By Brad Walden
A longtime friend reported on the latest developments in the church where he had invested years of service. He seemed excited, but also concerned about the changes. So I asked, “Do you think your church is healthy?”
He answered, “Oh, yes. We are healthy. We have the largest bank balance in our history.”
So that’s it? A healthy church has a healthy cash reserve?
Is your church healthy? Can you invite new neighbors to attend your church with total confidence they will find a healthy environment? Will involvement in your congregation promote healthy spiritual growth in children and teenagers? How about single adults of all ages? Young couples and families? People nearing the end of life’s journey?
As strangers park their cars and begin to walk toward the unfamiliar territory of your place of worship, what will they feel? Joy and love? Excitement and unity? Will they be uneasy, not knowing where to go or what to do?
Will they know—or care—about your church’s bank balance?
I decided to send e-mails to 12 respected leaders, all of them personal friends. I chose leaders from all three streams of the Restoration Movement. I asked, “What makes a church healthy?”
My question struck a nerve, because the replies came almost immediately. From these leaders I received a long list of responses—120 different ways to describe a healthy church. Some items appeared on every list, such as “emphasis on Bible as God’s Word,” “an amazing grace place,” “a vision for the future,” and “united.”
I heard a ring of truth in every sentence.
What did I learn? In general, I learned that all people who love the Lord Jesus want the church to enjoy maximum health and strength. People were eager to share. One minister sent a list of 25 features of a healthy church, including my favorite: “A healthy church remembers that Jesus was conservative in values and liberal in love.”
From these responses, I developed a series of messages called “Prescriptions for a Healthy Church.” (At the time I was serving as interim minister with the Northside Christian Church in Georgetown, Kentucky.)
A healthy church values the call to ministry (Romans 10:1, 9-18)—Have you seen any beautiful feet lately? What is your congregation’s attitude toward the ministry? Do you appreciate that your minister is called of God? Or is your minister a “hireling” paid to get things done, but never really respected or included as part of the family? Is your minister’s greatest effort directed at taking care of the flock as a pastor (paid elder), or is your minister’s concentration devoted to winning people to faith in Christ?
A healthy church relies on The Book (2 Timothy 3:14-17)—If the Bible is truly our only source of authority for faith and practice, we need to learn it and apply it. Let not the shifting winds of current cultural trends define where we stand.
A healthy church promotes loving relationships—God calls his people to promote strong relationships that make for a healthy home, healthy church, and a healthy life. Remember Ephesians 4:2 (“Bearing with one another in love”) and Galatians 6:2 (“Carry each other’s burdens”).
A healthy church keeps the main thing, the main thing—God requires a healthy church to focus all energy on the supremacy of Christ. Surely that is the “main thing.”
A healthy church is united (John 17:20, 23)—When Jesus prayed for future generations, he did not pray that his people be good looking or talented or successful. He did not pray for his church to be happy or even healthy. As Jesus faced the cross, he prayed that his people would be one, united so that the world would believe in him.
A healthy church makes every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. Disunity within a congregation or between congregations or between denominational groups destroys the effectiveness of the gospel and renders the cross pointless.
The emphasis on unity requires that each congregation be known as an “amazing grace place.” After all, only by the amazing grace of God can we accept Christ as Lord, according to his plan of salvation. It is only by grace that we can grow up in faith and become more mature Christians. Let us receive God’s grace humbly, then extend it to others as channels of his grace.
A healthy church knows God’s plan of salvation—His plan comes in two pieces: God’s action, and our reaction to God’s action. Galatians 4:1-7 tells of God’s action. In the fullness of time, God sent a Savior. His sojourn on earth began at birth in a stable and ended in triumph at an empty tomb.
Our reaction to the Christ event requires our decision to put faith in him, and it requires us to act upon that faith through repentance, confession of faith, and obedient baptism from which we rise to walk in a new life.
A healthy church offers authentic worship (John 4:19-24)—To the woman at the well, Jesus said worship was not about this mountain or that mountain, but authenticity (John 4:21-24). The Father seeks worshippers who worship authentically, in Spirit and in truth.
Is the worship experience a thinly veiled entertainment event? When people leave, do they say, “My! What a great preacher! What talented musicians!” Or do they leave saying, “My! What a great Savior!” What’s the goal in planning and conducting worship? Whom are we honoring?
Congregations that adopt business standards of “marketing” may miss a vital truth. One congregation was advised never to allow an overweight or unattractive person to appear before the “audience.” Under such a policy, the Messiah would be banished, for “he had no beauty . . . nothing in his appearance that we should desire him” (Isaiah 53:2).
A healthy church keeps in step with the Holy Spirit (John 14:15-21; Romans 8:9-11)—Let us not hesitate to teach the Holy Spirit and to seek his presence in all events and decisions. After all, the Holy Spirit gave birth to the church in Jerusalem at Pentecost; furthermore, the Holy Spirit authors the Bible.
A healthy church comes to the table (1 Corinthians 11:23-34)—I was alarmed that none of the respondents mentioned Holy Communion, the faithful, focused observance of the Lord’s Supper. One came close. Joe Cooper of First Christian Church, Lexington, Kentucky, warned that an unhealthy church avoids mention of the blood of Christ.
In 1 Corinthians 11, the apostle makes the issue clear. Irreverent, unworthy observances of the Lord’s Supper bring spiritual weakness, sickness, and death to a church. When a church minimizes and trivializes the Lord’s Supper to gain more time for “entertainment,” that congregation invites rejection by the Lord.
A healthy church makes prayer a priority (Luke 11:1-13)—How does your church practice and express prayer? In your gatherings, what is the content of public prayer? In the private, closeted prayers of your homes, how balanced is your prayer life?
What did I learn about good health in the church? Every church wants health; yet, it’s an ongoing effort, a process for all of the people, a goal for every leader and every Christian to pursue.
Brad Walden is a retired minister living in Lexington, Kentucky.