Is Your Church Healthy or Fit?

By Gary McIntosh Apr. 8, 2011 5:02 p.m. Church Life, Evangelism, Ministry and Leadership

I spoke to twenty pastors this last week on the topic of Healthy Churches.  I suggested to the pastors that there are four, perhaps five, types of churches in a health paradigm.  First, there are Hospice Churches.  These churches are extremely ill, having declined in worship attendance for a decade or longer, and most likely will close.  God can, of course, perform a miracle and restore hospice churches to health, but this is rare. 

   Second, there are Sick Churches.  People who have let a root of bitterness sprout up often populate these churches.  They may be angry, hopeless, and have declined in worship attendance for five years or more.  Sometimes sick churches are plateaued in worship attendance, but this is still an unhealthy situation.  Plateauing in churches is akin to hypertension in humans.  You can live with hypertension for many years, but if it is left untreated, the hypertension may result in a stroke or death.  Churches that have been on a long-term plateau may be okay for decades, but the plateau will usually result in eventual decline and death if left untreated.

   Third, there are Healthy Churches.  Health is normally defined as an "absence of disease."  Thus, a healthy church is one that is unified, loving, and caring.  Worshipers usually know their spiritual gifts and passions, and are found serving in some ministry role. The Word of God is taught with conviction, and children are raised up in the faith.  Missionaries are supported, and prayers are offered for the salvation of souls around the world.  It is good to be healthy, but I suggest there is another level of health, or church, that is best: a Fit Church.

    I'm healthy, that is, I have no disease.  However, I am not fit, that is, I could never run a six minute mile. One of my uncles, on the other hand, is both healthy and fit.  He holds state and even a few national records for endurance running.  We are both healthy but my uncle is FIT!  The same is true of churches, that is, some are healthy but not fit.  Others are healthy and FIT!

    Thus, a fourth type of church is a Fit Church.  A fit church usually has a five percent conversion rate each year.  Another way to say that is it only takes twenty people in a fit church to see one new person come to faith in Jesus Christ each year.  A healthy church needs thirty-five people to see one person come to faith and a sick church needs around 100 people to bring one new person to faith.  Hospice Churches, by definition, bring no one to faith in Christ.

    Fit churches average around ten percent growth each and every year, while healthy churches may grow between two and five percent a year, which means they barely hold onto their own children.  Sick churches rarely grow, but may reach enough new people to remain on a plateau. Hospice churches experience major decline.

   Fit churches replace themselves by multiplying daughter churches.  Healthy churches may start one new daughter church, but never start another.  Sick and Hospice churches only contribute to new churches through foreign missions giving or by giving the proceeds from the sale of their property to help plant new churches after they die.

    There are, of course, other indicators we could look at to define a fit church, however these are a few key ones.  But, there may be one more type of church in the larger church health paradigm: the World-Class Church.

    You may be healthy and fit, but are you world-class?  World-class athletes compete in the Olympic games and other national and world venues.  They are a step above even those who are physically fit.  In a similar way there are churches that go way beyond fitness to being World-Class.  Instead of averaging an annual growth rate of ten percent a year, they average twenty percent or greater. Instead of starting a few daughter churches, they multiply numerous daughter churches.  Instead of seeing five percent of their newcomers each year being new converts to Christ, they see a ten percent or greater conversion growth rate.  As you might expect, World-Class Churches are rare, but we can all work toward fitness.  If your church is sick, strive to become healthy.  If it is healthy, strive to be fit.  And, if your church is fit, why not strive to be world-class?

   I welcome your thought. -Your friend, Gary McIntosh


  • Justin Apr. 9, 2011 at 10:16 AM

    Why is church health evaluated solely on percentage of growth. It seems this would mean that new churches growing at high rates would also be the world-class churches. This may not be the case, they are just new.

    What about churches who water down doctrine and thus attract new people by means other than the gospel of Christ? This describes a very ill church, but they may qualify by growth standards as healthy or fit.

    Some of the strongest Christians I know attend small churches which are seen to be unfit simple because the culture around them is shifting towards apostasy. A more complete diagnosis of churches must take doctrine and culture in consideration as well.

  • DennisS Apr. 9, 2011 at 2:52 PM

    I like this way of looking at things, and particularly enjoyed the difference between a "healthy" and "fit" congregation.

    Do you see these categorical growth rates as "gross" or "net" rates?

    Our rural congregation (with declining population base in the region) has many elderly, and spent more than three decades in decline (membership, attendance, giving). The rate of decline was very consistent, falling right along a trend line (though it was actually accelerating as time went on). From 1985 - 2004 (20 years), the net membership dropped by 11 per year on average.

    Including those planning to join soon, a third of the membership will have joined in the past 6 years. That's not 10% per year, and I don't think the congregation is to the point of being "fit". But it has several indicators of health - including the ability to tune out and shed the folks who have tried to control, or who have previously ratcheted up anxiety.

    I do agree that the numbers themselves are not always correct, as there can be congregations growing through legalism, shame, or other ways of short-term, unhealthy growth. I will add that a couple years doesn't make a trend, so we need to see the indications and see if they continue for many years.

    Attendance and membership are much easier to measure than the increase in depth of discipleship, or impact through mission. But these measurable (participation) numbers can often be indicative of a healthy congregation with proper focus on the mission of the church.

    My statistical analysis suggests a congregation needs to add 5 - 8% per year to membership, on average, in order to maintain the membership in the long run. This is not taking into account the "net" rate, as deaths, transfers, and the like are often beyond control. The net growth can even be negative in some years, but if looking on the positive side - just the additions - can help us see if we are expanding, or contracting, in the big view. (The wide range of 5 - 8% recognizes that some areas have much higher turnover than other areas.)

    Congregations which grow at the rate suggested as "world class", will sometimes end up becoming unhealthy and fracturing. It seems that the growth rate can be too high and lead to becoming unhealthy.

    Overall, I think the article is fairly accurate and useful for those who wish to consider the health of a congregation.

  • Charlene Apr. 11, 2011 at 8:50 AM

    @ Justin: At first blush, it is hard to stomach the idea of measuring a church's health by tracking its growth in numbers. It goes against our current church culture and the backlash against the growth of mega-churches in the last few decades.

    I don't believe this article is trying to evaluate church health solely based on percentage of growth. I could be wrong, but I think a church's conversion rate is being used as a key indicator of health, not its growth in membership. And since spreading the gospel and sharing the good news of Jesus Christ is our prime directive...why shouldn't the number of people giving their lives to Jesus be a measure of a church's health? Especially if a direct consequence of their conversion is the growth of new churches, rather than an increasingly large mother church.

  • Joe Hellerman Apr. 11, 2011 at 7:34 PM

    I appreciate your thoughts, Gary.

    OK, for those of you out there who think a church can be healthy without conversion growth, here's a thought. If all of our churches in America (for example) were healthy by your definition (sound doctrine, no conversion growth), there would be no Christians in America one generation from now. Is that really what we want?

    'Oh,' but you might add,'the children of these doctrinally sound church folks will become Christians.' Really? While watching their parents hanging on to sound doctrine but reaching out to no one?

    The problem here, in my view, is churches that have abdicated their responsibility to reach the world around them, in the name of doctrinal purity. Seems to me that we can have both: the Word of God 'taught with conviction' (to quote Gary's article) AND people coming to Christ. The early church seemed to put the two together, at any rate.

    My $0.02.

  • Tim Aug. 3, 2011 at 1:34 PM

    I don't consider any church that consumes 75 - 85% of it's giving to buy stuff for itself to be healthy. This ratio is considered normal in the institutional form of church but it is very self-centered and selfish. It demonstrates a very low value for the power God has designed into each member of the body to build the body and substitutes in perpetual dependency on hired experts who never "fully train others to be like them" Luke 6:40. Where the money goes says where the heart is. This must be a key health item.

    All you have to give up is special buildings for crowd oriented church gatherings and hired experts to dominate expression of truth and you can have 100% of your giving to be actual giving and not pooling. If the giving gets something for the giver - it's not giving. The where of giving is always beyond the giver. 2Cor. 8 & 9

  • Barry Bandara Jan. 9, 2013 at 3:57 PM

    Hello Gary! I so much enjoyed taking your leadership class in 2004 at Talbot while serving as the High School Pastor at First EV Church of Fullerton.

    I am now a Lead Pastor up here in Washington. I have a question for you: Do you know of what the healthy % of students should be in a church? A long time ago I heard that a healthy youth group should be at least 10% of the congregation. Not sure if you know of any updated numbers.

    If so, I'd like to also know what the % should be for Children's Ministry.

    Hope to hear back from you and that all is well with you and your ministry!

    Barry Bandara

  • Andy Jerome Jan. 10, 2013 at 9:51 AM

    As one who works in the area of church planting and redevelopment I agree wholehearterly with your breakdown of what it really means to be healthy and fit. Over the years I have witnessed churches in all these catagories. I'm a little taken back with some of the comments that de-value the need to win souls to Christ and how that factors into church healthy. I can't possibly see how a church can be healthy without an intentional effort to bring lost people to Chirst.

  • Bill Giovannetti May. 9, 2013 at 10:49 AM

    Great article in many ways. I would like to add a baseline comparison in this model: it seems that almost all explosive growth in churches only occurs where there is a corresponding explosive growth in the surrounding population.

    A church may be healthy, fit, and world class, but if the surrounding community is plateaued or declining the church will mirror that, even with Jesus as the pastor. This happens most frequently in small or isolated cities, or ethnically changing neighborhoods.

    Peter Wagner called these Ghost Town disease, and Ethnikitis.

    The key is a steady flow of new converts who join the mission of ensuring a steady flow of new coverts.

    Just a thought.

  • Deb Aug. 13, 2013 at 6:22 AM

    Been thinking and praying about this for quite some time; declining congregations who are conservative and place a distinctive value on the Bible and the Lord Jesus Christ -

    The answer is not in programs, outreach, dynamic talented speakers and teachers. It is not in a digital light show and loud band music that wows and excites. The answer lies in Revelations chapter 2 and 3 and each serious and genuine Christian in a dieing church needs to ask the Lord where and in what we are falling short, confess it and stop that particular habit, conduct or wrong-headed doctrine and practice and replace it with the habit of Christ and His interests before our lamp stand is removed.

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