The Best Practices of a Thriving Church

Several years ago I sat down with a small circle of national ministry leaders who, like me, had served in ongoing pastoral roles while also working for decades to resource, equip, and train church leaders. Our mission was to create a kind of ministry menu for thriving—the best practices and essential priorities for preparing the mix of “soil” that promotes deep spiritual growth. We can’t control the growth, but we can provide a rich environment that naturally promotes growth. These are the eight practices we stacked-hands on…

1. Parent PartnershipConnecting, equipping, encouraging, and communicating with parents as a priority.
Because they are the primary faith-influencers in their kids’ lives, and home is where the most important ministry is taking place, we slow down to consider these questions no matter what ministry activities or events we’re planning:

  • In what way will this support, equip, or encourage parents in their primary faith-influencing role?
  • What do we need to include to connect this to parents and homes?
  • How will this impact parents and homes if we do this?
  • Considering what we’re planning to do, what can we do to encourage parent influence and participation?

The goal is the move toward a church culture that is home-centered and church-supported. For more on Vibrant Faith’s four year church research project 4th-Soil Parenting Project, CLICK HERE.

2. Thriving Small GroupsCreating and fueling a ministry structure that emphasizes rich relational environments.
The Christian Life, or the kind of life Jesus modeled and taught, is fundamentally relational. And relationships are fueled by conversation. That’s why social scientists have spotlighted two key factors in homes that tend to influence kids toward a lifelong faith: 1) Talking about faith with your mother, and 2) Talking about faith with your father. It’s the talking that helps us build intimacy with one another, and in our relationship with God. So, as we know, small groups offer the best setting for rich conversation. The key here is intentionality—if conversation is like relational glue, what is the conversation in our small groups attaching people to? I mean, are we intentionally focusing our small groups on the goal of the Christian Life – “Get to know Jesus well” (see #5 on this list)? The focus of our conversations matters.

3. Longevity PracticesPersonal and professional practices that lead to clearing the “four-year bar of effectiveness” for both paid staffers and adult volunteers.
It’s an over-simplification, but it takes time to develop the expertise, relational equity, and organizational savvy to thrive in a ministry role. In our circle, we agreed that (generally speaking), ministry leaders who stay in their role for four years are starting to hit their stride. So what are we doing to nurture their longevity? What are the hurdles the ministry leaders in our church face when considering a longer-term commitment? Stress? Lack of support? Lack of training? Lack of financial resources? Unclear goals and metrics? Wellness opportunities? Pastoral care? These are all important questions to explore… And, for professional staffers, longevity requires prioritizing live-able salaries and benefits.

4. Leadership DevelopmentFormal and informal strategies for developing adults and teenagers into leaders. 
Simply, how are we identifying, connecting with, and mentoring emerging leaders? Because leadership is a calling, not a role, this means we come alongside existing and prospective leaders to mirror back what we see in them. Our primary role is to “call out” the leadership gifts we see, then invest our trust by offering clear opportunities to live into those gifts. We pay attention to, and honor, the way Jesus “names” those who are called into leadership. After another tense encounter with duplicitous religious leaders, Jesus asks His disciples, in Matthew 16, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” After a few off-target and tepid responses, Jesus follows with: “But who do you say I am?” When a bold Peter declares “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God,”Jesus then names him in return: “Now I say to you that you are Peter (which means ‘rock’), and upon this rock I will build my church…”

Jesus is calling out Peter’s latent identity—His naming is targeting the disciple’s purpose and gifting. Likewise, we come alongside emerging leaders to help them discern: “Who does Jesus say that I am?” Like Jesus, we help them grapple with the two biggest questions in life: Who am I? and What am I doing here?

5. Jesus-CenteredA particular, passionate, and encompassing focus on knowing Jesus.
Discipleship is, in reality, a simple progression: Get to know Jesus well, because the more you know him, the more you’ll love him, and the more you love him, the more you’ll want to follow him, and the more you follow him, the more you’ll become like him, and the more you become like him, the more you become yourself. This is a progression, not a formula. That means that once we focus all that we do on “Get to know Jesus well,” it kicks off a transformational momentum that eventually leads to “The more you become yourself.” Churches and homes that are full of people who love Jesus with “all their heart, soul, mind, and strength” are also churches and homes full of people who are fully alive in their own, true identity. And when that happens, thriving happens. The starting point, in everything we do, is “Get to know Jesus well.”

Dr. Russell Moore, now editor of Christianity Today after years serving as president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, fires off this warning flare for those of us in church ministry: “If people reject the church because they reject Jesus and the gospel, we should be saddened but not surprised. But what happens when people reject the church because they think we reject Jesus and the gospel? What if people don’t leave the church because they disapprove of Jesus, but because they’ve read the Bible and have come to the conclusion that the church itself would disapprove of Jesus? That’s a crisis.”

6. Personal and Professional DevelopmentAn ongoing investment in our growth.
We prioritize an expected work schedule that includes (and makes accountable) personal days off, retreats, time alone with God, expected breaks after busy seasons, and sabbaticals. We also advocate for budgeted training in ministry practices and knowledge, including conferences, seminars, retreats, and continuing education. In addition, we find and participate in peer networking opportunities—local face-to-face gatherings of ministry leaders and online communities.

7. Systematic OutreachOther-centered service that is threaded into the normal life of the community.
Healthy, thriving churches have a well-known reputation in their surrounding communities for making a tangible difference among the poor and needy. “They will know we are Christians by our love” is not just a burned-in-the-memory song lyric, it’s a Jesus-imperative: “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). And when we are known in our communities for our love, we become magnets for those who are hungry to be loved. Our service in the community is also our most profound faith-sharing foundation. When our passion for those in need is palpable, the love of Jesus that fuels it is also palpable.

8. Staff CongruenceLeadership that looks like a rowing team; everyone pulling in the same direction.
As a leadership team, we develop individual ministry plans and purposes (children’s ministry, youth ministry, seniors ministry, service ministry, and so on) that are congruent with the church’s overall mission, purpose, and values. We know what our mission is, and how our piece of the puzzle fits into the whole. We live into our communal identity because we own it, not because we’re supposed to.


In addition to these eight thriving practices, our Vibrant Faith Team has condensed what we’ve learned from our ongoing Thriving Congregations Project into a kind of capstone definition of thriving: “At Vibrant Faith, we believe that a life of THRIVING follows an increasing capacity to be present to God and to one another.” It captures the relational thread that binds all eight of these priorities together… For a deeper dive in our work with thriving churches, CLICK HERE

Rick Lawrence is Executive Director of Vibrant Faith—he created the new curriculum Following JesusHe’s editor of the Jesus-Centered Bible and author of 40 books, including The Suicide Solution, The Jesus-Centered Life and Jesus-Centered Daily. In June 2024 his new book Editing Jesus: Confronting the Distorted Faith of the American Church will be published. He hosts the podcast Paying Ridiculous Attention to Jesus.


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