we doing here?

Unfortunately, churches and parachurch organizations tend not to ask questions this discerning. There’s often a sense of invincibility around the idea that Christ directed his promise of the Holy Spirit at their local church. Not individuals. Not the capital-C Church. Their church.

Like some sort of Holy Spirit invincibility cloak that absolves poor leadership decisions and lack of direction at an organizational level.

But that’s just bad hermeneutics.

The truth is 94% of churches in America are losing ground in the communities they’re serving, and 65% of churches are declining or have plateaued.

So on the one hand, you’ve got these stark reminders that local churches can fail. On the other hand, you’ve got leaders who often believe their own hype, ignore the data, and try to be a little bit of everything for just about everybody.

There are reasons to double down — especially when things are working. But there are many reasons to start re-evaluating the state of your organization when the cracks start to show. And at some point, those cracks begin to show.

Local churches fail sometimes.

Mars Hill dissolved.

NewSpring removed their pastor.

Cross Point Church’s attendance and giving took sharp nosedives after their leadership change.

Even the greatest church planter of all-time, the Apostle Paul, couldn’t help launch a single physical church that stood the test of time:

There is no invincibility cloak for unhealthy churches or organizations. There’s only the glaring reality of decay.

I grew up in an Indian church that felt they could do no wrong even as they did so much wrong. Now, it’s a barely a relic — a church with a fading history that continues to dwindle and die.

I don’t want to give you the wrong impression here, though. Building a healthy church and healthy leadership doesn’t necessarily equate to growth. Churches aim to get to a point where they can expand to new service times, gobble up new facilities, and plant other churches — obvious signs of growth. And that’s great. But scaling upward doesn’t necessarily mean the leadership foundation and infrastructure is stable.

Sometimes, seasons of stasis help bring clarity around aspects of organizational culture worth reinforcing and building upon.Click To Tweet

Growth metrics don’t necessarily tell you the story of organizational health. They’re helpful, sure. They’re directional in that they give us an idea of what strategies work well versus what don’t.

But a healthy church grows its leaders, builds cultures of growth mindset, and constantly recalibrates around why they exist.

Those metrics are harder to come by.

man holding mirror in hand

The Mirror

The biggest challenge churches face today is not looking deeper into themselves to find out why they exist. What the church vision and mission are. What authenticity would look like. What they’re doing here.

Grappling with those tough identity-related questions is critical because not doing so renders an organization ill-equipped to effectively solve problems both internally and externally.

It’s why toxic patriarchal leadership structures drown out necessary conversations around sexual abuse in the church.

It’s why honor-shame cultures can’t unpack and unlearn mental health stigma in the church.

Building healthy churches helps keep leaders motivated and members excited to be a part of something exuding Christ’s love for the world.

Wanna know why churches die? There are so many reasons. It’s why I write about it as much as I do.

But churches don’t have to die if they’re healthy.

It’s when they don’t know what they’re doing anymore that we need to ask ourselves what can stop the hemorraaging.

Sometimes, looking in the mirror helps. ■