Up or Down?

blog Nov 16, 2023

By Michael Pitts

My wife and I started a storefront church when we were 21 years old, and there were many things we had to learn over the years. If you become good at what God has called you to do, it’s not long before you outgrow your competency and training, and you have to learn new things.

I’ve always had a heart for pastors and churches to reach their greatest potential, and one of the things I started realizing was that churches and organizations land in one of two categories: “Up” or “Down.” Simply put, an Up church is winning, a Down church is not winning.

But what do I mean by “winning”?

I define a winning church as one that is meeting its measurable goals. Please understand, this has nothing to do with a church’s value. Up churches have no more intrinsic value than Down churches. God doesn’t love Up churches any more—or love Down churches any less. It’s just a way of defining where a church is in relation to its goals.

Visually, if you were to place churches on a sigmoid curve, an Up church would be on the upward slope of the curve. A Down church would be on the plateau or downward slope of the curve. This is not to say that Down churches will never be Up again, or Up churches aren’t in danger of ever being Down, but it’s a way to identify where a church is in its life cycle.

Now, let’s talk about measurable goals. Up churches are meeting their measurable goals, and these goals are driven by the plans, programs, policies and procedures that define how a church functions. If any of your plans, programs, policies or procedures are at odds with meeting your goals, they should be scrapped.

For example, in the early days of our church, we were young and inexperienced, but we wanted people to take us seriously. In our Pentecostal tradition, one way we approached that was in the formality of our dress code policy. We didn’t want to confirm people’s stereotype of poor, ignorant, backward tongue-talkers, so we made sure everyone on the platform—from the preacher to the praise team and ushers—were in three-piece suits (for men) and dresses (for women). When I look back at the photos, it was like we were on our way to the prom.

Here’s the problem, though: Our measurable goal was to create an environment of spiritual and physical freedom where people could praise and worship God with their whole beings—body, soul and spirit. Even our drummer was sweating it out in a three-piece suit and dress shoes. Finally, someone approached me after a service and said, “You know, I’d like to get loose and free, but I can’t get loose when I’m dressed the way we’re supposed to dress.”

Our policy was at odds with our measurable goal, so we changed it.

Down churches, on the other hand, consistently fail to align and balance their plans, policies, programs and procedures with their measurable goals. They lose momentum and find themselves on the downhill slope of the sigmoid curve—a position that, due to downward momentum, is increasingly difficult to recover from.

If you align your plans, policies, programs and procedures to your measurable goals, and you’re still not meeting the goals, there’s only one other factor at play: people. The spirit and the flavor of a church is determined by the people you involve in the teams and departments that carry out the ministry. You can’t have an Up church, if your team is composed of Down people.

So, how would I define Up and Down people? Simply put, an Up person gets things done. A Down person can’t get anything done. I know it may seem like I’m oversimplifying the definition. And it may sound unkind at first, but sometimes we don’t know how to both love people and properly define where they are at any given moment. Defining people as Up or Down can even feel at odds with our theology—as if we somehow care for them less, devalue them or don’t see their God-given potential.

If anything, this failure to discern where people are at actually hinders our ability to minister to them and leads us to placing them in positions and roles that set them up for failure and disappointment. This Up and Down terminology defines where someone is at in the moment, but not necessarily where they will be for the rest of their life. However, before I can enlist someone, I need to know where they are at right now.

I’m not suggesting that Up churches are only composed of Up people or that you should get rid of all the Down people. In fact, there are probably more Down people than Up people in the world, so that approach would be self-defeating. You can have Down people in a church. You can even have Down people in a department of your church … as long as you have an Up person over them. If you start putting Down people, over Up people, the Up people are going to exit the organization. Up people in leadership will call some of the Up people up, but when Down people are in charge, Up people will up and leave.

It’s even possible for an Up church to have departments and ministries that are Down. But the solution is not more money or more resources. It doesn’t matter how much money you try to pour into the Down ministry or department led by Down people in an attempt to revive it. (Not to mention that, by doing this, you may be starving an Up ministry!) The Bible does not teach that you should take away from people that know what they're doing and give it to people who don’t know what they’re doing.

If it’s not careful, a church can reach a tipping point where having a Down ministry or department is no longer the exception but the rule, and the church will end up losing all its Up people. Up people will not stick around in a Down church. When a church is only left with Down people, it also lost its ability to influence and strengthen the community and to make a significant impact for the kingdom.

I know this tends to go against what we think about faithfulness. We sometimes even define faithfulness as doing something that doesn’t work for a long time. We speak glowingly about Brother Jones, who has taught the same five guys for 30 years in his Sunday school class. That’s consistent, but it’s not necessarily faithful. In the parable of the talents, the faithful servant was the one who brought back to his master more than he had been given, not in the same measure he had been given.

When I look at what God has put in our hands as a church, for me to take the church budget, time and energy and start throwing it at something that is Down—when there’s something systemically wrong with it—is simply bad stewardship. In the parable of the talents, such misappropriation would be considered “wicked and lazy” (see Matthew 25:26). Just because Up people will not necessarily stick around at a Down church doesn’t mean they’re not faithful. It means they want to be a part of something that’s growing, expanding and bearing fruit in the kingdom.

As I noted earlier, Up people get things done, and Down people can’t get anything done. However, I want to add a bit more context to help you identify the Up and Down people in your church.

Introspection. Down people lack introspection. When things go wrong, Up people are the first to identify what they could have done better. They take ownership. When an outcome is not as planned, a Down person, looks outside themselves and makes excuses. It’s always someone else’s fault or the result of uncontrollable environmental factors.

Reality. When my sermons go well, my wife will give me a high five and say, “Nailed it.” But when they don’t, I can count on her to look at me and say, “Well, there’s always next week.” Down people, on the other hand, live what I call “the land of make believe.” They have an unrealistic view of the world around them. For them, every one of my sermons is amazing and every service is powerful and anointed. They are unable to see the world as it really is—both the good and the bad.

Variance. When you give a Down person something to do, they change it—disrupting the big picture plans that you have in mind—just because they think their way is easier or better. Often, their work is passed on to another Down person, who also makes changes, leading to results that are unrecognizable from your initial vision.

Crooked Communication. Down people do not effectively communicate with the people they lead, so directives from above them become confused and garbled, leading to misunderstanding and a lack of excellence in outcome. Down people are characterized by last-minute changes, cancelations and other unnecessary disruptions.

Territorial. If you give a Down person something to do, they will arrange their environment so that they’re the only one who can succeed. Hidden supplies. Changed passwords. With Down people, you will encounter confusing procedures—all aligned to their idiosyncratic preferences—but without alignment with the overall vision.

Suppressive. Down people tend to sabotage—whether intentionally or subliminally—the forward momentum of ministry. They may not actually want a church to grow, because it could disrupt their influence or involvement. Because they don’t know how to express this any other way, they will suppress things and hold them down. 

So, if you haven’t noticed, it all comes down to the people. You can have your plans, policies, programs and procedures in place and aligned with your measurable goals, but if you don’t have the right people, you’re dead in the water. At the risk of oversimplifying how to address this, I want to offer a simple rubric that will help you turn Down people into Up people and ensure that your Up people stay Up.

  • If someone is motivated but not able, train them.
  • If someone is not motivated, but able, encourage them.
  • If someone is motivated and able, delegate to them.
  • If someone is not motivated and nor able, you can’t do anything with them

After reading this, you may think that I don’t love Down people. In fact, I’ve had the great privilege and pleasure of seeing people who came to me in the Down position, and watched God take them and make an Up person out of them. I loved them the same when they were Down, but they’re a lot more fun to work with now, and we can get a lot more done together.

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