“If you don’t know why what is working works, you won’t know how to fix it when it breaks.” I’ve been stewing on this since Andy Stanley said this at the Catalyst conference this year—and set about learning why the things that work in my life and ministry work.

Though Andy didn’t mention the reciprocal, I’ve observed it to be true: If we don’t know why what is broken is broken, we won’t know how to fix it—or keep it from breaking again. Don’t get me wrong. I highly prefer Andy’s more positive viewpoint–focusing on what works rather than what doesn’t. However, there are times when something is so obviously wrong it prevents us from doing what works or sabotages what might otherwise work.

We need to know what’s broken and why it’s broken.

A lot of struggling churches think if they just do this new thing or that new thing, it will fix what ails them. The real problem isn’t what they aren’t doing, it’s what they are doing. But, because they don’t recognize that it’s broken or why it’s broken, it will go unfixed. Here are some examples:

  • Dysfunctional leadership is passed over because a church believes its form of polity pleases God. Spiritual dysfunction never pleases God. What’s broken may not be the polity but those who comprise the polity.
  • A preacher is fired and another hired who the elders believe will be more “effective.” However, the problem is in the pew–a church that’s been led into spiritual laziness and apathy.
  • A preacher says to himself, “They won’t listen,” while passing over the sin in his own life that saps the message of spiritual authority.
  • A church member says, “That church over there meets my needs better” when the needs it meets are not ‘needs’ but rather fleshly desires. It’s the heart of the person that’s broken, not the church.

We may be right in noticing something is broken. But, we need to figure out why it’s broken. If the remote control to your TV stops working—replacing it is one option. But, if all it needed was new batteries, you wasted time and money on the matter—and will find oneself in the same predicament when that pair of AA’s runs out of juice this time around.

I’ve seen churches misdiagnose problems for decades without ever finding what was really wrong. Sometimes it’s an avoidance behavior—they can’t handle the truth so they invent an alternative “truth.” Sometimes it’s blindness to one’s own faults. Sometimes it’s just simply difficult to diagnose for anyone—like a patient complaining of stomach problems and nothing turns up on an X-ray.

Every church has things that are broken. The key though isn’t just acknowledging their existence or identifying them specifically—it’s knowing exactly why they are broken. Not so we can blame others or get depressed. It’s so we can know how to fix it the next time it breaks—and even better—to keep it from breaking again going forward.

Nearly always, it’s a spiritual or relational matter—not a matter of pastoral science. If it were simply a matter of science it would be easy. It’s not. Because its most often a spiritual matter the answers lie more in prayer, repentance, forgiveness, honest communication and obedience to the way of Christ. This is good news to the dumbfounded and terrible news to the arrogant. Nevertheless,

If we don’t know why what is broken is broken, we won’t know how to fix it—or keep it from breaking again.

Before we fix what we think it broken, let’s ask, “Why is it broken?” If we do, we will be less likely to keep fixing the same broken things. The good news is that if the problem is indeed spiritual, the work is more difficult but also more important.