Recently I went through a Cardiac Computed Tomography(CT) Scan. Sounds complicated, but really it is not! Doctors used x-rays to take a bunch of detailed pictures of my heart, just to see how healthy my heart is. Soon I will meet with a cardiologist to discuss the results of this scan.
Every year I meet with many churches to discuss their health. They too have gone through a scan. In fact, over 1/3 of all CRCA churches have had this scan done. The scan is not a CT Scan, but the NCD (Natural Church Development) survey. A NCD survey gives detailed pictures of the health of the church. After the surveys are done and the results are tabulated, I meet with churches to discuss the results of their scan. Churches, pastors, and leaders get a clear picture of what needs to happen to improve their overall church heath. With so many CRCA churches utilising NCD surveys we are getting a clearer picture of what collectively we need to do to increase the overall health of the CRCA.
Every three years I combine all the NCD results of the individual churches to get an overall picture of the health of the CRCA. At first glance the latest results are encouraging. Over the past three years overall church health has increased by 8.8 with growth in all of the eight quality characteristics of a healthy church. (See CRCA NCD Status Report here) Even more encouraging is to see the greatest growth in the one quality characteristic that historically has scored consistently lowest overall in the CRCA: Passionate Spirituality. 'Passionate Spirituality' measures the extent to which people -- with commitment, fire, and enthusiasm -- pursue an ever-deepening experience of God. Well, since the last combined survey of the CRCA, 'Passionate Spirituality' has seen an increase of 12. In some ways these positive results are not surprising. Many churches have taken initiatives to address this persistent minimum factor. Some have encouraged people to read their bibles individually or in pairs/groups. The Bible remains a powerful guide for the decisions of everyday life. Other churches have done spiritual retreats addressing areas of 'Passionate Spirituality'. Church leaders have shared with me how they have disciplined themselves by engaging in one or more of the classical spiritual disciplines such as prayer, meditation on God's Word, going on spiritual retreats, and seeking guidance from a mentor or coach. The result is that people are more enthusiastic about their church and believe that God will work even more powerfully in their church in the coming years. The greatest area of improved health in the area of 'Passionate Spirituality' is people finding leaders being a spiritual example to them. Three years ago this question scored the lowest, but over the past three years this has seen an increase of 20. As goes the leaders, so goes the church. From a denominational perspective this latest result with 'Passionate Spirituality' is really encouraging. We have intentionally attempted to leverage spiritual vitality through the Recharge and Advance Together Conferences, and more recently through the Discpleship Matrix. And our efforts, by God's grace and and the Spirit's enabling, has borne gospel fruit!
While it is encouraging to see the marked growth in church health in the area of 'Passionate Spirituality', the combined survey results indicate a much more conservative growth in the areas of 'Gift-based Ministry'(+3.8) and 'Loving Relationships' (+4.4). 'Loving Relationships' is now the minimum factor in the CRCA. As I interact with churches, again this is not surprising. A good number of our churches do struggle with this quality characteristic of healthy churches. Love, according to a biblical understanding, is not just a warm feeling, but shows itself in concrete actions (Cf. 1 Corinthians 13). Love is one of the fruit of the Spirit, and when this spiritual fruit is visible, it can also be measured. According to the CRCA combined NCD survey, giving praise, compliments, and sharing words of appreciation to one another in the congregation does not come as easy (Q35,Q48,Q83) as talking about personal problems and resolving disagreements (Q14, Q80). What is encouraging to see is a spiked improvement with leaders showing concern for the personal problems of those in ministry (Q61; +25). Previously this health indicator scored the lowest in 'Loving Relationships' and now is one of the more healthier areas.
The CRCA continues to show growing health in the area of 'Inspiring Worship Services'. The current highest church health indicator is 'people feeling that the sermon in the worship service speaks to their personal situation' (Q10). This indicator grew by a score of +23 over the past three years. Two other indicators that showed high increases were 'people enjoying listening to the sermons in the worhip service' (Q25) and 'people looking forward to the worship services' (Q88). The only health indicator that did not see significant growth is 'our worship services attracts unchurched visitors'((Q85; +3). This minimal growth reflects another trend in the CRCA, which is leaders putting a low priority on reaching out to the lost in our communities (Q22) and working toward growing the church (Q45). Only two indicators find themselves in current lowest 10 and the previous lowest 10: 'our leaders clearly believes God wants our church to grow' (Q22) and 'our leaders are clearly concerned for people who do not know Jesus Christ' (Q45). Both of these indicators have to do with 'Empowering Leadership'. Only until our leaders clearly desire our churches to grow and reach out to the thousands of unsaved in our communities will we see a shift in our Sunday worship services attracting unchurched visitors. We have seen our church leaders grow in their support of individual Christians in their evangelistic endeavors (Q82; +22) and this is great to see. But our leaders themselves need to be more concerned for those who are unsaved. The place to begin is prayer, and sadly, prayer shows up a minimum health indicator over and over again. In fact, there was only one health indicator that saw a decrease in health these past three years, and this was: 'I pray for my friends, colleagues, and relatives who do not yet know Jesus Christ, that they will come to faith' (Q33; -1) The number one task in the CRCA missional vision is the task of prayer -- but sadly, this priority is low on the radar of our churches. We need to be reminded of Jesus words, "The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Pray to the Lord of the harvest to send out workers in the harvest field." (Matthew 9:37-38) In three years may we be a more praying church, a church concerned for the lost, and growing as people come to faith and become part of God's growing family in the CRCA.
The low priority on prayer is also indicated in the 'Story Guide' of the CRCA combined survey, a guide that looks at the background themes of the NCD survey results (See NCD Story Guide here). 'Prayer' went down in rank of those things that come more naturally to us as a denomination (-8). It now ranks 23 out of 24, right between 'joy' and 'hope'. As churches things like 'relevance', 'creativeness', and 'teamwork' come more naturally to us. We see this worked out in church health indicators such as 'Holistic Small Groups' and 'Inspiring Worship Services'. But what about 'joy', 'prayer', and 'hope'? What do these lower ranking indicators tell us about the overall health of the CRCA?
Take for example 'joy'. How do we experience 'joy' in our denomination? Out of the 10 indicators of 'joy' 8 of them are below the overall average of the CRCA health indicators. People seem to enjoy the worship services (Q25) and listening to sermons (Q88), but they are not as inclined to enjoy reading their Bible on their own(Q84). Also, our leaders do not seem to enjoy their ministry in the church(Q13). This does not mean that our leaders, or more specifically, our pastors are overworked. According to the NCD survey, our pastors do not have too much work to do (Q28; 2nd highest scoring health indicator). Leaders and others do not seem to enjoy the tasks they do in the church (Q62) and are not enthusiastic about our church (Q52). And as shared above, praise, compliments, and acknowleging volunteers do not come naturally in the churches. These are health indicators that as a denomination we should keep talking about, and thinking about what initiatives we should engage in to reverse some of these trends.
At the lowest ranking of those things that come less naturally to us as churches is 'hope'. This ranking is perhaps best summed up in the one indicator: 'I firmly believe that God will even work more powerfully in our church in the coming years.'(Q68) Couple this indicator with leaders who do not seem to enjoy their ministry in the church (Q13) and leaders who do not clearly believe that God wants our church to grow (Q45), where is the hope? Well hope is not found within us! Our hope is found in the God of promise, the One who promises us a better tomorrow! For the sinner dealing with the brokeness and fraility of life, in the words of the hymn writer Edward Mote: 'my hope is built on nothing less than Jesus' blood and righteousness.' This is the solid rock we stand on! And when hope is ranking low in our churches, again we turn to the solid rock we find in Jesus, the One who promised the apostle Peter: 'And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.' (Matthew 16:18) The rock was not Peter but Jesus, and the confession that Peter made about this Jesus: 'You are the Christ.' Jesus Christ will build and grow his church. He will build the CRCA. And as we engage in the missional calling Jesus gave us to make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19-20), we go out knowing that Jesus has all authority (Matthew 28:18) We need to keep this hope before us as a denomination as we carry out our missional vision to be 'a church reforming to reach the lost for Christ'. We don't do this alone! We partner with Christ who is reconciling the world to himself and ushering in the Kingdom of God until that day when all things will be made new (Revelation 21:5).
There are two final summary comments I want to make about the CRCA NCD combined survey results! First of all, there is a marked difference in church health between those churches who have done one survey, and those who continue to do 2 or more surveys. A rule of thumb seems to apply: more completed surveys, increased church health! But this just makes sense. If churches keep the question of church health in front of them, year after year, church health will increase. It is really an unwise use of people and financial resources to do an NCD survey and then 'park' the survey results on a shelf or in a computer harddrive. Most churches take repeated surveys! But if one includes the results of those churches who have only done one (1) survey, the average is 44.5 compared to an average of 47.1 of those churches who have done 2 or more surveys. This might seem marginal, but if you take away the survey results of all those churches who have done 2 or more surveys, and only look at the ones who have done one (1) survey, the average drops to 35.6. The point is this: take the NCD survey, and repeat it year after year (or minimally, every two years).
The second comment I want to make is based on the observation that the CRCA maximum factor is 'Holistic Small Groups' and the minimum factor is 'Loving Relationships'. 'Holistic Small Groups' saw an increase of 10.5, the second highest church health indicator growth. More and more churches are implementing small groups -- not simply for Bible studies, but a place where effective pastoral care can be exercised. But here is the quandry. How can we as a denomination realize growing health in the area of 'Holistic Small Groups' but yet see minimal change in the area of 'Loving Relationships'. What I have discovered among our churches is that while we see more and more small groups being implemented, these groups are generally not focussed on 'loving relationships', on fellowship. The focus is more on learning and growing in faith not loving and growing in relationship with others. As a CRCA we seem to be able to put together 'effective structures' and it seems reasonable to me that our churches can use this strength to structure the small group ministries in such a way that they foster loving relationships. Historically we in the Reformed camp talked lots about the 'communion of the saints'. We confess it in the Apostles' Creed. But in our fragmented society and in our technological age, we have a huge opportunity to intentionally focus our small groups into communities of deep loving fellowship. I experience that loving fellowship in the small group my wife and I attend. And I have talked with a growing number of church leaders who are testing this out in their own churches -- developing small groups which are intentionally holistic! Yes, people gather to study the Word. But there is more! They fellowship with one another and engage in ministry together. They become very much like an Acts 2 church! (see Acts 2:42-47) May we see this become a reality in and through the CRCA as well -- for this is the kind of church that will also, as Luke tells us, witness 'the Lord adding to our number daily those being saved.'