What is a healthy church?

Copyright 2012 by Bob Rogers

Dr. Bob Rogers is pastor of First Baptist Church, Rincon, Ga. He earned a B.A. from Mississippi College, and an M.Div. and Th.D. from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. He likes to write about theology and practical Christian living, and he loves humor. He writes a weekly column, “Holy Humor,” syndicated in several newspapers and magazines, and that column will soon appear in SBCToday.

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Recently, Outreach magazine published its list of the 100 largest churches in America and the 100 fastest-growing churches in America.

But when we read about the church in the New Testament, we do not find a list of fastest-growing churches. Not many numerical reports are even given, other than the 3,000 baptized at Pentecost (Acts 2:41) and the fact that the number had grown to 5,000 a little while later (Acts 4:4). After that, numbers are rarely given. We don’t read Paul reporting to the church that when he left Ephesus they were running 200 in Sunday worship. Instead of talking about numerical growth, he emphasizes spiritual growth. So why don’t we?

It’s time to change our terminology. Instead of so much emphasis on church growth, we should talk about church health. So what makes a church healthy, anyway? Paul gives us a full description in Ephesians 4:11-16.

1. Leaders who equip

“And He personally gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers…” (Ephesians 4:11, HCSB)

Healthy churches have leaders who equip their members. The best test of the leader is that he has followers who learn from his teaching and example. Healthy churches have leadership that inspires the overall congregation to follow Christ and serve their community.
In this verse, the last two leadership gifts are indispensable to local church health. In Greek, the terms go together, “pastor-teacher.”

Pastors (translated “shepherds” in the ESV) bring guidance and comfort to the flock of God.

Teachers instruct the church in correct understanding of the Bible and Christian living.

Notice in verse 12 that these leaders have the purpose of training, or equipping, the church to do their work.

If a church is going to be healthy, it must have a pastor/teacher who is feeding the congregation God’s Word on a consistent basis.

2. Members who serve

“… for the training of the saints in the work of ministry, to build up the body of Christ…” (Ephesians 4:12, HCSB)

Healthy churches have members who serve. Don’t join this church to sit back and be entertained. If that’s what you are looking for, please go somewhere else. We need members who serve.

The “saints” are all the believers. “Saint” means a “holy one,” and every believer is called to be holy and set aside for God’s service.

It says the saints are trained by the leaders so that the saints can do the work of the ministry. So all members are called to serve.
Rick Warren asks, “If you are not involved in service or ministry, what excuse have you been using? Abraham was old; Jacob was insecure, Leah was unattractive; Joseph was abused; Moses stuttered. Gideon was poor; Samson was codependent; Rahab was immoral; David had an affair; Elijah was suicidal; Jeremiah was depressed; Jonah was reluctant; Naomi was a widow. John the Baptist was eccentric; Peter was impulsive; Martha worried a lot; the Samaritan woman had five failed marriages; Zacchaeus was unpopular; Thomas had doubts; Paul had poor health; and Timothy was timid. God used each of them in his service. He will use you, too, if you stop making excuses.” (Rick Warren’s Daily Devotional, Day 357)

Healthy churches have members who serve.

3. Unity in the faith

“… until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of God’s Son…” (Ephesians 4:13a, HCSB)

Healthy churches are united. Unhealthy churches are divided. Notice the two ways he says we are to be united: by doctrinal faith (“in the faith”) and by personal faith (“and in the knowledge of God’s Son”). I heard about a pastor who was called to a church with only 51% voting in favor of his call. A year later, they fired him. It was a unanimous. The pastor said, “I finally united the church.” Of course, that’s not the way we want to unify the church, but the church does need to be united.

Remember the lesson from Noah’s Ark. It may stink sometimes, but we have to stay together because we’re all in the same boat!

4. Growth measured by Christ-likeness

“… growing into a mature man with a stature measured by Christ’s fullness.” (Ephesians 4:13b, HCSB)

Too often, churches measure themselves by numerical growth. And it is true that healthy churches should have numerical growth. However, there are churches that have numerical growth but they are not healthy. A tumor can grow, but it isn’t healthy. And some churches explode and then die down. Others grow and grow in numbers, but they are attracting people for entertainment or because their standards are lax, and people are not being discipled.

Imagine a church board meeting with Jesus. Pete calls the meeting to order, and says, “Jesus, we’ve been following you around for some time, and we are getting concerned about the attendance figures. Tom, how many were on the hill yesterday?”

Tom answers, “Thirty-seven.”

Pete says, “It’s getting ridiculous. You’re going to have to pep things up.”

John says, “I’d like to suggest you pull off more miracles, but more people need to see it so our crowds will get bigger.”

Pete agrees, and adds, “Publicity is essential, and you tell half the people you cure to keep it quiet. Let the word get around.”

Toward the end of the meeting, Judas adds, “I’d like to say that if we are going to continue to meet in this upper room, we ought to do something about the carpet…” (Adapted from Richard K. Wallarab, Christianity Today, January 17, 1979.)

Notice that verse 13 gives the correct measurement of real growth: “a stature measured by Christ’s fullness.” That is our measurement of growth: are we like Christ? If our budget grows but we spend our budget on a bowling alley for church members instead of helping the hurting and sharing the gospel, we may be growing in numbers but not in Christ-likeness.

Healthy churches measure growth by being more like Christ.

5. Teaching that provides stability

“Then we will no longer be little children, tossed by the waves and blown around by every wind of teaching, by human cunning with cleverness in the techniques of deceit.” (Ephesians 5:14, HCSB)

Another great sign of a healthy church is that the Bible is so consistently taught, that the members aren’t tricked by heresy and false teaching. If some clever teacher comes into the church and tries to lead people astray, a healthy church recognizes it right away and puts a stop to it.

A decade ago, we had a powerful wind storm blow an oak tree on our youth building. The tree had shallow roots, and when the winds came, it fell. A healthy church that teaches the Bible is like a healthy tree with deep roots. It doesn’t fall under the pressure of false teaching.

6. Honest and loving relationships

“But speaking the truth in love, let us grow in every way into Him who is the head– Christ.” (Ephesians 4:15, HCSB)

Healthy churches have honest and loving relationships. “Speaking the truth in love” means that we are honest with each other, we speak the truth, but we are also loving when we do it. We don’t just try to please each other. If something’s wrong, we deal with it, but we always seek to deal with it in love. That’s challenging, but it’s vital to having a healthy church.

Years ago, The Betty Ford Story aired on television. It was a movie that told the story of the addiction and recovery of Betty Ford, the wife of President Gerald Ford. At one point in the film, there is an emotional scene where the family is sitting together confronting Betty Ford. Her son says, “Mother, you are destroying yourself; you are destroying this family, and you are killing yourself. Mother, you are a drunk; you are an addict.” His mother was infuriated. She told her son he was being very disrespectful and said, “How can you say these things to me? I am your mother!” Her son said, “Mother, I can say it because it is the truth.” As hard as it was, this confrontation was the catalyst for the establishment of the Betty Ford Clinic. (Tony Evans’ Book of Illustrations, p. 333-334)

A healthy church is a place where people speak the truth in love. Relationships are honest and loving. We don’t play games or try to please people, but we go out of our way to love people.

7. An environment that encourages involvement

“From Him the whole body, fitted and knit together by every supporting ligament, promotes the growth of the body for building up itself in love by the proper working of each individual part.” (Ephesians 4:16, HCSB)

Healthy churches create an environment that encourages involvement. “From Him (Jesus) the whole body, fitted and knit together… promotes the growth of the body…”

Many people think that it doesn’t matter if they are involved in the church or not, that the church won’t miss them if they are gone. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

On January 28, 1986, the space shuttle Challenger exploded just 73 seconds into flight. The whole nation was shocked. An investigation revealed that it happened because of one inexpensive O-ring. There were one million components in the space shuttle, but that one part destroyed the whole. Like the seemingly insignificant O-ring, one person failing to take his place in the church keeps the whole from being healthy. (Richard Swenson, Margin, 1992, p. 48)

A healthy church is a church where misfits can fit in. A healthy church is a place where the displaced can find a place. This world is in desperate need of healthy churches in every community. Christian, are you allowing God’s Spirit to work through you to make and keep your church healthy?

Copyright 2012 by Bob Rogers. Email: brogers@fbcrincon.com.

Visit my blog at www.bobrogers.me.