By Casey Tygrett
If you go to Amazon’s website and type “church health” into the search field, I guarantee it will generate more results than you have time to explore.
Writing this article has required me to do some honest digging and soul-searching, because at the core of the question “What makes a church healthy?” is this reality: I am the church . . . you are the church . . . and we are unhealthy.
And I have a harsh admission: I don’t have a solution. I have some suggestions, but I haven’t yet landed on the secret sauce that cures the church of its particular strain of influenza.
Literature about church health and church growth usually includes a lot of discussion centered on organizational health. I’m not saying this is wrong. Many local churches have been destroyed not because of a lack of preaching, teaching, singing, or mission, but by a lack of health in the way their members work together.
Church health is not the same as organizational health, it seems to me, largely because the word translated “church,” ekklesia, literally means “called out ones,” both the church as individuals in the world (“scattered”) and the local church meeting together in one place (“gathered”).
Ekklesia is a movement of those who are called out—called out of death, destruction, sin, weight, anxiety, addiction, loneliness, and despair. They (the people of the ekklesia) are called out to follow Jesus. At the church I serve, we say this means “to be with Jesus learning to be like Jesus in every area of our lives for the sake of the world.”
In other words, the health of the ekklesia depends on how committed we are to respond to Jesus’ call to “follow me” in every area of our lives. Ekklesia health flows like a spring from a commitment to discipleship, to formation in Christlikeness.
So what gets in the way of ekklesia health? If teaching about discipleship has been part of the script since the church was founded, why is it not having a direct impact on the health of the church gathered and scattered today?
I want to offer three reasons; these are not the only three reasons, but they will help us start the journey.
1. We Don’t Always See Organizational Issues as Discipleship Issues.
I have served in both healthy and unhealthy churches, and I’ve found they have many similarities. In each kind of ekklesia, decisions need to be made, sheep need guidance and direction, and dollars must be appropriated and balanced.
But there is a great difference in the character of those who live and lead the healthy environments as opposed to those who lead in the unhealthy environments. This isn’t a good versus evil situation—in fact, some of the best people I know are struggling in an unhealthy ekklesia—this is more a statement about the impact an unhealthy gathering has on unhealthy scattering.
In other words, is what we’re doing when we’re together causing life and breath to flow into the world we live in when we’re apart?
I once served in a leadership position where I witnessed the power of ekklesia dysfunction that had been passed down from generation to generation. It created suspicion, avoidance, anxiety, and backbiting. For nearly 50 years, the same bloodline had created pain in this community, and when I pressed deeper, I found the pain ran over into the community at large. At first, I was tempted to see it as an organizational issue: we need stronger bylaws or requirements for leadership. We need a healthier approach to church discipline. We need a stronger eldership to speak on this.
Looking back now, well removed from the situation, I realize the issue wasn’t organizational, but formational. We didn’t have leaders or members who were enraptured by the goodness of being with Jesus and learning to be like Jesus, and therefore we were literally powerless to do anything about the dysfunction happening all around us. As Dallas Willard said, “There isn’t a problem in the church that discipleship into Christlikeness cannot fix.”
Take a moment and think about the organizational issues your ekklesia faces. How many issues would be solved by a few people deeply investing themselves in being with Jesus and learning to be like Jesus on a regular basis?
2. We Draw from Alternative Energy Sources.
Ruth Haley Barton’s book called Pursuing God’s Will Together is incredibly convicting because it raises the “novel” idea that before large, expensive, mission-altering decisions are made, there should be a patient and sustained period of prayer to seek God’s wisdom.
I read the book and promptly slapped myself in the forehead. Repeatedly.
The health of an ekklesia is strongly connected to leaders and participants who seek God individually and together for the good of the whole movement of disciples. I often find myself drawing from other sources of wisdom or energy in order to make critical decisions. While many of these decisions have no negative or destructive consequences, they tend to lack that salty taste that comes from a movement born in prayer, fortified in the wisdom of the Spirit (Galatians 5:16), and shaped by the Scriptures.
Yes, there are times we respond to him in a moment and need to make a quick decision, but if we honestly reflect on our life within the ekklesia, we’d see there are few decisions that need to be made quickly and more decisions that need to be made in a timely manner. In other words, are we really responding to the Spirit of God by making a quick decision, or are we simply sanctifying our own lack of discipline to take the time and energy and seek God ahead of time for things we know are coming?
Think about the last few decisions you made as a leader or an individual in your church—decisions to confront someone, or take a risk, or change direction—how many of those came from a prayerful and seeking attitude, and how many were made using “alternative energy sources” like our own sense of right and wrong or what “seems right at the time”?
3. We Don’t Create a Gym, We Create a Stadium.
If you have ever watched a basketball team practice, you’ve noticed the players do things foreign to an actual game. The passing drills, the running of “suicides” (repeated sprints from line to line), and the endless shooting drills look different from the games. Why? Simply put, practice is where you fail. You miss shots, you stumble, and you mess up plays. Practice is where you do these things so when game time comes you can avoid these mistakes.
It may sound counterintuitive, but for the ekklesia to be healthy, it must become a place that, when gathered, people can learn to fail well. We must become better at honoring people who don’t understand all the plays, who struggle with their jump shots, who lag behind in their suicides, because if they don’t have a gym to exercise their disciple game plan, they will face nothing but guilt and high-stakes failure when we scatter back into the world again.
The ekklesia needs to rediscover healthy questions and how to ask things that used to be assumed but now need to be learned by a new generation. I was teaching one of our core classes on spiritual practices, and I asked the group to look up Matthew 8:23-27 and write down the characteristics of Jesus they found in the passage. I stood near the back of the room as they partnered up, and I heard someone say, “OK, somebody help me with this. What is a ‘Matthew,’ and what do all these numbers mean?” Whoops.
Before we become outraged about biblical illiteracy or the culture we live in, let’s think about this. In basketball, people are booed and jeered when they make a mistake in a game. In practice, they may be challenged and corrected, but they’re being taught. In the church, we often create a place where people in desperate need of free throw practice get booed because they can’t make one when the time comes. In other words, we make people who don’t know “what all those numbers mean” feel like they are horrible at this, even when they haven’t had the practice and teaching they need. They need training, and training has always been the reason for discipleship (see Luke 6:40; 1 Corinthians 9:25; and 2 Timothy 3:16). This is how we learn—we try, we fail, we reflect, and we try again.
Think for a moment: is your life a place where you are learning to fail well in following Jesus? Is your ekklesia, when gathered, a gym or a stadium?
The Before and After
Over the last five years as a spiritual formation pastor, I’ve learned the health of the ekklesia, both gathered and scattered, is directly related to the depths to which the leaders of local ekklesia plan and structure environments where discipleship can happen. We need times of inspiring each other, gathered and scattered, to take on the character of Jesus. We need the space to prayerfully seek wisdom and insight. We need a gym in which to run drills, practice, and prepare for the life God has given us. When we seriously pursue these things, we will find our ekklesia—both gathered and scattered—to be healthy and robust and changing the world.
I don’t know if we’ll ever be perfectly healthy, honestly. Yet I know it is possible, and I believe we are better off when we try rather than giving up entirely.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go to the gym.
Casey Tygrett serves as spiritual formation pastor at Parkview Christian Church in Orland Park, Illinois.