June 30, 2021

Experiencing Sustained Health: The Pinnacle of the Lifecycle – Episode 199 | The Unstuck Church Podcast

experiencing sustained health pinnacle of lifecycle

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Ask This, Not That (Part 2)

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When you’re on a winning team, you want to continue winning. That’s why healthy churches are often looking to preserve the things they’re doing now that are leading to health, growth, and ministry impact. You know, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

But the problem with applying that philosophy when it comes to your church is that you can’t keep using the same methods to reach new people.


In Part 1 of this series, Amy and I explained the first three phases of the church lifecycle: launch, momentum growth, and strategic growth. That’s the “growing side.” Now as we explore what sustained health (the pinnacle of the lifecycle) looks like, we’re discussing why the key to continued growth is actually a willingness to change.

God doesn’t want us to be comfortable. And we can’t have new influence while maintaining our old ways. This week, join us as we dive into:

  • The characteristics of sustained health
  • Why healthy churches still need to embrace change
  • 3 multiplication strategies every healthy church needs
  • A reflection exercise for you and your leadership team
Healthy churches make change a part of their culture. They embrace what’s new. Healthy churches today are not the same churches they were 10, or 5, or even 2 years ago. #unstuckchurch [episode 199] Click to Tweet We can’t have new influence while maintaining our old ways. We can’t reach new people with old methods. #unstuckchurch [episode 199] Click to Tweet When the footprint of a church’s mission expands beyond its current territory, the mission becomes a movement. #unstuckchurch [episode 199] Click to Tweet

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Sean (00:02):

Welcome to The Unstuck Church Podcast, where each week we’re exploring what it means to be an unstuck church. Imagine a church where growth not only happens numerically, but more people are accepting Christ, taking steps spiritually and they’re giving their lives to the mission. And this church isn’t just growing. It’s multiplying. It’s sounds like the church in Acts 1:8, doesn’t it? On this week’s podcast, Tony and Amy continue exploring the typical church life cycle with a conversation about churches who are experiencing sustained health. And if you haven’t yet, before you listen today, make sure you stop and subscribe to the show notes. Every week, you’ll get resources to go along with that week’s conversation, our leader conversation guide as well as access to our podcast resource archive. You can sign up by going to theunstuckgroup.com/podcast. Now let’s join Tony and Amy for this week’s conversation.

Amy (00:57):

Well, Tony, we’re in the middle of a podcast series focusing on the life cycle of churches, which you wrote about in your book, The Unstuck Church, and we’re highlighting the questions church leaders normally are asking at each stage of the life cycle and adding in some questions that they should be asking. So today we’re going to spend some time helping pastors and church leaders who find themselves in the enviable position of leading ministries at the pinnacle of the church life cycle, which is sustained health. Tony, what’s the question that church leaders are typically asking when they’re in sustained health.

Tony (01:25):

I think the typical question is, oh goodness, let’s not mess this up. So how do we preserve what’s really working right now so that we can continue to have impact in our ministry? And I get it. I don’t blame them for asking that question. I mean, the church is healthy. It’s the reaching new people. They’re helping believers take next steps towards Jesus. Many times the church is growing and they’ve been growing for many years. And gosh, when you’re on a winning team, you want to continue winning. And I can say that because I have cheered for some teams that have not won in a long time. My Cleveland Indians haven’t won since 1948. That’s the last World Series, Amy, that they won. And then the Cleveland Browns, goodness, it’s been since 1964, that they won their last NFL championship. In fact, it wasn’t even the NFL back then. I don’t think it was even pre-Super Bowl. I know that.

Amy (02:23):

So you weren’t alive for either of those last wins by your favorite teams.

Tony (02:28):

That’s right. So I mean, if you’re actually winning like these churches that are in sustained health, I get why they’re asking the question, “How do we preserve this?” How do we make sure this doesn’t go away?

Amy (02:40):

Yeah. Well, if churches are in sustained health though, Tony, what questions should they be asking?

Tony (02:46):

Yeah, I think the key question they should be asking is this. What do we need to do to change so that we can begin to multiply? And what we’ve learned is that churches that sustain health over any length of time, they get this. They recognize that their message will stay the same, but their methods must change. And that sounds crazy because we’re talking about a church that is experiencing great health right now, but even in that, they need to be open to change. I mean, have you ever noticed that some ministries thrive for a while and then they begin to decline while other churches sustain health and impact decade after decade? One of the reasons is because these healthy churches have made it part of their culture to continue to implement changes and embrace what’s new. Healthy churches today are not the same churches that they were 10 or five or even two years ago, because they continue to make healthy changes as well.

Amy (03:50):

Yeah. And I guess we could reflect on the past 15-16 months that a lot of our churches are going to be required to change because the game has changed a little bit.

Tony (04:00):

That’s very true.

Amy (04:02):

But Tony, change is hard. We just coached a church yesterday afternoon who’s heading into some big change, you know, it’s something we like to avoid. And so I suppose when we think about healthy churches, right, at the pinnacle of the life cycle, why is it so hard for them to embrace change?

Tony (04:17):

Yeah. So I mean, the obvious answer here is, as I mentioned, if we’re winning, why would we change? If it ain’t broke, why would we fix it? But let me kind of help us go a little bit deeper on that question because I think it’s important that we try to understand why is it that it’s so hard for us to embrace change when we’re experiencing the health that we’re experiencing as ministries. The first thought that comes to mind around that is I do think that success can breed complacency for us. I mean, if we’re reaching new people, if we’re growing, if more and more people are saying yes to Jesus, if it’s working, we just don’t want to mess it up. And then at that point we begin to avoid change and rather than continuing to embrace it, even though it’s that posture of embracing change that often helps churches continue to experience health and growth over time. Growing churches, they’re usually the disruptors. I mean, even though they are trying to engage the same gospel mission as every other church, their ministry strategies are typically fresh. They’re distinctive from other churches. Stuck churches, though, they tend to focus on preserving tradition, on doing ministry the way they’ve always done ministry. So healthy churches tend to preserve the gospel message while embracing new ways of engaging ministry to reach new people in an ever-changing culture. And Amy, here’s the crazy thing about how success can breed complacency. We’ve talked about it in the past. Many times churches are in decline, but they’re financially very healthy. And in that, I think it’s difficult for leaders to change something when people are financially supporting what they’re currently doing. So there’s a hesitancy to do that.

Amy (06:11):

Yeah. One thing I think about, Tony, when we’re in sustained health, there is a growing side of sustained health, but if you hit the peak, there’s now a declining side of sustained health. And those two sides can feel very similar. But I would say if you’re a leader and you believe you’re in sustained health or you’ve taken the assessment and you’re there, I think that question Tony is, are we willing to change? If the answer is, yes, you’re probably still in that growing side of it. If the answer is no, or that fear if we disrupt things, people will stop giving, they’ll be unhappy, you’re actually heading towards maintenance. And so that’s just one of the indicators I think about there.

Tony (06:49):

That’s very good Amy. Getting to the second thought I had here. It’s really that sometimes I think change, it doesn’t feel like the right thing to do or sometimes even the holy thing to do. It doesn’t take long, I don’t think, for methods to really become traditions in our ministries, and those methods become kind of the “right way” to do church or if you will, the “holy way” to do church. And we find our tribe of churches who they actually encourage us to continue to embrace those same methods, but the tribe is designed to protect what it perceives to be right and holy, and what’s crazy is that tribes and here, you know, think denominations or networks of churches that you’re a part of. Often those tribes have more grace about different perspectives on theology than they have around divergent views on methodology. I mean, you can believe what you want, but don’t color outside the lines when it comes to the strategies that you’re engaging as a church. And so I would just challenge you to consider is it that the change isn’t right or the change isn’t holy or is it that I don’t want to embrace change? Because I think we need to be continuing to embrace the healthy changes that will help us extend the right and holy mission that God’s called us to.

Amy (08:12):

That’s right. I think you said that you had three ideas around change. What’s the third one? Why don’t people want to change?

Tony (08:18):

Yeah. And again, this is probably obvious, but people don’t like change. And I wrote about this nine years ago, actually, but it seems appropriate for today’s conversation, Amy. Here’s what I wrote nine years ago. “I like comfortable. I like life the way I like life. And what’s crazy is that God doesn’t want me to be comfortable when it comes down to it. None of us really like change. Our natural tendency is to drift to that which is comfortable. And that’s why we tend to get bent out of shape when someone challenges our current thinking or our personal preferences? They become sacred. I like certain songs sung at a certain volume with a certain amount of lighting. I like certain ministries with certain activities that meet on certain days of the week. I like certain teaching around certain passages that address the sins of certain people that aren’t me. New things make me uncomfortable. New things require me to give up control. New things make me change. New things force me to become a new person in a way. And as a leader, sometimes I have to pursue new methods when I know it’s going to disrupt people, it’s going to make them uncomfortable. They might not like that. They may not like me. And it’s just easier to keep things the way they are. I like comfortable because I want people to like me. I want to have new influence without giving up my old ways. And I want to reach new people without giving up my old methods. And I want to become a new person without giving up my old life. It feels more sacred and more holy to hold on to the way things were. But is it really sacred or is it just familiar? Is it really holy or is it just comfortable?” And Amy, there’s no doubt about it. Change is not easy, but I’m convinced after working with hundreds of churches over more than a decade that stuck churches avoid change and healthy, thriving churches continue to embrace change. So if we’re going to lead healthy, thriving churches, we must also help churches embrace change, even when it’s uncomfortable.

Amy (10:36):

Yeah. That’s really well said. I was relating to your change thing there. I remember March of last year. I didn’t like when things changed and I couldn’t go see my churches, and now I’m facing the opposite. I think I’m in 11 different cities over the next 14 weeks. And I’m like, Ooh, but I like being home.

Tony (10:55):

Yeah. I’m going through all of those motions as well right now, Amy.

Amy (10:58):

Well, Tony, you suggested, the change should fuel multiplication rather than just growth. So can you just unpack that side of the conversation for us?

Tony (11:07):

Yeah. This really is one of the distinctive marks of a church that’s reached sustained health. The ministry is mobilized beyond the walls of the church. What that mobilization leading to multiplication looks like will differ, but the end result is that the footprint of the church’s mission expands beyond its current territory. That’s when the mission becomes a movement. So nowhere is this challenge to mobilize and multiply more evident than when Jesus calls the church to launch a movement. And these are his words. This is Acts 1:8. “You will receive power when the holy spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses, telling people about me everywhere, in Jerusalem, throughout in Samaria and to the ends of the earth.” Now, wherever your Jerusalem is for your church today, Jesus has called you to eventually go beyond that community as well. That’s going to look different for different churches. For some that may be extending ministries of the church into the community so that the gospel transformation happens in 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 the world around us. Whatever the case is though, I really do believe God’s design is for the church to continue to expand its territory. And so, because of that, I think every church in sustained health will eventually need these three multiplication strategies. First, a strategy to multiply disciples of Jesus. And we talked about that a little bit last week in our episode, Amy. Secondly, a strategy to multiply leaders of ministry, and number three, a strategy to multiply the outposts of the church. Again, whether that’s ministry into your community, multi-site strategy, church planting, whatever that looks like. We need to continue to multiply the outposts of the church. So how can our congregation become a movement on a mission to spread the good news? I think churches in sustained health are routinely assessing and refreshing these three strategies to adjust to changing times. And churches in sustained health are also routinely adjusting their leadership structure to support the work that they’re doing around these three strategies. And churches in sustained health are routinely determining how they’re going to put those strategies into action. So, Amy, churches needed a game plan. The game plan doesn’t win games. Executing the game plan wins games. And so again, these are some of the distinctives we see in churches with sustain health. They’re willing to embrace change. They’re making changes around their multiplication strategies, and not only do they have a game plan, they’re actually executing on that game plan.

Amy (14:07):

Yeah. Tony, that we covered a lot there. I’m just curious, what would you say is the one next step that leaders should consider based on today’s conversation?

Tony (14:18):

Amy, I’ve always been challenged by this passage from Isaiah. It’s from Isaiah 43. “Forget the former things. Do not dwell on the past. See I’m doing a new thing. Now it springs up. Do you perceive it? I’m making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.” And so because of passages and encouragement like that, today’s conversation, I hope it’s challenged us to continue to embrace change, but here’s a simple exercise that might help you consider the shifts that are needed in one of your multiplication strategies. You may have heard people talk about this as a “Stop. Start. Continue” conversation. I actually liked to rephrase it a little bit to “Start. Stop. Reinvent and Reinvest.” In other words, bring your team together, get a big white board and make four columns. One marked start. One marked stop, reinvent and reinvest. Once you have those columns established, kind of go through everything that you’re doing as a church. Think about what needs to start, what needs to stop, what do we need to reinvent? And based on those three columns, where do we need to reinvest? Where do we need to continue to pour more money, more resources, more people, more time into things that God’s really using for us to continue to expand our ministry impact?

Amy (15:46):

Tony, you made me think of my closet. So we often say, you know, you get a new shirt, you take an old one out, right? So just my encouragement to churches, if you go through this exercise, which I think is excellent. The start column is super fun. In fact, many of our churches have been dreaming and creating new digital strategies to learn to reach people post pandemic kind of thing. But the stop one is equally as important. It goes back to what we said earlier. We can’t just keep adding things or we will end up being really complex. We covered that last week. So you have to push yourself a little bit to really give some energy to every column and then process that through, right, with the team. And you talked a little bit earlier about a game plan. So what do you encourage churches to do once they’ve kind of listed everything in one of these four columns?

Tony (16:36):

Yeah. Once you’ve completed this exercise, determine together what action is actually needed. So here, once you have that action plan in place, I think it’s going to be important to assign a point leader, set target dates for completion of these next steps, hold each other accountable and make sure that the change that you’ve talked about actually happens.

Amy (16:58):

Yep. Well, good. Any final thoughts, Tony, before we wrap up today’s conversation?

Tony (17:02):

Yeah. So I’d ask you the question that I asked at the end last week. Do you know where your church sits on the church life cycle? And if not, I would encourage you to take The Unstuck Church Assessment. You can find a link to get that set up at theunstuckgroup.com/lifecycle. Great opportunity for you to do this on your own. Or I would encourage you invite your team to do this with you. And in fact, I think you’ll find that the results and the clarity you get from that will be even more pronounced and much clearer actually, if you get your team to join you in that. And again, we are always wanting to help churches wherever you are in the church life cycle. So if you need some assistance, if you want some coaching and encouragement around that could look like, I hope you’ll reach out to us at theunstuckgroup.com.

Sean (17:54):

Well, thanks for joining us on this week’s podcast. If you like what you’re hearing on the podcast and it’s helped you in some way, we would love your help in getting the content out farther. And you can do that by subscribing on your favorite podcasting platform, giving us a review and telling somebody else about the podcast. At The Unstuck Group, we work everyday with church leaders to help them build healthy churches with coaching and planning that focus them on vision, strategy and action. And if that’s a need in your church, we would love to talk. You can start a conversation with us by visiting us at theunstuckgroup.com. Next week, we’re back with another brand new conversation. So until then, have a great week.

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