“Thirteen Signs of a Healthy Church”
When was the last time you had a complete physical? It has been a long time for me,but I know that it wouldn’t be a bad idea to submit myself to a thorough examination from time to time.
The same could be said of the local church. Churches, like people, are either healthy or unhealthy.
If our church were to undergo a spiritual examination, how would it fare? What are the signs of a spiritually healthy church? What are the symptoms of an unhealthy church? What criterion might we apply in attempting to gauge the health of a church?
As regards its health, the church is like any other organism. There are times when it prospers, and times when it does not. Our bodies grow weary and need rest and refreshment. They are subject to infection and disease and need healing. So it is with the church. From time to time every church needs to be revitalized (or revived!). In what follows we will list, and then discuss, fourteen signs that a church is spiritually healthy.
Among other things, a church that is spiritually healthy is one where (1) the individual members have a personal (experiential) knowledge of God, and are growing in their knowledge and love for Him; (2) the Scriptures are taken seriously; (3) there is a desire for holiness, and open sin is not tolerated; (4) grace sets the tone for church life; (5) there is a strong sense of community; (6) emphasis is given to evangelistic outreach, with the result that there will be numerical, as well as spiritual, growth; (7) families are strong; (8) there is enthusiasm in public worship; (9) generous giving is the norm; (10) prayer is given priority; (11) there is strong leadership; (12) there is a clear sense of purpose and direction; and lastly, (13) a healthy church is characterized by efficiency and excellence.
Having listed over a dozen signs of spiritual health, we now elaborate briefly upon each.
Number one While every church contains a mixture of wheat and tares, in a ‘healthy’ church the majority of members have a personal (experiential) knowledge of God, are growing in their knowledge and love for Him, and are passionate for the truth.
The spiritual maturity that characterizes a healthy church is evident in wisdom and discernment with members understanding what they believe (Hebrews 5:1 - 6:2), being able to defend it (I Peter 3:15), and capable of discerning truth from error (Ephesians 4:12-14). In other words, it is characterized by a depth of understanding of the things of God.
The church made up of ‘shallow’ Christians, on the other hand, is unhealthy and vulnerable. They are easily misled and ineffective in their witness.
Number two If a healthy church is characterized by spiritual depth and maturity, it is because the Word of God is taken seriously.
In fact, one could describe the place afforded Scripture in a healthy Church as one of preeminence. Curiously, many Evangelicals have been accused of ‘bibliolatry’ - of actually worshipping the Bible. While this is an inaccurate assessment, it reflects the reverence they afford the Bible.
There is a conscientious effort to proclaim the whole council of God in various settings, and to seek to follow its teachings in all facets of life. The fundamental principle underlying all of church life is: “What does the Bible have to say about this?”
It also means that the members themselves are encouraged to be ‘in the Word’ - making personal Bible study and devotional reading a regular part of their lifestyles. It means that they have a love for truth, insist on it being proclaimed, and will not tolerate anything less.
Number three A healthy church is one where there is a desire for holiness, and where open sin is not tolerated.
The people of God are called a ‘peculiar’ people, meaning that they are to be different. They are ‘called out’ of the world, and told not to conform to it (the typical word translated ‘church’ from the Greek literally means ‘called out‘).
This does not mean that any Christian or church will achieve sinless perfection, nor that the church is to be constantly conducting ‘witch hunts’ to root out each and every transgression. As one person aptly put it, “The church is the only fellowship on the face of the earth in which the only requirement for admission is the unworthiness of the applicant!”
It does mean that we recognize that the God we serve is HOLY and demands that we be as well . . . that we take His law seriously . . . that we take seriously the admonition that ‘unless our righteousness exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees, we will not see the kingdom of God’ . . . and that we are serious about maintaining His honor.
It does mean that we will make a conscious effort to conform to what we know to be God’s will, and scandalous sin will be addressed in a Biblical manner.
If the Holy Spirit is at work in the lives of church members, there will be a sense of conviction of sin - leading to humility, brokenness, and repentance where sin has held sway (Psalm 51:17). If a church is submitted to the Word of God, discipline will be given its proper place (historically considered one of the distinguishing ‘marks’ of the church).
A symptom of spiritual illness is a casual attitude toward sin, and a failure to exercise discipline. The sin of Achan brought God’s curse on the entire nation, and it was not until it was addressed that God was willing to bless His people.
Number four A healthy church is one where grace sets the tone for church life.
The church in Jesus’ day was infected with the disease of the Pharisees, Legalism, which was characterized by a judgmental and critical spirit. In contrast, a healthy church provides a climate that is conducive to the exercise of Christian liberty. The emphasis is on the positive - on walking in the Spirit - rather than establishing traditions that inhibit the freedom of the believer and heap guilt on others. Jesus condemned the legalism of the Pharisees, whose traditions had been elevated to the same authority as the precepts of Scripture itself!
This is not an endorsement for antinomianism; it does not conflict with the previous concern for holiness. God’s holiness was perfectly compatible with His grace and mercy, and church discipline is not inconsistent with grace and mercy.
In short, a healthy church is one where the members take their own sins more seriously than those of others.
Number five Another goal we should strive for in the church is a sense of community.
The basic term used to describe church membership in the new Testament was koinonia. While usually translated ‘fellowship,’ it referred to a life in common. Church membership described in the early chapters of Acts was participation in a community - not meeting for one hour a week. The church is an extended family, where members show concern for each other on a day to day basis.
The basis for such oneness is our union in Christ through the Holy Spirit. Christian fellowship is two-dimensional; it must be vertical before it can be horizontal.
“What we have seen and heard we proclaim unto you, that you also may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son, Jesus Christ.” I John 1:3
The person who is not in fellowship with the Father and the Son cannot share with Christians the realities of their fellowship.
What are some of the symptoms of disease in an unhealthy church?First - people primarily perceive themselves as being members of an organization. Membership is a matter of status (not in the sense of prestige, but of legal status). In other words, the essence of membership is having one’s name on an official roll.This is illustrated by a woman who once approached me about joining the church. The church she had been a member of (in a nearby community) was closing, and she needed to have her name on the roll of a church somewhere! She was not actively involved in the church; did not attend services or participate in the day to day life of the church. She merely wanted to have her name on a church roll!Paul’s admonition to the Christians in Rome provides a corrective here:Note that he does not speak of being members of a church per se, but ‘members of one another!’
“So we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.” Romans 12:5Secondly - members feel that they have fulfilled their duty by making a token appearance one hour a week, showing little or no interest in the church or other members on a day to day basis. They do not participate in other activities or call, visit, or go out of their way to care for others. We might even go so far as to say that a lack of affection is symptomatic of spiritual illness - bearing in mind the apostolic admonition to ‘greet one another with a holy kiss!’
Number six A healthy church will give prominence to evangelistic outreach, with the result that there will be numerical, as well as spiritual, growth.
First of all, a church in which the Spirit of Christ is given His place is one whose thinking is dominated by a sense of eternity, with the result that there is a sense of urgency regarding the eternal fate of human beings. It is gripped with the conviction that, apart from Christ, people are eternally lost! Further, it acts on those convictions, making deliberate effort to reach them with the Gospel, equipping and mobilizing its members to reach out to their lost family, friends, and neighbors, and actively supports the work of foreign missions. An ‘ingrown’ church, whose primary occupation is on maintenance and self preservation, is an unhealthy church.
In addition, as a general rule, the result of faithfulness in proclaiming the Gospel is that there will be numerical, as well as spiritual, growth. It is good for the church to grow; God wants His church to grow. A church that is not growing is, generally speaking, an unhealthy church. However, we should qualify this.First, the absence of numerical growth is not necessarily an indication of unfaithfulness on the part of the church, nor that God is not at work.Secondly, not all growth is good. A tumor is a growth, but it is not healthy. In fact, there are a number of features that characterize many of the mega-churches that are symptomatic of a very unhealthy condition, leaving us to conclude that, in spite of outward evidences to the contrary, even they are diseased!
Number seven A healthy church will be characterized by strong families.
The teaching of Scripture is that the ‘household’ is the basic unit of the church. The health of the church, then, will depend largely on the state of the families that make it up. Strong families, where marriages are based on mutual commitment to Christ, where parents honor their covenant obligations in the raising of their children, and where Christ is worshipped with regularity, are evidence of spiritual health. An atmosphere that fosters these things, and that consciously ministers to the needs of families, is a necessary condition for the health of the church.
Unfortunately, the divorce rate for those professing to be Christians is only slightly behind that of the rest of the population, and in some places exceeds it, implying that the state of the church in general is less that commendable.
Number eight The vitality of a church can often be measured by the enthusiasm its members demonstrate in publicn worship: “I was glad when they said unto me, let us go into the house of the Lord!”Three propositions: (1) A healthy church is made up of people who are walking in the Spirit; (2) people that are walking in the Spirit will be excited (passionate) about the things of God; (3) people who are passionate about the things of God will be enthusiastic in their worship.
What we do not have in mind is unbridled emotionalism (‘holy laughter,’ tongues, crying, etc.), but a warmth and conviction that comes from being gripped by the truths of the Gospel.
Further, we are not simply concerned to make the service ‘seeker-friendly,’ or entertaining for the participant. Worship is a service we offer to God; it is work on our part. The question is not, “What did you get out of the service,” but rather, “what did you put into it.”
At the same time, worship involves celebration, and celebration should be lively, and edifying. When an individual goes away from church week after week without the sense that he has been uplifted and motivated, something is seriously wrong!
Number nine Giving is a helpful barometer to the spiritual health of the people of God: “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also!”
In a healthy church people put the things of God before their own personal interests. They have a proper understanding of, and healthy attitude toward, the resources with which God has entrusted them. They understand that they have been blessed by God, and are compelled to respond accordingly.Note: The issue is one of stewardship. While we are not talking exclusively about money, money is very much a part of what is in view. Time, talent, energy are also things that God has entrusted to us and come into view.
We are under obligation to tithe; we owe it to God. However, the Bible is clear in saying that our giving is to be done cheerfully (the Greek word Paul employs in II Corinthians is ‘hilariously’), and not under compulsion. People who have experienced the grace of God and who have come into an awareness of that grace will find it natural to give without regret. In a healthy church the pastor does not have to harp constantly on giving.
A church whose members either do not give in keeping with their substance, or who do so grudgingly, is an unhealthy church. The prophet Malachi accused the people of ‘robbing God’ when they did not tithe, and indicated that God had withheld His blessing because of their unfaithfulness and ingratitude. Likewise, the apostle Paul spoke of ingratitude as being a serious symptom of an apostate culture.Note: material prosperity is not a sign of spiritual health or God’s blessing in a church. In this case the church in Jerusalem, as described by Luke, would have been decidedly unhealthy. The question is not how much one has, but what he does with it!
For further study: For a case study in faithfulness in giving, consider the Macedonian church, as described in II Corinthians 8:1-5. For a case study in unfaithfulness, consider the post-exilic church, as described in Nehemiah 13:10-11; Malachi 3:8-9; and Haggai 1:2-4.
Number ten The tenth characteristic of a healthy church is prayer.
The Church was conceived, born, and nurtured in prayer. We read in the book of Acts: “They were continually devoting themselves . . . To prayer.” Prayer is what the church is all about; it is at the heart of the church’s purpose for being. In speaking of the place in which the people of God gathered for worship, Jesus said: “My house shall be called a house of prayer.”
Prayer - not just lip service to it or token prayers - will be given priority in a church that is spiritually vibrant. In a healthy church time is structured into the weekly schedule for focused prayer, and prayer is given prominence in public worship. Churches where prayer is relegated to opening and closing meetings and services are depriving themselves of part of the richness that fellowship with God affords, and suffer spiritually as a result.
Number eleven A healthy church is one in which the people are motivated by a clear sense of what God calls them to be and do, and where everything they do is geared toward the accomplishment of that end. In short - they are purpose driven.
A healthy church will be a busy church, but one whose activities are purposeful. Activity for the sake of activity is of little value; there is far too much of that! A healthy church finds itself scrutinizing its every activity, asking the question: Why are we doing this? What do we intend to accomplish by it? How does this fit into the church’s overall purpose?
Rick Warren points out that every church is driven by something, but much that drives many churches is unhealthy. These ‘drives’ include:Personalities This is true especially in a church with strong and long-standing pastoral leadership. Where personalities drive the church, what Rev. such and such says is Gospel, and one dare not dispute it. In many instances people ‘join the preacher’ when they unite with a church. That this is unhealthy is evident in that when he is called to another church, those who joined out of loyalty to him often leave and go elsewhere.
Buildings When the sanctuary has historic significance or is of exceptional beauty, the tendency is for it to become sacred, with undue emphasis on preserving it. In the words of Winston Churchill: “We shape our buildings, and then they shape us.”
Tradition The goal of a tradition-driven church is to perpetuate the past. Things are done as they are because they’ve always been done that way. Here it is the past that is sacred, and the goal is to emulate the golden days.
Programs & Activities Programs can become an end in themselves, and in some cases a sacred cow, being preserved regardless of their effectiveness. All energy is focused on maintaining and sustaining them.
The Market For some, numbers are the ultimate criteria of success, and so their primary aim is numerical growth. The market drives the church, and the question becomes, ‘What do people want in a church?’ and the goal is then to be ‘seeker friendly’.
In addition to having a clear sense of purpose, a healthy church sticks with the agenda, and does not allow itself to be distracted. One of the most unwholesome tendencies for churches is to go off onto tangents and hobbyhorses - issues that in themselves may be innocuous, but leave them unbalanced and distracted from their most fundamental calling.
Number twelve For a church to be healthy it must have strong leadership.
God’s flock must have qualified shepherds who can lead them, or they will wander aimlessly and become prey to their enemies: “Strike the shepherd and the sheep will be scattered.” Ezekiel 34 is a case study in what happens to the church in the absence of spirit-filled leadership.
In a healthy church leaders will be chosen because they meet the qualifications set forth in Scripture, not those of the world. As Samuel asserted, while men look on the outward appearance, God looks on the heart. It is an unhealthy situation where leaders are selected on the basis of external considerations, such as physical appearance, financial assets, or because they have met with success in their secular endeavors.
Leadership that promotes healthy church life demands genuine conversion. When those who provide leadership - in whatever capacity - themselves do not have a saving knowledge of Christ, the results are disastrous for the flock. Unregenerate deacons, elders, Sunday School teachers, leaders in the women’s work, committee members, etc. are incapable of hearing the voice of the Chief Shepherd, and inevitably pursue an agenda of their own.
Further, growth in grace, personal piety, integrity (character that commands respect), understanding of the Scriptures, and with it the ability to discern truth from error, a sense of direction, a love for the sheep, a selfless, sacrificial, and servant spirit, and a commitment to put the interests of the sheep and of the church ahead of their own, are also essential for the health of the church.
Number thirteen A healthy church is characterized, not only by orthodoxy, but efficiency and excellence.
In one sense the issue is that of stewardship, and the use we make of the resources entrusted to us. While the issue of stewardship was applied to the matter of giving (# 9 above), it is to the church as a whole that it is being applied here.
Good stewardship requires good organization. It is useless to be driven by a clear sense of vision, have detailed plans, but lack organization. A healthy church will be characterized by organizational efficiency. We sometimes find a tension here between form and freedom, or, as one person depicted it, between order and ardor, with the tendency to go to one extreme or the other.On the one hand, too much structure is unhealthy - organization for the sake of organization (typically in the existence of unnecessary committees), or the retention of structures, policies, or programs that are obsolete. Jesus spoke of the need to discard old wineskins after their usefulness is past. A healthy church is able to be flexible where Biblical principles are not at stake, but a church that is rigid in non-essentials, and that finds itself defending its policies and actions with the argument, ‘it’s always been done that way!’ is in a poor state of health.
On the other hand, lack of organization is equally undesirable. This comes from more than one source. One is laziness and the simple failure to plan. Another is the unscriptural notion that organization is in some sense antithetical to spirituality. Spontaneity is more conducive to and compatible with the workings of the Holy Spirit, we are told. But the consistent testimony of Scripture is that Holy Spirit works through structure.
It is also true that the manner in which we conduct the affairs of the church is a reflection on the God we serve and worship: “God is not a God of confusion, but order . . . therefore do all things decently & in order.”
In addition to efficiency, we need to be committed to excellence: “In whatsoever you do, do all things to the glory of God.”
This is by no means an exhaustive list, but represents some of the basic concerns that I have encountered over the past twenty five years of ministry. I am very much open to your ideas and suggestions.
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