April 19, 2023

The Challenges of Sustained Health – Episode 292 | The Unstuck Church Podcast

the challenges of sustained health

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The Challenges of the Church Lifecycle (Part 2)

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Regardless of their uniqueness, every church has the potential to go through a very similar lifecycle: Most churches start, grow, thrive, decline, and eventually end. But God’s plan for our churches is to mature to a place of sustained health and to help more people follow Jesus. 

churchlifecycle sustained health
The Phases of the Church Lifecycle

When a church is in the sustained health phase, they are growing, unified, and bearing good fruit. Churches experiencing sustained health are typically asking one question: “How do we preserve what’s working right now so that we can continue to have impact in our ministry?”

But they should be asking: “What do we need to change so that we can begin to multiply?”


Rather than focusing on maintaining the status quo, the priority focus of churches in sustained health should be multiplying and reproducing at all levels.  That’s why the core challenge of churches in sustained health is strategy constraints to encourage multiplication in all areas of the ministry.

In this episode, Amy and I will break down the four key challenges of churches in sustained health and how to address them, including:

  • Multiplying believers/Jesus-followers
  • Multiplying disciples who make disciples
  • Multiplying leaders
  • Multiplying your ministry

Unsure where your church sits on the church lifecycle? Take the free Unstuck Church Assessment.

The priority focus of churches in sustained health should be multiplying and reproducing at all levels. [episode 292] #unstuckchurch Click To Tweet Churches in sustained health need to be focused on what needs to change – not what needs to stay the same. [episode 292] #unstuckchurch Click To Tweet Are you willing to change to continue multiplying? If you can honestly say yes, you’re probably on the growing side of sustained health. If the answer is no, you may be moving toward maintenance. [episode 292] #unstuckchurch Click To Tweet Leadership development isn’t something that starts and ends—it’s a cycle. The church must continually develop the next generation so the mission can move forward. [episode 292] #unstuckchurch Click To Tweet God’s design is for the church to expand its territory. That is one of the definitive marks of a church in sustained health: the ministry is mobilized beyond the walls of the church. [episode 292] #unstuckchurch Click To Tweet
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This Episode is Sponsored by PlainJoe Studios:

PlainJoe: A Storyland Studio partners with churches, nonprofits, faith-based organizations, and educational environments to create unforgettable strategic, digital, and spatial stories that lift the Spirit. 

Through architecture, branding, interior design, website development, themed environments, and more, PlainJoe champions churches as Sacred Storytellers and collaborates with a wide range of world-changing people and organizations. 

To learn more about working with PlainJoe’s team of down-to-earth specialists, architects, strategists, artists, and problem solvers, visit plainjoestudios.com/getunstuck.

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Sean (00:02):

Welcome to The Unstuck Church Podcast, where each week we are exploring what it means to be an unstuck church. No church drifts towards health. Some strategic intentional steps have to be taken over time to sustain health, but many churches have realized that what got them to the health they experience today won’t keep them there. On today’s podcast, Tony and Amy continue our series on the church lifecycle with some stories and practical examples of how churches can sustain health. If you’re brand new to The Unstuck Church Podcast, we want to invite you to head over to theunstuckgroup.com/podcast and subscribe to get the show notes in your email. When you do, you’re gonna get resources that go along with each week’s episode, including our leader conversation guide, some bonus resources, and access to our podcast resource archive. That’s theunstuckgroup.com/podcast to subscribe. Now, before today’s conversation, here’s a word from Tony.

Tony (00:58):

PlainJoe, a Storyland Studio, partners with churches, nonprofits, faith-based organizations and educational environments to create unforgettable, strategic, digital and spacial stories that lift the spirit. Through architecture, branding, interior design, website development, themed environments, and more, PlainJoe champions churches as sacred storytellers and collaborates with a wide range of world-changing people and organizations. To learn more about working with PlainJoe’s, team of down-to-earth specialists, architects, strategists, artists, and problem solvers, visit plainjoestudios.com/getunstuck.

Amy (01:46):

Well, welcome back, everybody to The Unstuck Church Podcast. Hey, Tony, how you doing today?

Tony (01:50):

I’m doing well. I’ve been to Paradise, Amy.

Amy (01:54):

You have? Wow. Tell us about that.

Tony (01:55):

Yes. Paradise, Texas, that is. Yeah. So, worked with a couple of great churches this past week from Dallas, Texas. The Hills Church in Fort Worth, and actually other locations around Dallas/Fort Worth, and then Grace Fellowship. It’s out in Paradise, Texas, which is about a 45 minute drive, I guess, from Fort Worth. And it’s amazing. This is literally a one stoplight town. I mean, just a handful of people live in this community, but people are driving from long distances to engage with this church, and they’re pushing up against 2000 people now gathering and in talking about future direction and things like that. And it’s just fun to see what God’s doing in a very rural community. And so the potential, I think, for that ministry too going forward is just significant. So it was fun to be with Pastor Chris and the team at Grace Fellowship recently, but where have you been?

Amy (02:59):

Actually, I was in Texas too, which, for this Minnesota girl, is always a welcome treat when it’s still ground-covered in snow, which it is, Tony. We’re almost to May though, and then I think we’ll be set. But no, I worked with a great church too, and we did their Staffing and Structure Review, and man, the humility of the leaders I work with. They’re such learners, and it’s so fun to see how God just confirms things that have been on their minds and also gives them, equips them, you know, and helps them start thinking through how to lead some change in their church. And so, yeah, it was a joy to be down in Texas. All right. Well, I suppose we should get on with the podcast, but we are currently right in the middle of our series on the church life cycle, where we’re walking through each of the phases and sides of the life cycle and describing their core challenges. And today we’re actually addressing the challenges that come along with being in sustained health. And Tony, that seems a little odd considering that sustained health, it’s the pinnacle of the life cycle where every church wants to be, but I’m guessing you’ll explain those challenges as our conversation unfolds here. So before we get there though, can you briefly explain what sustained health looks like and feels like for churches?

Tony (04:11):

Yeah. As you mentioned, Amy, sustained health is the goal for every church. When a church is in sustained health, they’re growing over time, they’re unified, they’re bearing good fruit in a lot of different areas. The ministry is multiplying. They embrace change, which is something that I don’t know that when you’re looking from the outside in, you just assume that churches that are healthy and strong and in this place where they’re seeing good fruit, that they just kinda lock into what they’re doing, what God’s doing through the church, and they don’t change. But actually that’s one of the characteristics of churches in this season is they’re willing to embrace change, and they’re very generous as ministries. And in this stage, growth continues to occur not only with numbers, but also with people accepting Christ, engaging a discipleship process, and then sacrificing their lives to get on mission with Jesus. And there are more people showing up. There are more people becoming fully devoted to carrying out the Great Commission and the Great Commandment, and it’s really incredible to be a part of a church in this phase of the life cycle. And my prayer really is that every church will experience sustained health, and that’s why The Unstuck Group exists. However, there are challenges as you alluded to, Amy, and to explain why I’ll quote a pastor who recently worked through our multi-site unstuck process, and the pastor said this, “What got you where you are is not going to keep you where you are or, much less, get you where you need to go.” In other words, even churches that are experiencing sustained health have to keep their focus forward. And in our last series that covered the church life cycle, we outlined the questions churches typically ask in each stage of the life cycle versus the questions they should be asking. And churches experiencing sustained health are typically asking one question. How do we preserve what’s working right now so that we can continue to have impact in our ministry? They should be asking what do we need to change so that we can begin to multiply?

Amy (06:22):

Yeah, that just reminds me, Tony, that you’ve often used the quote, “Churches don’t drift into health.” And that means even if you’re a healthy church now, you have to be intentional, right? About doing the right things to stay healthy and continue to grow, or else you’ll find yourself drifting towards maintenance. And is that the challenge for churches in sustained health?

Tony (06:41):

That’s right, Amy. This really is the core challenge of churches in this phase of the lifecycle. Strategy constraints to encourage multiplication in all areas of ministry. That’s the challenge to overcome. And every church in sustained health will need several multiplication strategies. Churches in this season are also routinely assessing and refreshing those strategies to adjust to changing times. And the times do seem to continue to change. They’re also routinely adjusting their leadership structure to support the work they’re doing around those strategies, and churches in sustained health are routinely determining how they’re going to put those strategies into action.

Amy (07:26):

Tony, you mentioned strategies, plural. Can you explain what strategies you’re referring to?

Tony (07:31):

Yeah, of course. The priority focus of churches in sustained health should be around multiplying and reproducing at all levels. And what that means is replicating disciples of Jesus through leadership development groups, services, multi-site, church planting, and so on. And it really can be broken down into four key challenges. Multiplication of believers or Jesus followers. Multiplication of disciples of Christ. Multiplication of leaders, and then multiplication of ministry. And we’re going to address those four challenges in today’s episode.

Amy (08:11):

All right, great. Well, you mentioned that the first challenge is multiplying believers, in other words, helping more people meet and follow Jesus. And this might be the most obvious challenge that all churches face. So why does this stick out to you in the sustained health phase specifically?

Tony (08:26):

Yeah. So we don’t spend too much time convincing you that this is important. Hopefully, if you’re serving in ministry, this already is a core focus. At the very least though, I want to convince you that you need to be tracking this more closely. And here’s why. A church that’s experiencing sustained health didn’t get there by catering to insiders, but by reaching new people and helping new people meet and follow Jesus. In fact, it’s rare that I ever come across a church that started off as an inside-focused church. That’s not typically where they begin. Most churches start because of a desire to reach new people with the gospel. It’s the good news. In fact, in those early stages of a church plant, they have to reach new people or they’ll die due to a lack of viability. There’s just, you need people, you need resources to accomplish the mission. So if we aren’t careful, we can lose this focus as our church grows and reaches a point of sustained health. And when we feel like our current methods and strategies are working well, we can easily become insider-focused and kind of stuck in our ways, Amy, and that’s why we mentioned that churches in sustained health need to be focused on what needs to change, not what needs to stay the same. After all, an insider-focus is one of the key characteristics of a church that’s headed towards decline.

Amy (09:46):

So to summarize this, then, if the first challenge of churches in sustained health is multiplying believers, then the key question these churches should ask is, are we seeing more people meet and follow Jesus? And Tony, especially in this post-Covid age, as churches are seeing people returning, I know frequently I hear you ask, but who’s coming, right? Are people from our church returning? Are people from other churches coming? Are they new people? So is that the key question? Are we seeing more people meet and follow Jesus?

Tony (10:16):

That’s right, Amy. And that’s why I mention the importance of tracking numbers related to this goal closely and reviewing them frequently. But by the way, I’m not suggesting that big churches are always healthy churches. I’m also not trying to make the case that small churches are necessarily always unhealthy. I am, though, trying to make the case that healthy churches are focused on helping more people meet and follow Jesus. And as a product of that, hopefully those churches should grow over time.

Amy (10:47):

All right. Great advice. Okay. What’s the next challenge for churches in sustained health?

Tony (10:51):

So the second challenge is creating a clear discipleship path. Think about how we’re encouraging people to experience spiritual formation that helps disciples make more disciples. So when thinking about this topic, I love to go back to that example of Timothy and Paul in 2 Timothy 2:2, Paul says, “You have heard me teach these things and have confirmed by many reliable witnesses. Now teach these truths to other trustworthy people who will be able to pass them on to others.” And what a great picture of mentoring someone else. Paul didn’t hold on to the good news for himself, he imparted it to Timothy. But simply developing Timothy wasn’t the win. The win was seeing him disciple others. And that’s that perfect picture of multiplication. And when we work with churches at The Unstuck Group, we encourage them to form their discipleship path around the five steps of the spiritual journey. And what we found in the past is that most churches spend the majority of their time and resources investing in moving people across the line of faith, then discipling them once they become believers. But when we look at the spiritual journey, there’s some key steps that easily get missed. So think about the spiritual journey from somebody who’s not interested to somebody who is making disciples. And so step one might be not interested in the faith. Something happens in someone’s life. They start asking questions. There’s some curiosity around things of a spiritual nature. That person becomes spiritually curious. That’s step two. Then the question is, how do we help people move from their spiritual curiosity to crossing the line of faith? In other words, they become a believer. They become a Jesus follower. Step four then is once they’ve crossed the line of faith, how do we disciple those people? How do we encourage spiritual formation, spiritual growth, so that they can get to step five where they are a multiplier of the faith. They are a disciple maker. So whatever you decide your discipleship path is going to be, the final step should be the challenge that Paul gave to Timothy, the path should lead to influencing and leading others. And the question is, will everybody take that step? I doubt it, but we should set the bar high and we should have an intentional strategy to encourage people to get to that place in their faith journey as well.

Amy (13:33):

And that’s a good challenge. I’m sure our diagram is in the show notes for this podcast. I challenge church leaders just to take a look at each of those steps, moving from, you know, spiritually curious to believer, believer to being discipled, being discipled to disciple maker. What are our key strategies to move that? Because, you know, it really could make the difference from whether or not a church in sustained health stays there, right? If they’ve got those strategies or they drift into maintenance. So it sounds like the key question for this challenge is, are we seeing more people take next steps, specifically moving from becoming a believer to being discipled, to becoming a disciple maker? Those last two steps of the spiritual journey.

Tony (14:14):

Yeah, that’s exactly right, Amy. And I think hearing that should challenge you as a church to fully assess your discipleship strategy.

Amy (14:22):

Well, alright. What’s the next challenge facing churches in sustained health?

Tony (14:25):

Well, similar to making disciples who make disciples, the third challenge is developing a culture of leaders who multiply their leadership. And there really needs to be more intentionality once churches are in sustained health about how they’re developing and raising up new leaders. Multiplication means producing more disciples and more people on mission with Jesus. And in order for that to happen, there needs to be a continual cycle of discipleship and leadership development. We need to be producing not only growing disciples of Jesus, but developing leaders. We see this multiplication of leadership in the early church, by the way. Paul understood that he could not do it on his own, and instead he raised up other leaders for the church. For example, in Titus, chapter one, verse five, he writes, “I left you on the island of Crete so that you could complete our work there and appoint elders in each town as I instructed you.” In other words, it’s not enough to pass on knowledge and wisdom. We also have to mobilize biblically qualified leaders to extend our ministry reach. But this is not a normal practice, Amy, in churches today. We get so focused on our ministry programming to keep churchgoers busy, that we lose sight of the fact that we’re supposed to be mobilizing people to take new territory. And we’re often not particularly good at raising up leaders, pouring into them, and then encouraging them to take bold steps to multiply our gospel reach.

Amy (16:00):

You know, we recently discussed some of these principles of leadership development in our multi-site series, so I don’t think we’ll dive too deeply into that today. But I’m wondering, Tony, if you could give a few short thoughts on what this looks like for churches.

Tony (16:12):

Yeah. So as you said, we can’t dive into each of these, but churches in sustained health who wanna grow in this area will need to create systems and strategies for first identifying potential leaders. Secondly, training and equipping leaders. And then third, giving the leaders the opportunity to lead, actually empowering them and releasing them into ministry. And leadership development isn’t something that starts and ends. It’s really, you can think of it as being a cycle. The church must continually develop the next generation so that the mission can continue and people can be impacted by the gospel. And as a starting point for this, I’d encourage pastors to have a conversation with their team around these three questions. And they go along with those three steps that I just mentioned. First, what opportunities are available to engage potential leaders? Secondly, how can we create relational environments? Because it has to be one-on-one relationships to earn speaking permission in the lives of potential leaders. And then third, how can we measure our process? How can we measure our progress to know that we’re actually identifying leaders, training and equipping them and then giving ministry, giving leadership, away?

Amy (17:33):

You know, I think I might add one to your list, Tony. And this just comes, I do a lot of staffing and structure reviews. And a common theme, especially the last 18 months, has been a lack of leaders on the team that are giving ministry away. They are fantastic pastors, and they are doing fantastic things, but there’s this gap of giving ministry away. One of the things that I encourage, maybe I’d add a a fourth question is just, how do we build high-level volunteer positions into our ministry structures? Because I think when we build those positions in, it forces those next three, which is: what opportunities are available? That defines it. How do we create the environments to invite them in? And lastly, I love that last question. How can we measure our progress? You know, leadership, I think, development can feel slippery, if I could say it that way. It’s highly relational. So it can be hard to measure, but measuring these steps are so important both to keep an eye on the progress in this area and to keep it as a top of mind priority for all of our staff.

Tony (18:37):

Yeah. Amy, you’re absolutely right. We always say, as the leader, you communicate priorities in two ways, what you say and what you measure. So the key question for churches around this challenge is, are we seeing more people taking on the mantle of discipling others and leading ministry? And by the way, we did a whole episode on how to find and measure leaders in your church. And you can go back to Episode 222 and we’ll be sure to include that link in our show notes as well today.

Amy (19:09):

That was 70 podcasts ago, Tony.

Tony (19:11):

Oh my goodness, Amy. That’s a lot of podcasts.

Amy (19:16):

So that’s a lot of podcasts. So far we’ve discussed how churches who wanna multiply and remain in sustained health need to help more people meet and follow Jesus, create a clear discipleship path and develop a culture of multiplying leadership. What’s the fourth and final challenge, Tony?

Tony (19:33):

Yeah. The final challenge is all about multiplying the ministry beyond the four walls of the church. And this is one of the definitive marks, really, of a church that reaches sustained health. The ministry is mobilized beyond the walls of the church. And what that mobilization leading to multiplication looks like will differ from church to church. But the end result is that the footprint of the church’s mission continues to expand beyond its current territory. And that’s when the mission really does become a movement. Nowhere, of course, is this challenge to mobilize and multiply more evident than when Jesus calls the church to launch a movement. And he says, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witness telling people about me everywhere in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

Tony (20:28):

And wherever Jerusalem is for your church today, Jesus has called you to eventually go beyond that community as well. And again, that’s going to look different for different churches. For some that may be extending the ministries of the church into the community so that the gospel transformation begins to happen in new people’s lives. For other churches that may mean mobilizing and multiplying by opening new campuses of the church through a multi-site approach. For others, it may mean planting new churches in other parts of the region or in the world around us. Whatever the case, God’s design is for the church to expand its territory. So the key question for this challenge is, are we seeing our ministry expand beyond the walls of our church?

Amy (21:15):

Hmm. I love that. And I love that wherever your Jerusalem is for your church, where has God placed it, right? How do we expand it? What a great challenge for churches who are listening today. Well, Tony, it’s clear that in all four of these areas, there’s one recurring theme. If we want to remain healthy, we can’t be content to stay where we are. We have to continually pursue the more that God has for our church.

Tony (21:37):

Exactly, Amy. In fact, I think we should summarize today’s conversation with this question for churches who are in or who desire to be in a place of sustained health. And it’s this: Are you willing to change to continue multiplying? And if you can honestly say, yes, you’re probably on the growing side of sustained health. If you say no, you may be moving towards maintenance.

Amy (22:03):

It’s a great summarization. Maybe the takeaway then for church leaders who are listening is to answer that question with either a yes or a no. Are you willing to change to continue to multiply? And it sounds like a simple question, Tony, but I think of some of the very large churches we’ve worked with. Change maybe sometimes feels even harder for them because it feels like there’s so much more at risk to make a change. But that’s what I hear in your words today is compelling those large churches, are you willing to still change? Because if the answer is yes, then they should honestly assess where their church is today through each of those four questions that we just discussed. In which of these four areas are you not seeing growth in, and what next step might you need to take to get there? So Tony, any final thoughts as we wrap up today’s conversation?

Tony (22:53):

Yeah, Amy, I just want to remind our listeners that our team has developed a free tool that we call The Unstuck Church Assessment. And this tool helps churches self-assess their current stage in the church life cycle. And I highly encourage you to check out that assessment to determine where you are today so that you can take your next steps towards health as a ministry. And we’ll again, link the Unstuck Church Assessment in your show notes today.

Sean (23:21):

Well, thanks for joining us on this week’s podcast. At The Unstuck Group, our goal is to help pastors grow healthy churches by guiding them to align vision, strategy, team, and action. In everything we do, our priority is to help churches help people meet and follow Jesus. If there’s any way we can serve you and your church, reach out to us today at theunstuckgroup.com. Next week we’re back with another brand new episode. Until then, have a great week.

Tony Morgan

Tony is the Founder and Lead Strategist of The Unstuck Group. Started in 2009, The Unstuck Group has served 500 churches throughout the United States and several countries around the world. Previously, Tony served on the senior leadership teams of three rapidly growing churches including NewSpring Church in South Carolina. He has five published books including, The Unstuck Church, and, with Amy Anderson, he hosts The Unstuck Church Podcast which has thousands of listeners each month.

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