Is your church a healthy church? What are the marks of a healthy church?

Source: Outreach, 1999. 3 pages.

Is Your Church Healthy?

Many people complain today that life is becoming almost unbearably busy. If you talk with young people, you soon discover that their schedules are full of activities related to school, social events and church life. If you speak with their parents you soon learn that they too feel pressured. There is a daily job that needs to be done. There are family functions, doctor's appointments, and church meetings to attend to. Why, even those members in our community who are retired complain that there are just not enough hours in the day. Imagine that!

It All Comes at a Costโค’๐Ÿ”—

Now you can, of course, argue that there is something wholesome in being busy. After all, idleness is said to be a handmaiden of the Devil.

Still, too much of anything is usually not good, and that applies also to our daily routines. If there is always more to do than time to do it in, something is surely going to suffer. What? Any number of things come to mind. Physical health tolerates only so many rushed meals, sleep-deprived nights, pressure-filled meetings, crammed appointment books, and then it is payยญback time. Mental health can handle only so much stress before something gives. Marriage health is often another casualty of an overburdened lifestyle because it deprives spouses of time to talk, share and be genuinely supportive of one another. Closely connected to this is also family health. Who can really speak of quality family time when its members are always rushing here, there and everywhere? Obviously, our modern way of living extorts any number of costs.

What about Church Health?โ†โค’๐Ÿ”—

What about the church in all this? Has the way we live in our fast paced, consumer oriented society also not adversely affected church health and the way we function as members of the church?

All too many come to worship on Sunday morning without having spent much time really preparing themselves to meet their Maker. Saturday night was late again and was taken up with another birthday, another anniversary, or another night out on the town.

The worship service begins and any number of minds are more on the next job that has to be quoted on or on all the things that need to be done this week, then on the Lord and what He is saying. True worship takes effort, and all too often all of the effort has been used up already. Minds drift, tune out or shut down.

During the week itself things are often not much better. Busy timetables crowd out the time needed for Bible study and getting involved in other church functions.

Needless to say, then, the kind of lives we live today, or do not live, have a direct bearing on the question of church health.

The Topic is Largerโ†โค’๐Ÿ”—

Of course in saying this we also need to realize that the question of church health is a much larger one than simply a matter of how the members act as a result of daily pressures and misplaced priorities. It is also a matter of the church as a whole and how it sees itself and its relation to the truth of God's Word. So, besides dedicated, involved, spiritually hungry and alert members, what makes for a healthy church?

Have you ever asked such a question? Have you ever given much thought to the kind of qualities that make for a strong, vigorous, growing church life? After having done so, have you ever asked whether your local church falls into this category, or else what you can do to help it become more a part of this category?

The Marksโ†โค’๐Ÿ”—

Now, some of you may find this approach different, even foreign to what you are used to. You are accustomed to a different question. Not "what makes for a healthy church?" but "what makes for a true church?"

At the same time many of you can also give a ready answer to this last question. "A true church of Jesus Christ is known by three marks: the pure preaching of the gospel, the pure administration of the sacraments and the proper exercise of church discipline for correcting and punishing sin." This answer, taken essentially from Article 29 of the Belgic Confession, describes a true church in terms of the three marks of preaching, sacraments and discipline.

Yet, while maintaining and respecting this way of evaluating the church, it is also legitimate to take a slightly different and connected approach. We may turn to the Holy Scriptures and say, "I know now what characterizes the true church, but I also want to know what activities, commitments, and approaches make for a truly functioning church, for a healthy church?" So can we come up with a detailed list of qualities by which the health of the church can be tested?

A List of Qualitiesโ†โค’๐Ÿ”—

During part of a recent sabbatical, I did some research on the topic of "congregational development." In so doing I came across the work of a German theologian who specializes in church health. His name is Christian A. Schwarz and he travels the world analyzing, diagnosing and evaluating churches. Along the way he has also developed a program called "Natural Church Development" as well as a book by the same name with the subtitle: "A Guide to Eight Essential Qualities of Healthy Churches."

No doubt this makes you curious and itching to ask, "what are his eight essential qualities?" They consist of the following:

  1. Empowering leadership

  2. Gift-oriented ministry

  3. Passionate spirituality

  4. Functional structures

  5. Inspiring worship service

  6. Holistic small groups

  7. Need-oriented evangelism

  8. Loving relationships.

According to Schwartz, wherever these qualities are found in a certain measure or extent, you will find a healthy, vibrant church.

Evaluating the Listโ†โค’๐Ÿ”—

Now, as you study this list there are any number of things that can be criticized, and some of them indeed should be. The order is questionable. As Reformed believers we would undoubtedly place worship first and not fifth. We might place leadership second or third but not necessarily first. In addition, these titles leave something to be desired as well. Words like "empowered", "passionate", "inspiring" and "need-oriented" come with baggage.

Then too, the way in which Schwartz describes some of these qualities and works with them would not meet with our approval. Finally, one might ask whether he has not forgotten the most important element of being a healthy church, namely, an overriding commitment to the truth of the Word of God.

Using the Listโ†โค’๐Ÿ”—

Nevertheless, in spite of all of our reservations, it would appear that he is on to something here and that he is helping us to answer the question why it is that some churches just do not seem to function in a biblically defined way. Why is it that some churches have a reputation for being difficult to pastor? Why is it that some churches do not grow? Why is it that some churches seem merely to exist and never to thrive?

Surely, a church in such a situation could use at least an eight or nine point checkup. It would do well to ask itself the following basic and searching questions:

  • How is it with our commitment to the Word?

  • How is it with our worship?

  • How it is with our leadership?

  • How is it with our call to holy living?

  • How is it with our small group Bible study?

  • How is it with our relationships?

  • How is it with our work of witness to the world?

  • How is it with the gifts in the congregation and their deployment?

  • How is it with the committees and structures that we have in place?

Every church, no matter how healthy it considers itself, would do well to give itself a checkup such as this from time to time. Just because you are healthy today does not mean that you will still be healthy tomorrow. Vigilance is required both to maintain the health of people and also the health of churches.

Applying the List Locallyโ†โค’๐Ÿ”—

So, why not take the list and apply it to your church? It may very well highlight some obvious strengths, but it may also identify some serious weaknesses.

What needs to be done with the strengths? You need to praise God for them and to build on them.

What about the weaknesses? This is a more difficult question. The common approach that people take these days to such a church is to walk away from it and join a better one. There is a definite shortage of commitment to the church, as well as a refusal to put one's shoulder to the task of correcting, improving and building the church.

Yet that is surely what God requires of us as His children. He can hardly be pleased with all the saints who practise circulation and avoid ministration.

Naturally, I realize that there can be situations in which a church has declined to such an extent that the truth of God's Word is rejected. Such a sad state of affairs may lead to no alternative except to depart; however, if that is not the case, and if there is still a willingness to be obedient and to serve the Lord, warts and all, we need to exert ourselves to the utmost. Believers are called to build up and not break down.

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