Is Your Church Stuck? 7 Characteristics of Highly Intentional Churches

Jun 08, 2023

As we approach the halfway mark of 2023, the disruption of the last few years is still rippling. The congregation you led three and a half years ago is likely quite different from the congregation you’re leading today—even if it has the same name.

You may even be sensing that your church is stuck. You may be asking, seeking, and knocking in prayer, yearning for God to bring your church to greater health and intentionality.

In this article, I’m going to lay out the seven characteristics of highly intentional churches. 

Use this list as a diagnostic tool alongside your team. Discuss what characteristics are true of your church, which are aspirational, and which are pipe dreams.

Characteristics of Highly Intentional Churches

1. Radically committed to the mission of Jesus

Whatever you do, don’t just slide past this. What is the mission of Jesus? It’s the great commission. The mission of Jesus is that every disciple of His would make other disciples of His, baptizing them and teaching them to obey everything He commanded them to do.

The mission of Jesus is every follower of Jesus investing in other people so that those people would surrender to Jesus and be taught in the ways of Jesus and do the same for others.

The unfortunate reality of the church (at least in the West) is that most churches are not radically committed to the mission of Jesus.

Some of the leaders might be. A few of the church members might be. But the whole of the church? That’s rare. 

Consider these questions:

  • How many people in your church are actively discipling others?
  • For those who aren’t, what are their barriers to doing so?
  • How can you and your team help remove those barriers?
  • How are you leading from the front in making disciples of Jesus?

2. Hyper-simplified around the methods of Jesus

If I were sitting down with you and your leadership team, one of my first questions would be, what kinds of events, programs, and activities are you offering as a church?

Ironically, many churches would light up in excitement as they list event after event, program after program, and activity after activity. There’s your problem. 

When normal-sized churches have lists of special events, regular programs, and additional activities, they will have mission drift. 

Instead, highly intentional churches are not only committed to the mission of Jesus but they are committed to the methods of Jesus.

What were the methods of Jesus?

He served, welcomed, and ministered to the crowds. He discipled His twelve. He went deeper with His three.

Jesus didn’t change the world through a crowd, he changed the world through a small group of disciples. He equipped them and sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and invite people to surrender to the King—just like He did for them. He gave them a pattern to follow. 

Consider these questions:

  • If your church were starting from scratch, what would it look like to hyper-simplify around the methods of Jesus?
  • If Jesus were your Director of Programs, what would He start in your church? What would He end in your church?
  • How would Jesus change the way you’re doing small groups?
  • What would Jesus expect your leaders to be doing?

3. Possess a clear, compelling, and contextualized vision for the future

If the mission is why the church exists and what the church does, a vision is a picture of a mission-fueled future. What will the result be of the church living out her mission? 

Maybe your church’s vision is to reach your community with the gospel. 

Maybe your church’s vision is to build thriving homes and thriving spheres. 

Maybe your church’s vision is to make disciple-making disciples who are witnesses of Jesus in their homes, their social spheres, and their workplaces.

Whatever your church’s vision is, it must be clear, compelling, and contextualized. It should speak to the tension that your community is experiencing. And once you define it, it’s important to revisit it over and over and over again.

Consider these questions:

  • What is a particular challenge your community faces? High divorce rates? High mental health struggles? Drug addictions? 
  • How is the gospel the answer to those challenges and how is your church uniquely equipped to address one of your community’s challenges?
  • What are some ways you could emphasize your vision on a regular basis to your congregation?

4. Leaders who earnestly pray for the Spirit to use them to actively participate in the mission and methods of Jesus

If you want your church culture to change, your leaders must change first. 

If your leaders aren’t sold out to the importance of the mission and methods of Jesus and their call to follow Him in both, it’s going to be more difficult to see that conviction seep into the congregation.

But the Spirit of God wants to do this work and your leaders may just need encouragement and equipping to begin moving forward into the mission and methods of Jesus.

A great place to start is to earnestly pray for the Spirit to use you to actively participate in the mission and methods of Jesus, beginning with discipling your leaders. Odds are you’ve never been directly discipled and they’ve never been directly discipled. Not in the sense of what Jesus did with Peter, James, and John anyway.

So teach them. Earnestly pray for the Spirit to use you and bless your efforts. Then challenge them to go and do the same.

Consider these questions:

  • What do you know about disciple-making movements happening all across the world?
  • What would be your next step if the Lord were to begin a disciple-making movement in your church
  • Who in your leadership team is already yearning in prayer for the Lord to use them in His mission and methods?
  • How can you encourage them, equip them, and run with them in disciple making?

5. Leaders who equip the Saints for the work of ministry

Ephesians 4 is clear: Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, 12 to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up. To equip his people for works of service. 

Leadership is, first and foremost, about equipping others to do works of ministry. 

Instead, what often happens—especially in church staffs—is the leaders do much of the work and those who were supposed to be equipped for works of service/ministry are wondering how they can contribute.

The challenge here isn’t knowing what to do. The challenge is a deep conviction for actually doing what you already know you’re supposed to do.

Small group leaders mentor and give opportunities to other people in their group whom they see leadership potential in.

Ministry leaders look for team members to give more responsibility to as they walk alongside them.

Elders get to know congregants and invest in those they see as potential elders.

Staff members equip church members to do different aspects of their job. i.e. The worship leader sees it as a win every time another person on their team leads worship instead of them.

Consider these questions:

  • Does your church currently have an equipping culture?
  • How easy is it for a new person to get involved in serving at your church?
  • Do you have a pathway for people to discover their giftedness and get involved?
  • Do you celebrate when leaders equip people on their teams?

6. Disciple making is well-defined and the leaders aren’t the only ones doing it

What is discipleship? Have you defined it for your leaders and your church?

Replicate Ministries says it this way: Discipleship is… “Intentionally equipping believers through accountable relationships empowered by the Holy Spirit in order to replicate faithful followers of Christ.”

What is a disciple? Who are you trying to make?

One definition of a disciple is someone who is:

  • Committed to following Jesus
  • Committed to being changed by Jesus
  • Committed to joining the mission of Jesus

And what does a disciple do, then? A disciple is someone who:

  • Knows Jesus
  • Is being transformed by Jesus 
  • Teaches others to do the same

 So then, how does all this occur? Well, if discipleship is “intentionally equipping believers through accountable relationships empowered by the Holy Spirit in order to replicate faithful followers of Christ,” and we do that by following the methods of Jesus, it could look like this:

Consider these questions:

  • Have you defined discipleship and being a disciple clearly and concisely for your church?
  • How many of your leaders are leading small groups that are designed to multiply? 
  • How many of your leaders are leading discipleship groups that are designed to multiply?

7. Dysfunctional behavior and mindsets are opposed

What happens in dysfunctional families is the same thing that happens in dysfunctional churches: the dysfunctional member of the family or church is catered to.

But in healthy churches, dysfunctional behavior and mindsets are opposed. In fact, over time, a healthy church will repel dysfunctional people.

Now, I’m not saying that healthy churches aren’t welcoming to people who are struggling. Quite the opposite, actually. Healthy, highly intentional churches are welcoming to any and all people. But where a dysfunctional church will subtly and sometimes overtly cater to dysfunctional members, a healthy church will both not tolerate dysfunctional behavior and also call dysfunctional members to their new life in Christ.

Nothing will get a church stuck quicker than dysfunctional church members getting their way.

Henry Cloud, in his book Boundaries for Leaders says, “As a leader, you are always going to get a combination of two things: What you create and what you allow.” He’s right.

Consider these questions:

  • What dysfunctional church members usually get their way with your leadership team or in the church overall?
  • How can you and your leadership team begin taking stands with these members and making very clear that their dysfunctional behavior will not be tolerated?
  • What is the meeting you and your team have been putting off because you’d rather avoid conflict?
  • What in your church culture is a result of what has been allowed to happen over the last decade or two? How can that begin to change?

Diagnose Your Church

What stuck out to you in this list? Again, use it as a diagnostic tool alongside of your team. 

What characteristics are true of your church, which are aspirational, and which are pipe dreams?

Also, I'd love to hear from you. Let me know how you see your church doing at these over on Twitter or join the discussion in our private Facebook group for pastors and church leaders.

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And their leadership team? They provide minimal leadership help.

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