The older I get, the more time and effort I find myself needing to give to staying healthy. Keeping my appetite under control, joints limber, cholesterol in check, stamina strong and spirits high all mean paying attention to a variety of self-disciplines — like proper nutrition, exercise, sleep, stress reduction, spiritual devotions and positive relationships. Now and then, my primary care doctor even thinks I need a bit of extra motivation or intervention, for which a lifestyle modification or medication might be suggested. Staying fit is a challenging, collaborative effort for all of us.

Church health also requires time, attention and cooperation. Neglect leads to lethargy, weakness, potential injury, illness — or something even worse. The average lifespan of a typical local church resembles the average human lifespan — 70 to 80 something years in most cases. Funerals come sooner for those that do not take proper care of themselves. Intentional effort and often some outside motivation or intervention is necessary for strengthening and maintaining healthy congregations in the body of Christ.

Assessing church health

Like the human body, every congregation is a unity of individual parts that must function together as a collective system. Underdevelopment, damage or failure of one part affects all the others. Vice versa, targeting and strengthening specific parts contributes to the wellness and effectiveness of the whole. Church health is the result of systematically and holistically building and maintaining strength in all interrelated areas.

This calls for taking an honest look at factors that must work together for sustained vitality. An effective way to go about this is by conducting a reliable church health survey, designed to aid local church leaders in evaluating current congregational strengths and weaknesses objectively. Gathering the collective input of a cross-section of church members and attenders enables leaders to gain valuable insights about areas of church life needing attention.

The Church Health Profile (CHP) is one survey tool, custom designed for churches connected by denominational ties. It utilizes 120 survey questions (10 each for 12 different church health factors) to gather essential information for developing a customized workout plan that concentrates church health improvement energy and efforts. The CHAT Survey is a 72-question instrument based on 10 principles from Stephen Macchia’s book, “Becoming a Healthy Church.” Another evaluation to consider is Christian Schwarz’s Natural Church Development Survey. It collects 30 local church member’s measurements of eight key behaviors to identify a church’s strengths and “minimum factors” (weaknesses where growth is most likely to improve the quality of church life). The Barna Group’s ChurchHealth Accelerator includes Barna’s ChurchPulse survey with 64 questions to evaluate 15 health factors as the first step for a 100-day development journey.

Planning church health workouts

Replacing fat with muscle and shortness of breath with fresh energy requires attention to the right activities. Figuring out where to start is an essential step in developing a workout plan for the kind of church health routines most likely to achieve desired results.

Let’s say an assessment like the CHP indicates your church is strong in areas like reliance on divine enablement (the Holy Spirit’s work in and through God’s people), competent pastoral leadership, gifted and engaged lay leaders, and Christ-exalting worship. However, what if your assessment uncovers weakness in terms of effective evangelism that multiplies Christ-followers, or God-honoring stewardship that promotes a lifestyle of generosity, or a deficit in members’ commitment to biblical beliefs and holy living? What if an objective look opens your eyes to a need for more outwardly focused local and global missions’ involvement or compassionate ministries? Do you have a way of finding out what your church needs to work specifically on caring for one another while embracing new people and valuing their inclusion in the fellowship? Are enough of your current members finding joy and fulfillment in discovering and using their spiritual gifts in fruitful, personal ministry? Can the members of your congregation accurately describe your church’s vision and identify ways they can help fulfill its purpose?

Deciding where to focus is just the first step. A personal trainer at a gym might choose to help you focus on a precise muscle group as part of a strength-training program. Likewise, a church health assessment simply identifies areas around which church leaders can then determine specific changes and activities that are needed. Church workouts will focus on specific actions related to these target areas. The commitment and effort that follow are where the satisfaction of healthier days will be experienced.

Get a training partner

What about outside motivation or intervention? When is it called for and how does a congregation get it?

Churches with denominational connections have special advantages that come from these relationships and interdependence. Proverbs 27:17 reminds us, “As iron sharpens iron, so one person [or leader, congregation or association we might say] sharpens another.” So, visit other ministries like yours whose leaders may have ideas and resources they are willing to share. Check out services and resources recommended or offered by district and denominational personnel.

Many pastors experience great benefit from finding a leadership coach. Coaches ask great questions to help others realize their potential, minimize weaknesses, maximize strengths and achieve self-determined goals. Good coaches are thinking partners, motivators, encouragers and accountability partners. They won’t do the work for you, but they will inspire and help you keep at it as you reach for better outcomes.

There are times when declining health requires outside intervention for rescue and renewal. Churches in crisis might need to call in help from a specialist, consultant or supervisor who can troubleshoot perplexing problems, mediate conflicts or guide a strategic planning process to address core issues that are negatively impacting their overall vitality. It’s wise, courageous leadership to seek help while it can still make a difference.

Now’s the time to commit

Healthy churches don’t just happen. They are made and maintained by consistent commitment to best practices that rely on the lordship of Jesus Christ and result in greater fruitfulness in seeing lives made new by him. Don’t procrastinate. Being proactive is the key. Get serious about developing and following a customized plan for long-term congregational well-being.

Dr. Jerry Pence is a retired Wesleyan pastor, adjunct professor, church consultant and denominational leader whose career has been devoted to developing systems for church growth, church multiplication and leadership coaching.